A black and white border collie herds a flock of sheep. Photo by C. MacMillan

Dogs and livestock

  • Keep dogs on a lead when walking them where livestock are, or may be, present
  • It’s a criminal offence to allow your dog to chase or attack livestock
  • Farmers can shoot dogs they believe are worrying livestock on their land

[Pictured above: A collie herds a flock of sheep. Photo by C. MacMillan. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.]

Taking a walk through the beautiful British countryside is one of the great joys of dog ownership, but when enjoying the great outdoors with your pet, it’s really important to bear in mind the other animals you are likely to meet.

How to keep your dog safe around livestock

Before you go

  • Remember that dogs who are ordinarily calm and focussed at home or on urban walks can become distracted and behave differently when in a rural environment where their sense of smell and chase instinct are easily stimulated. Even though your pet walks on lead without pulling or comes back immediately when called in the park, the enticing new countryside environment may make them forget your careful training.
  • Plan ahead before walking in the countryside. Take tasty treats with you to keep your dog focused on you and serve as a distraction if they become interested in livestock. Work on a solid recall so you can call your dog back to you when you need to, and a good sit, down and stay so you can keep your dog still when you need to remain calm around other animals. Reward your dog for calm behaviour around animals.
  • Get puppies and older dogs used to livestock soon after you get them. Gradually expose your new pet to livestock from a distance and reward calm and relaxed behaviour with lots of treats.

On a walk

  • You’ll need to keep your dog under control at all times – it’s a legal requirement and will prevent incidents
  • If you can see farm animals, or if you think you may come across them on your walk, keep your dog on a short lead. While there’s no law requiring you to keep your dog leashed, it will give you peace of mind that they will be unable to chase livestock.
  • Don’t pass between and separate adult sheep or cows from their young. They may act aggressively to protect their lambs or calves.
  • Don’t panic if a cow approaches you gently; they are inquisitive animals. Walk away calmly.
  • If you and your dog are chased or charged at, let go of your dog’s lead. It’s usually the dog they see as a threat rather than you and most dogs can easily outrun a cow but the majority of us humans can’t.

A dog owner keeps her dog calm whilst near a horse
Reward your dog for calm behaviour around field-kept animals, including horses and livestock

Why do dogs chase?

Domestic dogs are descended from a predatory species that hunts other animals for food; the grey wolf.

The dog breeds and types we keep as pets today were originally bred to do many different jobs, and as such still have instinctive behaviour traits, some stronger than others. Knowing about your dog's breed may help you to understand how they could react in certain situations, including being around farm animals.

Today in the UK, most dogs are kept as pets, but their chasing and hunting instincts may still be present.

Some dogs will have never seen livestock before and they will react with a mixture of fear, curiosity or nervousness, which could result in aggression or chasing.

Other dogs may see sheep, cattle, pigs or other animals as something they might want to play with, but the livestock will not understand this and can become very frightened. 

Many dogs do walk calmly on the lead around livestock with no worry at all, but keeping canine behaviour in mind will help you to know when you may need to act to prevent an incident.

A dog on a lead looks interested in cattle nearby
Dogs that are usually calm on walks may behave differently and become excitable when around livestock, so it's best to keep them on a lead

Chasing can harm livestock

Animals that are kept as livestock today are descended from species that were prey for wild predators, including the dog’s ancestor, the wolf.

Sheep, cows, pigs, goats, chickens and other animals are easily worried by lots of things that could be a threat to them. 

When walking in the countryside, it’s worth bearing in mind that dogs who chase - even if they do not catch or bite the livestock - can still cause physical harm to farm animals simply by running towards them. Pregnant and young animals are particularly vulnerable.

When livestock are panicked, they may

  • run away from danger, which can cause injury such as broken bones
  • bunch themselves together tightly in a group, which can also cause injury and fatalities in some cases
  • miscarry their unborn young due to worry

It goes without saying that dogs should not be allowed to wound livestock.

Responsible dog ownership

It is also a criminal offence to allow your dog to ‘worry’ livestock, which means chasing or attacking. Your dog does not have to physically harm a farm animal for you to be on the wrong side of the law.

Farmers are allowed by law to shoot dogs who worry their animals as a last resort.

If your dog goes to stay with family or friends or is walked by someone else when you are not there, then legally it is their, as well as your, responsibility to keep your dog under control. We recommend discussing situations where you might want your dog to stay on a lead, like around livestock, with anyone who is walking your dog.

Discovering a wounded animal is very distressing for the farmer and for the treating vet, and injuries and fatalities have a real impact on rural livelihoods.

Picking up poo in the countryside

Do remember to bag and bin your dog’s poo when they go to the toilet in the countryside, and keep their worming treatment up to date. You can throw it away in any public bin.

Leaving your dog’s poo in a field where livestock live can spread disease that can harm the animals that munch on the grass in the area. Bagged poo left hanging on trees or in a field also poses a risk to animals, who may eat the whole thing and become unwell.

— Page last updated 11/09/2019