Dogs are a very popular pet, being the most common pet in Australia. They can provide various services in a permaculture system, however they need good training, space to run and a sustainable source of food, so serious planning is required before deciding to add a dog to your system.
Many of the services that dogs provide stem from being able to smell and hear better than humans—they can let us know something is amiss before we can sense it for ourselves. I had a dog that would alert me to neighbour’s cattle getting through the fence, poultry out of the pen, nearby snakes and many other unexpected events, as well as visitors arriving. These abilities can also be tailored to specific circumstances; for instance dogs trained to sniff out ripe truffles.
Dogs are good protectors of their pack, whether this pack consists of humans, sheep or poultry. Often just the presence of a dog is enough to deter a fox or other predator, but dogs may also bark and attack if needed.
Maremma sheepdogs are renowned in this regard, having been bred as sheepherding dogs set on defending their flock. They can bond to any type of animal: sheep, goats, poultry, even fairy penguins. They have become a very common defence mechanism for small to medium scale commercial free-range poultry flocks to keep away foxes and wild dogs.
As well as protecting poultry from foxes, some permaculture dogs have roles in protecting crops—for instance keeping wallabies out of a garden area, or birds off vegies and low-growing fruit trees. Having a dog often makes people feel safer in their own homes too.
Many breeds of dog were developed for hunting. Some are quite specialised, such as retrievers that will bring back shot game, whilst others may have a much wider application, such as terriers or other small breeds that can hunt mice, rats and rabbits.
Herding livestock is another specialised but important role that dogs can play. In a small permaculture flock, it is unlikely to be necessary, as many small flocks will come to a call and a feed bucket. However for rounding up larger flocks, a well-trained dog can almost always do it faster and more efficiently, and thus with less stress to the herd than a human on a motorbike or other vehicle.
The phrase ‘a three dog night’ for very cold weather has its origins in dogs providing humans with a living hot water bottle on cold nights. Having lived without heating for many years, I can attest to dogs’ effectiveness in keeping the bed warm!
Many people love spending time with dogs, and they can have positive effects on people’s mental health and wellbeing. This is generally the main reason for wanting to keep a dog, however as permaculturalists, it is always good to design for multiple functions!
A big consideration is how to keep a dog fed. A smaller dog will need less feed than a bigger dog, so might be an easier fit for many permaculture systems. In theory, as there are an overabundance of so many feral (and native) species, it should be possible to keep a dog fed sustainably, however you need the ability to harvest, process and store such abundance.
Roadkill, food scraps and home-produced meat are other options. If you do end up buying processed dog food, you need to weigh up the benefits of keeping a dog compared with the very high environmental costs of production. (For more information on feeding pets see page 74 in this issue).
Another consideration is a dog’s potential impact on productive garden space. Many dogs love to dig, and even a welltrained dog may take a destructive run across a vegie patch in a moment of unrestrained enthusiasm.
Fencing separate areas for dogs and food growing is often the best strategy. However this can have a major impact on the growing space available, especially in urban gardens, and can act as a barrier to casual interactions with the garden. For smaller dogs living in households where there is mostly someone around to supervise, it may not be necessary to keep them separate. Another option is to grow using raised beds, allowing the dog to move freely between them.
Dogs have a strong need for human companionship. If you are a household where most people are out for most of the day, having a dog is unlikely to be a good fit. Dogs will also need training to understand the system and what is required of them—this takes a big commitment of time and energy but can reap many benefits.