Attention German shepherds and sheepdogs. Your reign as the animal kingdom's premier guard animals may be in danger.

Animal specialists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University may have come up with a better watch animal:

The donkey.

Donkeys, the scientists say, are being pressed into guard duty at two animal research stations in the state. And the first results are optimistic.

Donkeys "do not like dogs. They chase them. They bray. They do just about anything they can to get rid of them," says Steven H. Umberger, Virginia Tech sheep specialist.

That is encouraging to sheep experts who are searching for a way to protect Virginia's 130,000 sheep from dogs, mostly pets, who injure or kill sheep not for food but for sport.

"Right now," says Umberger, "we're just trying to see how donkeys and sheep get along -- whether donkeys will kick a sheep, whether they'll pick up a lamb and throw it." How's the relationship going? "They're getting along real well," says Umberger.

The results are important to the state's 3,000 sheep farmers, Umberger says, because sheep, which are useful for wool and for "market lamb production," are "the most profitable farm enterprise in Virginia. They are ideal livestock for the state, which has a lot of forage."

A farmer in southwestern Virginia who recently acquired 28 donkeys to guard a herd of 1,400 sheep has gotten "pretty good protection," according to Umberger. The scientist owns neither sheep, donkey nor dog. He lives in Roanoke. But if he could move to a rural setting and purchase livestock, he says, he'd get a kick out of it.