Thursday, February 11, 2016
I'm pleased to have you visit!
This site reflects my long time interests in livestock guardians as well as historic and endangered breeds of poultry and livestock. I write about these topics for Storey Publishing, Mother Earth News, and Yale University Press.
Livestock Guardians: Using Dogs, Donkeys, and Llamas to Protect Your Herd
The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds
The Farm Dog: Herders, Guardians, Terriers, and Other Traditional Working Partners (forthcoming Sept 2016 ) full color 350+ pages
Dealing with Predators; Large and Small (forthcoming)
Mother Earth News, Livestock Guardian expert
On our farm here in Michigan, we have raised historic breeds of poultry and turkeys, Morgan and Trakehner horses, Shetland sheep, and Fainting goats for more than 35 years. We also garden organically and keep beehives. Our farm products - including raw fleeces, roving, yarn, and knitting kits - are available on Etsy at Rustic Roots Farm.
Most importantly, our animals are protected by Kangal Dogs. Kangal Dogs are a traditional and very old livestock guardian breed from Turkey. We have owned LGDs (livestock guardian dogs) for more than 35 years and we have experience with different breeds. We choose the Kangal Dog because we believe they combine the best traits we value in a livestock guardian. We invite you to learn more about them here.
You can follow me on Twitter @JDohner and I participate in some wonderful Facebook communities: Learning About LGDs and Kangal Dog Club of America. Come join us and feel free to ask questions!
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Mother Earth News - All Articles About LGDs and the Use of Livestock Guardian AnimalsHere are handy links to all my posts on livestock guardians.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs)
What is a Livestock Guard Dog?
How Livestock Guard Dogs Work: the Question of Genetic Behaviors
Is This Breed a Livestock Guard Dog?
Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation About Livestock Guard Dogs
Before You Buy a Livestock Guardian Dog or Puppy
What is the Difference Between a Livestock Guard Dog and a Family Companion?
Choosing a Livestock Guardian Dog
More Questions To Ask Yourself Before Selecting a Livestock Guard Dog
Choosing a Livestock Guard Dog Breed: Part One
Choosing a Livestock Guard Dog Breed, Part Two
Choosing a Livestock Guard Dog Breed, Part Three
Adopting an Adult or Rescue Livestock Guard Dog
Selecting a Working Livestock Guard Dog Puppy
The Other Livestock Guardians:
The Other Livestock Guardians: Llamas and Donkeys
Guardian Llamas: Pros and Cons
Selecting a Guard Llama
Using a Donkey as a Livestock Guardian: the Pros and Cons
Selecting a Guard Donkey
Thursday, February 26, 2015
The Kangal Dog is noted for his solid temperament. Temperament is of prime importance in Turkish villages today and in the past - aggression towards humans or stock is never tolerated. Kangal Dogs are gentle with livestock, children, and pets. Compared with other livestock guard dog breeds, Kangal Dogs tend to be more people-oriented and less standoffish. Females are noted for being more affectionate than males. They are often great judges of character and they will accept visitors or workmen at their home much more reliably than other livestock guard dog breeds. Owners describe them as gracious with visitors. People who own other livestock guard dog breeds and Kangal Dogs, describe their Kangals as the more intelligent and clever.
Kangal Dogs hear or sense disturbances in the distance and bark in response. They prefer to intimidate those who threaten their flock or family but they will attack animal intruders. At first, they will place themselves between the threat and their stock. If their warning barks are ignored, they will confront the predator with a roar and an attack if necessary. An adult Kangal will throw their shoulder against a wolf to knock it down and then attack the throat and hind legs. Kangal owners see these same behaviors in play. Kangal Dogs will reliably guard against small predators as well – raccoons, opossums, and coyotes, as well as birds.
Kangal Dogs grow up slowly, even compared to other livestock guard dog breeds. They can be goofy and adorable as puppies but they are also famous as powerful chewers and diggers. They will also roam large distances if given the opportunity. Around two or two-and-a-half years of age, Kangal Dogs suddenly leave their puppy hood behind and become more serious, protective, and watchful. Although many Kangals who are raised with stock from puppy hood are reliable at a young age, others need your patience and supervision until they mature.
Kangal Dogs are territorial and they behave quite differently at home than when they are away from home. Like many livestock guard dogs, adult Kangal Dogs can be dog aggressive, especially to those dogs that violate their space or sense of self. They will kill small predators who invade the farm or pasture and this may include small pets who they do not know. They often take a remote or high viewing spot to watch their stock although they will take regular patrols around their territory. Kangal Dogs tend to be calm and even placid during the day and more active at night, both patrolling and barking.
The Kangal Dog is a large breed with heavy bone, projecting a powerful image. In
, he is described as lion-like. Kangal Dogs have been described as a natural Mastiff – without extreme head size, dewlaps, loose lips, head wrinkles, and large bulk. When alert, the tail is carried in a curl over the back, although it may be carried low at other times. The Kangal Dog remains a fast and agile dog, despite his height of 30 to 31 inches and weights of 110 to 145 pounds in males and slightly less for females. The natural variety in a landrace breed is evident in the range of in appearance from more to less mastiff in appearance. Females are often more feminine in their appearance. Turkey
All of these breed traits make the Kangal Dog well suited to life as a farm or family guardian in addition to a livestock guard dog. Indeed, in
they are popular home guardians with people in the city where they guard yards and gardens and play affectionately with their family. Kangal Dogs also live in many family situations in Turkey North America, but as with all livestock guard dog breeds they require socialization and consistent training to be good canine citizens.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Re-homed adult or rescue LGDs are another option when you are looking for a working dog for your farm. The genetic traits LGDs inherit are powerful. LGD owners have seen individual dogs, even after spending years as a companion, make an astounding transition to life as a working dog. Most LGDs will also make the transition to new humans in their life far better than we emotionally think they will. However, it is vitally important to know the reason why is dog is in rescue or up for re-homing.
Many LGDs that were purchased as pets are later given up by their owners or turned into rescue groups because they bark too much, shed too much, or are difficult to control in an urban or suburban area. This usually happens in late adolescence. Indeed, some of these dogs will be happier with a job to do and the room to stretch their legs. Given careful support and time to adjust, a dog that possesses good genetic instincts often turns into a good farm guardian and perhaps even a good fulltime livestock guardian as well.
If you are enormously fortunate, you might find a good, working LGD to buy or adopt when his owners sell their stock or their farm. Dogs transferring from similar working situations and stock are more likely to adapt, although some dogs are very bonded to their animals or territory. Be especially cautious of dogs that were not well socialized to people. If they are not routinely handled, LGDs can become nearly feral and almost impossible to catch. If they are restrained, they may react dangerously. Be sure that you can handle this dog confidently and that you feel safe around him. Even if he is well behaved, you will need a very secure area to keep him while he adjusts to his new home and new stock. Don’t assume that he is used to the situations and routines on your farm. It takes a year or more for a dog to completely adapt to his new home and perhaps longer to become true working dogs.
On the other hand, if a dog has already failed as a livestock guardian the chances are small that he will improve in a new situation. In some cases, a dog might do better with different stock, a different pasture situation, or a different owner; however, he will also bring with him any serious problem behaviors such as chasing or killing stock or poultry, escaping fences, human aggression, or others. If you are a brand new LGD owner who attempts to rescue a poorly raised or un-socialized dog, you will probably not be able to turn him into a reliable LGD. There are experienced LGD owners who do this retraining successfully but they have many years of experience in handling dogs and problem-solving LGD issues.
Choosing your dog and bringing him home
If you are considering a rescue dog or adopting or buying an adult dog, there are several things that can contribute to your greater chance of success.
· Look for a dog that was originally purchased from a conscientious breeder. A good LGD breeder not only selects breeding stock based on stable temperament, conformation and health – but also to promote the true working traits and behaviors of their specific breed.
· Look for a dog that is comfortable around people but not clingy or fearful. A dog who was socialized and trained is much more likely to be mentally sound and more adaptable to changes. Again, make sure you can handle this dog and that you are comfortable having him around your family.
· Look for a dog that is used to living outdoors since he is more likely to make the transition to a working lifestyle. A housedog may make this transition, but it will be more challenging. Try to determine if the dog is prone to escaping fences, wandering, or chasing animals such as cats.
· Look for a dog with a low activity level. They are usually a better choice than high-energy dogs.
· Most importantly, the dog should be tested for his reaction to stock if this is at all possible. Although he might be initially curious or excited, he should eventually exhibit calm and submissive behavior.
Make sure that you have a very safe and secure location for your dog before you bring him home. He will be very motivated to escape at first and even more so if he has been a housedog. Allow him time to adjust and do not rush new situations. A secure pen near your stock would be an excellent choice. Do not bring him into your house at all if you intend for him to live outside. Give him lots of attention – inside the pasture or barn or wherever he will live. Likewise don’t allow him to become play buddies with your pet dogs if you want him to bond to your stock as fulltime companions. Treat this dog as you would a puppy in terms of his training and socialization as a LGD. Put him on a leash and take him with you while you do chores and go on perimeter walks of your property. Do not expect too much of your new dog too quickly. Proceed slowly when introducing him to other LGDs if you have them. Most importantly, no matter how well things appear to be going, do not trust this dog completely until he has lived through an entire year on your property. Be especially cautious during kidding or lambing season or during other major changes in routine. Even if you are fortunate to obtain an almost perfectly experienced working LGD, this advice is still important. Proceed slowly in adapting him to his new home, new stock and new routines during his first year. You should absolutely not expect him to perform flawlessly from his first day in a new home. And finally, every dog is a different being, so what worked for one dog may not work for another.
At first, a dog that is being re-homed will be insecure and prone to separation anxiety. He may also lack basic manners. He may have bad habits due to boredom, such as excessive barking, chewing, digging, or other destructive behaviors. There are also more serious behavioral issues that might exist. If the dog was malnourished or had to fight for food, he may be over protective of his food. Lack of training or socialization may also produce a dog that is overprotective of food or other objects. Lack of experience and socialization may have left him overly fearful of children or strangers. If he was removed from his litter too soon, he may not know how to interact with other dogs or lack bite inhibition. Lacking socialization, a non-neutered dog may display excessive dominant and aggressive behavior towards other dogs, other animals, or even people. Seek advice from experienced folks when confronted with problems that you can’t resolve. Most importantly, if your dog is not neutered when you adopt him or her, most experienced LGD folks would strongly suggest that you should do this immediately. Not only will you reduce all of the issues you have to deal with, intact dogs are more likely to roam.
The best rescue groups to work with are those that are devoted to LGDs or a specific LGD breed. These groups are often affiliated with national breed clubs. These folks are experienced and knowledgeable about LGD behavior and they know how to evaluate rescues for potential homes. They will also help you with the adjustment period. Responsible and reliable rescue groups usually have strict adoption procedures, which may include an application, a reference from your vet, a phone interview or home visit, an adoption fee, and signing a waiver of liability. LGDs require good fencing, so expect the rescue group to demand this just like a good breeder will. Concern over fencing issues is also one of the basic reasons many rescue groups will not adopt dogs out to a working home. A gentle reminder when dealing rescue situations – rescue folks are volunteers with both personal and organizational motivations. Patience and consideration will serve you well.
Be cautious of groups or individuals who rescue many animals, regardless of breed. However well intentioned, they probably lack the experience and ability to correctly evaluate a LGD’s problems or potential as a guardian. If you find a LGD in a shelter, you will have no knowledge or a dog’s experiences, history or problems. Again, this is a job for an experienced LGD owner not someone new to working LGDs. This may also sound harsh, but if you answer an ad for a free or inexpensive LGD, please be aware that the person you communicate with may be highly motivated to misguide you about the truth. In fact, experienced LGD owners who regularly accept rescue dogs for retraining will tell you that their greatest challenge is the misrepresentation of a dog’s issues or problems. It is definitely true, that some of these problems can be very dangerous to you, your family, or your stock. On the other hand and equally frustrating, some dog rescue groups will not place a good potential working dog in a home where it will live outside – even if it is a LGD breed.
You will need support when adopting an adult or rescue LGD. Experienced LGD owners; LGD breed rescue groups; Facebook groups such as Learning About LGDs or a specific breed group; and email lists will be invaluable to you.
Finally, approach rescue or adoption with a true sense of commitment to the dog. Many rescue groups will ask you to agree to keep a dog even if he does not turn out to be a good working guardian. Please remember that it is hard on a dog to be re-homed. Compassion, patience, and time are necessary to make a new home successful.
Thanks to experienced rescuer Mary Hughes for her valuable input.
If you are interested in a rescue Kangal Dogs, check here.
Livestock guard dogs or LGDs are a group of similar dog breeds just like herding dogs or hunting dogs belong in their own groups. Being a LGD is not a job you can train any other breed to perform. Developed over centuries by working shepherds, livestock guard dog breeds possess a specific set of qualities and behaviors that make them excel at this very special work.
These are the only breeds of livestock guardians readily available in North America. Other breeds are used in different countries and may occasionally be found here as well. Nothing else is truly a livestock guard dog.
· Akbash Dog
· Anatolian Shepherd Dog
· Caucasian Mountain Dog
· Central Asian Shepherd
· Estrela Mountain Dog
· Great Pyrenees
· Kangal Dog
· Karakachan or Bulgarian Shepherd Dog
· Maremma Sheepdog
· Polish Tatra Sheepdog
· Pyrenean Mastiff
· Slovak Cuvac
· Spanish Mastiff
· Tibetan Mastiff
This is what is crucially important to remember – the livestock guard dog breeds have been selected for a very low or non-existent prey drive, a longer period of social bonding than many other breeds, and a physical appearance that suggests “friend.” They have also been selected for the essential traits of attentiveness, trustworthiness, and protection of their stock. When a good LGD is aggressive with outsiders or predators, it is not hunting for prey but protecting its pack mates, which might be sheep or goats. Neither are they are protecting themselves when they attack or chase a large predator – they are protecting their stock. LGDs also possess instinctual responses to first warn off threats rather than immediately attack. Successful owners take these natural LGD behaviors and carefully monitor and develop them as their pup grows. These inborn traits can be so strong that some adult LGDs, who were never socialized with stock as puppies, will still make outstanding guardians – because of the strong and correct instinctual behaviors they possess.
Due to their size and appearance, members of the public sometimes confuse LGDs with protection breed dogs. However, many LGD breeds have been tested by police, military and schutzhund trainers, who have repeatedly found them unsuitable because of their important lack of strong predatory behaviors. Conversely, this is why protection breeds do not make good LGDs – they have a strong predatory instinct.
The inherited LGD traits are the reason why you can’t take a Lab or a Border collie or another non-LGD breed and easily train it to behave properly as a livestock guard. The prey or chase drives in many breeds are just too high to make them reliable guardians. Some breeds are excellent watchdogs but lack the nurturing instincts a LGD exhibits towards its charges. Other breeds lack the size or the coat to work outside in difficult weather. Still others do not possess the size, agility, or sense of responsibility to take on serious predators. These are also the reasons that crosses with a LGD and a non-LGD breed are just not reliable as working livestock guardians. Many breeds make great all round farm dogs, but they should not be trusted or expected to live reliably with stock 24 hours a day.
If you are looking for a real livestock guard dog, which possesses ALL of these valuable traits, choose one of the recognized breeds or a cross between two LGD breeds. There is no better guardian of your flock or herd.
A big thank you to the Facebook communities Learning About LGDs and Big White Dog Working LGD Forum for their patient support of newbies and others to the wonderful world of livestock guard dogs!
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Experienced LGD owners can easily come up with a list of myths, misconceptions, and misinformation about their dogs. A quick glance at various LGD forums, email lists, or Facebook pages will reveal that these misconceptions are not only widespread but they are also responsible for the majority of problems new LGD owners find themselves in.
Most of these myths were rooted in the well intentioned but not fully knowledgeable advice given to the pioneering users of LGDs in the 1970s and 80s. Most of these breeds were uncommon to North America, and their use as true working livestock guardians was completely new to most folks. Ranchers and other folks were told that LGD pups should be left completely alone to bond with the stock and they should be handled as little as possible. Today we understand much better how these dogs worked in their native lands and, most importantly, how humans worked with them. Unfortunately, many of these misconceptions are still widely believed to be true.
The myths –
Human contact is bad for LGDs.
LGDs can’t be trained.
It is fine for a working LGD to be unapproachable or aggressive, even to his owner.
Livestock guard dogs were developed over centuries by shepherds who cared primarily for sheep or goats. The dogs often accompanied the shepherds to unfenced grazing land, either daily or seasonally, where they worked together to protect the flock. Transhumant or migratory families often moved together with stock and dogs over very large areas. Although adult dogs might be left to guard animals alone overnight, young dogs were never left alone with stock. Young dogs were taught correct behavior by experienced, older dogs and shepherds working together. At night or during the winter months, stock, dogs, and people usually lived together. Humans and dogs formed a true working relationship. Dogs worked in partnership with shepherds and lived in close contact with humans.
Interacting with your dog will absolutely not prevent him from being a good LGD. In fact, he will respond better to your praise and corrections if you have a good relationship. He deserves human contact but that contact should be where he will work in the barn or the pasture, but not your house. Your dog needs to be safe for you to handle and care for. There will be times he will need to be moved between pastures or kenneled. He may need to visit a vet. A nearly feral dog is a true danger to everyone, including himself.
As self-thinkers, LGDs probably aren’t obedience champs, but many owners have raised well-socialized and well-mannered dogs who are superb companions for their families.
LGDs are natural guardians and need no training.
Even puppies are natural guardians and can be left alone with stock
LGD pups were traditionally raised among their stock with the guidance of experienced dogs and shepherds. They were not left in a field alone with stock. Unsupervised pups and young dogs can get into a great deal of trouble and develop bad habits. If you don’t have an older, reliable mentor LGD, your pup should only be with stock in your presence. At other times he should be penned next to stock or perhaps with a couple of calm, mature animals who are experienced with LGDs. Even though your pup will soon be as large as many fully grown dogs, he is still a juvenile. LGD breeds mature slowly; many dogs won’t be reliable alone with stock until age two or so. At times he may seem ready but then he might regress into goofy adolescent behavior. This is the age many dogs get into trouble because their owners expect far too much from them.
If dogs weren’t raised with stock, they will not be able to work as an LGD
Although raising LGD puppies with stock is preferable, adult LGDs that were never raised with stock can still make good guardians - if they possess good instinctive behaviors. Not all adults can make this transition and former bad habits might be too ingrained but given good training and time, rehoming an adult dog into a working life can often be accomplished. However, this is not a project we recommend for a newcomer to LGDs.
LGDs can easily guard poultry.
LGDs were not traditionally used to guard poultry in their homelands; however, many owners have successful socialized their dogs to guard poultry. Others have found that their dog can’t do this reliably, even if they are good with sheep or goats. If you want to use your dog with poultry you will need to constantly supervise their interactions, praising good behavior and immediately stopping attempts to bite or mouth the birds. Never leave a pup alone with birds – especially young birds. Your dog may be good with birds at 4 months and then go slightly crazy with birds later when he becomes an adolescent. Some dogs are good with adult birds but have trouble with hatchlings or young birds. Most owners admit they lost a bird or two along the way. Keep reminding yourself, LGDs grow up slowly and many will not be reliable until age 2 or so.
If a young LGD kills a chicken or another small animal, it will be worthless as a guardian.
If a young or adolescent dog kills or injures a bird or small animal, he shouldn’t have been left alone with those animals in the first place. New situations such as birthing and baby animals or birds are also problematical for young dogs. Supervision is mandatory not optional. If a mistake is made, it is time to re-double your efforts at training and not allow supervised interaction. A mistake is not be a death sentence for a young dog. There will be mistakes. And your dog will grow up eventually.
LGDs bond to their stock so fences aren’t really important. Only bad LGDs roam.
Unless you graze your animals on very large areas of public or private land – you need a fence. Even on the open range, LGDs can roam away from their flocks in pursuit of predators. In the company of their shepherds, LGDs were bred to patrol, guard, and chase away predators on very large areas of land, so they will instinctively want to practice these behaviors beyond your smaller pasture. You will need good fencing. Invisible fence, simple three-wire, short or other flimsy fencing probably won’t work. Yes, some LGDs don’t roam or chase predators but you shouldn’t assume that, especially if your dog is young or intact. Neutering your dog and completely preventing it from escaping during his formative puppy and adolescence months will help considerably in training him to stay in your fences.
Other dog breeds or crosses with LGDs can guard just well as pure LGDs
A Livestock Guard Dog is a specific breed of dog not a job. Just like there are herding and hunting specialist breeds, there are livestock guardian breeds – developed just for this purpose. Other breeds can make great farm dogs but they do not possess the genetic instincts and protective natures of a LGD. You cannot cross a recognized LGD breed with something else and end up with LGD puppies. These breeds were developed over many centuries to have low prey drive – exactly the opposite of the herding or droving breeds. They were bred as self-thinkers who bluff first and attack predators only when necessary – exactly the opposite of guard or personal protection dogs. Unfortunately, there are many puppies on farms that are the result of LGD crosses with herding or other farm dogs. If you are unsure which breeds are truly livestock guardians, you can learn about them in this series of posts found here, here and here. If you want to learn more about how the marvelous and fascinating LGD behaviors work, read the post here.
There are no differences between LGD breeds
LGDs were developed in the sweep of grasslands and mountains from the Pyrenees, through the Alps, the Carpathians, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and further east to the Himalayas. In each place, man made selection choices based on his husbandry needs, the stock, the geography and the predators in that area. Generally, breeds developed in close contact with people in Western Europe have less sharp and less reactive temperaments than those from more eastern areas of Europe or Central Asia – although individuals can vary within breeds as well. Breeds have different working styles and some are more equipped to handle the largest predators. Different breeds can be more suited for your specific situation, husbandry methods, and predator pressures.
Crossbreeding different LGD breeds creates healthier pups and reduces the chance of hip dysplasia.
Crossbreeding LGD breeds levels out temperaments, behaviors, and physical traits
If one parent has hip dysplasia, the odds are high that many of the pups will as well. Crossbreeding doesn’t change this. Knowing the good hip status of parents and grandparents is the best preventative you can buy to decrease your chances of your pup developing HD. Purchasing a crossbred dog with no knowledge about parental HD or health status is a big gamble.
If you cross a highly reactive breed with a calmer, more placid breed this does not mean that all of the puppies’ temperaments will fall between both parents. In reality, some pups will be like their mother, some will be like their father, and others will have completely unpredictable temperaments and behaviors. And you can’t use appearance as an indicator of which parent the pup will be like. Pups can look like one parent and act like another.
Thanks to Carolee Penner for co-authoring with post with me. Carolee Penner owns and operates a small sheep farm in Manitoba, Canada. Carolee has extensive knowledge of Livestock Guardian Dogs from years of research, hands on learning, and the mentorship of long time farmers who have shared their knowledge of these dogs with her. Carolee currently works with her two working Maremmas, Zoe and Ivy, is raising her Akbash/Great Pyrenees pup, Bolt and works in her community as a Canine Behavior Consultant.
Friday, September 19, 2014
I'm re-posting this wonderful article here because it seems to have disappeared from the web. Written nearly twenty years ago, this is still an excellent discussion of livestock guard dog breeds. This article and personal discussions with Dr. Sponenberg have been important in my own research and writing.
Dr Sponenberg is a professor of genetics at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, author of numerous books and articles on genetics and livestock preservation, and serves as the Technical Director of the Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Dr Sponenberg is a professor of genetics at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, author of numerous books and articles on genetics and livestock preservation, and serves as the Technical Director of the Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Professor, pathology and genetics
Technical director, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Blacksburg, VA 24061
This article is a set of thoughts that I have been pondering for the last few years, concerning breeds, livestock guard dogs, and the interaction of those two subjects. My usual sphere of activity is with conservation of livestock genetic resources, and dogs differ from this in many regards. At the same time, though, the issues of breeds and breed conservation of dogs have many features in common with those of livestock. This article is going to wander a bit, and then will come back and hopefully tie all the loose ends into some sort of neat package.
The development of all species of domesticated animals first arose as a partnership of humans with the species in question. In no case has this partnership been closer than has that of dogs and humans. Soon after domestication it was easily appreciated that not all dogs had equal talent for all tasks. As human endeavors became more complex, dogs were selected to be specialists for various tasks. This is basically the process of breed development, with profound consequences for the breeding of dogs or any other species. The important concept, at least in early stages of breed development, is that function guides the process, and external form simply follows along however it can.
A breed can basically be viewed as a predictable genetic package. To be useful, breeds need to be predictable. That is the way that they can fit certain niches with a high degree of success. This matching of a breed to a niche is something that has largely gone from purebred dog breeding as dogs have moved from being essential partners in performing tasks, to becoming companions and companions alone. As the functional abilities of dogs have diminished in importance for human endeavors, so has the emphasis on these in breeding programs. As a result, the predictability of dog breeds for specific tasks is something that is generally underappreciated by the general dog owning, or even dog breeding, public.
Breed development usually follows a fairly consistent pathway. The first stage of the development of most breeds is that people simply use what is locally available and adapt it to the task at hand. The resulting breed is therefore shaped by what is locally available (the founder effect), and the subsequent selection of this to suit a specific task. Since the goal of such breeding is function, the animals within the group are usually somewhat variable as to looks, but reasonably consistent as to function. This type of population is best termed a "landrace", which basically means a local or regional breed simply springing up and becoming uniform by virtue of local selection for a specific purpose. Any external consistency is a spinoff from a combination of founder effect or human selection for function. Border Collies are a reasonably good example of a landrace of dogs- they are consistent in behaviour (the key element of selection), and most of them are visually similar enough to be recognized as Border Collies. However, variation does persist and some Border Collies by heritage, pedigree, and behaviour are not all that easily recognized, even though they are still genetically predictable for the essential component of the breed (in this example, behaviour).
The next stage of breed development is that of standardization. Standardization can occur through two main routes. One of these is local or regional, and more or less can be viewed as standardization "from within" as the breed is made more uniform but in its original niche. The other, aptly termed "gentrification", was coined by David and Judy Nelson, who neatly summed up this important process in a single word. Gentrification occurs when the landrace is taken out of its original site and then standardized remote from its original niche. This is standardization "from without". Either mechanism can result in a functional, predictable breed. Gentrification does have a certain inherent risk, though, in that removal of animals from the original niche can impose changes in the breed that deviate from the original purpose.
Landraces occur as populations by accidents of history (founders) and selection, and geographic isolation. Standardized breeds take that isolation a step further by specifically only allowing breeding within the group, and also limit variability by deciding on a range of variation that is acceptable. The result is that the breed becomes much more visually uniform. The level of uniformity varies from breed to breed as the breeders' associations decide what to include and what to exclude. For example, the occasional brindle or black and tan Labrador Retriever shows up in a litter, but is excluded from the breed which only allows black, chocolate, or yellow. Golden Retrievers are even more restricted, while something like the Cocker Spaniel is allowed to have more variation for color. The important issue is that the range of variation in a standardized breed is arbitrarily narrowed by the breeders, and really may not reflect the original state of the population when it was simply functioning as a landrace.
Gentrification has been an important refiner and definer of many livestock guardian dogs. When a breed is removed from its orginal location it is easy for the selection philosophy that guides its development to likewise vary. This poses a threat to many dog breeds, but especially to the livestock guardians whose task and ability are based on thinking patterns and not on external type. One way these breeds can change is simply selection for size. Most are large to begin with, and larger dogs are more impressive to the eye. At some point, though, bigger is not better and the moderate dog is more likely to succeed for years of hard use than is the oversized dog. This depends on breed, but breed differences for size are important and need to be fostered to maintain distinctive and useful breeds. The Spanish Pyrenean Mastiff, for example, has gone in this century from a somewhat plain, moderately sized, somewhat flat coated dog to a huge, huge impressive fluffy dog. For hard guardian work this change may not be beneficial. Especially if the change comes from crossbreeding, the dogs are also changed. Some Russian Ovcharkas may have increased size from outcrosses to St Bernards and other nonlivestock giants - the result being impressive dogs, but not reliable guardians. The confusion of large size with inherent guardian ability is a very real threat to the livestock guardian breeds.
Some breeds are deliberately and somewhat artifially created, and circumvent the landrace stage. Such breeds are arbitrarily developed as standardized breeds from the outset. Doberman Pinschers are one example of such a deliberately standardized breed. These breeds can be expected to have even less variation that the breeds that were standardized from landraces. Few if any livestock guardian breeds fit into this type of breed, since most are regional breeds that spring from a given geographic area.
The process of standardization, including gentrification, may or may not matter biologically, depending what was left behind in the process of standardization. It likewise may or may not matter politically, since each breed has a specific heritage. The important issue in breeding and maintenance of breeds is to be consistent with the heritage, so that the breed can continue in harmony with its heritage. Breeds do not pop out of the heavens fully formed - each one has a heritage. Selection for consistency with heritage is especially critical for breeds that still have functions to perform, since ignoring the historical function can result in eventual inability for the dog to perform. This is critically important in breeds such as herding dogs or livestock guard dogs, or bird dogs. It may be less critical in Irish Wolfhounds (no more Irish wolves, basically), or in dogs historically used for fighting one another, or various other tasks that seem to have largely gone by the wayside. In such cases of obsolete (or hopefully obsolete) function, perhaps it is logical for breeders to opt for selection for companion animals in a sound, safe, visually pleasing package. Nothing wrong with that - as long as critical functions are not being compromised in those breeds for which such functions are important.
The question with livestock guard dogs is basically what sort of form does this genetic resource take? How is the genetic resource organized, and how should breeders breed and select dogs within the general framework of livestock guard dogs?
One basic question is the issue of breeds - what are they and how many do we need? This gets to be an issue of lumping versus splitting. In livestock breed conservation the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is generally guided by the principle that it is best and reasonable to split if each subsequent population has a good chance of continued existence, selection, and function. Lumping makes the most sense when populations are related, similar, and unlikely to survive as separate populations. In each case the issue of lumping versus splitting can be tricky. One basic guideline is whether or not two populations are more like one another than any other genetic resource, and whether they can be expected to be vital and viable if split. Put another way, split when you can, lump when you must. Geographic origin and selection history are more important in this excercise than are external similarities, a point which is easily missed especially with the large, white guardian dog breeds.
Livestock guardian dogs are a fascinating genetic resource of great value and utility, and safeguarding them as breeds is of vital concern to dog breeders as well as agriculturalists. Having these as predictable genetic packages is essential to a host of livestock owners. Livestock guardian dogs need to be consistent and predictable in order for the livestock industry to have rational choices for different situations. Different dogs are needed for different situations, and this is where breeds and breeders come in. No one breed can do it all - if that is the case then the predictability has been replaced by variability and picking a dog gets more difficult. This is not to deny that the variation within a breed can be nearly as great or greater than the variation between these breeds, but it is to state that predictability and "subspecialization" within the general livestock guardian dog breed group is a good thing, and should be encouraged rather than discouraged.
One characteristic of these dogs is that they occupy somewhat neighboring ranges throughout a huge geographic area. Each geographic area can be expected to fine tune this resource to what was needed, and to what worked. This seems to have resulted in a number of related but distinct gene pools, from the Pyrenean Mastiff of Spain (spotted) to the white breeds (Great Pyrenees, Maremmas-Abruzzese, Kuvaz, Komondor, Polish, Russian, Akbash), colored breeds (Kangal, Kars, Shar Planinetz, Tibetan, Central Asian Owcharek).
Questions for breeders working with these breeds include some idea of the original range of variation before standardization. What is amazing from a breed development standpoint is the relative consistency of type and visual appearance among these breeds. Many are white, which seems to have been imposed on these breeds at a very early stage of development. White guardian dogs were already well known in Roman times. This is largely due to deep seated conviction that such guardians stand in stark contrast to colored predators, and make keeping track of friend or foe an easier task for the shepherd. Equally important to some cultures is that white dogs blend into white flocks. In most regions white dogs also stand out against the landscape, again contributing to ease of detection.
Against the obviously widely held preference for white dogs stand the colored breeds. These occur throughout the range of livestock guardian breeds as exceptions to the general rule of whiteness. The reasoning behind these being allowed to be variable for color would be an interesting study, of only because the preference for white appears to be so ancient and so firmly held.
Breeders of livestock guard dogs are doing a great service for the livestock industry - if their charges remain faithful to the original purpose for which they were originally developed. The breeders' work and how they do it is essential. Since the breeds appear to have different propensities for behaviors critical to guarding livestock it is important to maintain these so that livestock owner can have choices peculiar to their situations. Making all of these breeds similar is to deny livestock owners choices that they need. Small flock owners in suburban (or subrural) areas have very different needs than range flock owners. Different dogs will be needed in each situation. This is an especially critical factor when considering "outlier" breeds that do not fit the usual livestock guard dog model: Kangal, Kars, Castro Laboreiro. These, and no doubt other, breeds need to be developed as their own unique gene pools and not crammed into the usual model.
The challenge to all breeders of livestock guardian dogs is to reflect on the character and origin of their breed. This will guide the future development and selection of the breed, hopefully to retain its unique characters. The uniqueness and predictability of all of these breeds can then effectively serve livestock owners as they search for a practical solution to flock and herd safety under a wide range of conditions.