Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Choosing a Livestock Guard Dog Breed

Kangal Dog Sivas Regal's Fistik, copyright J. Dohner

It is definitely true that most people do not know what livestock guard dogs are or what they do. Owners of LGDs have answered these questions many many times. No, they are not herding dogs. No, they are not guard dogs. Then there are the questions about breeds. Most LGD breeds are uncommon and many are downright rare. Yes, it’s fawn with a black mask, but it’s not a mastiff. Yes, it’s white and fluffy, but it’s not a Great Pyrenees. Finally, there are folks who believe that LGDs are all essentially the same and therefore don’t regard breed distinctions as important or relevant.  Breeds?  Aren’t they all the same?

Yes, there are indeed many different breeds of LGDs in the world. Some are now here at work in North America, but others are primarily only found overseas. To those of us who work with these dogs, it’s all fascinating stuff. If you are thinking of adding an LGD to your farm, you will find advertisements for various breeds and crossbreeds. Learning about the various LGD breeds, their origins, and their traits is important to help you make your decisions.

LGDs were developed throughout a wide sweep of southern Europe and Central Asia. The LGD breeds obviously have the same basic set of behaviors and they often look quite like each other. Although these breeds are closely related in function and appearance, we are learning more about how each group of people in a different area selected their LGDs for traits specifically adaptable to that group’s particular geography and husbandry needs. There can be real differences and specializations between these breeds – such as style of work, temperament, and other behaviors - even though they may share distant common ancestry. These differences should be valued because they increase your ability to choose the right breed for your situation.

Some differences you can expect to see include: size (from to 60 to 150 pounds or more); coat length; relative aggressiveness and other behaviors towards predators; dog aggression; suspicion or wariness of strange people; tolerance of trustworthy strangers on the farm; acceptance of children; territoriality; nurturing of baby animals; sharper or aloof temperaments vs more family friendly or social dogs; more passive vs more active natures; and others.

Important disclaimer – as you begin talking to people about LGD breeds, you will soon discover that different people have different observations about LGD breeds. And they can be quite passionate about it! It is also very important to know that individual differences between dogs in the same breed also can vary, just like in all other dog breeds. This is all understandable because working with dogs is an art not a science. Please take all comments about breeds as a generalization not a hard-and-fast rule.

With a handful of exceptions, most LGD breeds were landrace rather than standardized breeds. Landrace means that a dog or any livestock animal has been bred without a formal registry, although their breeders may have kept written or informal pedigree of the their animals. Standardized breeds have an official registry and a standard of appearance that the animals are bred to. Landrace breeds often have a greater diversity of appearance than standardized breeds. Most LGD breeds are now making the transition from landrace to standardized breeds, as breed clubs and registries have recently come into existence in their native countries as well as in their adoptive homes in North America and elsewhere in the world.

Choosing a breed of LGD will require that you do some research and carefully consider your specific needs. Although no one breed is better than another, one breed may better fit your situation and particular needs. Carefully consider your farm or ranch’s physical situation and pastures, your husbandry style and management practices, your dog handling skills and confidence, the types and numbers of predators in your area, your possible need for multiple dogs, your livestock, your neighbors, whether other people visit your property or family regularly, your climate, your interest in grooming a dog, and the size of the dog. Both males and females guard equally well.

Availability will also be a big consideration. Reliable, full-grown LGDs are difficult to obtain since they are highly valued by their owners and not likely to be for sale. Occasionally good working dogs become available when owners sell their stock or ranch. In any case, an adult working dog or well-started adolescent dog is valuable, so you should expect to pay a substantial price for one. Some LGD breeds are also quite rare in population numbers or geographically. Good breeders often have waiting lists for pups. It may be necessary to drive some distance or have a pup shipped to you. Be extremely cautious of deals that seem too good to be true. Breeders simply cannot buy good breeding stock, perform the necessary health tests, give proper medical care, offer health or behavior guarantees, and provide good food for growing puppies for a cut-rate price. An inexpensive or free puppy will cost you the same to feed, medicate, and care for as a carefully bred pup from a breeder who performed health and behavior screenings on the parents. Meanwhile you will invest many hours training and socializing this pup, perhaps only to discover that he is poorly qualified to be a working LGD or has crippling hip disease. In the LGD world, it is completely true that you get what you pay for.

In North America, we have seen an explosion in the numbers of LGD breeds since the 1970s, when the interest increased in using LGDs for predator control.  At that time, the Great Pyrenees was the only traditional LGD breed present in relatively large numbers in North America. The Komondor and Kuvasz were also here but much less common. At that time the American Kennel Club recognized these three breeds primarily as show and companion dogs, although savvy dog folks were already working with them on their own farms or ranches. Soon other LGD breeds began to be imported, such as the Akbash, Anatolian, Maremma, Sarplaninac, and Kangal. Today the LGDs found in North America also include: the Caucasian Mountain Dog, Central Asian Shepherd Dog, Estrela Mountain Dog, Gampr, Karakachan or Bulgarian Shepherd Dog, Polish Tatra, Pyrenean Mastiff, Slovak Cuvac, Spanish Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff, and others. 

A word about crossbred dogs. There are tremendous numbers of puppies and dogs available that are the result of crossing two or more LGD breeds together. Yes, there are excellent, working crossbred LGD dogs and I do not wish to offend anyone who is fortunate enough to own one. There are also many crossbred dogs that are the result of completely unplanned or poorly selected breedings and they are often found in shelters or rescue situations. Many of these dogs have already failed once or more in an LGD situation. If this is your first LGD, please don’t take on the additional burden of rehabilitating a dog. If you do desire a rescue dog, I strongly recommend only adopting a LGD from the official breed rescue of a national club or one that is affiliated with a LGD group, where knowledgeable people have evaluated the dog’s suitability and temperament. Despite their good intentions, most rescue groups that place many different breeds and crossbreeds are not knowledgeable enough about LGD behavior to help you make a good selection.

In addition, genetics has proven that crossing an alert and highly responsive breed with a calm, placid breed, will not give us puppies whose behavior falls neatly in between the two extremes. Some will be more like their mother, some will be more like their father, and some may be completely unpredictable in their combination of behaviors. Remember, a pup may look like one parent and act like another. Even in purebred litters, it requires an experienced LGD owner or breeder to recognize the traits a particular pup possesses for a successful placement in a specific working home. To maximize your odds of success, if this is your first LGD I would suggest that you choose your pup from a more predictable breed background and from a breeder who will give you support and mentoring.

As a breed conservationist, I am personally passionate about the importance of preserving the differences between breeds. To me, these predictable differences are gifts from the many generations of breeders who came before us and they are irreplaceable and easily lost.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How Livestock Guard Dogs Work

In a previous post, “What is a Livestock Guard Dog?,” I described what livestock guard dogs do but it is exceptionally important to know how they do this job. Understanding how not only helps us work with our LGDs but also explains why other breeds or crosses with non-LGD breeds are not likely to do this same outstanding job. The how is a set of behaviors shaped over time through human selection.

To understand how LGDs work, we have to step back into the actual domestication process because that has shaped the behaviors we see in dogs today. Of all the thousands of species in our world, humans have only successfully domesticated a very small handful. We have domesticated only two predators – cats and dogs – and many of us question just how domesticated cats are? Scientists have come to understand that the animal specie itself must possess certain characteristics that actually allow domestication to occur and chief among them are the abilities to live in social groups and use some form of communication. Wolves have these traits, which enables them to form strong bonds in their groups.

Some students of domestication actually believe that both humans and dogs stepped together on the path of domestication, with the wolf choosing to come into the camp of humans and form a bond of mutual survival. In either case, the wolf cub that was adopted by humans within his critical early period of social development began the process of domestication. The dog is also humankind’s first domesticated animal - a marvelous partnership that has a very long time to develop.

Domestication is a complex process, which affects both physical and behavioral traits. Mammals, in particular, change a great deal in shape and development as they grow. This potential is what humans have selected and shaped – actually stopping physical and behavioral development in different stages. To see the proof of this we just need to look at the more than 600 breeds of dogs found around the world, some with more wolf-like appearance and behaviors and others with extremely puppy-like appearance and behaviors.

One aspect of canine evolution that can be manipulated through selection is neotony – the retention of juvenile traits in an adult dog. These traits include behaviors such as attention seeking, begging for food, submissiveness, waiting for the adult to return, the delay of a fear response to strangers, barking, and playing. The delayed fear response is especially important because it allows puppies to more time to form social bonds to humans or other animals, such as sheep or goats. The delayed fear response ends much sooner in wild canines than in dogs, where this critical period has been extended to 12 weeks or more. LGD breeds, in particular, have a very long period of delayed fear response.

Neotony explains the very basic nature of livestock guard dogs, even in their physical appearance. Most LGDS look like big, over-grown puppies even in adulthood. And these big puppies with their curvy tails and floppy ears don’t look very much like wolves or coyotes anymore and so our sheep have come to accept these “not-wolves” among them.

Another set of behaviors we have modified in dogs is predatory behavior. Predator behaviors occur in this important order: orient – eye – stalk – chase – grab – bite – kill – bite – dissect. If you think about the various groups of dogs – herding dogs, hunting dogs, and others – you can see exactly which predatory behaviors they display. Border collies “eye” and “stalk” even at a very early age. Sight hounds excel in “chase” and terriers “bite” and “kill.” Protection dogs will “grab” on command and hunting dogs will “orient” and “eye” but not “chase” and “grab” without command, and never “dissect.” The very best livestock guard dogs don’t display any of these predator behaviors toward the animals they protect.

Some livestock guard dog puppies will display behaviors such as chasing or grabbing. If they occur, they appear at 5 to 18 months of age, but they can be extinguished if the critical socialization and bonding period was successful so that the young dog formed social behaviors toward livestock. If an adult working dog or a human stops these wrong adolescent behaviors when they happen, they most often disappear by adulthood. A good LGD puppy that seems to be practicing predatory behaviors with stock may also be attempting to play rather than exhibiting true predator aggression. An adult dog or a human should stop these inappropriate behaviors just like you would stop any other undesirable behaviors in a pup.

This is what is crucially important to remember – the livestock guard dogs breeds have been selected for centuries 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 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. They possess instinctual responses to first warn off threats rather than immediately attacking. All of these traits can be so strong that some adult LGDs who were never socialized with stock 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.

Understanding the complicated biology of livestock guardians gives us a tremendous appreciation for them and what they do. It helps us select the correct puppy. It helps us train them to be good partners on our farms. It also explains why other breeds don’t make good livestock guardians and why crossing other breeds with LGDs is a very bad idea. A crossbred LGD and herding breed pup will probably have the drive to chase and herd combined with great size and power. A crossbred LGD and a protection breed may have his predatory behaviors completely disrupted and be completely unreliable among stock.

LGDs were developed throughout a wide sweep of southern Europe and Central Asia. Although these breeds are related in function and appearance, we are learning more about how each group of people in a different area selected their LGDs for traits specifically adaptable to that group’s particular geography and agricultural needs. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Pros and Cons of a Livestock Guard Dog

Choosing a livestock guardian – the pros and cons of livestock guard dogs

The choice to use a livestock guardian to protect your stock should be made seriously and with some forethought and planning. Using a living animal as a livestock guardian is not only a responsibility but also it requires you to gain some knowledge. It will ultimately require your commitment to an animal’s care, your regular attention, and perhaps some careful training. Acquiring this knowledge and some prior preparation before your guardian arrives will make the use of a livestock guardian more successful, as well.  If you are not sure which livestock guardian would make the best fit for you and your situation, here is a no-holds-bared and nitty-gritty look at the pros and cons of each potential guardian – dogs, donkeys, and llamas. This first post will look at livestock Guard Dogs (LGDs)

The pros:

  • LGDs can guard a wide variety of animals including poultry, sheep, goats, cattle, llamas and alpacas, miniature horses and other equines.  Guarding poultry presents a difference set of challenges than other stock, but it can be done successfully with attention to some training and the choice of a dog. Equines can likewise be problematical since the horse or donkey can have a natural flight or fight response to canines, but again, it has been done successfully.  LGDs can provide protection outside and around buildings that house other animals, such as poultry or rabbits. 
  • LGDs actually bond to their stock and will exhibit nurturing behaviors, especially to young animals.
  • LGDs protect stock against a wide variety of predators, both large and small, including the most dangerous such as feral hogs, wolves, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. LGDs can work in groups. Owners who face serious threats by large predators often employ two or more LGDs together in a field. Most LGDs actively bark and chase large birds (eagles, hawks, owls, vultures and others) away from their stock. LGDs routinely protect stock from all small predators including foxes, coyotes, roaming dogs, raccoons, weasels, minks, skunks, opossums, and feral cats. Although LGDs usually provide non-lethal predator control, owners do, at times, find the remains of these smaller predators in their pastures and barns.
  • LGDs can work in very rough and large fields or pastures.  They will actively patrol and mark their territory, especially at night.  
  • LGDs have a graduated response against predators, which generally frightens or warns the predator away without the need for an actual attack. The dogs begin with barking, which becomes more frenzied if the predator does not back off, followed by posturing or charging.  LGDs attack only if the predator is not driven away.  Owners learn to interpret the barking so that they know when backup assistance may be needed. 
  • LGDs can provide predator friendly control rather than other lethal forms of control such as shooting, etc.  Your customers often appreciate this approach if you sell products.
  • LGD barking provides an alert to the owner about threats and disturbances.  LGDs also provide this alert about threats to family and farm, not just their stock.
  • LGDS provide long-term protection against predators.  Predators often become used to or habituated against lights, sirens, and other visual or auditory methods of frightening predators away. Predators don’t become habituated towards LGDs.
  • LGDs can work with their stock 24/7, which means stock can stay out to graze at night or when the owner is away from the property.  This also reduces human labor needed to bring flocks into a barn or protective paddock every night. LGDs are usually more active at night than during the day.
  • LGDs allow you to use a pasture with active predator problems in the area.  One summer, we used a pasture with a den of coyotes right outside the fence.  It was a summer of much barking and howling, but we did not lose even one tiny Shetland lamb to those coyotes.
  • LGDs are self-thinkers, which means they can analyze a potential threat.

And now the cons:

  • Good LGDs are valuable and they demand a relatively large purchase price. They are also slow to grow and mature if purchased as a pup. Young dogs need time and your guidance to become good guardians. You may be tempted to re-home dogs that have failed elsewhere or are offered cheaply. You might consider buying dogs from unproven bloodlines or breeders who do not do routine health checks, in an effort to save money. These are risky choices, especially if you are new to using a LGD. A good breeder will be a good mentor to you and is invaluable. Dogs from good breeders, who select for working traits, greatly increase your chances of success. I will go into more about selecting a good LGD pup in a later blog post. 
  • LGDs require good fencing. Really good fencing. LGD breeds were developed on open pastures and they worked in the company of shepherds day and night.  Their idea of their territory may be much larger than your pasture or even your farm.  LGDs can dig and climb and slither through amazingly tight spaces. If your fencing is poor, you will either need to reinforce it or add electricity – or choose another livestock guardian. On the plus side, good fences also protect your stock. 
  • Speaking of digging, LGDs often dig dens to protect themselves against heat or cold. You should provide appropriate shelter for them, which may reduce this need to dig their own.
  • LGDs will bark at night.  This is how they work because this is when predators are most active. Remember that they hear and see better than you. You can help teach your dog about appropriate barking, but if barking will seriously bother you or your neighbors, you need a different livestock guardian.
  • LGDs need dog food instead of forage or hay.  Their food needs to be provided for them in a protected way from weather and other animals. LGDs need regular veterinary care; preventative medications for rabies, heartworm, parasites and other diseases; and a certain amount of grooming, such as clipping claws or tending to long coats.
  • LGDs need to be handled and socialized. You need to be able to leash your dog, medicate it or tend to injuries, and confine it or transport it, if necessary. If this basic care isn’t taken you may find yourself with a very large, uncontrollable dog. Don’t choose a LGD to guard your flock if you are not comfortable working with very large dogs. 
  • LGDs may be aggressive to strangers on your property. This can be a liability.  It is a reason for good fences, educating your neighbors, and a posted sign that say Livestock Guard Dog at Work.
  • LGDs can be very protective of stock.  They will probably need to be confined when veterinarians or sheep shearers are working on their stock. They may not tolerate herding or other farm dogs.
  • LGDs cannot be used along with traps, snares, poisons or other forms of lethal predator control.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What Exactly is a Livestock Guard Dog?

What Exactly is a Livestock Guard Dog? 

This is Fistik sharing a moment with her Shetland sheep and Bourbon Red turkeys.  Since this recent post for Mother Earth News was about good livestock guardians, Fistik deserves a nod.  She is is absolutely the best guardian we've ever owned.

I receive lots of questions, phone calls and emails from folks interested in obtaining a livestock guard dog. Usually they already know what a livestock guard dog does, but not always.  Sometimes they are confused about the difference between guard dog breeds and livestock guard dogs.  At other times, folks are unsure about the difference between sheepdogs or herding dogs and livestock guard dogs. This whole situation quite understandable since livestock guard dogs are relatively new to this country and the breeds are often very rare or hard to find. Sometimes I explain what livestock guard dogs are by stepping back in time.

Dogs were the first animals to truly share their lives with humankind.  The use of dogs to protect flocks and herds of domestic animals such as sheep and goats is also unquestionably ancient.  The Romans divided dogs into five kinds: greyhounds, mastiffs, pointers, sheepdogs, and spitz dogs.  The Roman writer Columella, advised that buying a dog should be “among the first things a farmer does, because it is the guardian of the farm, its produce, the household and the cattle.”  The Romans described sheepdogs as white in color with a loud bark, and they mention the nail-studded collar that sheepdogs should be given to protect them from wolves.  Even today, Romans would probably recognize the Italian livestock guard dog breed, the Maremma, or the French breed, the Great Pyrenees.

Today we think of sheepdogs as herding dogs, such as Border Collies, Australian shepherds, and corgis, but the ancient peoples of sheep and goat cultures had something else in mind.  These sheepdogs or shepherd’s dogs were large guard dogs that protected the flocks from large predators. They did not herd sheep. These large livestock guard dogs were found in a sweep of cultures from southern Europe through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and central Asia.  They worked in the company of shepherds who often spent weeks on high summer pasture or on long migratory grazing routes.

A good livestock guard dog displays behaviors developed over centuries by those shepherds.  He is responsive and friendly to his owners as well as nurturing and protective to his charges, even the smallest lamb. Many livestock guard dogs are highly bonded to their flocks.  During the day, you might observe him patrolling or marking the area around his stock but he might just be sleeping.  Nighttime is usually when he is more active, barking loudly at perceived threats in the distance.  If the threat comes closer, he will escalate his barking and posturing in attempts to drive the predator away.  If it becomes necessary he will confront the predator.  Those of us who work with livestock guard dogs always describe them as independent thinkers, which is a nice way of saying they are not always going to listen to your commands if they think the situation demands otherwise. 

Livestock guard dogs also have a very low prey drive or other predatory behaviors, unlike hunting dogs, terriers, or protection guard dogs.  It sometimes seems contradictory that a good livestock guard dog is aggressive with predators or outsiders but is also highly protective and nurturing of his stock.  It is helpful to remember that livestock guard dogs are selected for three essential behavioral traits – he should be attentive, protective and trustworthy.  He should not chase or bite his stock.  He should not leave them.  In many important ways, he is protecting his pack mates not hunting prey.

Livestock guard dogs were not important in early colonial America or Canada.  The settlers generally brought a British approach to sheep keeping with them.  In the eastern parts of the country, sheep were kept on small multi-purpose farms and were contained in fenced pastures.  Shepherds in the western grasslands never adopted livestock guard dogs either.  Across the countryside, dealing with predators such as coyotes and wolves meant killing them through shooting, trapping, poisoning, and even aerial hunting.  This situation began to change in the 1970s, as the public began to care about protecting large predators and many lethal forms of predator control became regulated or eliminated.  The essential question for many farmers and ranchers became how to keep their stock safe while adopting more sustainable practices and avoiding environmental damage.  One of the important answers to this question was also the oldest – livestock guard dogs.

At that time, the only fairly well known livestock guard dog breed in North America was the Great Pyrenees.  The much more rare Hungarian breeds, the Komondor and Kuvasz, were also present but primarily in the homes of dog fanciers.  Researchers and individuals began to seek out useful breeds from the Old World.  Today we have a much larger pool of livestock guard dog breeds; including breeds such as the Maremma, the Spanish Mastiff, the Akbash, the Anatolian Shepherd, the Kangal Dog, the Tibetan Mastiff, and Ovcharka breeds, the Caucasian Mountain Dog and the Central Asian Shepherd.  Even more breeds are making their way to North America.

The use of livestock guard dogs has grown enormously in the last 30 years, but there have been lots of problems along the way.  We all struggled to learn how to select the best potential working pups, how to train them, how to manage them and how to solve problems. 

I wrote Livestock Guardians to help people with all of these challenges and to help them solve their problems.  I’m looking forward to sharing all this and more with Mother Earth News readers.