Friday, September 19, 2014

What is a Breed and Why Does it Matter? by D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM

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.

D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD Professor, pathology and genetics
Technical director, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy 
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Virginia Tech 
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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Selecting a livestock guard dog; what is the difference between a full-time livestock guard dog, general farm guardian, or family companion?

Selecting a livestock guard dog; what is the difference between a full-time livestock guard dog, general farm guardian, or family companion?

The first step in selecting a LGD, is determining what role you expect him to perform. This decision can determine which puppy you choose from a litter. It is also essential in correctly providing his earliest experiences and training. Individual dogs from the livestock guard dog breeds perform all these roles, but some breeds are better suited to one job over another.  Remember that males and females perform these jobs equally well.

A full-time livestock guardian means just that – the dog lives with his stock 24/7 – whether in the fields or barns. He does not come in the house. He does not play with the other family dogs in the yard. The attention you give him should all happen where he works and lives. He is content without constant human contact and may actually seem somewhat aloof. He has inherited the good guardian traits of low prey drive, attentiveness, trustworthiness, and protection of his stock. And, most importantly, his early experiences were well shaped and he was carefully supervised throughout his first 18 – 24 months. We will be learning how to do this in several up coming posts.

However, the full-time LGD still needs to be socialized and handled.  In the past, some LGD users advocated raising a puppy away from almost all human contact.  Frankly, this is a very dangerous idea. LGDs must be leash trained, accustomed to nail trimming  and basic grooming, and receptive to handling from you and your veterinarian.  If your vet doesn’t make farm calls, your LGD also needs to be able to ride in your car. Appropriate attention and handling will not prevent the puppy from bonding to or socializing to his stock. Again, this should all happen in the pasture, not your house or yard.

A full time LGD also deserves human interaction.  When interest in using LGDs was renewed in the 1970s, there was a mistaken impression that these dogs worked completely alone. In reality, in their homelands these dogs were usually in the company of shepherds. Either the dogs were out with the shepherds during the day and home at night; or the sheep, shepherds, and dogs camped out in the mountains throughout the summer. Even at night when the dogs patrolled the grazing animals or slept near the penned stock, the shepherds were close by. This was an affectionate, working partnership. Here in North America, we often ask our dogs to do something much more difficult – to live with the stock and only see the shepherd only once or twice a day or sometimes not for days at a time. When we think about the traditional LGD experience, we see how many dogs from the LGD breeds also work well as either general farm guardians or family companions.

A general farm guardian sleeps outside of the house – perhaps in a doghouse, a garage, or a barn.  He patrols the areas around your farm buildings and surrounding fields or paddocks. He may accompany you as you tend your stock during the day. If you need to do chores in the dark, you can have no better companion. He may spend the day with the stock, provided he has been appropriately socialized and trained with these animals. As long as he has free access to his patrol area, he will protect your home, your outbuildings, and adjacent fields – alerting you to situations that require your assistance. Many LGDs protect poultry by patrolling outside the poultry enclosures, not inside. Without complete 24-hour access to pastures, he may not be able to provide total protection from predators, but if your farm is fairly compact and he has access to areas adjacent to your pens and pastures, he will do a good job of warning predators away during the night.

For many families this is a comfortable compromise, as they are free to invite their LGD inside the house for short visits and family pets can interact. A quick observation - some LGDs are not comfortable inside and may get restless quickly. If this option is what you are looking for, some LGD are breeds better choices for this type of job and more amenable to meeting visitors and family friends. These breeds have traditions as guardians of rural homes and family farms.

To raise a successful farm guardian, you need to give him the modified experience of a full-time working LGD and a family companion. He should spend some time penned next to stock during the early period of intensive bonding. Take him on a leash as you do your regular chores. Praise good behavior and gently scold undesirable behavior. Pay close attention to fencing and gates in order to keep him in the areas where he is permitted. LGDs are naturally guardians of large areas, which may extend beyond your property. At the same time, provide the socialization and training necessary for a good family companion dog.  Do not bring him inside to sleep unless you want him to be a family companion rather than a farm guardian.

To be a family companion is a challenge for both the LGD and his owner. LGD puppies are big, adorable goofballs and adults are striking, powerful dogs, so it is understandable that people are drawn to them as potential family companions. For the most part, LGD breeds were never traditional housedogs, although some breeds are more amenable to the comings and goings of family and friends. Some breeders may be very reluctant to sell a puppy to a home in the city or suburb, even to an experienced, dedicated owner. You need to ask yourself these questions before considering an LGD as a family companion:

·      Do you truly understand the intrinsic protective nature of these dogs? As an adult, a LGD WILL respond to perceived threats both human and animal.

·      Do you have the experience and commitment to train and socialize him? He will quickly become a very large and powerful dog, often described by long-time owners as a “self-thinker” and not highly trainable. Will all family members be comfortable with this dog and able to control him?

·      How will you keep him safe and secure? LGDs dig under and climb over typical fencing with ease. You will need very robust and tall fencing to contain him. Invisible fencing will not work.

·      How will you provide for his exercise needs? LGDs are not reliable off leash or at a dog park.

·      How will you prevent boredom? LGDs are working dogs. If you don’t give them a job, they will create one – barking loudly for hours at perceived threats, digging immense holes, destroying furniture, etc.

Barking, shedding, and an owner’s inability to control or contain his dog are the primary reasons LGDs kept as companion dogs are turning into rescue groups. Despite all these warnings, LGDs can and do make excellent companions – for the right family in the right situation.  A rural home can provide lots of exercise and activity for an LGD, while he provides excellent protection for the homestead.