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 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.
Recently, Conservation Media created a short video, Livestock Guard Dogs; Working on Common Ground, for the organization People and Carnivores. Ranch owners, Cody and Liesl Lockhart, ranch owners, present a good introduction to the differences between breeds and the importance of those differences in a real working setting. People and Carnivores is also an excellent of information on co-existing with predators.
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. In part 2 we will look at the specific breeds of livestock guard dogs.
Cody and Liesl Lockhart at http://candllranch.com/sheeplivestock-guardians.html
People and Carnivores http://www.peopleandcarnivores.org
Jan Dohner is the author of Livestock Guardians; Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd, by Storey Publishing. She has over 30 years of experience with livestock guard dogs. Jan wrote this book to help all owners and potential owners of livestock guardians to achieve greater success. She is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. You can find more on her blog Rare on the Farm and her author page at Mother Earth News.
Photo by Akbash Dog with goats by Jerry Kirkhart; Kangal Dog with sheep and turkeys by Jan Dohner