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What is the Difference Between a Livestock Guard Dog and a Family Companion?

2/7/2014 12:04:00 PM

Tags: livestock guardians, farm dogs, Michigan, Jan Dohner

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.  Please take a few minutes to briefly look at the various breeds – especially their strengths and tendencies – found here in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. 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.  HeHealthy Livestock Guardian Dog 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.

In the next post we will continue discuss how to select a LGD.

Jan Dohner is a livestock guardian expert and author. Read all of her blog posts by clicking here.



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