How Livestock Guard Dogs Work: the Question of Genetic Behaviors

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livestock dogsIn 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.protecting sheep

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. In my next post, I’ll be looking at the LGD breeds. Learning about these different breeds will help you choose the right breed for your specific situation.

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 and 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.

Photos by - Chien de montagne des Pyrenees: Jerome Bon; Protector of the sheep: Andy Fitzsimon