Choosing a Livestock Guard Dog Breed, Part Two

Reader Contribution by Jan Dohner
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If you haven’t read Part One, please take the time to do that. 

Before we take a quick survey of the most common LGD breeds here in North America, we need to remember a few very important points. First, LGD breeds were specifically developed over centuries to do this work through selective breeding for specific traits. Someone may tell you that their Lab or terrier or herding dog (or whatever) is great as a livestock guardian, but that is definitely not true for the vast majority of non-LGD dogs as many folks learn to their sorrow.

Second, 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 pedigrees of their animals. 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. This can be a tumultuous process, both in the LGD homelands and in their new adoptive homes. Folks can become quite passionate about their breed and their beliefs. As a breed conservationist, I take the position of the FAO – a breed is whatever the people in an area regard as a breed. We have much to learn from the peoples who have worked with LGDs for centuries, as we in North America only have roughly 30 years of experience. 

Third, just as there are a multiplicity of terriers and gun dog breeds, the reality is that there are many different LGD breeds. Beyond physical differences, individual breeds often became specialized for different kinds of work that required different combinations of behaviors. These physical and behavioral differences should be treasured because they increase our ability to choose the right dog for our situation. These different breeds need to be carefully conserved. Many of these breeds faced near extinction during the European conflicts of the 20th century and were only saved by dedicated admirers.

Fourth, individual differences between dogs in a breed can be significant. Please take these descriptions as generalizations. Take the time to learn more about these breeds before making your choice. Breeders and breed clubs are wonderful sources of information and mentorship.

Because these breeds were developed in a great sweep of areas from western Europe to Asia, it makes more sense to take a very brief look at the breeds geographically rather than alphabetically.

Estrela Mountain Dog (Portugal)

Estrelas are very protective of family and property. They are highly suspicious of strangers but noted for their fondness for children. They have a loud, threatening bark and are strong self-thinkers who must be socialized. Although the long-haired type is more common, short-haired dogs are also acceptable. Males range from 26-29 inches tall and 88-110 pounds, with females slightly smaller. 

Spanish Mastiff (Spain)

This is the heaviest of the LGD breeds, a true giant at 28-35 inches and 185-220 pounds, with females somewhat smaller. Although the heavier type is often seen at dog shows, the lighter type makes a more agile guardian that also copes better with summer heat or high humidity. This slow-to mature breed gives the appearance of passivity in the field, but will react with ferocity if he perceives a threat. Often aloof in nature, he requires a serious, committed owner.

Pyrenean Mastiff (Spain)

The Pyrenean Mastiff is related to its neighboring breeds, the Spanish Mastiff and the Great Pyrenees, although it is also an old and traditional breed in Spain. It is a very large dog at 29-30 inches tall and 120-150 pounds. It carries a medium-long coat, which requires grooming and can be a challenge in high humidity. Although suspicious of strangers, he will accept properly introduced visitors. He is fond of children and often barks less than other LGD breeds, which has led to his popularity in family situations.

Great Pyrenees (France)

The Great Pyrenees is the most familiar LGD although most Pyrs do not work as livestock guardians in Europe or North America. The Pyr is a beautiful, bear-like dog with a heavy coat. Although it sheds dried mud, this coat requires regular grooming and can be challenging in high humidity or heat. Pyrs are noted for their nurturing behavior toward young animals or children, but they will not welcome unwanted visitors and they will bark at night while on duty. Pyrs are generally the least aggressive to humans or stock. Since so many Pyrs are raised as companion dogs, it is recommended that buyers look for breeders who specialize in working dogs or pay close attention to breeding for good guardian qualities.

Maremma Sheepdog (Italy)

Known to the ancient Romans, the Maremma remains a very successful LGD. Although slightly smaller than some other LGD breeds at 25-30 inches and 70-100 pounds, the long-coated Maremma is a highly protective dog that can provide protection against serious predator threat. Maremmas are also noted for the close bonds they form with stock. Although they are often described as aloof, they also enjoy regular interaction with their owners during the course of a workday. Maremmas are serious dogs that must be socialized and they are happiest with a job to do. In fact, the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America does not recommend keeping this breed as a pet at all. 

Polish Tatra (Poland)

The Tatra is related to the neighboring Slovak Cuvac from Slovakia.Tatras are generally even-tempered and affectionate, making them more suitable on small farms that may have visitors than large range situations. Tatras are noted for their style of protection against predators. They place themselves between the flock and the threat while barking to warn the predator and alert the shepherd.  They attack the predator if it moves close to the flock. Tatras stand 26-28 inches tall and weigh 80 to 130 pounds, with females slightly smaller. His heavy coat contributes to his massive appearance but adds to his grooming needs.

Komondor (Hungary)

The Komondor is recognized for its distinctive coat – long, heavy cords and felted plates which protected him from the weather and wolves. This coat requires a great deal of work and is best suited to dry climates. Instead, many working Komondorok are clipped yearly. Slow-to-mature, Komondorok range from 25-27 inches tall and 80 to 100 pounds. They are extremely territorial and protective; therefore, they must be heavily socialized.

Kuvasz (Hungary)

Despite his roots as a LGD, the lovely, medium-coated Kuvasz was often used as a family or estate dog in Hungary. Males range from 28-29 inches tall and weigh 90-110 pounds, with females slightly smaller. They are agile, fast, and active dogs that work at a distance from the flock and are quick to respond to threats. Often described as one-family dogs, they are human-oriented and therefore not particularly suited to working as a full-time LGD in a range situation. Despite their close attachment to family they are very suspicious of strangers. Kuvaszok require socialization and control. 

Karakachan or Bulgarian Shepherd Dog (Bulgaria)

The Karakachan or Bulgarian Shepherd Dog is a very successful LGD in its homeland, which has the highest numbers and densities of wolves and bears in Europe. Owners in North America report that the dogs are levelheaded, steady, and affectionate to family and farm animals. Nonetheless, the breed is best used as a working dog and not a pet. The Karakachan stands 25-29 inches tall and weighs 70-110 pounds, with females slightly smaller. This smaller size is an attractive feature for some owners. Both short and longer haired types are seen, along with a wide variety in coat color.

Part Three coming up – breeds from Turkey and Asia

Photos by Great Pyrenees by Jerome Bun, Maremma by M Gerety, Young Estrela Mountain Dog by Traceywashere