I hear these questions nearly every day on LGD forums and Facebook pages, and they go something like this: Can I use a Great Dane or a St. Bernard as a livestock guardian dog? How about a heeler and Golden cross-breed? My neighbor has some great pups that are a cross between a Great Pyrenees and an Aussie, so would they make a good LGD? We also see lots of dogs advertised as LGDs, but they aren’t.
Livestock guardian dogs, or LGDs, are a group of similar dog breeds, just like herding dogs or hunting dogs belong in their own groups. Being an LGD isn't a job you can train any other breed to perform. Developed over centuries by working shepherds, livestock guardian dog breeds possess a specific set of qualities and behaviors that make them excel at this very special work.
North American Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds
These are the only breeds of livestock guardians readily available in North America. Other breeds are used in different countries and may occasionally be found in North America as well.
- Anatolian Shepherd
- Armenian Gampr
- Caucasian Mountain
- Central Asian Shepherd
- Estrela Mountain
- Great Pyrenees
- Kangal Dog
- Karakachan, or Bulgarian Shepherd
- Maremma Sheepdog
- Polish Tatra Sheepdog
- Pyrenean Mastiff
- Slovak Cuvac
- Spanish Mastiff
- Tibetan Mastiff
What Makes a Breed a Livestock Guardian?
This is what's crucially important to remember: Livestock guardian dog breeds have been selected for a very low or nonexistent 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 the essential traits of attentiveness, trustworthiness, and protection of their stock. LGDs are exceptionally nurturing and tolerant of their charges. LGDs also possess instinctual responses to first warn off threats rather than immediately attack. Successful owners take these natural LGD behaviors and carefully monitor and encourage them as their pup grows. These inborn traits can be so strong that some adult LGDs, who were never socialized with stock as puppies, will still make outstanding guardians because of the strong instinctual behaviors they possess.
Because of 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. Conversely, this is why protection breeds don't make good LGDs: They have a strong predatory instinct.
The inherited LGD traits are the reason why you can’t take a Lab or a Border Collie or another non-LGD breed and easily train it and trust it to behave properly as a livestock guardian. The prey or chase drive in many breeds is just too high to make them reliable guardians. Some breeds are excellent watchdogs but lack the nurturing instincts an LGD exhibits toward its charges. Other breeds lack the protective coat to work outside in difficult weather. Still others don't possess the size, agility, or sense of responsibility to take on serious predators. These are also the reasons why crosses with an LGD and a non-LGD breed are just not reliable as working livestock guardians. The pups can certainly possess the traits of the non-LGD parent. Yes, many breeds make great all-around farm dogs, but they shouldn't be trusted or expected to live reliably with stock 24 hours a day.
If you're looking for a real livestock guardian dog that possesses ALL of these valuable traits, choose one of the recognized breeds or a cross between two LGD breeds. There is no better guardian of your flock or herd. To learn more about each of the different LGD breeds, check out the posts part two and part three.
A big thank you to the Facebook communities Learning About LGDs, Livestock Guard Dog Project, and Big White Dog Working LGD Forum for their patient support of newbies and others to the wonderful world of livestock guardian dogs!
Jan Dohner is the author of Livestock Guardians: Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd by Storey Publishing. Find out more about LGDs on her blog, Rare on the Farm, and follow @JDohner on Twitter. She is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds by Yale University Press.