Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation About Livestock Guard Dogs

Reader Contribution by Jan Dohner
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Experienced LGD owners can easily come up with a list of myths, misconceptions, and misinformation about their dogs. A quick glance at various LGD forums, email lists, or Facebook pages will reveal that these misconceptions are not only widespread but they are also responsible for the majority of problems new LGD owners find themselves in. 

Most of these myths were rooted in the well intentioned but not fully knowledgeable advice given to the pioneering users of LGDs in the 1970s and 80s. Most of these breeds were uncommon to North America, and their use as true working livestock guardians was completely new to most folks. Ranchers and other folks were told that LGD pups should be left completely alone to bond with the stock and they should be handled as little as possible. Today we understand much better how these dogs worked in their native lands and, most importantly, how humans worked with them. Unfortunately, many of these misconceptions are still widely believed to be true. 

The Myths 

Human contact is bad for LGDs. 

LGDs can’t be trained.

It is fine for a working LGD to be unapproachable or aggressive, even to his owner. 

Livestock guard dogs were developed over centuries by shepherds who cared primarily for sheep or goats. The dogs often accompanied the shepherds to unfenced grazing land, either daily or seasonally, where they worked together to protect the flock. Transhumant or migratory families often moved together with stock and dogs over very large areas. Although adult dogs might be left to guard animals alone overnight, young dogs were never left alone with stock. Young dogs were taught correct behavior by experienced, older dogs and shepherds working together. At night or during the winter months, stock, dogs, and people usually lived together. Humans and dogs formed a true working relationship. Dogs worked in partnership with shepherds and lived in close contact with humans.

Interacting with your dog will absolutely not prevent him from being a good LGD. In fact, he will respond better to your praise and corrections if you have a good relationship. He deserves human contact but that contact should be where he will work in the barn or the pasture, but not your house. Your dog needs to be safe for you to handle and care for. There will be times he will need to be moved between pastures or kenneled. He may need to visit a vet. A nearly feral dog is a true danger to everyone, including himself. 

As self-thinkers, LGDs probably aren’t obedience champs, but many owners have raised well-socialized and well-mannered dogs who are superb companions for their families.

LGDs are natural guardians and need no training.

Even puppies are natural guardians and can be left alone with stock 

LGD pups were traditionally raised among their stock with the guidance of experienced dogs and shepherds. They were not left in a field alone with stock. Unsupervised pups and young dogs can get into a great deal of trouble and develop bad habits. If you don’t have an older, reliable mentor LGD, your pup should only be with stock in your presence. At other times he should be penned next to stock or perhaps with a couple of calm, mature animals who are experienced with LGDs. Even though your pup will soon be as large as many fully grown dogs, he is still a juvenile. LGD breeds mature slowly; many dogs won’t be reliable alone with stock until age two or so. At times he may seem ready but then he might regress into goofy adolescent behavior. This is the age many dogs get into trouble because their owners expect far too much from them. 

If dogs weren’t raised with stock, they will not be able to work as an LGD 

Although raising LGD puppies with stock is preferable, adult LGDs that were never raised with stock can still make good guardians – if they possess good instinctive behaviors. Not all adults can make this transition and former bad habits might be too ingrained but given good training and time, rehoming an adult dog into a working life can often be accomplished. However, this is not a project we recommend for a newcomer to LGDs.

LGDs can easily guard poultry.

LGDs were not traditionally used to guard poultry in their homelands; however, many owners have successful socialized their dogs to guard poultry. Others have found that their dog can’t do this reliably, even if they are good with sheep or goats. If you want to use your dog with poultry you will need to constantly supervise their interactions, praising good behavior and immediately stopping attempts to bite or mouth the birds. Never leave a pup alone with birds – especially young birds. Your dog may be good with birds at 4 months and then go slightly crazy with birds later when he becomes an adolescent. Some dogs are good with adult birds but have trouble with hatchlings or young birds. Most owners admit they lost a bird or two along the way. Keep reminding yourself, LGDs grow up slowly and many will not be reliable until age 2 or so. 

If a young LGD kills a chicken or another small animal, it will be worthless as a guardian.

If a young or adolescent dog kills or injures a bird or small animal, he shouldn’t have been left alone with those animals in the first place. New situations such as birthing and baby animals or birds are also problematical for young dogs. Supervision is mandatory not optional. If a mistake is made, it is time to re-double your efforts at training and not allow supervised interaction. A mistake is not be a death sentence for a young dog. There will be mistakes. And your dog will grow up eventually.

LGDs bond to their stock so fences aren’t really important. Only bad LGDs roam. 

Unless you graze your animals on very large areas of public or private land – you need a fence. Even on the open range, LGDs can roam away from their flocks in pursuit of predators. In the company of their shepherds, LGDs were bred to patrol, guard, and chase away predators on very large areas of land, so they will instinctively want to practice these behaviors beyond your smaller pasture. You will need good fencing. Invisible fence, simple three-wire, short or other flimsy fencing probably won’t work. Yes, some LGDs don’t roam or chase predators but you shouldn’t assume that, especially if your dog is young or intact. Neutering your dog and completely preventing it from escaping during his formative puppy and adolescence months will help considerably in training him to stay in your fences.

Other dog breeds or crosses with LGDs can guard just well as pure LGDs 

A Livestock Guard Dog is a specific breed of dog, not a job. Just like there are herding and hunting specialist breeds, there are livestock guardian breeds – developed just for this purpose. Other breeds can make great farm dogs but they do not possess the genetic instincts and protective natures of a LGD. You cannot cross a recognized LGD breed with something else and end up with LGD puppies. These breeds were developed over many centuries to have low prey drive – exactly the opposite of the herding or droving breeds. They were bred as self-thinkers who bluff first and attack predators only when necessary – exactly the opposite of guard or personal protection dogs. Unfortunately, there are many puppies on farms that are the result of LGD crosses with herding or other farm dogs. If you are unsure which breeds are truly livestock guardians, you can learn about them in this series of posts found here, here and here. If you want to learn more about how the marvelous and fascinating LGD behaviors work, read the post here. 

There are no differences between LGD breeds 

LGDs were developed in the sweep of grasslands and mountains from the Pyrenees, through the Alps, the Carpathians, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and further east to the Himalayas.  In each place, man made selection choices based on his husbandry needs, the stock, the geography and the predators in that area. Generally, breeds developed in close contact with people in Western Europe have less sharp and less reactive temperaments than those from more eastern areas of Europe or Central Asia – although individuals can vary within breeds as well. Breeds have different working styles and some are more equipped to handle the largest predators. Different breeds can be more suited for your specific situation, husbandry methods, and predator pressures. 

Crossbreeding different LGD breeds creates healthier pups and reduces the chance of hip dysplasia.

Crossbreeding LGD breeds levels out temperaments, behaviors, and physical traits

If one parent has hip dysplasia, the odds are high that many of the pups will as well.  Crossbreeding doesn’t change this. Knowing the good hip status of parents and grandparents is the best preventative you can buy to decrease your chances of your pup developing HD.  Purchasing a crossbred dog with no knowledge about parental HD or health status is a big gamble. 

If you cross a highly reactive breed with a calmer, more placid breed this does not mean that all of the puppies’ temperaments will fall between both parents. In reality, some pups will be like their mother, some will be like their father, and others will have completely unpredictable temperaments and behaviors. And you can’t use appearance as an indicator of which parent the pup will be like. Pups can look like one parent and act like another. 

Stay tuned! Coming posts will address training your LGD and problem solving. 

Thanks to Carolee Penner for co-authoring with post with me. Carolee Penner owns and operates a small sheep farm in Manitoba, Canada. Carolee has extensive knowledge of Livestock Guardian Dogs from years of research, hands on learning, and the mentorship of long time farmers who have shared their knowledge of these dogs with her. Carolee currently works with her two working Maremmas, Zoe and Ivy, is raising her Akbash/Great Pyrenees pup, Bolt and works in her community as a Canine Behavior Consultant. 

Jan Dohner is the author of Livestock Guardians; Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd, by Storey Publishing. Jan 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. Jan 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.

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