Puppy Talk and How it Relates to Livestock-Guardian Dogs

Reader Contribution by Jan Dohner
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I’m very happy to feature a guest post on the purchase or adoption of overly young puppies. Pups who are taken from their mom and littermates too soon face many potentially serious behavior issues. Equally important when we are looking to raise a good working livestock guardian dog, the older pup learns invaluable lessons from its mother on how to live and work with stock.

I’m so pleased that Louise Liebenberg offered to share this very important information with Mother Earth readers. Louise has many years of experience raising and training working Sarplaninac livestock guardian dogs on her 480-acre ranch in High Prairie, Northern Alberta, Canada. The Grazerie ranch working dogs protect their large flocks of sheep and Angus cattle from the largest predators in a demanding environment. You can find much more about raising LGDs on her website and blog.

Puppy Talk and Livestock Guardian Dogs by Louise Liebenberg

Nothing is more endearing than a sweet, fluffy puppy. They melt your heart and the desire to go in and hug it, and mother it, and baby it, seems to take over. The problem that arises from following the heart and not the mind is that we potentially set the pup up for failure before it even has a chance to work.

Walk away from breeder that insists that a pup should leave the litter at 6 weeks of age or younger! Even if the mother dog dies, the siblings will still play an important role in helping to shape the behavior of the pup. Too often, I see posts of people all excited about getting their very young pup, but many do not recognize the importance of what a mom and the siblings teach the pup and how this shapes its future behavior.

We want our livestock guardian dogs to be tough on predators, be protective, and be confident in what they do. Taking on formidable predators requires the dogs to be savvy and streetwise, to understand canine language, to work together in a pack, and to be confident, brave and unwavering. On the other hand, we require them to show nurturing behavior, to read the body language of the livestock, to be attentive to the livestock, and to be calm, steady, and reliable. We need a dog that is super-stable in temperament, and confident in its ability. To get this ideal, we need to place emphasis on both the genetic background of the dogs and how they are raised – nature and nurture. We need to optimize the chance of success for the pup, and the livestock it will guard down the road.


Pups learn to live with sheep.

Potential Problems

Too often, we see that pups are removed from their moms at 5 to 6 weeks of age and this is simply too young. Some of the behavioral problems exhibited by pups removed from their mom and siblings under 8 weeks old are:

• appetite and weight loss
• increased distress
• higher mortality rates
• higher susceptibility to disease
• more noise phobias
• no bite inhibition

In particular, bite inhibition needs to be learned from the siblings and the mother of the puppy and this cannot happen if it is removed from the nest too early.

Overly young pups will not learn how to play fair and will often be very rough in how they play. Puppies can also become too clingy to their new humans and have serious issues of separation anxiety or fearfulness. These pups show very whiny, crying behavior and the pups are often not consolable. There is a higher chance of these puppies becoming fear biters. Because they do not understand social hierarchies and canine interactions, they can show unwarranted aggression or misguided behavior to other dogs.


Sarplaninac pups learn bite inhibition.

Finally, in many places it is illegal to sell a pup under 8 weeks old. The only benefit to selling a puppy before the age of 8 weeks is for the breeder of the pup – they have fewer costs with added food, vet care, and time investment. 

More Time with Mom and Littermates

So, what do these extra few weeks teach the pup?

From 6 to 8 weeks, the mother dog starts to interact with the pups very differently than before. The puppies are no longer nursing, as they are now eating solid food. Mom’s job at this point has changed from physically nurturing the puppies to giving the puppies their first lessons in submission, compliance, social order, and social ranking. Puppies that once climbed all over the mother, chewed on her, hung from her ears by their teeth, and swung on her tail, are now physically shown that this behavior is not acceptable. The mom will snarl at the pup; she is not hurting the pup, she is teaching him. The pup will learn to respect the space, boundaries, food, and overall “tone” of the mature dogs. The pups learn in this stage how to behave socially within a pack and they learn to read the body language of the mother and other pack mates. Their fellow littermates teach them to play fair and learning bite inhibition makes them less chewy, rough, and rude.

The pup learns from the mother how to behave around stock: when to bark, where to look, how to walk quietly and confidently through the stock, how not to be fearful of the stock, how to get out of the way, and how to be submissive to the stock. She will correct an unruly pup. They will be more comfortable around the stock and they will be more confident as they know that mom has their back. Ideally the breeder will have calm, friendly stock for the pups to interact with, so the pup feels confident in bonding with the stock. A fearful pup will not bond to the stock and will often look for ways to escape.

This added age allows for them to be fully vaccinated (often 6 week old pups do not come with appropriate vaccinations or deworming) and can they be thoroughly vet checked. A better assessment of the temperament of each pup can be made. Pups are generally more confident, relaxed and easygoing when they leave at an older age. Slow maturing breeds really need to stay longer with their mom and siblings. A Border collie pup is a fast maturing breed and can leave at 8 weeks old, whereas the livestock guardian dog breeds should stay longer, as they are overall slower in their development. They need this added time. 

So, just because the pup can walk and eat on its own by 6 weeks, does not mean that it should leave its littermates and its mom yet. It really saddens me when I see very young pups removed from the litter, as I believe that this time is a big part of shaping the pup into a confident adult livestock guardian dog. 


The Future.

Source on problem behaviors associated with early removal from a litter – Pierantoni L, Albertini M, Pirrone F. Prevalence of Owner-reported Behaviors in Dogs Separated from the Litter at Two Different Ages. ET REC 169:468, 2011.

With more than 35 years of hands-on LGD experience, Jan Dohner writes about the use of livestock guardians and predator control for Mother Earth News and Storey Publishing. Find out more at herblog

Photo credits: all photos copyright by Louise Liebenberg and used with her permission.

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