You’ve done your homework – examining your needs, situation, and breed preferences – and now you are ready to select your LGD. This is an expensive, long- term commitment of time and energy. This LGD will be protecting your farm and stock. Please take your time to choose your pup carefully.
A LGD puppy will be far easier to find than a reliable adult or started adolescent dog. The best guarantees for a good working dog are: good behavioral instincts, careful breeding, good socialization to stock, and the proper reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Start down the right road by selecting a puppy with at least the first two items – good instincts and careful breeding. How do you do this? By your choice of breeder.
A good breeder of working LGDs chooses dogs to parent a litter for important reasons – good health and sound conformation, good working ability and/or a history of good working dogs in their pedigree, as well as appropriate behaviors and instincts – not just because they happen to own a male and a female. A good breeder will perform necessary health checks, especially for hip dysplasia – not just tell you the parents look good and run around the pasture okay. A good breeder knows about the working abilities and health of the dogs that your pup came from. A good breeder will offer you a guarantee of the dog’s working abilities and basic health. A good breeder will invite you meet the parents and other dogs they have bred. A good breeder will serve as your mentor as you raise your pup. Your choice of a breeder is the foundation for all your efforts to raise a successful LGD. This is especially important if this is your first LGD.
Where do you find a good breeder? If you know people with LGDs, ask them about their experiences and recommendations. One of the best places to locate a breeder is through a breed club. Members of breed clubs are asked to subscribe to a code of ethics in breeding and dealing with customers. Look for breeders who specifically breed or place working dogs. Ask for references. The Internet can also be a source for puppies, but please do your homework carefully because it is very easy to create a flashy website but it is much harder to be a good breeder. Be prepared to have a good breeder ask you questions. You may find yourself on a waiting list and be asked to sign a contract. Be extra careful about everything if you are buying a pup from far away or if you are unable to see the parents yourself. You should ask if the breeder has placed related dogs closer to you so that you might visit them. You may think that registrations and pedigrees are unimportant to you because you do not intend to show dogs or breed puppies, but they are important. They give you knowledge about related dogs you can research and they are a form of insurance against fraudulent breeding. Breeders who invest in good dogs are also demonstrating their desire to produce good puppies.
There are lots of available puppies that are a result of crossing two or three or more different livestock guard dog breeds together. Yes, there are excellent, working LGDs who are crossbred; however, the same requirements for a good breeder should apply here as well. The breeder should know the working abilities and behaviors of the parents and grandparents. He should perform the needed health checks and guarantee his puppies to have working ability and good health. Crossbreeding does not eliminate hip dysplasia. If one of the parents has it, odds are that a high percentage of the puppies will as well. Speaking bluntly, there is a reason so many crossbred dogs are in rescue situations – they are often bred haphazardly or by accident.
There are other common misconceptions about crossbreeds. Be very cautious about crosses of breeds that are un-alike in temperament and working traits, such as sharp and highly responsive or calm and placid, because you will not be able to predict the puppy’s behavior or temperament. The pups may look like one parent and act like the other. You have no guarantee at all that the pup’s behavior will fall someplace in between – that is a myth. The essential value of a purebred dog is predictability in its behavior. If you are first time LGD owner, I recommend that you choose your puppy from that more predictable background of purebred parents.
Be very concerned if you don’t have definite proof of parents. A LGD should never be crossed with any non-LGD breed. It would be tragic to invest your time, effort, and money in a pup that proves to be completely unsuited to working as an LGD or is dangerous to your stock. Remember that LGDs should have low prey and chase drive, which is something many other breeds have in abundance. Experienced and knowledgeable LGD owners never use dogs crossed with non-LGD breeds.
The cost of a pup is certainly a consideration but the reality is this – you get what you pay for, just like the livestock you raise. What should you expect to pay for a carefully bred, registered pup from health-screened parents? $1000 - $1600 is common for many breeds, puppies in great demand, or proven adult dogs. Breeding quality dogs or rare breed puppies may cost more. In the more common breeds puppies may be available for $750 and up. Less expensive dogs may be available from unregistered parents or those without health screening. Occasionally, high quality working pups may be available at a moderate price from an owner who breeds primarily for his own need for working dogs but may have a few extra pups to sell to a good home. Be very cautious of ads for puppies priced under $300 or so. Owners simply can’t buy good breeding stock, perform the necessary health tests, give proper medical care, and provide good food for mom and growing puppies for this low price. Finally, please excuse the bluntness again, but you cannot buy a puppy out of a box at a livestock auction and expect it to be a good LGD. You might be lucky, but the odds are definitely against you.
What To Look for in a Working LGD Puppy
This is where a good breeder will be invaluable to you. Breeders have been observing their pups for several weeks and know a great deal about each pup’s personality and behaviors. If you are buying a pup from a distant breeder, you will be relaying completely on this knowledge. Observation over time is generally more reliable that puppy aptitude testing but a few simple tests and observations are very helpful if you have the hands-on opportunity. Remember you are not looking for the best pet or companion dog – you are looking for a working LGD.
Activity level. Unless your dog will need to guard very large pastures, dogs with lower activity levels are usually more suited and easier to train as LGDs than highly active dogs.
Prey drive. Some pups will already exhibit very low chase or prey drives, which can be tested by throwing a small object past them. Dogs with low prey drive will often just watch a thrown object go by or investigate it once, but not again. LGDs are not retrievers. Avoid puppies that chase and fight over a thrown toy or the pup that continually chases the object.
Temperament. Look for a pup that is interested in you but not overly aggressive, fearful, shy, or clingy. The pup that runs up to you first or insists on being “in your face” is not the best choice for a working dog. Full-time guardians should be more independent-minded problem solvers who are not dependent on human companionship. Pups that walk off by themselves after meeting you, hang back from the pack, or curl up and sleep away from the pack are often excellent choices. Look for calm and thoughtful pups and those that accept new things or loud noises. Avoid pups that growl, bite, or struggle when you handle them.
Pain threshold. You can test this with a gentle pinch between the toes or elsewhere. Working dogs need to tolerate pokes and prods by livestock, so you should avoid a pup with a low sensitivity to pain. Pups with average to high pain thresholds are your best choice. Pups with higher pain thresholds may be somewhat harder to train or correct, but this is also typical behavior for many LGD breeds who are extremely stoic and do not admit to pain.
Reaction to stock. If you are able to watch the pups interact with quiet stock, look for a pup that may be curious but is somewhat cautious. Avoiding eye contact is an excellent indicator of good instinct. Avoid pups that bark, jump, or bite stock even if they are accidentally stepped on. Older pups should definitely be submissive and calm around stock. Look for behaviors such as walking up to stock rather than running, dropping to the ground or rolling over, lowering the head and tail, licking at the mouths of stock, and choosing to sleep next to stock – even through a fence.
Male or female? LGD research has shown that both sexes guard equally well, especially if they are neutered. If you plan on keeping more than one LGD, neutering will make it easier for you to place dogs together to work. In addition, intact bitches will be distracted from their duties when in heat or raising a litter. Intact males are usually slower to mature, distracted by female dogs in heat, and more likely to be aggressive to other dogs when they are grown.
Obviously you should not choose a sick, lame, or unusually lethargic pup, but don’t worry about some minor issues such as incorrect coloring or markings – unless you are purchasing a show or breeding prospect. Pink pigment on lips, nose, and eyelids can lead to repeated sunburns or lesions in sunny climates. Unusually large pups may possibly suffer from orthopedic problems as adults. Finally, do not buy puppies when the dam or stud is younger than two years old. Not only is it unhealthy for the female to be bred while she is still growing herself, but no LGD is a proven, reliable livestock guardian until he has completely passed adolescence and is an adult.
Current research shows us that pups need to stay with their mother and siblings until at least 8 -10 weeks of age. This extended time lets pups learn to play and interact to develop proper bite inhibition. If your pup is receiving good livestock experience and you are a first time owner, consider extending this time through an arrangement with your breeder. However, if your pup is not with stock, you should bring him home and begin the bonding/socialization process.
In our next post, we will look at adopting an older dog or a rescue LGD.
Author: Livestock Guardians; Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd; The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds
Photos by: Central Asian Shepherd puppies - Aziatets (top); Great Pyrenees pup - David R. Tribble (middle); Kangal Dog pup - Birhanb (bottom)