Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Is there room for elitism in the pasture?

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I’ve been considering this post for some time, and I hope that I am able now to do this subject justice.  I thought I might wait yet for a while, partly because this post bleeds into political realms and revolves around a subject that is pertinent to the larger dog community as a whole: elitism.

I will have to assume that you, the reader, know a little about how the dog world works; there are conflicts of interest in every niche between those who believe that “breeds” should be kept pure by breeding same to same in perpetual isolation and those who believe that a “dog is as a dog looks/does” – worthy of consideration for breeding, work, whatever.   Nowhere is this debate, which easily turns nasty and separates friends from each other, more evident and germane than when it comes to working dogs.

There are two types of working dogs: registered and unregistered.  There are large kennel club registries whose main interest is dog shows, and working registries whose main concern are working trials.  Whether the dogs involved in either type of registry are truly “pure bred” is information privy only to the breeder and their close confidants, but what is on paper is what matters.  It has been some time now that registry breeding has been seen to be the superior form of breeding for any application, despite the documented effects that closed and increasingly isolated (no dog outside the system can be added to the system) registry breeding has on populations.  The Institute of Canine Biology’s Dr. Carol Beauchat has summed them up nicely in “Why You Need Population Genetics: the “Elevator Pitch”.

Breeding that takes place outside of the registries can take many forms, but records and health/temperament assessments happen only in isolated pockets.  Non-registry breeding may result in dogs with great hybrid vigor; equally, it may produce dogs who are more crippled than those in registries.  Due to the lack of recorded pedigree and familial information, and the lack of care that some breeders in this category operate with, it is impossible to flatly approve of this kind of breeding – though it may well be argued that the same could be said for the registry system when it comes to care.  As in most things, it comes down to the personal ethics of the one in charge.

We do, however, know two things for certain.  First, breeding within a closed system (either closed officially or closed in practice) must be managed carefully and is eventually unsustainable.  There are significant efforts being made by ICB and others to encourage registry breeders to increase their understanding of the effects of this type of breeding.  Secondly, breeding without care on both sides of the fence leads to dogs who cannot function in the way they were intended to; in some cases, dogs who cannot function at all or who succumb to genetic conditions far before their time.  For me this means that going forward, we must surpass the battle of registry vs. non-registry breeding and focus instead on the production of healthy and capable dogs, wherever they  may be found.

LGDs do not currently have a working registry here in North America, or to my knowledge, anywhere else.  This leaves us with breeds registered to kennel clubs that are either recognized or not recognized by the larger show registries.  This actually means little to the working dogs on our farms and ranches, as both registry and non registry breeding continues unabated. It does matter to those who wish to keep their stock protected, especially those who have no experience with LGDs but who are considering their use.  There is a rather loud faction within the LGD community that insists that only dogs registered with approved registries are “pure” enough to be worthy for use as guardians for our stock.  People in this group maintain that any dog who is not registered is an unknown quantity, unable to be trusted.  Even dogs with registration are suspect if the dog begins to act in a way that is out of the realm of approved behaviors.  These people say that all of the LGD breeds (who used to be part of landraces if they are not still) behave differently and have specialized behaviors crucial to their success.  While this may or may not be true, it is worth noting that any specialized behaviors developed in response to selection pressures in the specific geographical areas where they evolved.  Transplanting these dogs to an entirely new region may well mitigate the effectiveness of those behaviors.  Since these dogs typically come with a high price tag – anywhere from $1000 and up and often with no or limited breeding rights, it is no small investment for the average producer.  Following this type of advice may well lead a small producer to conclude that they cannot afford to farm, or to understock their dogs.

It is my personal belief that we cannot allow eugenics and elitism to influence the breeding of working dogs in our geographical regions.   I have several reasons for this, not the least of which is that we have watered down the effectiveness of the dogs both here and overseas by encouraging the continued breeding from isolated gene pools and subsequent importation of dogs needed in their homelands.   We have kept good registered dogs in isolation from those who are not registered.  We have used popular sires from registries and encouraged the breeding of fewer bitches more often, which is in direct opposition to what is needed to maintain diversified population genetics.   The resulting pups have been shipped far and wide, meaning that no area has increased or varied diversity over any other.    The health complications that have arisen as a result of inbreeding are not being reported adequately or dealt with appropriately, leading to a spread of degeneration.  Many a puppy buyer has been immersed into the cold bath of realization that the breed “norms” don’t include basic health and vitality.  From my viewpoint, it seems that the only (not to be minimized) real values of this type of breeding are the pedigree information, official emphasis on careful breeding practices and formalized support (albeit irrefutably politicized). **The Maremma Sheepdog Club of America’s Code of Ethics is a good example of the parameters that the “best” purebred breeders are meant to operate within.

Non registry breeding has been more in keeping with landrace breeding practices but so often without the notable advantages of passing genes outside of a localized area.  In every area, there are dog pairs or trios who have been bred over and over to help supplement the producer’s income and provide replacement stock – few of the pups ever make it out of the immediate area. This may change with the advent of more globalized advertising methods, but without an underlying commitment to careful and ethical breeding practices, this is likely to only spread the genes of those who deemed to be valuable or which belong to the cheapest dogs.  These are the dogs most likely to end up in shelters and rescue agencies, but also the dogs least likely to be altered or otherwise removed from the gene pool.  I believe that it is these dogs – the ones outside the registry system – which are the proverbial “gold mine” for producers, and the savior of the pure breeds in trouble…  if only they were managed with some care.

I was very interested to read recently of a woman working in Botswana who feels the same way.  Jane Horgan, a field researcher with Cheetah Conservation Botswana, has been the champion of the local dog over the more expensive, imported Anatolian Shepherd Dog in Africa.   In an interview with Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University and posted through National Geographic,  Horgan mentioned that there were problems with the much heralded ASDs on the ground in Botswana.  Further, she was trying the local dogs instead.  Pimm published her response to the comments made on the interview post, calling into question her reports of the ASDs in Africa.   Horgan had these things to say:

“… We are by no means saying that Anatolians cannot be good livestock guardians, just that they have limitations that are not often publicised and should be considered in certain contexts, such as the hotter, more arid climates of the Kalahari in Botswana, or on farmlands that cannot afford the maintenance costs of these large breeds.

…They {Anatolians} can also have shorter lifespans than mixed breed dogs (mixed breeds usually have longer lifespans thanks to hybrid vigour). For example, the average lifespan of Anatolians in CCF’s study was only 4 years (Marker et al., 2005). When the training phase for Anatolians is suspected to be 2-3 years (Potgieter, 2011), this makes for intensive and almost continuous training/replacement cycle – an investment that is not always practical for farm owners.

….Unpublished data from this study {see article} has shown that local mixed breed dogs are performing better than Anatolians in a variety of areas. This information is especially important to distribute as previous scientific papers from the region have made unsubstantiated claims that local breeds are unable to guard livestock (Marker-Kraus, 1996; Rust & Marker, 2013), unfairly branding them with a poor reputation. This led to many farmers not using LSGDs at all just because they couldn’t access or afford Anatolians, thinking that they were the only breed that could effectively guard livestock – leaving their livestock vulnerable to predation.

….The most exciting thing about this article is the fact that we have discovered that local, mixed-breed livestock guarding dogs in Botswana are easier and cheaper to obtain, train, and feed and can be distributed and used by low income farmers with little to no intervention from outside NGOs and with maximum possible profit margins for farmers.

In reality on the ground, this is a much more practical and sustainable predator-farmer conflict mitigation solution than the placement programs of purebred imported dogs supported by donated food. It is especially exciting as its one that can be adopted in any remote, poor farming community throughout southern Africa. If you want to apply the general concept of using local dogs (cheaper, easier to obtain and hardy) then this concept could have substantial ramifications for poor farming communities suffering from livestock predation the world over. Not only will this improve the productivity of farmers and henceforth be instrumental in poverty eradication, but also it will decrease the amount of retaliation killings of predators that occurs on livestock farmlands. This is surely something that we should be further investigating and celebrating.”

I could not agree more.  When people begin talking about the black and white of the superiority of imported dogs, ask yourself whether they have a stake in the outcome or are concerned about conservation and LGDs on the whole.  While I have no knowledge of the motivations for the usage of ASDs in Africa, I do know the value of a dog who has been selected to thrive in the geographical region where they are expected to work.  These dogs are not inferior, as some may claim, but instead profit greatly from selection pressures specific to their area.  While these pressures may need to be revisited and introduced (imported) genes may indeed have benefits, it is only a fool who would dismiss these modern landrace dogs entirely.



Further reading: “Another View of Livestock Guardian History” by Catherine de la Cruz


Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

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