Livestock Guardian Dogs are formidable creatures. It’s part and parcel of who they are – or more correctly stated, who they should be.
LGDs operate with heightened maternal and defensive instincts. The maternal instinct facilitates the bonding and nurturing process with weak and vulnerable creatures (both human and otherwise) and fuels the protective instinct to heroic levels. Both of these instincts go hand in hand and exist in varying degrees/proportions within the same regional landrace type or breed. Some are more “stranger tolerant” and perhaps more maternal. Some are less nurturing and more front line defenders. In general, however, the more serious types trip into aggression sooner than those who are “softer” or more tolerant; they are not all the same in this respect.
Our cultural discomfort with handling an aggressive dog, no matter how justified, has led to some serious problems. A dog who cannot be approached without displaying aggression is labelled dysfunctional, in need of “fixing”. This mentality has led us to select dogs who handle “hands off” raising and training by giving in to us when pressured. We rarely follow the lead of the people who kept these dogs historically and handle them throughout their lives. The end result of this is that we’ve bred a plethora of guardian dogs who tend towards timidity when pressed and who often have to be coaxed out of their shells. Many of these dogs operate from a place of fear, as opposed to the confident, thoughtful aggression needed for efficient guardian work.
These are the dogs who are less than effective when faced with serious predator pressure that doesn’t yield to a simple threat display. These are the dogs who refuse to guard again when they first tangle with large predators. These are the ones who step back instead of forward while their charges are poached. We can hardly blame them; they’ve been selected to be this way. When the only tool we have to approach a feral or semi-feral dog is to intimidate them, we have to select away from dogs who meet our aggressive approaches with aggression of their own.
This is the legacy of the father of North American LGDs, Dr. Raymond Coppinger. Dogs who don’t do well with the “hands off” method he espoused are cared for poorly and often ultimately shot, and those who are tolerant and afraid enough to respond with submission, aren’t. These are largely the ones who live to pass on their genetic material to future generations, and the cycle continues unabated. Since fear aggression is largely indistinguishable to confident aggression for the average person, the selection process has been a shot in the dark at best.
There is an argument made by some people that if these dogs do the job, what does it matter how they do it or how we got them there? Up until recently, that may even have been a valid point, or at least one that required consideration. With the increase in larger predator pressure here, however, the ineffectiveness of these dogs has even caught the attention of the US Wildlife Services, who commissioned a study to find out whether harder, foreign breeds of LGD are better at the job. They became disturbed at the increasing ineffectiveness of the guardian dogs charged with protecting livestock against apex predators as well as the mounting body count of the same. When the dogs aren’t efficient or effective and other non lethal methods are not known or also ineffective, producers are left with no choice but to take out the guns.
I plan to talk more about my personal thoughts on this study in a future post, but for the purposes of this post, let’s focus on the fact that the dogs we have currently in larger supply do not appear cut out for their changing landscape. I believe that we backed ourselves into this corner by listening to the likes of Ray Coppinger and his “hands off” methods, leading to the hyper selection of dogs who operate from the standpoint of fear and timidity. Certainly, they do not encompass the entire population of working LGDs here in North America, as those areas that historically had large predators would have developed appropriate coping techniques out of pure necessity. Those techniques may or may not be enough as climate change and wildlife habitat destruction continue, however. Dogs who do not have-to-do do not typically produce dogs who are capable. We have largely forgotten how important the breeding selection process is to the future of our working dogs.
If the US study returns results that are favorable (as I believe they will) to keeping more serious, confident dogs who do not have a problem engaging apex predators, what then? These are the dogs we cannot handle with Coppinger’s methods. These are the dogs who have met the business end of a gun for not falling in line. These are the dogs who will challenge us if we don’t care to spend the time earning their trust and making them our partners. After all, they are happy to meet a threat head on to save their charges, and if we are indistinguishable from any other threat, how are they to know the difference?
I believe strongly that we NEED a massive overhaul of how we want to work with these dogs we depend on so much. We need to adopt a more empathetic and understanding way of raising them; putting effort into respect for them and a partnership with them as opposed to viewing them as tools or pre-programmed robots. We need to see our LGDs as long term investments, and not as disposable gap fillers. We need to socialize them when they are very young, so they can make good decisions as they grow. We need to see that they are animals with a language of their own; we must do our best to learn that language and help them learn ours.
Every year, I hear increasing reports of serious predation pressure. What will our answer be? Will we be courageous enough to learn a new way of interacting with our dogs, a new way of breeding, raising and training them? What are we willing to do to help our livestock survive? I hope that we are willing to learn a new old way of keeping these dogs, for all our sakes.
Handling your dogs will not make them less effective guardians – quite the opposite, actually. If there is one thing we can learn from the people who created these dogs for us, it’s that.