Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Are we willing to change?


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.



Author: offleash

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

16 thoughts on “Are we willing to change?

  1. Carolee,
    Excellent article! You have echoed many of the arguments I have been making for the past thirty years of my involvement with LGDs. The “time-honored” method of raising LGDs – no touching, socializing, etc was the most important reason I sold VERY few Komondor puppies to livestock working homes. Trying to get people to understand socialization improved the dogs, not ruined them was next to impossible. Even if you tried stressing only the financial benefits, there was little to no breakthrough.
    Here is to better education of livestock producers which leads to happier dogs and humans with better outcomes.
    Just as importantly, here is to better education and choices by dedicated LGD breeders, leading them to produce better and more valuable dogs.

  2. Universal reality for alot of working breeds like Malinois and sheepdogs.

  3. It’s true, Paddy, although the handlers of those dogs are more willing to understand that they need to work in concert with humans, and that they need training. Certainly LGDs do not need to work as closely with humans as they are breed to be independent minded, but they still need us.

  4. Thrilled to see another person stepping off the Coppinger/USDA bandwagon! There are many of us out there who have been advocating a different path for the past several years now, but the resistance is literally mind boggling! Not sure if they just don’t want to give credit to the original advocate (I would certainly hope no one is that petty!) or what exactly the resistance is about, but we are all very happy to see this thought process catching on! In the end it really is about the successful and ethical use of the dogs, not individual personalities. I’m not a blogger or writer by any means, but back in August I did use social media to post my thoughts on Coppinger and the subsequent horrible treatment of LGD’s in this country as a result of his “findings” I believe back then he was literally considered an expert by default, no one who was actually qualified stepped up to the plate. In addition his latest book “Dogs” gives much enlightenment as to his ridiculous theories, such as the only dogs that deserve to be fed are dogs who are actively working, the rest are parasites, those are his words paraphrased from his book. I would also encourage you to read the many blogs and articles written by Brenda M. Negri as she has been advocating for a more responsible and ethical way of breeding and training livestock guardian dogs for years. I was lucky to have found her first, and applied her very different theories, such as the benefits of pack raised puppies, the fairy tale known as “Littermate Syndrome” and the almost unheard of idea of handling your dogs from birth, to my own dogs and have suffered no losses in almost 4 years in a very predator heavy area. I have to say when I actually did join some of the FB LGD groups I was shocked by the hideous advice given, and still am! Anyway, if you’d like to read further on this and other subjects that no one likes to talk about here a few links, we only ask that you include a link to the original site in your writings, enjoy! 

    • I appreciate your point of view, but I can assure you that you are not the only one who is advocating this way, not for a long time. There are many people, including myself, who have been advocates for better handling and care of LGDs for some time. My Myths and Misinformation series was first published in 2014, and I can tell you that the information regarding Coppinger etc was not new at that time. I’m sorry that you feel that all of the spotlight should be on you on this subject, but typically when advocating, people try their best to work together with others of the same mind and not attempt to tear them down.

      Brenda Negri and I do not agree on a number of important topics, some of which you mentioned in your comment. That does not mean that we need to be arguing on my blog or hers about them, however. The world is a big place and there are is a lot of room for various opinions. Take care.

      • Amen Carolee. Most logical people who have no previous indoctrination of the Coppinger method will, when faced with it, rationally reject it if they have had any relevant experience. To say the objection to Coppinger’s methods originated from one person – I cannot fathom a world that small.
        What I appreciate here in your blog post is the implication of real, serious trends in breeding and observations regarding fear, aggression, applied character traits that just don’t occur to everyone.

  5. Is this something you’ve recently discovered? Because I have been reading about this for years on Brenda Negri’s website, To me this is nothing new, and don’t understand as it sounds like you’ve taken this directly from her published writings.

    • Hello, Chuckie. I don’t make a practice of screening comments on my blog, but I may just have to start if the harassment from Brenda Negri doesn’t stop.

      Educational information is not copywritten. Whomever said it first is not the issue here, although I highly doubt that Brenda and I agree on much that is worth talking about so this is really a non issue. Back to talking about LGDs and not quibbling like this is what I think we all should do now.

  6. Carolee a short time back, you lifted a photo of mine off my website with no intent of ever getting my actual permission to use it, and then when confronted, you refused to give credit and instead, just took it down. Now I see you freely borrowing from a public Facebook post a good customer of mine, Laura Spindler put up, back in August, which was a scathing dressing down of the whole Coppinger LGD fiasco in America – the first time to my knowledge, that anyone had publicly come out and really called the USDA and Coppinger mess out on the carpet. Now, here you are parroting not only some of my copious material on my site which I know for a fact you frequent (as that’s where you lifted my photo from), you’re also now freely borrowing from a good customer of mine. It is great that the lights have come on for you and you changing your outdated previous stance and views on LGDs. What I really do think you need to do is practice giving credit to whom you got your material from. I have always done that, as exemplified in this blog post. I’m not ashamed to name my mentors and those who inspired me in my dog breeding and rearing program: I hope you can grow into a larger person by this experience. As so many people in the last two years have begun plagiarizing my material I find it necessary now to call them out as soon as I see it being done just to keep the record straight.

    • Brenda, just because it’s the first time you heard of it, that doesn’t mean it was the first time it was said. I’m sorry that you find so much to complain about on my blog, but that may be a sign that you need to stop reading it. Just a thought.

  7. It is good to see you advocating interaction with LGDs as the folks, whom I call the “Coppinger Zombies”, come unhinged when I tell them I handle my LGDs. Since Ray Coppinger’s advice was the “law of the land” I was hard pressed to find anybody to agree with me that “hands off” method was NOT the way to raise LGDs. I would speak of my manner and methods of raising my LGDs and other breeders would try to cram their belief down my throat or I would be shunned. About five years ago, I viewed a film on raising LGDs that featured Brenda Negri wherein she described her daily, ongoing, interactions while raising her LGD puppies. Imagine my delight to see that somebody so world renowned agreed with me! I do not have the European contacts that Brenda has but I have learned that her Euro connections think that the Ranchers here in the United States are crazy for the “hands off” rearing technique that many ranchers and breeders in the US advocate is the best way to raise LGD puppies. They shake their head in dismay and say we are doing it wrong but nobody will listen because the holy Ray Coppinger claimed it to be fact back in the 1970s. In fact I mentioned, in a LGD group on Facebook, that a young puppy put in the pasture, at 8-10 weeks of age, to assume the role guardian WILL bond with the stock out of FEAR due to their instinct that they are “safer in numbers” and not because they love sheep and that raising a LGD in this manner goes against everything in their genetic make up, forces the dog to adapt, the dog results in behavior problems. Dogs are “pack animals” and their instincts tells them NOT to be alone…well the participants in this Facebook group went into attack mode trying to convince me that “hands off” was the ONLY way to raise LGDs. It’s hard to change the masses. Maybe if more people view the video that features Brenda Negri, perhaps change is possible.

    • Thank you for taking the time to leave yet another long comment promoting Brenda Negri. I do hope that this won’t continue – although you and I do agree that “hands off” raising is not the way to go. There is a lot of room for all of us to advocate against this myth in our own ways, and I am happy to encourage that we all do.

  8. I personally appreciate the intelligent analysis of this post – well thought out, with a look ahead based on a clear look behind. Obviously written by someone who has had some very close and personal experiences with a number of livestock guardians.
    In the USA there are apparently numerous people who have taken on prescribing one method over another, a trend that began with Coppinger and continues with many of the online ‘professionals’ who may have a yard full of dogs but still fail to see the big picture.
    I recall conversations ten years ago where we questioned Coppinger’s methods. This article takes it a step further than the average complaint, detailing the finer points of the effects of our selection criteria.
    Carolee I appreciate our conversations on this subject, and look forward to more.

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