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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Tracing the Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network

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Recently, I was doing some research and came across the website of the “Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network“.  At first glance as the listing came up in my Google search, I was excited to see that a new initiative is taking on the task of educating people about the ins and outs of LGDs. Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived, as it often is with these things.


While it’s not immediately clear who is running the LGDEN site, (the description reads “The Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network is a coalition of livestock guardian dog (LGD) owners and breeders, for the purpose of providing LGD education; as well as building relationships with livestock producers and organizations, agricultural departments, LGD breeders, breed clubs, farmers and ranchers, to promote LGD breeds, use and management, on large and small operations.”) the majority of the pictures displayed are from Louise Liebenberg of The Grazerie and the Predator Friend Ranching Blog; Erin Ingham of Ingham Farms and the president of the newly minted Armenian Gampr Club of Canada; Deborah Reid, the president of the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America and owner of Black Alder Ranch, Anna Abney of Learning About LGDs and Thunder Mountain Central Asian Shepherds and Lois Jordan , long-time breeder and exhibitor of Spanish Mastiffs who resides on her Fall Creek Farm in the US.  Apart from Louise Liebenberg, who runs a larger sheep operation in northwestern Alberta and has some longer term experience with LGDs dating back to when she lived in the Netherlands, these women do not have any significant experience with LGDs (Jordan and Abney’s experience is with one type of dog in one area in the US). These breeds: the Maremma Sheepdog, Armenian Gampr, Central Asian Shepherd and Spanish Mastiff, have all been spring boards for these women to attain the status of high volume registered show breeder and/or heads of breed organizations.  Neither Ingham nor Reid were in the breed very long before taking office and both run small boutique operations with a strong focus on “natural” raising practices. Reid’s first Maremma was bred before being successful as a full time LGD and her first litter of registered Maremmas required a lot of problem solving from others (myself included). This could have been anticipated, given the behavior issues in the mother at the time. Reid has also stated openly that it is her goal to have the AKC recognize the Maremma Sheepdog so that the dogs can be evaluated properly in the show ring. Ingham has raised one other Gampr pup to young adulthood, but could not handle the aggression that came up between that dog and her resident LGD matriarch. She consulted people (including myself), regarding what to do – ultimately settling on complete separation and eventual rehoming. She prefers heavy management regimes (6 foot fences, keeping strictly apart) and rehoming as a general rule to deal with any behavior issues that arise with LGDs. It has taken her over 4 years to raise a successful pairing.  Ingham’s first litter hit the ground in 2017, a severely inbred litter sired by a young male less than a year old. Both resulting pups have been difficult to handle and raise and yet Ingham has already repeated the breeding. These pups represent the first officially registered Canadian born Gamprs, ostensibly the foundation of the breed presence here. Ingham’s lack of understanding of what puppies need to be successful was a major catalyst for me to pen the recent Guard Dog Blog post: “LGD Puppy Skills/Manners Exercises“.

Over and over, both Ingham and Reid asked me questions via pm and then took my ideas and passed them off as their own in an attempt to prove themselves as competent for the jobs they aspired to or had appointed for themselves. I imagine they have done this with other people as well. Interestingly, the author of two of the books the LGDEN recommends is well known for doing this as well. I can attest to this first-hand.

This brings me to Anna Abney, Lois Jordan and Louise Liebenberg, who are also staunch breedists. Abney has a micro farm in the southern US where she breeds and keeps her Central Asian Shepherds (CAS). She operates an aggressive form of public LGD education,  primarily through her YouTube videos and Facebook groups. She has very limited experience with personally owning and raising working LGDs and much of her information is acquired from the others in her groups/cults. This does not allow her to “learn on the job” as it were, instead relying on the experiences of others and idealism. This is shows strongly in the content of her advice and videos online. She has also shown herself (see below) with her primary LGD bitch prominently participating in Protection Dog work, something that the LGDEN speaks out against on their site.  Jordan raises goats and breeds high volumes of the show variety of Spanish Mastiff, the larger, heavier boned version with ectropian, excess skin folds and loose, wet flews. Her success with working LGD is debatable, but, if successful, most likely lies with the fact that her dogs are so overtly show mastiff-like and carry a big bark. It is difficult for a dog of that size, burdened with substandard structure and too much loose skin to be athletic enough to get into trouble or even pursue a predator over any length of terrain.  Liebenberg runs her own version of Sharplaninecs, a Yugoslavian breed of LGD also known as Sarplaninacs. She has posted at length regarding her views on the superiority of the Sarplaninac (Sar) in her blog, Predator Friendly Ranching, famous in the community for its long posts full of heartwarming closeups of  fuzzy big-headed pups with sheep and their older counterparts on her ranch. Leveraging her ties overseas from her time living there and as a result of her relentless self promotion, she capitalizes on her travels to produce some history and her thoughts on all things LGD. Since the majority of LGD people online are not running high numbers of livestock and do not have direct ties to European countries, Liebenberg commands a certain presence just by showing up. However, things in the dog world are rarely as they seem and Liebenberg is no exception. She breeds her dogs at high rates and does not show how they are kept when not on duty, nor how many dogs she actually has at any time. She rarely answers for the consequences of her actions, online or otherwise, choosing instead to rewrite the facts of what happened to show herself in the best light possible. Initially warm and friendly, her investment does not stand the test of time or allow for questioning of the rules she has come up with for LGDs. She is also extremely against crossing LGDs as she states in the post I linked to above:

“I personally believe there are enough breeds to select from,/ to find, the right breed for your operation./I am not really a believer in cross breeding,/as I cannot understand the logic behind it,/given you have a choice and opportunity to various breeds.
If a certain breed is not suitable;/ due to its body type, or coat length or working style or aggression level,/then perhaps,/ the breed you are looking at,/ is not the right breed for you.
Cross breeding to tone up or tone down a breed is senseless./Genetics is never 50%,/you never get that perfect blend of characteristics!”

As breeds are a relatively new identifier of historically landrace populations of LGDs, I’d certainly like to know how there has come already to be a “perfect” breed for every western farming operation. Telling people who have been crossing LGDs successfully for decades as well as those who have been practicing assortative mating (described here by Jeffrey Bragg of Seppala Kennels) for generations upon generations that crossing outside of pedigrees populations is illogical or “senseless” smacks of arrogant narrow mindedness. Until the restriction of breeding choices by borders, colors, registrations and club titles became the norm through the 20th century, assortative mating was the way in which most breeding was done. It resulted in the production of the population of functional, capable dogs that was kept strong throughout the centuries, the self same dogs breedists claim their modern dogs to be. It’s only over the course of the last 100 years or so that we have seen an alarming decrease in function and health in our dog populations, due in large part to breedism. The situation has become so dire that we are looking at the inevitable decline and loss of most, if not all, of our specialized dog populations. The exceptions to this (albeit ever subject to western influence) still live as landrace populations in their countries of origin. In order to combat this decline, we must open up the genetic diversity in the working dog population. While the LGDEN claims to acknowledge the worth of crossed LGDs, the identifiable faces of the organization clearly do not. There is not a single breed club in existence that endorses the practice of cross breeding outside of their breed. It’s simply not officially done, and further results in expulsion from membership. In order to show, breed or remain in good standing as a “breed authority”, you must adhere to the practice of pure breeding only.

Abney

Anna Abney with her CAS, Astrid, doing Personal Protection work

Even so, the largest problem I have with this organization is not to do with its membership or the faces it’s keeping hidden away. In fact, it could well be argued (and likely will be) that I have a personal vendetta against the aforementioned people, given my history with them and the fact that I, too, at times have considered being a part of the leadership of breed clubs with high pools of genetic diversity. Instead of arguing against this perceived bias, I’ll just let my work speak for itself, including my advocating, writing, rescue/rehab/training, following through on what I say and do in terms of raising/placing successful LGDs of different kinds. No, my primary problem is a lot less personal than it seems through most of this post.  It’s with this page, the core belief statement of the group as to what a working LGD is, which all else stems from. In it, the group claims a varied number of unsubstantiable rules that bear no basis in LGD history. These claims restrict anyone from claiming they have a working dog if they say, allow their dog to sleep on the porch from time to time.

screencapture-livestockguardiandog-weebly-definition-of-working-html-1515721481774

I’ve written before about the history of working LGDs in their countries of origin and how they have been selected over time to appreciate the presence of their shepherd and their families. Some of the types have worked for periods of time on their own, but for the most part they have been selected to live and work as partners in close community with humans. It’s not out of the norm for these dogs to live in a pastoral setting, where animals and humans co exist in the same living areas. Many places don’t even have fencing or physical boundaries for their livestock, although others will have night time or over wintering facilities. The dogs are not expected to live in with the stock in those cases, but to guard the area. This could include sleeping on the “porch” or “coming and going as they please”. The shepherds also provide feedback to the dogs, helping to raise all pups, settle any out of control fighting, manage social and health issues that arise, have the final say on what the dogs do. Certainly, these dogs are meant to have the capability when mature to make sound decisions on their own, but they are not meant to run their own show all their lives. Looking for “human guidance” is not a disqualifying trait in a working LGD, especially not a young one or one undergoing change. Finally, the claims that if a LGD doesn’t “live with and protect livestock night and day” and that there is an arbitrary number of livestock that a producer must own before being able to call their dog a working one fly in the face of the versatility of these dogs. It also sets up inappropriate expectations for anyone living in smaller areas or those with niche businesses/hobbies.

Is this group truly saying that only people who own purebreds who never leave their livestock can call their dogs working LGDs? Surely not. That would disqualify the vast majority of working LGDs from wearing the title of their occupation in both developed and developing countries.

As it stands, it sure seems to me that the Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network needs some education of their own.

 * It is worth noting that if you follow LGDEN’s link to their FB breeder’s group, it’s described as “an extension of [the] Learning About LGDs group”, the group responsible for most of the hive think in modern LGD breeding/keeping/training, and well known for promoting narrow minded thoughts on LGDs (eg. any dog of a certain amount of color or willingness to hunt or look at stock head on is automatically not a working LGD candidate) that they promote, along with the swift punishment of detractors. This group is also notorious for their display of the trait of overclaiming, as outlined in this article.  I have spoken out against their uninformed, irresponsible, cavalier behavior several times before on Guard Dog Blog. High ranking members of the group, many of whom I’ve spoken about today, operate their own websites -private or for their breed clubs – that prominently link to each other’s publications. These include hosting writing articles for each other, promoting each other’s books (see the link on Anna Abney’s name in the beginning of this post) and other work.

Author: offleash

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

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