Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


“Caucasian Sheep-Dog vs. Wolf”, Georgian National Film Center

This is one of the best videos I have seen on the subject of LGDs versus predators.  There is a lot of information packed into this hour, but the most interesting parts for me lie in the immersive experience of Georgian shepherd life.

We in North America can stand to be students much more often than we claim to be experts.  In that vein, the interactions between dogs in this video and between them and their shepherds is well worth paying attention to.



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Is Dominance a 4 letter word?

I had occasion today to think about how we working LGD owners view dominance in our dogs.  Before we get into any further conversations about training, I think we should take a closer look at what dominance is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.

While it is seldom advisable to get all of your handling and training advice from social media threads, they can be very helpful to see the different ways that people operate with their dogs.  The other side of that, of course, is that it can be difficult for people who are truly struggling to gain the perspective they need, due to the extreme distance of the advice being given.  If there is one thing I’ve learned solidly, it’s that reports of behavior are not reliable enough to make firm decisions about the motivations behind said behavior.  It’s also true that some people will always see a nail because all they have is a hammer and that some are looking through a lens of ethical or moral views on dogs, no matter how impractical or inappropriate that lens may be for the situation at hand.

What I want to talk about in this post specifically is how much a consideration of dominance should factor into the decisions we make regarding our working LGDs, not to debate whether dominance exists (yes, it does) or whether we should acknowledge it (yes, we should, as it can be exacerbated or misinterpreted leading to serious complications) .

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

What is dominance?  Many people throw out the word “Alpha” or refer to Cesar Milan’s techniques when asked this question.  They talk about “alpha rolling” or “body rolling”, using physical intimidation routinely and never allowing your dog to be above you in stature, never allowing him to put his mouth on you- essentially encouraging a laundry list of forceful methods done routinely with every dog to ensure that they never gain the “upper hand” in the relationship.  I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine that type of approach garnering anything other than mistrust in both humans or dogs, given how complex and nuanced our collective social behavior is.  Approaching dogs in this way is akin to over emphasis on one conversation, on one subject in relationship.  Imagine if you wanted to tell someone that you love them, or that you’re hungry – or even that you have to go to the bathroom and all they ever said in return was “Get in line, don’t be dominant with me!”.  Imagine if you wanted to play or communicate that you are insecure about a situation, but all you were continually told was “Stop trying to control me!!!”.  Not only would it be confusing and frustrating for you, but you’d quickly learn that no one was listening to you in this particular relationship and most likely tune out.  Further, if they continually insisted that you grovel before them, or tolerate harsh manhandling, you may even lash out.  Security and safety in this relationship would feel almost non existent, and it could be argued that the relationship was abusive or at least neglectful.  If we don’t have a working understanding of the role that dominance plays in our relationships, of how it can be used properly and fairly (as we seem to understand instinctively with our fellow humans, for instance), we will continue to misapply and misinterpret it… or just refuse to have the conversation at all.

Living socially demands a passable skill with appropriate social language.  This is why, most often, you see like animals living with like.  They understand how to communicate with each other and it allows them to live peacefully enough together to ensure their survival.  It’s how we came to live with canids in the first place – we were able to communicate well enough to come together for mutual benefit.  Had we had dominance as an overriding concern, or they had that as their only concern, we would not currently have hundreds of years of beneficial relationship behind us now.  It’s that simple.  The animals most concerned about dominance live mainly alone (apart from offspring at times); they lead much more isolated lives.

Dogs are, for the most part, very socially flexible.  We humans generally are as well.  We, dogs and humans, adapt well to varying groupings, despite our personal proclivities.  Animals with strict dominance hierarchies do this less well – birds are often put up as good examples of beings who live best with such a rigid construct.  They have been the focus of a lot of the research on the subject of dominance for this reason.  Their social default is to have the conversation to determine who is in charge first and often.  They do not tolerate weakness, nor do they tolerate usurpers.  There are those who are submissive and stick to that, and there are others who constantly challenge for control, or who are quick to sense an opportunity and take it.  Birds generally live in a “cut throat” world with a solid ladder of control.  This is not to say that they can’t live peaceably, but they are generally less adaptable to change.  The level of aggression displayed and the ability to be “tough” are more informative of eventual status than the body mass or size of the bird.  In other words, it’s the size of the fight in the bird as opposed to the size of the bird in the fight that determines which rung on the ladder they will occupy.

Dogs, in general, are much more willing to give and take than birds – many dogs routinely offer submission to any human they meet.  We have selected for this trait in many of our companion dogs, and indeed in many of the dogs we work with as well.  Selection for routine submission with at least their handlers is commonplace.  The much maligned pitbull is a good example of this – historically selected to be aggressive with other dogs but never with their people.  Simply put, this was for a practical reason: in order to pull an aggressive dog out of a fight or to train a dog selected for willingness to trip into aggression, you’d have to ensure they felt that hurting humans was forbidden.  Other dog breeds have been selected similarly, such as the herding types or even more dramatically, the gun dogs.

Essentially, over the course of our history living and working with most dogs, we’ve purposefully or otherwise selected against a willingness or desire to challenge our status as leader.  We found that since we as humans have the longer view and hold the construct of what we want to accomplish, it makes much more sense to have dogs who easily agree to work with us, no matter what we ask.  While this has been done with LGDs to varying extent (the more stranger friendly types to more extent than the others), I do not believe that LGDs operate in the same way that most dogs do.  They are not complete outliers, (sharing this niche with the most serious protection and spitz dogs, for instance) but as we’ve discussed before, they do fill a unique working role and have had their maternal and aggressive tendencies exaggerated in order to be successful at it.  This lends them to behave more like a primitive social canid, thriving in familial groupings, as well as with a more rigid social hierarchy than most.  It is often noted that the working LGD learns best by watching and doing, is sensitive to subtle nuanced body communication and is quite often ahead of other dogs or even humans in terms of knowing what is going to happen next in interaction.  All of this lends itself to a highly sensitive dog who needs a solid foundation to operate from.

It is my firm belief that not only are LGDs concrete thinkers in general (like many herding dogs for instance), but they also appreciate knowing where they stand in relationship at all times.  Uncertainty does not lend itself to security.   You’ll seldom see two working LGDs meet without establishing right away who is the leader and the follower.   This doesn’t always play out in the same way with humans, but the conversation is very similar.  Knowing who is in charge doesn’t need to be, and often isn’t the result of a physical altercation, but it needs to be established just the same.  It may have to be revisited as dynamics of the relationship change (a maturing pup, for instance), but once established it remains static and doesn’t need to be proven over and over in every interaction.  Our LGDs are less interested in challenging the leadership position with us humans than they are with their canine counterparts, but they are hard wired to step into the gap if they find that we aren’t willing or able to lead.  If we are unconfident, unreliable, distant or otherwise irrelevant and untrustworthy, they will step into the void.  They will also do so if we are under threat or incapacitated, something we generally find a positive trait.

LGD familial group, from

Working LGDs are warriors.  They go forward into battle when other dogs would run and hide.  They do the opposite of what comes naturally to most animals; they give up self preservation to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others.  There is little time for ongoing negotiation when you’re in protection mode 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  This is one of the reasons why working LGDs always need to know where they stand, who they can trust and who will have their back… or equally who they are expected to provide back up for.  Regardless of which training methods are chosen, earning the trust of your working LGD(s) and ensuring that they are comfortable in their social interactions with both humans and each other ought to  be highest on your list of priorities.   A confident and secure dog does the best work, and in the end, we can agree that we all need dogs who work to the best of their abilities.   The lives of their charges depend on it.



LGD communication.

While we are talking about canine communication, it would be a good time to go over some of what we’re looking for in terms of body language in the Livestock Guardian Dog.

As we’ve talked about before, LGDs are one of the only types of dogs developed to live with prey animals, namely livestock.  Livestock generally live in groups and are very sensitive to threatening behavior.  They respond to bodies (people and animals) that are carried with a lot of forward motion or threatening intent by running away or less commonly and/or if trapped, by threatening them back.  This is, of course, a survival mechanism common to all kinds of prey species, domestic or otherwise.  LGDs have to fit a dual job description in terms of body language requirements.  They must be threatening enough to would-be predators to drive them off (at the least) and they have to display body language that makes the livestock feel safe and secure enough to stay close to them.

As a part of fulfilling the job of driving predators away from their charges, LGDs are bred to be large or extra large in size, with deep, booming voices.  This signals to predators that they can not only be a match for any predator contemplating a meal of lamb or veal, but also that they are constantly on alert and won’t miss any such attempt.  They are, however, selected to have drop ears, “rounder” edges to their body, soft expressions and to move in a calming, slow manner around vulnerable beings.  It is not uncommon to see a LGD trot away from the stock a ways to assess and warn off a threat, head high, tail up and carrying themselves with extreme forward motion; only to return and reverse the process: slow in pace, lowering their tail and body profile as they approach the stock.  It takes a highly intelligent, thinking dog to constantly evaluate the environment/context and respond appropriately.

What follows is a series of photographs that illustrate the appropriate body language around stock.  I’ve included a picture of our 8 month old (at the time) Maremma/Great Pyr girl greeting my daughter, who came to visit in the barn in her wheelchair.  It’s important to note that since our LGD pup had not been taught not to jump up at her previous home, she was still struggling with it here these three months later.  She automatically adjusted her behavior to suit the situation with my daughter, however – a good sign of a properly maturing LGD.









Big Mama

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March 14 20

March 29 18

March 29 20

snow trips1

snow trips3

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What ARE you saying?

It’s been well established that no matter how we wish it were different, dogs communicate in different ways than we humans do.  Dogs sniff each other’s bums in greeting, arcing their bodies around and avoiding eye contact, whereas we look each other in the eye and shake hands.  We, as humans, tend to mistrust anyone who won’t look us in the eye, but most dogs find sustained eye contact very threatening.



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We also like to put our arms around each other for comfort and encouragement.  Dogs put their “arms” on each other to signify dominance and to stop, slow or “pause” play.


Comforting sidehugs

Comforting sidehugs

Pausing play

Pausing play

Establishing dominance

Communicating dominance


It’s true that there are some similarities in the way we communicate with our bodies, but in general, our primate language is very different from canid language.  It’s no wonder that we often have trouble understanding what our dogs are telling us.  It’s also no wonder that we inadvertently offend our dogs or are less than effective in changing their behavior and feelings towards us.  We’re simply not speaking the same language.



With this in mind, how can we bridge that gap?  How can we translate the communication and be on the same page as our canine friends?  Thankfully a lot of the hard work has already been done for us.  So much of social canid body language is the same across species, and plenty of observational research has been done with wolves as well as dogs on this subject.  While context is of ultimate importance when reading canine body language, there are some behaviors that we can assess with good certainty the majority of the time.  Here are a few solid ones, courtesy of “Tails from the Lab”.


One of the earliest recordings and interpretations of canine body language was published by Charles Darwin in 1872 in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”.  In it, Darwin presented a selection of drawings of humans, primates, cats and dogs (among other animals), along with their descriptions.  Here are a few, presented in the same order as in the book.  It’s well worth looking at a copy of the book to read more.







Much after Darwin, the ethologist Roger Abrantes published “Hundesprog” in 1986 in Scandinavia, later translated into English as “Dog Language”.   A pivotal book in the understanding of social canid behavior, “Hundesprog” built on the work of Konrad Lorenz, who is widely regarded as the father of ethology.  In it, Abrantes uses illustrations to show different expressions, as well as combinations of expressions by dogs.  Here is one such set of illustrations entitled “Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines.”:



Look familiar?  Chances are, if you’ve spent any time around dogs, you have seen one or more of these behaviors.

More recently, Patricia McConnell’s book “At the Other End Of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs”  contains many examples of the differences between canine and human body language.  A book I almost universally recommend to anyone wanting to learn how to better their relationship with dogs, “At the Other End Of the Leash” is easily understood and engaging, with stories of McConnell’s experiences throughout.

There are some newer illustration sets and blog posts that are popular now to describe dog behavior, but I find that they generally try to to distill a lot of what is complex into something overly simple.  Still, if you keep context in mind, they can be generally helpful.  Lili Chin’s illustrations of her Boston Terrier’s behavior is one such example.


However in depth you choose to get in your quest to learn more about dog body language, observing your dog more frequently is the quickest way to begin to understand his or her individual expressions.  What do they look like when it’s dinner time?  Time to play or work?  What about when they are afraid of someone or something?  No matter what a book or illustration set says, your dog will always tell you the truth and it will always be in context.  After all, observation is the tool our dogs use to learn so much about us humans and why they have lived so well with us for so long despite the fact that we continue to “talk” to them so much as if they were primates.