Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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The Big Question: What is a LGD?

In my work with LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dogs), I ran into this question more than any other.  It takes many different forms, but essentially what everyone wants to know is what a LGD is, what a LGD does, and conversely, what falls outside the parameters of the definition.  This is not only the most common topic of conversation, but also the one that many educators struggle to adequately define.

I’ll start by saying that I am very aware that my worldview is that of someone who has lived their whole life in western society.   I have, however, worked very hard to counteract this by exploring the cultures that still keep LGDs predominately as their ancestors did.  Cultures with deep and ongoing pastoral roots show a clearer picture of the Livestock Guardian Dog than those who have largely moved to closed registry systems with a heavy emphasis on conformation shows.  As these dogs traditionally were true landraces; the people who still promote assortative mating and strict culling practices hold the ancient wisdom of selection and training that made these dogs so solidly valuable as guardians.  These are the people who understand that a working dog is a partner, not simply a tool.

This is what I have learned, borne out by LGD champions here in North America and my own personal experience.

1. A LGD is a large, hearty dog.

LGDs were developed to protect domestic prey animals from wild predators.  This is the heart and soul of who they are.  They cannot protect if they are too small to pose a threat to predators.  They cannot follow through on their threats nor provide an comforting presence to their charges if they are anything but strong and stoic in the face of uncertainty.

2. A LGD is both nurturing and protective.

LGDs are equal parts submissive and dominant, affectionate and aggressive.  They care for their charges with a mother’s love: devoted, gentle and protective.  They defend their charges with a mother’s fervor: decisive, committed and with passion. It is not uncommon to observe a dog expose his belly to an inquisitive lamb and then in the next breath, leap to defend it against a threat.  Once trained and mature, LGDs are able to instinctively discern who is friend and who is foe and respond accordingly.

3. A LGD is thoughtfully aggressive.

Although aggressive and tenacious, LGDs never operate indiscriminately or without inhibition.  Affectionately nicknamed “thoughtful fighters”, LGDs are consistently in control of their emotions and use only as much force as necessary to prove their point.  This does not mean that they will not eliminate predators when necessary, but many LGDs will try to communicate their intent to protect for some time before going on the offensive.  LGDs instinctively view weakness as something to protect, never to harm.

4. A LGD thinks for himself.

  An emphasis on rote obedience, highly prized in the western world, was not part of the selection process for LGDs. As with most working dogs, an ability to think independently is part and parcel of their core definition.  This means that while you won’t find too many members who excel in obedience competitions, they are routinely superior at fulfilling their mission to nurture and protect.  Several senses are heightened in dogs when compared to humans; this must be taken into consideration and respected, especially upon maturity.  Many times, humans have been unable to identify the threat until much later, but their LGD(s) recognized it immediately.

5. A LGD listens to his shepherd.

At first glance, this point seems in direct opposition to the one above.  An independent dog is not at all the same as one who cannot be controlled or who doesn’t defer to any human, however.  A partnership wherein the LGD defers to his owner is earned through building trust and consistently fair handling.  A shepherd has no fear of managing and correcting his LGDs and expects to have the final say on all important matters.  A stable LGD who sees his owner as a partner has no problem listening to him.  In order to establish and maintain this partnership, the shepherd must know when to interfere (for example intrapack/interpack aggression ) and when not to.

6. A LGD is a dog.

Tales of the supernatural, mythical abilities of LGDs are fun to recount and fascinating to listen to, but they serve very little practical purpose in the real world.  While there is usually more than a grain of truth to these stories, it is vital to remember that LGDs are first and foremost dogs with a dog’s instincts and a dog’s view of life.  LGDs have been artificially selected over centuries to have a reduced prey drive and high amount of self control but that does not mean that they are not still dogs.  Care needs to be taken to manage and train LGDs so that they become successful guardians.  As in all working dog types, there are outliers who are unable to fulfill the job description.

7.  A LGD is a social dog.

LGDs develop strong bonds with other LGDs.  They employ a complex and nuanced social language with each other that relies heavily on body language and cooperation.  As with most canines, individual friendship preferences matter, and gender may matter to some.  Almost universally, however,  LGDs prefer to live in partnerships or groups.

8. A LGD can be a “hard” or “soft” dog or somewhere in between.

The disposition of a LGD depends on many factors including genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, health, stage of life, weather and how settled they are in their environment.  Much of the determining factor in whether an LGD will be “hard” (tough, stoic, resilient) or “soft” (unable to defend against larger apex predators) has to do with their genetics, although the other factors deserve equal consideration.  Assessing the individual dog is typically more important than applying broad breed expectations.  It is also vital to recognize that a dog who has recently moved to a new home will behave differently than after they settle in.  A LGD encountered off of their ‘home turf’ will also behave differently than when approached on their own territory.

9. A LGD bonds deeply.

Whether it is to another dog, their stock, their territory, their human(s) or all of the above, LGDs bond intensely and without reservation.   The loss of what or who they are bonded to leaves a LGD with uncertainty and confusion.  Many times, I have seen LGDs whose owners believe them to be defective recover and go on to be incredible working dogs when provided with an appropriate bond.  Much of working LGD rehab can be summed up in two words: providing direction.  It is impossible to compensate for a lack of instinct, however, most dogs with working genetics simply need their instinct channelled appropriately.

10. A LGD is the best friend a shepherd can have.

Shepherds the world over sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that their dogs are working hard to protect their livestock.  For many shepherds, their livestock remains their livelihood and subsequently only entrusted to LGDs due to their effectiveness.  There is no other guardian who is so equally affectionate and protective, nor one who is so incredibly adaptable.  The love and dedication of a LGD is unparalleled.  It is a lucky person whom a LGD considers family and a lucky flock with LGDs to defend them.  Even more, it is a fortunate LGD whose owner cares for and understands them.  12794589_10153959428925987_8528213169421724126_n

 

 

   


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Llamas, Donkeys and Other Strange Things in the Pasture.

There are few subjects that get me going quite as much as when people deign to tell others what they should and shouldn’t be using for protection of their stock.  This is especially true if what they are using has been proven to work.  I’m not referring to a choice of this dog vs. that dog, but instead to the popularity of making blanket statements about the appropriateness of using donkeys, llamas or even other inanimate predator deterrents.

I’m about to say something that is WAY out there, so brace yourselves.

Livestock Guardian Dogs are not the only right choice for producers, nor are they even always THE right choice.  

I find that many threads on social media start with a post that is rather inflammatory; let’s use for example a recent one that shows a donkey who was mauled.   Given that I am seriously opposed to pain porn, I’ll spare you the pictures.  Suffice it to say that this poor creature, likely a miniature donkey, went through a horrible ordeal.  Someone thought it would be brilliant to take pictures of him in his ripped up state and post them with a broad warning against using donkeys as livestock protection animals.  Since many people in dogs really love a post that allows them to display their confirmation bias, commenter after commenter leapt to their keyboards to add their supportive opinions.  The possibility that the donkey in question may have been mismatched to the situation he was in didn’t enter the conversation for some time and then was summarily dismissed.

Since I know producers who use donkeys successfully, I was a little disturbed about the rabid direction the thread took.  I’m even more concerned now that I’ve commented rationally and been tossed up for not holding to the “LGD always and only” rule.  The fact that I was completely unaware of this unwritten pact between Livestock Guardian Dog owners is irrelevant.  No matter, as I would not have signed on had I known.

Photo credit: Steve Hipps

Photo credit: Steve Hipps

The fact remains that producers in North America use donkeys and llamas for protection.  They don’t do so at the same rate of LGD use; however, since only  45% of producers use any kind of Livestock Protection Animal, their usage is significant.   What does it serve us to ignore this or, worse, to minimize and degrade their contributions?

I say again:

Livestock Guardian Dogs are not the only right choice for producers, nor are they even always THE right choice.  

The simple fact of the matter is that we have livestock in extremely variable environments.  We have them in small pens in highly populated areas, and we have them on ranges far from civilization.  We have them in desert climates and on lush mountains.  We keep them in large numbers of their own kind and in small numbers with others.  We keep them locked up in the same area all their lives and we move them around during that same time span.  It makes no sense that we would need the same protection in all of those scenarios.

sfvfoundation.org

sfvfoundation.org

I’m afraid that once someone is not willing to look at their preferred method of predator protection objectively, their advice becomes biased and consequently, not as valuable for research purposes.  It’s natural that we all become slightly slanted towards what we prefer; if we cannot see why that bias occurs and acknowledge its presence, we have become dictators and not effective advocates.  I personally cannot see a scenario where I would choose to use a llama or donkey over a dog as a guardian for my sheep, but indeed that says more about my love for my dogs than it does about the effectiveness of other protection animals.

In that spirit, here are some points about LGDs that may preclude them as a viable choice.

  • They bark –  a LOT.  This is their primary method of defense.
  • They are comparatively expensive to feed.
  • They often require extensive fencing.
  • They need to be dewormed routinely or risk infecting the stock with C. Ovis (tapeworms).
  • They can be more aggressive to human visitors than desired.
  • They have heightened exercise requirements when young and cannot be kept in small pens all their lives.
  • They require training.
  • They can have a desire to roam. (see point about fencing)

Those points aside, I believe that dogs are at least a part of the right choice for most producers.   They can be used in combination with flandry, electric fencing, lights, patrolling, night penning/confinement, rotational grazing, strategic hunting and yes, even llamas and donkeys.   If any of these are enough on their own or in combination apart from the LGDs, then that is appropriate as well.  The objects of protection work are to keep the predators at bay and to keep the livestock alive, not to ensure that a pack of dogs resides in every pasture.

 

***For additional reading on utilizing donkeys and llamas in the role of guardian animals, follow the the links below.

  1. Protecting Livestock with Guard Donkeys 
  2. Using Llamas and Donkeys as Predator Control
  3. Guidelines for Using Donkeys as Guard Animals with Sheep
  4. Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes
  5. Ranchers turn to guard donkeys to fend off predators

 


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Interview with Rohana Mayer – Trip to Armenia 2015

For a week in the summer of 2015, Rohana Mayer traveled to Armenia, the homeland of her beloved Armenian Gamprs.  Recently, I interviewed her about gamprs and her trip.  I have quite enjoyed getting to know Rohana over the last while since she traveled abroad, and I thank her for her candor and thoughtfulness in the following conversation.  If you’d like to read more about Armenia and Rohana, refer to my previous post here.  Direct contact information follows the interview.

  1. What precipitated your interest in being involved with the preservation of the Armenian Gampr?

 

A person I knew dropped off a male gampr imported from Armenia with his pedigree at my house, when his wife was angry that he had brought the dog home and told him to get rid of it. So he left Lao of Etchmiadzin with me. I was taking a semester of courses at the time, and had to write a paper, so I chose to investigate the gampr and write about their history. I received a letter from the teacher telling me it was excellent and ought to be published. So I posted it to a website.

I began receiving hate emails, including death threats from Turkish people. I also received an abundance of thank yous from Armenians. I found it inspiring, and have continued as I am today.

Further back, I grew up  in the mountains of Big Sur with an eccentric father. He taught us to disdain anything that was weak and soft, such as city pets.  When we did, rarely, see city-slickers with their soft pudgy co-dependent dogs, or heavy graceless cattle, it was a sharp contrast to the wild animals we were used to.

Once, a stray dog, likely off the highway as the rest was all wilderness, happened to stop at our house for a few weeks. He was lean and fast, very fit and alert. I felt that he was much closer to how dogs SHOULD be. Growing up on stories by Jack London reinforced the concept of the ideal dog as something closer to a wild animal, but still a companion.

Of course as an adult who has long since left Big Sur, I do not have the same attitude toward domesticated animals. When I learned about the gampr, though, they fit the childhood ideal of what a dog should be: partly a companion, not so clearly emotionally dependant, very fit for survival with instinct intact, partly wild. The fact that this has remained a part of them for thousands of years of domestication fascinates me.

  1. Can you tell me a bit about the gampr and what makes them unique?

 

The gampr is the product of over 10,000 years of domestication, but still close to it’s proto-dog and a little Caspian wolf ancestry. It has not changed a whole lot, although the republic of Armenia has gone through intense changes. Their temperament and behaviour is quite similar to other landrace LGDs of the Caucasus and Central Asia, but because of the length of time that the Armenians managed their dogs, the highly evolved nature of their culture, and the variations of kingdoms and social needs, the gampr has several varieties within the landrace that have been bred for special skills. The various strains all contribute to the current cluster of dogs found in Armenia; however, the Hovashoon, or Chobani shoon, appears the most untouched by modern breeding practices.

  1. You run the Armenian Gampr Club of America, whose website states that the Armenian Gampr is still very much a landrace, with all the benefits of genetic diversity that implies. Can you tell me a bit more about what this means and why it’s important?

 

Landraces are not defined within a narrow scope, such as a standardized breed like the Doberman Pinscher, which has a specific use and type. Because of its genetic diversity, a landrace has an inherent adaptability to its culture of use and physical environment. If the gampr could not adapt and retain usefulness throughout the changes imposed upon its human counterpart, it would not exist today.  In order to preserve adaptability, it is necessary to also preserve heterozygosis.

Natural health also relies on genetic heterozygosis. The more inbred a dog is, the less likely the immune system will have the variability needed for response to a wide range of diseases. Some standardized breeds are so encumbered by illness that they are dependent on ready access to medical care. A dog whose primary job includes working in remote mountains in an impoverished society would soon become useless if it could not thrive long without vet services.

In the gampr we have the raw material that created so many other breeds. Refined, it can become many things. But as it is, it can produce great variation that can be selected and specialized. To me, that is very interesting.

  1. One of the goals of your club is to help place Armenian Gamprs with farmers and ranchers here in North America. What is some of the feedback that you’ve gotten about the dogs that you’ve placed here?

 

One of the most common responses is that the owners are very happy the dogs can begin work at a young age, and take their job seriously. When alone, they have an adult demeanour and take on responsibility fairly young, although it does help to have an older dog support their learning process. Most American farm owners are fairly happy, although we have had a few dogs who didn’t work out – as in any breed of livestock guardian.

For example, two young females are in Nevada on a large farm. They are now breeding age, and the locals who have Great Pyrs are so impressed they regularly ask when there will be pups available. Predator pressure has apparently increased there. The owner has orders for 20 pups already. This is due to the wide range these dogs cover, working as a team, and how well they monitor and care for all the local stock, including witnessed accounts of physical attacks on coyotes.

Not all gamprs have been that successful. There have been a few who have eaten chickens relentlessly, a couple who wander too far, but mostly we are doing well. In the past I had much more limited access to quality breeding dogs, but now we have more to choose from.

I have not placed them in situations where they’d be isolated with livestock, I prefer them to interact as the farm person’s partner, and they do well in these situations. The methods that originated in Coppinger’s work are inappropriate, and once people see the complexities of the relationships that are developed, they understand how much more these dogs can be.

  1. What is one of the biggest challenges you face in getting these dogs to the people who want them?

 

I am on the west coast, as are most imports, and we are not along most of the available transportation routes. So, when it comes to puppies, it usually takes a month longer than we expect to actually get them to their new homes.

If it’s an adult that needs rehoming, I’ll usually take the dog to my house for an adjustment period. Most rehomes are out of Los Angeles, where there are a half million Armenians. Sometimes the dogs are not socialized, are over-sensitized and over-reactive after living in small spaces where they cannot express their instincts. These dogs are bred to intensely follow their instincts over training. In Los Angeles, there is actually a lot of nighttime activity and the dogs get very frustrated without the ability to patrol and secure their area. So, I basically just acclimate them to a larger space, pack life, and evaluate their ability to be with livestock. Then we work to match them with the right home.

  1. Recently you took a trip to Armenia with the goal of collecting DNA samples of as many gamprs as possible. Why did you do this?

 

There were several reasons for taking the trip.  Personally, I am hoping to show any relationship to proto-dog DNA and that of local wolves, as well as to show in which portion of the gampr gene pool it is the highest.

I’d also like to have some sort of breed profile created, if possible.

One of my original goals was to start collecting paternity DNA, but currently it’s difficult to predict which will have offspring sent to USA. I hope that any genetic anomalies we find in the future can then be traced back.

I am also curious as to what the level of heterozygosis for the breed is, in general and within certain types.

Children in a small village with gampr pups.

Children in a small village with gampr pups

7. You traveled over a great deal of western Armenia, meeting many people and their dogs. Can you tell me                        about the ones who stick out in your mind?

 

I covered most of the western third of the country, although I missed one of the most significant breeders. I think I have a long list of those who made an impression, in just one short week.

Vahan Mkhitarian, Armen Simonyan and Vagarsh Gasparyan were the three main breeders I spoke with, who were actually serious breeders. I would love to spend a full week with each of them, just to see how they evaluate dogs, why they choose what they do etc. They were all charming and enjoyable company as well as very sincere and kind people.

I met Tigran Nazaryan, which I have wanted to do since I began this project. He published gampr.net , the first website to ever specifically focus on the gampr. He was one of a small group of students selected for their brilliance for a full degree at UC Berkeley when Armenia gained its independence in 1992. He returned to Armenia and among other things, began the gampr project that I now continue, in my own way. He is a fascinating and unique person. It took a couple of hours to get him warmed up on the subject, which has been muddied by conflicts over which type is better or more correct, and fighting about dog-fighting. Many of the original people involved are no longer interested for those reasons. Once we had talked for a few hours, avoiding the subject directly, Tigran became more animated and excited. It is the subject of the mind of the gampr, not the physique or history, that interests him. We talked until almost 2 am, during which time he introduced me to his neighbour who specifically breeds just huge mixed fighting dogs. A sweet man who loves all of his 40+ dogs, the neighbour Mushegh also had some interesting anecdotes about all of the breeders I had met, and their dogs. Everyone is connected, as it is a small country.

I also met a member of a Yazidi chief’s family, and he was impressively noble, charming, firm and kind all at once. He was kind enough to give me a puppy.

The food was delicious, the people very charming and exceptionally hospitable. I felt very welcomed wherever I went.

The night we left Tigran’s house, I arrived to my apartment and realized I had left my phone charging cord at Tigran’s. I walked around Yerevan hoping to find an open store that sold the cord I needed. Armenians are somewhat nocturnal and many stores were still open. I gave up after an hour, and asked a nearby cab driver where there was a cell phone store that I could go to in the morning. He motioned me into his car and dropped me at an open cell phone boutique store  – still open at almost 3am. He refused a fare, walked me inside and said something to the woman at the counter. She smiled, walked to a back room and brought out a phone charger that worked for my phone. She plugged it into a wall outlet and motioned for me to sit at the couch and charge my phone. I did for a little while, and noticed a unit for sale that had about ten plug options, one of which would work for my phone. So I bought it and walked home, although they seemed happy to have me just sit and use their charger temporarily without a purchase. Very accommodating and kind!

 

  1. While you were overseas, you posted pictures of some places where the dogs were being inbred in an attempt to preserve purity. Why do you think this happens?  What are some of the consequences of this type of breeding that you saw?

 

I think it is partly a fear of their own dogs being crossed to something that will not work well, as happens frequently during winter stays in villages, and also likely an extreme interpretation of ‘purity’ by linebreeding left over from Soviet cynologist training.

Some of the effects we saw were dwarfism, loose/hanging eyelids, generally more petite structure, and liver coloring.

  1. The Armenian Gampr needs the continued support of dedicated and knowledgeable breeders and advocates to keep it from disappearing into other breed populations that are not being kept up as efficient working dogs. If there is one thing that the clubs trying to help this happen need right now, what would it be?

 

Generally, we need people to understand population genetics with the intent to conserve working ability, which includes correct physique (not overdone), correct mentality, and reliable health. So maybe that is three or four things. But it’s not simple.

We also need monetary support, as most clubs do.  Some of the projects we have undertaken are costly and won’t be able go ahead as much as we’d like without direct support.  One thing we would really like to do is upgrade our pedigree software, which will cost about $200 US.  We are working on some fundraising ideas to help make this happen.

Rohana Armenia 1

Rohana shows the envelope for the DNA sample.

  1. In our conversations, you’ve mentioned several times that this trip would not have been successful if it weren’t for the help you received from breeders and farmers in Armenia. Can you tell me a bit more about these people and how invaluable they were to you?  Is there anything you would like to say to them?

 

The breeders I mentioned above, and their associates who had fewer dogs (they all have people with just a couple dogs who are semi-co breeders.) all took at least a day, mostly took several days to tour with me, answer questions, help collect DNA, and they listened with an intent to understand. Violetta Gabrielyan, president of Kinologia (www.kinologia.am)  arranged four days of meetings and tours. She took time off work, which I think cost her, and arranged for us to be videotaped. In between, she made an appearance on one of the news channels.

The entire trip was paid for by Father Avedis Abovian – my airfare, apartment, our fuel, food. I raised a litter for him and helped care for his dogs while he was away, and he definitely more than compensated me.

Overall, it seemed that everyone sincerely wanted to share as much accurate information with me as possible, in order that I find whatever I needed; I think they were all unsure exactly what was on my mind. Violetta told them I was there to ‘prove’ gampr DNA, as if it was a service to her program. I think she told them that I needed to see as many unrelated dogs as possible, and of course I was shown the more impressive ones.

The breeders could tell by the translated conversations that I was not entirely sure about Violetta’s procedures but wanted more information than I was presented with, about their dogs. They were curious but skirted the issue directly when she was present. When she was not with me, one of them let me know he only sells a few puppies through her, and that he basically does as he wants, as they all do – she is just another option available to them.

There is definitely a lot more to do in order to create a better information exchange, and the language is just one of the barriers. Armenian dog culture has been evolving for literally over 4000 years; I was at an archaelogical site where dog breeding had consistently been embedded in the culture from 2000 BC to CE, so the situation is full of entangled history, varieties, and practices that are not what an American would expect.  This doesn’t even touch on the wealth of shepherd’s dogs that are spread across the mountains, related to the dogs in each kennel through exchanges of puppies.  It would be a grave mistake to assess the entirety of the breed based on what is in each breeder’s group of dogs; the backbone of the Armenian Gampr are the working dogs in the mountains.

Overall, I was happier with the quality of the dogs than I had expected to be.  The kindness and hospitality of the Armenians were delightful.  Of course I still have a lot of questions, and I expect I’ll return next March, if not sooner.

clockwise from left - Vahan Mkhitarian, Rohana, Violetta, Father Avedis Abovian, Armen Simonyan

clockwise from left – Vahan Mkhitarian, Rohana Mayer, Violetta Gabrielyan, Father Avedis Abovian, Armen Simonyan

 

***To contact Rohana directly, use the contact information on the front page of the Armenian Gampr Club of America’s website.

 

 


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“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.