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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

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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 or even most of your handling or training advice from social media threads, they can come in handy when you want to learn about 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 with their dogs to gain the perspective they need, due to the sheer distance of the advice being given.  If there is one thing I’ve learned very solidly, it’s that reports of behavior are not reliable enough to make firm decisions about their motivations. In other words, when someone reports what their dog is doing or what they are doing with their dog, seasoned trainers know how to interpret some of what is said (or not said), but it’s completely a different matter to see the behavior in person.  It’s also true that some people will always see a nail because all they have is a hammer, and that others are looking through a lens of pre-conceived 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, however, 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 even whether we should acknowledge it (yes, we should, as it can be exacerbated or misinterpreted  which leads to serious complications) . We go forward in this post with the understanding that dominance exists, plain and simple.

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 routinely done 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 most likely tune out as you quickly learned that no one was listening to you in this particular relationship.  Further, if they continually insisted that you grovel before them, or tolerate harsh manhandling, you may even lash out or shut down completely.  Security and safety in this relationship would feel almost non existent, and it could be argued that the relationship was abusive or at minimum, 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 together demands a passable skill with appropriate social language.  This is why, most often, in the wild like animals live 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 inter-species 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 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. There are breeds of LGD, such as the Armenian Gampr, who have been selected similarly; they are quite soft with people while simultaneously extremely fierce with wild apex predators.

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 predicting 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 (dominant and submissive).   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 absolutely 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 to be 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.



Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, Part III

Here we are at the last portion of the Myths and Misinformation document.  What are your thoughts?


12) One Livestock Guardian Dog should be enough for any operation.

Much depends on the size of the land, the number of stock, and the predator load. If you have a small hobby farm with few stock, on a small parcel of land and a light predator load (a few more timid coyotes and smaller predators for example) one LGD might be just enough. For larger operations on bigger parcels of land, more dogs will be needed simply to patrol and watch the larger environment and number of stock. A smaller operation with fewer stock and land but a more bold/heavy predator load (bears, big cats, bold coyotes, wolves) will need to run more dogs and quite possibly ones who work in different ways.  Alternately, the farmer may choose to use a combination of deterrents, either of differing species (donkeys, llamas, etc.), by incorporating permanent or temporary fencing additives (electric, flags, lights) or by increasing patrols.  At times, trapping or shooting predators may also be necessary.   A wise producer matches their defenses to the number and seriousness of the predators in their area instead of expecting the predators to respect the defense the producer has chosen to use.

It’s important to understand that even though these dogs appear to be doing little the majority of the time, they are in fact almost always on alert.  They may be either in light sleep, ready to spring into action if a threat appears or scanning the environment for potential threats and checking the stock for problems. Due to this, and due to the fact that predators are most active at night and therefore the dog’s job is typically heavier through the night, having the appropriate number of dogs allows for them to trade off and to gain some proper rest while another stays on alert.

If you choose to keep intact dogs, it is important to remember that LGDs are very serious about mating when the females are in heat or when males discover a female is in heat. Only the most significant barriers will keep them apart. Males may have trouble concentrating on their job if a female in season is close by, which is another important consideration. Females in heat may choose to wander as well. For this reason, intact females are often rotated away from intact males when they come into heat or are put up in confinement for the duration. Keeping intact dogs will also increase the likelihood of status conflicts between dogs of the same sex, although it is not the only reason that status conflicts occur. Such conflicts are to be expected as normal unless serious injury occurs to either the dogs or the stock.


13) Livestock Guardian Dogs of the same sex cannot live and work together.

A long held belief by some producers, this myth likely came about from either keeping intact, same aged dogs together or by observing normal status conflicts.  Many producers have been successful in keeping same sexed LGDs together, especially when one is either younger than the other or when one is clearly submissive and the other dominant.  It may take a little while for the dogs to sort out who is “in charge”, and in some cases, the dogs may trade off roles dependent on what they are doing at the time.  Having same sexed pairs working together can help eliminate concerns regarding reproduction control as well.

Any pairings should be monitored at least occasionally to ensure that that conflict is not impairing their ability to work.  As noted previously, LGDs are living beings, which means that changes in age, health, etc. will occur and can negatively impact previously harmonious groupings.


14) All Livestock Guardian Dogs behave in the same way.

This is also one of the more damaging misconceptions about LGDs. Livestock Guardian Dog breeds were selectively developed over hundreds of years to address the terrain and predators of their native land, which has resulted in different guardian styles and different tolerance levels. A dog required to go head to head with bears or big cats will be more serious and less tolerant than one developed in a land with fewer bold and large predators. Some are more comfortable patrolling the boundaries and others prefer to stick very close to their charges.  Some are more nurturing with the stock, and others are more aloof.

As always, producers ought to do their research before you committing to a breed or type, as it is one of the most important things they can do to set themselves up for success. Checking out what breeds are most popular in their area and whether they are currently successful goes a long ways to choosing wisely. Finding out what kinds of predators are common to their immediate area and if any new ones are moving in. Consider what your expectations are for the dogs you will buy. Will they be expected to be close to the house with their charges and deal with many visitors? If so, a more stranger tolerant breed like the Great Pyrenees, Maremma or Anatolian Shepherd Dog may be best. Will they be ranging in bush with the stock far from home or expected to deal with bears or wolves? A harder breed like the Central Asian Shepherd, Komondor or Sarplaninac may be the right choice. If the stock are in an area where there is a very large predator population, the farmer may need to run dogs of different types – some who patrol the perimeters and others who stay close to the stock.

While there are some basic generalities in breeds, the individual dogs within those breeds are more important to consider when deciding.  In several breeds, there is a wide range of personality/type within the breed itself.  Further, most areas have developed their own favorite type by combining regional dogs.  These LGD/LGD crossbred dogs can be a very good choice for producers.


15) Livestock Guardian Dogs are meant to be aggressive. This means that the owner shouldn’t question or control when a LGD decides to show severe aggression. All aggression is normal and expected.

LGDs are absolutely meant to display aggression, as it is a vital part of their ability to protect stock successfully. However, what sets LGDs apart from other breeds is their innate ability to think judiciously and independently of handler instruction. Both of these traits are integral to their historical success in protecting vulnerable prey animals against predators who would like to make a meal of them, even far away from their homestead and often away from direct supervision. LGDs need to make decisions on their own about what is a threat and what is not a threat and act accordingly, even with no human there to guide them. The lives of their charges hang in the balance.

That being said, good LGDs should both defer to their owner and use their aggressive behavior with the primary goal of driving off a predator as opposed to killing it. The first requires a relationship of respect between the owner and the dog. If the dog feels that something or someone is a threat, they will respond, but should be willing to stand down when asked by their handler. Standing down means that the dog will refrain from driving off the perceived threat at that time, but typically stand watch. It is not uncommon for LGDs to follow strangers around the yard or pasture when they are in the company of their owners, watching them from a distance. Some LGDs will ‘deliver’ an intruder to their owner or off the property, taking them by the sleeve and walking them up to the house or to the perimeter. As expected, the tolerance displayed by LGDs does depend heavily on their breed and whether they are a harder/sharper or a softer/more tolerant type. The former will be more likely to interpret even benign actions on the part of a stranger as a threat and the latter will be more slow to take offense. More tolerant LGDs are subsequently often better choices for operations with frequent different visitors. If a harder type is needed on the operation for other reasons, the dogs should be directly supervised or put away when visitors come by or the children of the family play with their friends (they can easily misinterpret normal interactive play as a threat against their children).

The second consideration – having a primary goal of driving off a threat as opposed to eliminating it – requires self control on the part of the dog. Both considerations require a dog that is stable in nature and structure (chronic pain can cause a dog to lose appropriate judgment), but the first can be rectified through relationship and building trust whereas the second is an innate quality that often resists modification. Softer types of LGDs will typically use longer threat displays towards the intruder, consisting of posturing, growling, teeth baring, dominating (standing over) and loud vocalizations before resorting to biting or inflicting injury. If at any time during these behaviors the threat object leaves or submits, the LGD will stand down or escort them off the property. Softer LGDs will often put up with an intruder multiple times, choosing to drive them off each time. Harder breeds will trip into aggressive behavior much more quickly, and their threat displays may be distilled into a short exhibition that moves into injury much sooner. They will often not put up with multiple breaches by a predator, choosing instead to eliminate them.   All LGDs, however, regardless of breed or type, should still be in “thinking” mode when they are addressing threats. They should not be blindly aggressive and if needed, the owner should be able to intervene. Livestock Guardian Dogs are not known for redirecting to their handlers for this reason – they are constantly thinking and calculating and under great self control. Some of the harder breeds have lines that were/are bred for fighting each other which has greatly compromised the dogs from those lines. Great care should be taken when importing or buying members of these breeds domestically to avoid such unstable dogs.

A good guardian dog should NEVER bite or aggress against their owners unless provoked. For this reason, it is important to ensure that the owner cultivates a respectful relationship with their dog(s) and ensures that their dogs are used to routine handling. Hitting, ‘alpha’ rolling and screaming at LGDs is not recommended as a regular course of treatment for these dogs for the same reason.




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Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, Part II

We’re working our way through updating the Myths and Misinformation about LGDs document I wrote in 2014.  You can find the first part here.

Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, cont’d.


6) Since Livestock Guardian Dogs are popular, you should be able to find a good pup anywhere.

Like any other purchase, buying a LGD is very much a ‘buyer beware’ process. Price is not always clear indicator of value or workability as some breeders like to pretend that their dogs are more valuable due to a special color, claims of increased aggression or because they choose to breed for an overly large dog. Others import dogs from questionable sources overseas and claim that the dogs are worth much more than local dogs.  A proven dog should command a higher price, depending on age and health, than a pup.  In general, if the asking price for the pups is very low, it’s a good indicator that not much work or care has gone into either the parents or the pups.  If the price is very high, it may be a reflection of rarity and/or the work that has gone into achieving the litter.  Do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions of the breeder.  They should have at least a few questions for you as well.

The most important and effective time to do your research is before you purchase a pup. Look for some health testing on the parents with verifiable results (OFA hip and elbow ratings for example) and insist on meeting them and observing them work.  Ensure that the parents are working, or that the breeder understands what to look for in a prospective working dog.   A responsible seller will offer a contract with provisions for health problems and a guarantee of working ability. The contract should be easily understood and ideally request that you take your new pup to a vet for an examination within a short time frame. Compensation for health problems or lack of working ability should also be clearly outlined.

Another less utilized option is to buy a pup through a rescue organization or from a shelter.  Some rescues refuse to home their dogs to any home that plans to keep the dog outside, and others do not want the complications of liability for homing the dogs in their care to working homes.  There are some rescues who actively test and home some of their dogs to working situations, though.  Don’t be afraid to ask rescue organizations if they are open to homing working dogs.  If the rescue isn’t, or chooses not to home a dog to a producer, do not take this decision personally.  There are likely other considerations that went into that decision making process.  Shelters or pounds typically do not mind allowing producers to purchase their dogs, but keep in mind that the dogs found there will most likely not have been tested with stock.  If they did come from a working environment, there is often no way to find out if the dog was successful or to determine a history of health.  These situations can be very rewarding when they are successful, but are highest on the list in terms of ‘buyer beware’.


7) LGDs cannot or should not be trained to listen to their owners.

A common misconception, this belief leads to dogs who are not able to be walked on leash, tied for any period of time or who do not sit, wait or let off inappropriate threat displays when required to. LGDs are different than a lot of other dogs in that they are meant to be independent thinkers who spend a great deal of their working time alone. As a result, they don’t often find relevance in traditional obedience training. It is, however, very possible to have a well mannered and well trained LGD as long as you are a fair and generous handler.

If a farmer chooses, they can enroll their young LGD pup in an obedience class.  It is important that the class focus on teaching behaviors and exposing dogs to different sights, sounds and experiences rather than on interactive puppy play time.  LGDs are large and often play roughly with other dogs, which can lead to problems in a play group.  If a class is not preferred, farmers should strongly consider taking their pups off of the farm while they are young for trips into the vet, to town or even to larger centers.  In this way, the pup will be exposed to different stimuli and be better able to discern what is a threat and what isn’t.  Strangers can interact with the pup when they are little, but as they mature, it is best to ask people to look and not touch.  Ensure that all vaccinations are up to date and that young pups have had at least one set of vaccines before taking them off the property.

Positive training methods work well with these dogs if demands are kept to a minimum.  Rewarding them with life rewards works very well. For example, asking for the dog to sit before crossing thresholds or to receive their bowl of food can be very effective. If corrections are made, they must be fair and understood by the dog to relate to the behavior. In other words, removing the dog to isolation, yelling at or scruffing (grabbing both sides of their neck and shaking) must never be done after time has elapsed from the behavior you intend to correct. Verbal and visual expressions of disapproval often go much further with these dogs than physical corrections, especially when a respectful relationship is maintained between the owners and the dogs.  Take some time to learn what your dog responds best to and train them fairly.  Remember that a dog cannot know what is expected of them until they are taught, and that teaching with more praise than correction is always more effective.  That said, do not be afraid to effectively correct serious behavior infractions such as stock chasing.  Fewer effective corrections are much better than many “nagging” ones.


8) If you spend too much time with your Livestock Guardian Dog, they will refuse to guard anymore.

Ideally all positive interactions and affection sharing on the farm or ranch should initially be done in the area where you intend for the dog to remain and guard in. If the operation requires moving the stock to different areas outside of a permanent pasture, then all initial affection and interaction should be done in the presence of the stock, but without allowing the dog to “mug” for affection.  For very young pup and for adolescents (aged 6 months to 2 years), this can be difficult for them to do until they have had some play or romping type exercise first.

All interactions with young pups or inexperienced dogs outside of the pasture or away from the stock on the farm should be kept business like and low key in order to not give the impression that more fun things happen there. If the producer travels away from the farm with the dog, affection can be shared without fear of compromising guardian ability.  LGDs are easily able to understand when they are away from their territory, especially when the owner commits to initially taking them on perimeter walks.

If the dogs are working more general farm duties, keeping the lines clear regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior in and around the house will help the dog understand what is required. Typically, if the dog is meant to live outside full time, allowing them to sleep in the bed with the owner will be counterproductive. Many dogs with working ability will still prefer to be outside the majority of the time as they mature.
9) A Livestock Guardian Dog must be raised with livestock to be a successful working LGD.

There have been many cases of dogs who were raised in urban environments or otherwise away from stock who have done well transitioning to work as full time LGDs. Since instinct is largely innate, being raised with livestock will result in a dog who is solidly a successful working LGD, but it is not an absolute necessity. Rescues and rehomed dogs have become successful guardians despite never having spent time with stock previously.


10) A dog of any breed can be a successful Livestock Guardian Dog. Crossing a LGD with a dog of a non-LGD breed will result in a successful guardian.

This is probably one of the most dangerous assumptions that can be made. Most, if not all other breeds of dogs have a higher prey drive and less appropriate guardian instincts than the LGD breeds. Crossing non LGD breeds with LGDs does not mean that the resulting pups will have the required LGD instincts as breeding is always a roll of the dice regarding what traits will be prominent in the offspring. Since many traits do not fully show themselves until adolescence or adulthood, owners can be lulled into a false sense of safety with their dogs only to find out that they were very wrong. This gamble can be very costly and quite devastating.  Combining the large size, independence and increased aggression of the LGD with the heightened prey drive of the non-LGD dog can result in a stock killing machine who resists training and enjoys wandering.  The combination can be equally devastating in urban environments where the overreaction of many non-LGDs to fast moving objects pairs with the single mindedness of the LGD to create a very large dog who is out of control.

This is not to say that there aren’t individual dogs of a non-LGD heritage who do a good job as stock protectors, or more readily as a general farm guardian.  These individuals are the exception, rather than the rule, and can require a more experienced owner.
11) Only a Livestock Guardian Dog who lives with stock 24/7 is considered to be a working LGD.

The article “What Is The Difference Between A Livestock Guardian and a Family Companion?” (found here) outlines two appropriate common roles for LGDs as full time working dogs. It’s a very good read and also talks about some of the common issues that come along with trying to keep dog with working ability as suburban or urban pets.

A full-time livestock guardian is just that, living with the stock 24/7 year round. These dogs eat, sleep and do everything in the pastures, corrals, barns and ranges where the stock are. This type of job still requires training and supervision, handling and care on the part of the owner.  Some smaller operations who employ full-time livestock guardians choose to have the dogs exercise and otherwise “hang out” on the yard with them.  These dogs may also come up to the house occasionally or even routinely.  There are no hard and fast rules for this job description as operations are very individual; the exception being that young pups and inexperienced dogs need to learn first that their place is with the stock.

A general farm guardian, or yard and home guardian, patrols the yard and keeps predators off of the land and away from any free ranging house pets or stock that are often put up at night. In order for these dogs to do their job successfully, they often need to sleep outside at night (even on the porch) in order to alert to and chase off any potential intruders. They may be brought inside more often than a full-time livestock guardian for rest or to protect the members of the household.  This type of job description can involve going off property to accompany the owners and their families on day trips and therefore, socialization and basic obedience training are very important considerations.  Since the dogs doing this type of job are in closer contact with visitors to the farm, early socialization is also required even if no off property trips are planned.

Urban/Suburban pet life can be quite challenging for LGDs, especially those with strong working ability or who are from the harder/sharper breeds who typically have less tolerance for strangers and perceived threats. It is not typically recommended, especially for dogs with significant working ability.

Stay tuned for the final part of this document next.


Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, Part I

In 2014, I wrote and published a document that has been shared the world over regarding some of the misinformation out there regarding Livestock Guardian Dogs.  I’m currently updating it and thought it would be good to share it on here to kickoff the new change in the blog.  Since it’s a long document, I’m going to divide it into parts for easier digestion.


Myths and Misinformation about Working LGDs – Carolee Penner

1) Livestock Guardian Dogs should be raised hands off.

This is a common assumption that is wide spread in North America. We can trace this advice back to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger who, between 1977 and 1990, bred and placed more than 1400 LGDs on sheep farms and ranches across the US and Canada through their government funded Livestock Guarding Dog Project . Ray Coppinger is a biologist whose passion was studying dogs around the world and running sled dogs. The original dogs bred for the project were imported by the Coppingers from a variety of countries overseas where these dogs were traditionally used. Even though Ray Coppinger observed the dogs in their native lands and handpicked the ones for import, he failed to recognize how much the pastoral environment and group/family dynamic that the LGDs were raised in contributed to their success. As a consequence of this failure, he recommended that all LGDs should be raised hands off and kept solely with their charges from a very early age, with minimal human handling. The impact of this advice is still felt today in that raising with little human intervention is still seen among many farmers and ranchers as the ideal way to care for these dogs.

We know now that this approach has caused many dogs to lose their lives or to live in such a way that they are overly fearful or aggressive towards their owners. Good working dogs have had to be shot or are unsafe for rehoming when the operation they work on is sold or downsized. Dogs have to be lassoed or trapped for the most basic of health care or vetting and as a consequence wounds and injuries often go untreated. Dogs are unable to discern between a viable threat or the approach of someone to care for them and behave aggressively, resulting in being shot or put to sleep. Young pups can easily become overwhelmed by aggressive stock and resort to defending themselves aggressively. Adolescent dogs may try chasing stock and are deemed unsuitable for the job instead of being open to correction from their owners. In short, raising LGDs hand off is a very bad idea and results in wasted time, money and ultimately in the loss of what could be or are very valuable working dogs.


2) A Livestock Guardian Dog should automatically know what to do and not to do with the stock.

As in most misinformation, there is a kernel of truth to this. LGDs have been selected and/or bred for a long time in various countries to enhance desired traits around livestock. Since the animals they protect are naturally easily frightened by predators like dogs, LGDs have developed nearly the polar opposite body structure of the prick eared, lithe wolf or coyote. LGD ears are wide set and drooping. Their eyes have a mournful, soft or relaxed expression to avoid triggering fear in the stock. Their bodies are larger than most dogs in order to be an effective threat to predators and their heads and muzzles are round and soft, mostly lacking in chiseled angles. Their movements are naturally slow and fluid, except in the presence of a threat. When mature, they are not triggered off by the prey movements of their charges – indeed, their reduced prey drive is often evident when they are young pups and find little interest in chasing balls or playing tug. Everything about their structure and nature avoids triggering prey response in their charges and at the same time inspires confidence and security.

Raising a successful LGD is quite often dependent on guidance and input from older, more experienced dogs willing to correct inappropriate behavior and model appropriate behavior as well as input from the shepherd/owner. LGDs learn the ropes as they grow and mature – by watching, trying things out and responding to appropriate correction.  In the absence of canid role models, their owners need to step up to the plate and train them appropriately.  Given the widespread nature of #1 above, many LGD pups do not get what they need to be set up for success.

Historically, dogs with the completely wrong instinct would be culled, but it is also true that as the litters were heavily culled initially, the remaining pups would often be set up for success due to the higher amount of personal attention they received by the more experienced dogs and the shepherd. Even in our modern western approach to farming and ranching, inexperienced LGDs  and pups need to be set up for success at every turn initially in order to understand what is expected of them and so that they don’t end up in a situation they are not prepared to handle on their own.


3) Livestock Guardian Dogs need to be rehomed or killed if they hurt the livestock.

Each situation needs to be examined on its own merits, but it is true that many successful LGDs make mistakes with the stock when they are inexperienced or not yet mature. The reasons for this can range from being placed with stock that bully them when they are young to being bored as adolescents and discovering that chasing flighty stock is a fun game. Since every behavior that is practiced becomes stronger, it is very important that any unwanted behavior be caught early and appropriate changes made in the environment in order for the dog to be successful. Alternately, the dog should be corrected and/or put away when they display the behavior, but the correction must be just enough in the dog’s mind to convince them to abandon the behavior. LGDs are typically very sensitive to correction from their owners, especially when they have a good respectful relationship.  Corrections must also occur in the act, just before or just after.

In order to effect these changes, supervision is necessary to catch the dog before they mess up or in the act. When the dog cannot be directly supervised, they should be retired to a pen in or directly adjacent to the stock.  Alternately, owners can put their misbehaving pup/adolescent in with less vulnerable stock who won’t put up with the behavior.  Care must be taken to ensure for the safety of the dog if that approach is taken. If the behavior proves hard to eliminate, it may be that the correction is not sufficient or done with inappropriate timing.  It also might be that the dog is unable to comply at that time due to immaturity or health problems.  If in doubt, consult a more experienced farmer and/or trainer.

Another scenario where LGDs can be susceptible to unintentional harming of the stock is during birthing time. All LGDs should be strictly supervised or separated from birthing stock unless they have proven themselves previously and are mature. Maturity does not occur with most LGDs until closer to 3 years of age. Since there is a lot of blood and bodily fluids in the birthing process and the new babies are covered in the same, it can prove to be too tempting for immature or inexperenced dogs.  Their predatory instincts can be triggered even when trying to help the mother clean the babies, and many instances of owners coming across partially eaten newborn babies have been reported.  Some dogs naturally clean up stillborn babies, so it is important to understand that not all dogs who have been found with partially eaten newborns are doing the wrong thing.  If the owner is unsure, however, supervision is the only way to ensure that the dog is behaving appropriately.

Since both mothers and babies are the most vulnerable at birthing time, it is imperative that proper supervision or separation is enacted until the LGD has proven themselves and is fully mature. If a dog takes up going after newborn stock when they were previously reliable, they should be removed and the possibility of a dietary imbalance or other health issue should be explored.

Finally, LGDs are very orderly dogs. Much of their success as guardians relies on knowing the routine and what is normal and not normal in the environment. Therefore, introducing new stock or rehoming the dog to another operation can result in confusion about what is acceptable and not acceptable for them. Introduce new stock slowly and introduce the dog to his new environment slowly and carefully so that he has a chance to acclimate to what is expected and what is normal. Injuries may happen if this process is rushed without allowing the dog to accept and understand the new stock or environment.


4) Livestock Guardian dogs are just tools and don’t need the same care as pet dogs.

LGDs provide a much needed service on farming and ranching operations, but they ARE animals and not objects. They, like the stock on the farm/ranch, need good input (food, water, vaccinations, deworming) and regular care in order to produce good output for the farmer or rancher.  If farmers are not willing to put time, effort and money into their dogs, it is highly likely that the dogs’ ability to perform will be negatively impacted.  It is the wise producer who realizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping animals, and in this, LGDs are no exception.

Good physical structure is just as important for LGDs, since they are just as prone to having chronic pain due to badly formed bodies as any other animal. LGDs do have a naturally high tolerance for discomfort and pain, in other words, they are very stoic.  However, this does not mean that they don’t suffer, just that producers may have to look a little harder to find evidence of the suffering.  It often displays as aberrant behavior – being picky at mealtimes, sudden aggression, moving slower to get up and a reluctance to sit or lie down, being off by themselves, etc.

Rest is vital to the optimal performance of LGDs.  Many producers under stock their dogs, thinking that one dog can take care of a flock alone or that few can take care of large flocks on range.   While a producer’s individual predator pressure needs to be taken into account, in general, these dogs need a partner to trade off with and in the case of range work, need others to back them up in any battles they encounter.  It may look as though the dogs aren’t doing much when they are observed in the daytime, but it is important to note that most of their duties are performed between dusk and dawn, when predators are most active.  In order for the dogs to get appropriate rest, especially during seasons when predator pressure is high, they must be kept in pairs or groups.

 5) Anyone who has been running these dogs for a while on their operation will understand them well.

Due to their substantial independent natures, farmers and ranchers can have and work LGDs for years and still not understand them or care for them very well. A good indicator of a producer’s understanding of their LGD is the relationship the dog has with them. Evident fear of or aggression towards their owner are not signs of a good relationship. Another indicator is if the dog is in good shape and easily approachable. No one who respects or understands their LGDs well will keep them in poor condition or be unable to put their hands on them. Heavy chains or feral behavior are both warning signs to look for on a visit.

Up next: Part II