Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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






Take a look at these photos taken recently.

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What are we looking at here?  A puppy mill?  A hoarder’s place?  Some one please call the SPCA and the local authorities because these animals are clearly suffering.  Right?

Wrong.  These dogs are already in rescue, in the Olympic Animal Sanctuary to be specific.  The mission statement on their website states: “Providing a responsible alternative to certain death for abused, neglected and unwanted animals”, followed swiftly by a Donate Now button.  Contrast the OAS website with the pictures above, taken from the FB page OAS – live inside the sanctuary .  A quick Google search shows several Youtube videos of conditions inside the Olympic Animal Sanctuary here, here and here as well as many blog posts on the subject.  Still, many people who claim to be ethical and moral animal advocates still support the OAS as well as minimizing the psychological and physical abuse the animals are clearly suffering.  As someone who believes strongly in the Five Freedoms  as the bare minimum animals should be experiencing in rescue, I find the stance some advocates are taking on the activities of the OAS to be baffling, to say the least.

For a bit more of a balanced view, take a moment to read Julie Hall’s take on the Olymplic Animal Sanctuary after she visited earlier in the year.   Julie Hall is a journalist with no obviously relevant dog experience, and yet she can see that there are real problems at the sanctuary.    This quote from her 3rd installment on the subject is what is most disturbing to me, however: “Eileen Schmitz, who has offered Markwell a 10-acre property on a zero-payment lease arrangement in Clallam County, had this to say about her continuing work with OAS: “I’m just doing my best to help a small-town nonprofit with limited resources care for its animals. I saw someone in need of help, and I offered whatever I could. I hope everyone reading this focuses on positive solutions, not distractions, and assists Olympic Animal Sanctuary as it navigates through this tough time.””

A tough time?????   Limited resources????  When volunteers jump on board to try to help someone take better care of the animals they chose to offer refuge to, they need to ask themselves one very important question.  Is the mission of the rescue/sanctuary in question a realistic one?  In the case of the Olympic Animal Sanctuary, the responsible alternative mentioned in their mission clearly is not one they have been following for some time, if ever.  If they were, they wouldn’t have taken on more animals than they could responsibly handle at that time.   Why is an organization claiming to save animals not even held up to the same standard as one that is breeding them?   As the OAS is run and mostly operated by one man, Steve Markwell, could he even possibly meet the needs or do any type of real rehab work with 128 dogs?  The dogs who are currently in crates have to look forward only to graduating to OAS’ kennel type environment where they will be held for how long?  Back to back to back with other dogs who have behavior problems in a makeshift shelter….. how will this help their psychological well being?  How is it ever appropriate to take a dog out of a real shelter and place them in a crate to live?  If we wouldn’t allow an adopter to do it – if it’s prosecutable or unethical to do it….. why is it defendable that this man is doing it?

In April 2013, an outside advisory committee formed with the aim to help get things on track at the OAS and started things off with a $1500 donation.  They dissolved after holding 3 meetings and one of the members who had resigned made this statement:   “I was excited to be asked to join the OAS advisory committee, as I thought it would be a good opportunity to give a large number of dogs a better life. However, I was frustrated and disappointed with the management of the organization and facility and resigned from the committee. I am saddened that we weren’t able to help the OAS dogs because they are the voiceless victims.”

This all brings us back around to why this was allowed to happen and why it is allowed to continue.  There is only one answer – No Kill.  The dogs at the Olympic Animal Sanctuary were “saved” from certain death.  They would have been euthanized due to their behavior issues at the shelters where they were before being sent to the OAS and Steve Markwell.  If you approach life from the modern No Kill perspective, that of avoiding euthanasia at any cost to the animal or to the organization…. you could make some sort of argument that the OAS is meeting a need.  At what cost, however?

I leave you with this thought:  do people honestly think that it’s acceptable for rescued animals to be kept in conditions they would never keep their own animals in and would report if they saw their neighbors doing it? To that end, I was recently in conversation with a young rescue director about the overall acceptable welfare standards in rescue and this was what she said to me-

“In the grand scheme most of the dogs in rescue are fine, things may not be ideal but it’s certainly better than being dead.”

I truly and vehemently beg to differ.  “Better than being dead” is not the guiding principle that rescue or sanctuary should EVER be operating by.  What many people have trouble understanding is that there is literally only one time in the lives of these animals where we have complete control over what happens to them – and that is when they are in rescue. That time needs to be taken seriously and maximized for those animals to ensure (as much as we can) that they end up on the right path going forward.  Not everything is “fixable”.  There is not a home for every animal, not a happily ever after for all of the dogs who find themselves in need of the system.  Rescues that play the numbers game aren’t dealing with that fact and having the attitude of “better than being dead” doesn’t do it either.   Pushing animals with profound needs off on some other place or some other person is not what rescue should ever be about.  Sticking in there and seeing those animals either to a better place or to their death is exactly what it ought to be.

Out one side of their mouths some animal advocates are saying that every life is precious and out the other they are pushing them through and not addressing their needs or warehousing them and ignoring their suffering. That, to me, is phenomenally irresponsible.

Physical trauma will heal but psychological trauma may never heal, and adding to that burden while in rescue is unconscionable.  Subjecting animals to such horrible conditions is never better than euthanizing them.  When will we stop subjecting animals to our fear of death?