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What Exactly is a Livestock Guardian Dog?

What Exactly is a Livestock Guard Dog?

Fistik the Kangal Dog with her sheep and turkeys

This is Fistik sharing a moment with her Shetland sheep and Bourbon Red turkeys. Since this recent post for Mother Earth News was about good livestock guardians, Fistik deserves a nod. She is is absolutely the best guardian we've ever owned.

I receive lots of questions, phone calls and emails from folks interested in obtaining a livestock guard dog. Usually they already know what a livestock guard dog does, but not always. Sometimes they are confused about the difference between guard dog breeds and livestock guard dogs. At other times, folks are unsure about the difference between sheepdogs or herding dogs and livestock guard dogs. This whole situation quite understandable since livestock guard dogs are relatively new to this country and the breeds are often very rare or hard to find. Sometimes I explain what livestock guard dogs are by stepping back in time.

Dogs were the first animals to truly share their lives with humankind. The use of dogs to protect flocks and herds of domestic animals such as sheep and goats is also unquestionably ancient. The Romans divided dogs into five kinds: greyhounds, mastiffs, pointers, sheepdogs, and spitz dogs. The Roman writer Columella, advised that buying a dog should be “among the first things a farmer does, because it is the guardian of the farm, its produce, the household and the cattle.” The Romans described sheepdogs as white in color with a loud bark, and they mention the nail-studded collar that sheepdogs should be given to protect them from wolves. Even today, Romans would probably recognize the Italian livestock guard dog breed, the Maremma, or the French breed, the Great Pyrenees.

Today we think of sheepdogs as herding dogs, such as Border Collies, Australian shepherds, and corgis, but the ancient peoples of sheep and goat cultures had something else in mind. These sheepdogs or shepherd’s dogs were large guard dogs that protected the flocks from large predators. They did not herd sheep. These large livestock guard dogs were found in a sweep of cultures from southern Europe through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and central Asia. They worked in the company of shepherds who often spent weeks on high summer pasture or on long migratory grazing routes.

A good livestock guard dog displays behaviors developed over centuries by those shepherds. He is responsive and friendly to his owners as well as nurturing and protective to his charges, even the smallest lamb. Many livestock guard dogs are highly bonded to their flocks. During the day, you might observe him patrolling or marking the area around his stock but he might just be sleeping. Nighttime is usually when he is more active, barking loudly at perceived threats in the distance. If the threat comes closer, he will escalate his barking and posturing in attempts to drive the predator away. If it becomes necessary he will confront the predator. Those of us who work with livestock guard dogs always describe them as independent thinkers, which is a nice way of saying they are not always going to listen to your commands if they think the situation demands otherwise.

Livestock guard dogs also have a very low prey drive or other predatory behaviors, unlike hunting dogs, terriers, or protection guard dogs. It sometimes seems contradictory that a good livestock guard dog is aggressive with predators or outsiders but is also highly protective and nurturing of his stock. It is helpful to remember that livestock guard dogs are selected for three essential behavioral traits – he should be attentive, protective and trustworthy. He should not chase or bite his stock. He should not leave them. In many important ways, he is protecting his pack mates not hunting prey.

Livestock guard dogs were not important in early colonial America or Canada. The settlers generally brought a British approach to sheep keeping with them. In the eastern parts of the country, sheep were kept on small multi-purpose farms and were contained in fenced pastures. Shepherds in the western grasslands never adopted livestock guard dogs either. Across the countryside, dealing with predators such as coyotes and wolves meant killing them through shooting, trapping, poisoning, and even aerial hunting. This situation began to change in the 1970s, as the public began to care about protecting large predators and many lethal forms of predator control became regulated or eliminated. The essential question for many farmers and ranchers became how to keep their stock safe while adopting more sustainable practices and avoiding environmental damage. One of the important answers to this question was also the oldest – livestock guard dogs.

At that time, the only fairly well known livestock guard dog breed in North America was the Great Pyrenees. The much more rare Hungarian breeds, the Komondor and Kuvasz, were also present but primarily in the homes of dog fanciers. Researchers and individuals began to seek out useful breeds from the Old World. Today we have a much larger pool of livestock guard dog breeds; including breeds such as the Maremma, the Spanish Mastiff, the Akbash, the Anatolian Shepherd, the Kangal Dog, the Tibetan Mastiff, and Ovcharka breeds, the Caucasian Mountain Dog and the Central Asian Shepherd. Even more breeds are making their way to North America.

The use of livestock guard dogs has grown enormously in the last 30 years, but there have been lots of problems along the way. We all struggled to learn how to select the best potential working pups, how to train them, how to manage them and how to solve problems.

I wrote Livestock Guardians to help people with all of these challenges and to help them solve their problems.

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