The Challenges of an LGD Breed as a Companion Dog
I often see folks suggesting one of the livestock guardian dog breeds or LGDs to people who want a companion dog for their suburban family. Or a dog that will join the family on energetic hikes and share their busy life welcoming lots of guests to their home. Others suggest an LGD for someone who wants a dog with “scary dog privilege” but this same person also doesn’t want any defensive aggression. Folks also ask about using an LGD as a service dog. None of these folks are actually looking for a working livestock guardian dog or even a general farm or family guardian. I sometimes think much of this is due to all the lovely photos of a big, fluffy Great Pyrenees with children or baby lambs. “That’s what I want,” some folks think, “a really big but gentle giant.” LGDs are undeniably beautiful and noble dogs. They are also protective and imposing - which can also be very attractive to a prospective owner. What should you know before making the choice of an LGD breed for a family dog or a personal companion?
This whole group of breeds shares very similar physical appearances, temperaments, and behavioral traits. Of course, there are some differences between breeds due to varying demands for work in various locales – but their broad similarities are striking and crucial when considering the right dog for your needs and wants or for the role of a family dog. Please consider these points carefully and honestly, as well as your situation and abilities, before making a commitment to one of these dogs as a personal or family companion.
From the Iberian Peninsula and Pyrenees Mountains through southern and eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia to the Himalayas, the large LGDs breeds are all the working descendants of ancient dogs developed by pastoral peoples. Although they shared close working relationships with their owners, these dogs were always especially suited to outdoor life and did not live as house dogs. Their strong working traits are still very much present and extremely valuable today on farms and ranches.
All LGDs have drop ears and curly tails, although they may be docked or cropped. Some breeds are slightly smaller than others, but all are definitely large dogs generally weighing 80 to 140 pounds or so. Although you may see them, huge or overly massive LGDs were not used as working dogs. All LGDs are densely double coated (with one unusual exception) and they shed heavily twice a year. Most are medium to long haired, although there are some shorter-haired breeds.
All LGDs are dominant, some breeds more than others, but all need experienced handlers. All are highly independent and tend to have less of a need to be with their humans although they are affectionate with their owners. Some breeds lived more closely with humans than others who are more aloof and purposeful. All are strongly self-thinking and will likely ignore your commands in favor of their own decisions. Do not expect reliable recalls or appropriate off leash behaviors. Adult LGDs do not belong at dog parks, for example, and must be under your control when away from home. Basic training and socialization are essential, but you cannot socialize away their essential natures.
All LGDs are instinctively protective of their people, their animals and territory. They are deeply devoted to their children but they are still a very large dog that a child should not supervise. They may decide they need to protect your child from playmate or visitor.
These breeds do not require any specialized protection dog training. They will attack large and small predators, birds of prey, and strange dogs or cats. They can be threatening or aggressive to strangers on your property. All LGDs are defensively aggressive – this was the very reason for their development as breeds. Their individual rate of reaction to a threat can be slower and a more measured warning to a more rapid physical confrontation. Some breeds are much more measured in their reaction than others. Food aggression is common.
All LGDs bark to warn off threats, especially at night when predators are active. Young dogs are particularly prone to over barking. Barking can be a tremendous nuisance to neighbors. Barking, threatening behavior, roaming, or the inability to control the dog are the main reasons folks offer when rehoming an LGD breed, followed by coat care.
LGDs will generally seek to patrol and expand their territory, as they were all developed on open land and part of their duties included moving out ahead of a traveling flock and expanding their protective zone around a herd by chasing away threats. For their size they are amazing climbers, diggers, and jumpers – as well as fast runners – and they can be very determined to escape fencing in their urge to patrol. They cannot be boundary trained. Good robust fencing is a must.
LGDs tend to be low energy dogs that often appear to be sleeping – until they perceive a threat. They are not good running or hiking companions.
All LGDs mature slowly and are not fully mature until age 2 or later. Their large size is deceptive and often encourages their owners to think of them as grown dogs too soon. Owners are also surprised by the sudden turn towards serious protective behavior at maturity sometime between 18 months to 3 years of age. I strongly caution you to meet mature adults of any breed you are considering, not just puppies or young dogs who are atypically friendly to strangers.
LGDs are impressive, attractive dogs with great dignity and power. They are still essential and highly valued co-workers on many farm and ranches. The best owner for an LGD breed is someone experienced with dominant, independent breeds. They are neither couch potatoes nor easy going pets. Owners must understand their essential natures and be willing to meet those challenges and provide for a quality and safe life for their dog. Dogs that don’t have a job to do, aren’t getting sufficient exercise, have no territory to patrol or stock to guard, or are kept in a small yard will bark more and engage in destructive acts. Frequent strangers can be stressful for an LGD, who needs to be appropriately introduced to visitors. You may need to provide a safe place for your dog when workmen or guests are present in your home. They are not generally suited to service dog work for all these reasons.
Although some highly dedicated and informed owners successfully keep an LGD breed in an urban or suburban environment, generally speaking the best home for an LGD is a rural or country situation.
Photos in order: "Mike" Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Jan Dohner (author); and Banks Mountain Farm