©2017 Louise Liebenberg
For people who rely on LGDs to keep their flocks safe from large predators, it is obvious what makes a LGD, a LGD. It is a unique blend of both physical, temperamental, and inherent traits. However, for many new people in the sheep industry, it may not seem that obvious. Many people looking for their first LGD often end up with crosses between LGD and other breeds, believing that a lab cross or heeler x with a Great Pyrenees will make a great LGD. I have even had someone try to convince me that their coyote x Pitbull was a great LGD. These crosses can seriously place your livestock in jeopardy, either from the dog itself, or from predators. It is unfair to place a dog in a situation he is not equipped to deal with, be that mentally, physically or because he has conflicting instincts.
In this article, I will discuss certain physical traits that are common in most LGD breeds. I will briefly explore some of the temperamental characteristics found in LGDs, and finally, I will look at inherent traits/instincts that are essential for these dogs to be able to fulfill their role as livestock guardian dogs. These characteristics have been selected for over thousands of years, by shepherds, to ensure the dogs are physically and mentally capable of doing this job. Shepherds have culled unwanted qualities out, creating a dog “breed” that can do the job of protecting the livestock against large predators over various geographical and climatic regions.
The term “livestock guardian dogs” refers to a very specific job these dogs must do. It is a collective term, it is not a single breed but, refers to a group of breeds (from various countries) who share the same job. The sheepdog category can be divided into two groups; herding dogs, and protection dogs. Almost all the European Countries have their own breed/s of LGD, for example: in France the Great Pyrenees dog, in Poland the Tatra, in Macedonia the Sarplaninac, in Hungary the Komondor, The Turkish have a few breeds, such as the Akbash and Kangal, Central Asia has it Ovcharkas and Spain has its Spanish Mastiffs. There are more than 40 breeds that fall under the category of Livestock Guardian Dogs, some are extremely rare, others are more common.
Despite the large geographical area where these breeds are found, all share some physical similarities.
Size and weight: all LGD breeds are regarded as large dogs, most weigh between 80 and 160 lbs. Size is of importance when dealing with large predators. These dogs need to be large, but not overly heavy, they need to be physically fit, agile, fast and have enough body mass to have a chance of survival should they get into a physical confrontation with a predator.
Coat: colour does not matter. You have both white and coloured sheep guardian dogs. What does matter, is that these dogs have a weather resistant coat suitable for the climate where they work. Most have a double coat which is comprised of a thick dense woolly undercoat, covered by a weather resistant outer layer. Many short-coated dogs, such as the Kangal, are double coated, the outside guard hairs are just shorter. A rough or long coated dog, should not be too “fluffy “and soft, it will otherwise lose its water-resistant qualities, and the coat will become matted and hard to maintain. Some LGD have single coats, due to the very warm climates they live in, another exception is the Komondor, who have a corded coat. The coat must provide protection from the elements as these dogs live outside in all types of weather.
Skin: LGD have thick, loose skin. This has the function of protecting the dogs in a skirmish, as the loose skin may get bitten, but as it is loose, it moves over the muscles protecting the muscles and organs from deep bite wounds. Ears: all LGD have ears that hang down, no LGDs have erect wolf-like ears. It has been suggested that the floppy ears have a calming effect on the stock. In some cultures, it is tradition to crop the ears. Teeth: LGD have big, strong teeth, that are correctly aligned in strong jaws. Strong teeth are essential in any situation where a confrontation might occur.
|A shepherd in Macedonia showing the strong and large teeth of his dog.|
Angulation, most LGD are built to be free moving, and agile relative to their size. Too large, too small, too heavy, and too cumbersome reduces the efficiency of these dogs.
These are some of the physical traits found in LGD. They do not vary very much with some other large breeds such as the Saint Bernard or the Newfoundland dog, this is where the temperament separates LGDs from other similar large breed dogs. Where both the Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland share large size, double coats, and hanging ears, the LGDs have very different temperaments. When you speak with shepherds you will hear them describing their dogs as; independent, formidable, protective, wary, powerful, alert, fearless, brave, bold, dominant, intelligent, aggressive, and loyal. If LGD did not posses these characteristics, they would easily be intimidated by predators. LGD are independent thinkers, notorious for their poor obedience skills. The independent thinking is vitally important as LGDs need to make their own judgement calls when predators come calling at 2 am and the rancher is tucked away in his bed. These dogs need a bold and brave temperament for this job, and must have a gentle and loyal nature towards their livestock. Most Newfoundland Dogs or Saint Bernard’s are soft in nature, who have low aggression, making them unsuitable as LGD.
This leads us onto the next part of what makes LGD unique. This set of instinctual or inherent traits is perhaps harder to define, as it is a combination of drives, that are seemingly contradictory. The mandate for a LGD is simple; first, it must protect the flock from predators and secondly, it must not eat the sheep. The inherent traits that guides this behaviour are really on two opposite ends of a continuum, one being that the dogs need to be highly protective and willing to be aggressive to predators. On the other end of the scale, it needs to be calm, nurturing, gentle and display a guardian type role towards its flock. Bearing in mind, that most dogs perceive sheep as prey, one can clearly see that LGDs have traits that are very different to drives found in other breeds. Most herding dogs have a high prey drive, but no protective drive, this high prey drive makes them unsuitable as LGD. It is this combination of traits, the high protective drive combined with the low prey drive, that truly make a LGD unique.
The physical traits, their strong character and this unique combination of drives makes up the whole package. Understanding these elements, highlights why certain breeds and crosses with non LGD are simply not equipped to do this job. An owner who expects their non-LGD breed (Golden retriever, Pitbull, husky, or heeler etc.) even if it is crossed with a LGD breed, to be a working LGD, is placing the dog at an unfair disadvantage, and endangering both the dog and the livestock.
Thousands of years of selection have established these traits and physical features to be the most suited, desirable, and efficient for dogs to be able to protect their flocks. History has shown that it is easy and relatively quick to breed out traits and lose working instincts in dogs, rendering some breeds incapable of perform their original job. It is only through real work, testing in the field, living among the livestock and meeting predators that will ensure the correct genetic traits are passed on to future generations.