Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Breeding Evaluations of LGD

Traits such as attentiveness towards the livestock are part of what makes LGD successful.

Breeding Evaluations of LGD
appeared in
©Louise Liebenberg 2018

Do we need to do this? How do we evaluate if our LGD are “good enough” to be bred from?  What criteria do we use to select suitable breeding companions?  Why do some people feel that certain LGD are not able to do their job well enough any more? Are they too “watered down” or are we not making the correct selections when it comes to breeding good working dogs? In the livestock industry you have livestock shows, and you have statistical data to help make selections in the form of EPD (Expected Progeny Differences), you have rib-eye measurements and a multitude of other tools to help make selections for your overall herd or flock improvement. Most livestock keepers understand that to improve your overall flock, attention needs to be paid to sire and dam selection, genetics, and many other factors. We cull poor producing animals, and we try to preserve good animals, through selection and meeting certain criteria, be it conformation, production, rarity, temperament or even working ability. However, when it comes to our LGD, what selection criteria do we use?
Mali is alert and protective of the sheep.

It is common to evaluate a dog on suitability to be a breeding animal, for people who regard perfect conformation and adherence to a breed standard, the dog show world provides a means to compare and evaluate the dog. Top winners will often be used more for stud purposes. In herding dogs, sheepdog trials provide the means to compare and compete, which dog does the job best. Top winners of sheepdog trials are regarded as top working dogs, who then go forth and breed.  The same happens with gun-dog trials, rat terrier tests and many of the other working breeds. With LGD this is somewhat complicated as it is not possible to set up any specific trial to gauge how effective the dog is in doing his job of protecting livestock from predators, or looking how the dog interacts with the sheep.  It is not possible to compare the working ability of one LGD to another as the conditions each dog works in is so vastly different, from a micro-farm with a few chickens and a goat, to large open range areas with thousands of sheep, to a pastured system. Even the predators differ vastly between areas. It really is not possible to compare and select based on a competitive field trial system.

In traditional shepherding cultures, LGD selection mainly takes place through culling, and indirectly through low pup survival rate. Many pups do not reach adulthood due to things such as poor health, diseases, little veterinary care, accidents, poor nutrition, and a variety of other causes. Those pups that do survive, go through some rigorous culling simply because a shepherd does not have the luxury to feed a non-working dog.  Those pups that make it to adulthood, still face challenges, from other packs of LGDs, predators and tests that shepherds put their pups through. In the Balkans a traditional way to test courage in young dogs was to kill a wolf, cut its head off and place that head on a pole. The pups would be tested by having someone walk along with the pole and wolf head. The pole would be moved towards the chained young dog. If he was fearful and wanted to run and hide then the dog did not make the grade, if the dog reacted aggressively then the pup was petted and cheered. As the dog further matured he would be further evaluated for his courage and bravery, and for his ability to keep the sheep safe. Dogs that were known wolf killers, or who showed great bravery would be celebrated and paraded through town. This dog would often be the favored stud dog.

In many of these traditional regions, the shepherds feel that dogs can earn their breeding rights. Up in the mountains, male dogs from neighboring sheepfolds would challenge other males, for the right to breed an in-heat female. The strongest and most dominant dog would often win these fights, and the right to breed the female. This selection process is not decided by people, it is left to the dogs, with the understanding that the dogs instinctively would select the best and fittest for breeding.  Sometimes, it is the bitch in heat who will “chose” a suitable mate.

Lucy is tightly bonded with her sheep.

 In Portugal, a wolf group gives LGDs to shepherds to help with mitigating wolf/livestock conflicts.  This group monitors and tracks the dogs, evaluating and scoring the dogs on working ability on a scale that Raymond Coppinger used to evaluate the dogs in the Livestock Guardian Dog Project. The scoring was based on the assessment of three core traits namely, attentiveness, trustworthiness, and protectiveness.  Similarly, the Cheetah Conservation Fund, also used this model to evaluate their dogs used in the Namibian project. Most of the data was through interviews and how the ranchers perceived the effectiveness of their dogs. From all this data and statistical analysis various percentages could be attributed to things like behaviour, success, and problematic behaviour. These parameters are tools to help evaluate how successful LGD are, or at least, are perceived to be. 

Looking through some Craigslist advertisements or even some Facebook posts it is abundantly clear that the motivation to breed LGD is often not based on decisions such as working ability, temperament, ease of integrating the dog into a flock, protectiveness, and aggressiveness towards predators or even things such as health, coat quality or correct conformation. It is quite disheartening to see how little forethought is given to breeding and selecting for good working dogs. It is sad to see the number of LGD being crossed with breeds who are unsuitable to be used as LGD, things like Pitbull x Great Pyrenees, or Heeler x Maremma, and it is even more concerning seeing these breeders promoting these crosses as LGD.

I can understand how the lack of selection has resulted in a watering down of certain traits in some of the LGD breeds, prompting organizations such as the USDA to research other LGD breeds who would be better suited to facing up to the expanding wolf population. Traditionally, all the LGD, are supposed to be able to work in wolf country and yet, it seems certain breeds do not have this ability any more.

 Breeding good working dogs who are capable mentally and physically to do this job requires stringent selection, the willingness to remove those who are not good enough from the gene pool (culling through spaying and neutering), keeping of records and data on dogs, evaluating the effectiveness of the dogs and only breeding from the best dogs who are out in the field with the livestock and working in large carnivore country.  Within that package of considerations can be added; maintaining breed specific traits, improving health and structure, selection for things such as coat quality, longevity, quick (er) maturing and a multitude of other traits.
Breeders should be paying attention to problematic traits such as excessive (nuisance) barking, roaming, extended juvenile periods, rough with stock, fearfulness, lack of courage and should carefully consider if breeding from these dogs is really an asset to the farmer (and, his livestock) or not. I do understand that many of these traits are also dependant on the ability of the rancher to raise the young LGD in an appropriate manner, but I would like to see some more consideration given to assessing working LGD. Perhaps, it is time to make a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of our LGD?

The sheep are quick to show if they feel a dog is trustworthy or not. The relaxed behaviour of the sheep and the dogs, illustrates a good relationship between the LGD and their stock.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Louise. These are exactly points I have been pondering for the past several years. Here in WA State, with the Wolf Project wanting to expand, LGDs are becoming viewed as their new hope. However, as one of the leads commented to me, "There are 40,000 farms in Washington [state]; is there suffient supply to provide 80,000 [LGDs]?" The prospective buyers are begging for a list of criteria for evaluating "good" dogs/puppies and lists of recommended breeders.
    At the same time I recognize, what you mentioned briefly, that the LGD needs of a small farm adjacent to neighborhoods is different than the LGD characteristics on the open prairie or grass/woodland plateaus of Ea WA. Specifically, I have a young Kangal female who craves more people interaction than is ideal for the traditional LGD, but that is not necessarily undesirable in a more domestic situation. But, if a trait like that carries with it others that, as you said, water down the breed, then we start down a slippery slope of having our dogs indistinguishable from the pet population.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...