Wednesday, 26 February 2020

What matters more breed or breeder?

This young guardian dog is being raised with and bonded to some heifers, his job in the future will involve working with cattle.

What matters more breed or breeder?
©Louise Liebenberg 2019
Written for: The Shepherds Magazine

By the time you receive this issue of The Shepherds Magazine the new year will be underway. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a healthy and prosperous new year! 

The USDA, under the guidance of Julie Young and Daniel Kinka recently did a study to compare livestock guardian dog (LGD) breeds, they found that all the LGD breeds were more similar, than different in how they respond to threats. This is a logical conclusion, bearing in mind that all livestock guardian dogs have the same job, and that is to protect the livestock from predators. This job description remains the same throughout all the different countries and all the different breeds. With well over 30 different livestock guardian dog breeds who are all bred to protect livestock from large predators, the expectation would be, that these breeds should exhibit similar traits despite differences in looks and type.

 Livestock guardian dogs do not only share similar working traits (high nurturing qualities that allows them to bond to the livestock, high protectiveness, vigilant, independent, discerning, loyal, canine aggressive) but also many phenotypical traits which are directly related to their effectiveness to do their job. LGD are large dogs, most are double coated (a few exceptions), many have thick loose skin, all have hanging ears, most have “normal” proportions and angulation, strong, large teeth in a correct configuration even head proportions are similar. Coat types (corded, rough and shorter coated) and colours do vary among the breeds.  

These traits are what you can generally expect when looking for a livestock guardian dog breed. When bred for this job, these traits become hardwired into the DNA of the dogs. You can count on a certain amount of predictability of these traits. Predictability is what differentiates a mutt from a purebred (not, a registered dog) dog. Careful breeding and selection (culling) is what the shepherds did to have a breed suitable and capable of doing its job. Predictability in traits reduces the risk, and the time required for a dog to learn to do a specific job.  An example would be that a greyhound, they have been bred and selected for speed, when you breed a greyhound to another greyhound, you know how it will look and it will have speed. That is predictability in traits. It is similar for all the various groups of dogs, herding dogs’ herd, hounds have good noses and scenting abilities. If you need a herding dog, your success will greatly improve if you select a herding breed to start with. 

Therefore, the advice is given to new people looking for an LGD pup to stay within the LGD breeds or crosses only between LGD breeds. Once you add in breeds such as border collie or Labrador, the genetic waters get muddied, certain traits can conflict with others resulting in unpredictable behaviour. Imagine buying a Border Collie x Great Pyrenees, you hope to have a livestock guardian dog, but instead you get a very large, stubborn, white herding dog that could not care at all about the coyotes but wants to spend its entire life herding the livestock around. 
Alternatively, you could win the lottery and maybe that cross will be what you want, but we all know that the chance of winning the lottery is slim! Having a cross like this is like playing Russian Roulette with your livestock, you could be lucky, but most of the time you are not.

So, this brings me to the most common question asked regarding LGD: “What breed of LGD should I get?” (This question is often followed with parameters such as no roaming, little barking, preferably really friendly with other dogs, good with strangers).
Personally,  I do not think that the breed itself is what will determine the most success on your operation, I think it has more to do with the breeder and their ability to help and guide you.

A good breeder will be able to tell you about their operation and help you decide if what they breed and select for, will be suited for your operation. They will guide you in your decision making and be willing to answer your questions. The right breeder will be able to tell you about the working ability of their dogs, will share the challenges of raising their dogs and can outline what you can expect from a dog bred by them. They will have information on possible genetic health issues and the health status of their dogs and can explain what they value in their breeding dogs. The breeder should be willing to offer mentor-ship and support to you, to ensure the pup they bred will be successful on your operation. The breeder should be your first go to for questions regarding raising and training your LGD. The breeder will inform you about vaccinations and de-worming your pup will have, as well as advise you what future veterinary care may be needed.  The breeder should be able to give you important information regarding the temperament of the parents and perhaps other siblings and family members, which could make your decision easier.

It really amazes me when people contact me to ask some basic questions regarding their pup, questions I feel, should be answered by their breeder. In many cases these people do not even know the name of their breeder. When you are willing to pay good money for dog that is supposed to protect your livelihood, you should invest that money into a breeder who will provide you with support. 
I regard using LGDs as an investment in your ranch and security for your livestock, it is in your own best interests to get the best you can.

Even though each breed is unique, their basic traits are similar, finding the right breed for your operation should certainly include finding the right breeder too. Personal preferences and some parameters will narrow down the options. 
Some ranchers do not like dealing with long coated breeds, so breed selection might be narrowed down to the shorter coated breeds such as the Kangal, Akbash, Anatolian or Central Asian Ovcharka. Some, people prefer the white dogs, this will also narrow down your breed choice.  People who are dealing with larger predators might want breeds who are perhaps a little higher on the protectiveness/aggressive side, so breeds such as the Sarplaninac, Kangals or Ovcharkas might be what you need. If you run a large range operation, then dogs who are more athletic in their conformation might be a good criterion to select for. 
All LGD bark, all LGD like to expand their territory so those might not be reliable parameters to select an LGD on.

For many people, availability is an issue, you might decide the perfect breed for you is Koochi, but finding a reliable breeder, who has working dogs that fit your operation might be a bigger challenge than anticipated. Importing brings its own risks; breeder support becomes more complicated, costs generally skyrocket, and then of course you have scammers, peddlers and false advertising to navigate in a foreign language. Plenty of breeders in foreign countries who advertise “working” LGD, but working can be relative, for some it may be dog fighting, or shows, or the fact that the breed itself is classified as a LGD breed, but over the past 5 generations none of the breeding dogs have actually seen a sheep.

My advice would be for finding the right LGD for your operation is to review some of these questions:
What do I need? An LGD in with stock to protect from predators or a general farm dog?
How big is the threat of predators and what predators am I dealing with?
What breeds am I attracted to and why?  (read about the breeds, do some research, ask people their opinions, speak to breed clubs, speak to producers who have these breeds)
Are their neighbors who have similar operations to mine and how are their dogs? Go for a visit and talk dogs and livestock.
Speak to breeders and ask questions that are important to your operation and what you want in a dog.
Is health testing important to you, then ask about that.
Ask about temperament, problems, good things, predator losses, how they would describe their dogs working abilities?

Pay attention to “red flags”; if a breeder cannot spell the breed name correctly, beware. No livestock, but a good story, probably not what you want. More dogs than livestock? Accidental litter, are you sure the daddy is who they say it is? When the breed standard says a breed can only be a certain colour and you see a litter with odd colours or markings, or a questionable size, or erect ears then take a deep breath and think hard if this is what you think it is. It is amazing how many “throwback” or rare pups are out there,  when breeders start spinning the throwback story to a long lost line and colours that normally are not found in a certain breed, then it is time to pause.

My advise would be look for the breeder who operates a livestock operation similar to yours, see the dogs working, ask about mentorship and chose the breeder who has your best interests at heart. I think the breeder is perhaps more important than the breed, in being successful in raising your LGD.

A good breeder will be able to give you information on the parents of a pup and also assist a new LGD owner with raising and training the pup.

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