Friday, 13 August 2021

What LGD breed is best for my situation?


A shorted coated Estrella working in Portugal. The Estrella also comes in a long-coated version.

What LGD breed is best for my situation?
Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

 With over forty different breeds of Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) breeds, a common question is what breed would work well for a specific situation. Often, the responses are as simple as “I love my … (breed name)”. Rarely do people explain what makes “their” breed unique or why they chose them.  Over the past four decades, several researchers have tried to establish which breed is the best. Coppinger and his colleagues compared Anatolian, Maremma, Sarplaninac and, crosses between these breeds. More recently, Daniel Kinka and Julie Young compared Kangals, Karakachan, Transmontanos and White Dogs (a generic name for a cross of white LGD often found in the USA).  The conclusion from their study was that most of the breeds are more like each other, than different (in regard to working style). This should not be a huge surprise as all LGD have the same job to do and it makes sense that these breeds would be similar in how they respond to predators.

The athletic and reliable Turkish Akbash working on a sheep ranch in Northern British Columbia, Canada.

It is also hard to compare breeds as every working situation is unique, the predators that the dog is expected to protect from, can range from raccoons and weasels to bears and wolves. Even the pressure that certain predators place on the flock varies, in some region’s wolves are thick and in other regions there may be none. How flocks are managed can affect how the work of the dogs is perceived. Owner bias makes comparing breeds difficult as each person will value different traits, temperaments, and abilities all within their own reference point. Sometimes, the lack of good statistical data can get in the way of fair comparisons, if you are studying a population of thousands of dogs, the data will generally be more accurate than if you are studying just a handful of dogs. An example of this is the Great Pyrenees (GP). The GP is often associated with roaming, however there are probably more GP and GP crosses than any other LGD in North America. Yes, these might roam more, simply because there are so many more GP around.

A white Sarplaninac working in Northern Alberta, Canada on a sheep and cattle ranch.

Gross generalizations about breeds are of course, not really the “right” thing to do, for every generalization, hundreds of exceptions will be found. In some instances, there might be more variance between individuals within a breed than between different breeds. However, most people still like to know some of these generalizations, to be able to narrow down which breed might suit their situation best. I know making such a comparison is “treading on thin ice” as some people might feel their breed is being misrepresented. My advice to people looking for LGD is to meet breeders, talk to fellow livestock owners and visit with various dogs. The breeder might ultimately, be more important than the breed itself, as it is the breeder who can help and mentor you while learning to work with LGD.

I do believe, it is primarily, the wolf, that has shaped the behavior and temperament of our LGD, and this can be reflected in the reactivity and aggression level in LGD. The first gross generalization I will make is; if you look at the map of Europe and move from west to east, the breeds tend to get harder the further East you go.  Why would this be? Perhaps it has to do with the number of years that the wolf has been extirpated in certain countries. Wolves were officially declared extinct in France in the 1930s. It is only since the 1990’s that wolves have really started drifting from Italy back into the French Pyrenean Mountains.  Before this, few Great Pyrenees dogs had seen or faced a wolf for many generations in their home country.  With no need for the GP to be aggressive toward wolves for close to 60 years, perhaps this led to selection of milder natured dogs who display high nurturing traits as opposed to high aggression traits. Italy has been a stronghold for wolves in Europe when many other countries had extirpated them. Regions where wolves have always existed, shepherds have always worked with their Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdogs. The “Maremma” would rate higher for protectiveness simply due to the ongoing selection for dogs to be able to work in wolf territory. Russia and central Asia has a large population of wolves (wolves were never extirpated here) and is home of the Ovcharkas. Breeds that are large, powerful, and regarded as high aggression breeds. Predator density plays a big role in the selection of aggression and ferocity in LGD.

People asking which breed would work best for them, often have a list of criteria for the future LGD, these can include no roaming, barking or must be super friendly to visitors and tolerant of dogs. It really does need to be mentioned that all LGD like to roam and expand their territory. All LGD bark, that is part of their working strategy. Incessant barking is often found in immature dogs. Friendliness to strangers can be encouraged through more intensive socialization, however some breeds are naturally more standoffish. As for tolerance towards visitors’ dogs, it is unfair to expect the LGD to be tolerant to strange dogs and yet protect again canine predators.

A pair of working Sarplaninac dogs guarding goats in the mountains of Macedonia.

I am going to make some broad comparisons, as this may help people narrow down certain criteria that people starting with LGD might find handy. I will also include the common abbreviations for the breed names as I go along. I think ideal LGD to start with, are those breeds that have been used for many years in North America. I have selected the more common breeds for this overview and breeds I have some experience with.

Good breeds for the inexperienced homes or ones looking for an easier going temperament may include Great Pyrenees (GP), Maremma, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd Dog (ASD) and Spanish Mastiff (SM). Breeds that are sharper in nature and possibly better suited to high predator areas would include:
Kangal, Central Asian Shepherd (CAS), Sarplaninac (Sar or Shar), Karakachan, or Kommondor (Kom).  This does not rule out the easier breeds cannot work in high predator areas, I know many that function well; however their temperaments are perhaps a bit easier to get along with.

Breeds better suited for warmer climates: most LGD breeds are double coated however some have a shorter length coat. These would include Akbash, short-coated Estrela Mountain Dog (Estrela), Kangal, ASD and CAS.  Longer coated breeds include the Maremma, GP, Sarplaninac, Karakachan. Corded coat is the Komondor and will require a lot of coat maintenance.

Athleticism or breeds that need to cover larger areas. These breeds are often found in Europe and Asia on the more steppe type landscapes include the Akbash, Kangal, ASD some Maremma and CAS. The mountain types are often heavier coated breeds and more stout body types. These would include the Great Pyrenees, Sarplaninac, some Maremma and Karakachan.
Depending on lines the Spanish Mastiff can vary from big and heavy, to sleek working types. Some breeds have such variance a lot will depend on what each breeder selects for. Some are described as “show type” vs working type.

Coppinger in his studies talked about trustworthiness and compared some breeds for this trait. I think some breeds may require more supervision and guidance as young dogs.  Breeds that may be easier to start and that have a high trustworthiness can include the GP, Maremma, ASD and Akbash. Breeds that may require more supervision may include the Sarplaninac, the Kangal, CAS and some Maremma, as they are late maturing and this may lead to some more extended play periods,

Certain breeds are more driven to run down and chase predators while others are content to bark and warn predators away. The more driven breeds would include the Kangal, CAS, Sarplaninac, while the ones possibly more content to stay around closer to the flock would include the GP, Maremma, Karakachan, the Estrella, SM and Akbash.

Size, many people feel that to be an effective guardian dog working with apex predators, they must be large. Size is not so much an issue, I believe character, determination and a certain degree of aggressiveness is what makes the difference. Some breeds are just more willing to fight and are naturally more aggressive than others. Large sized breeds are SM, Caucasian Ovcharka and CAS.
Medium sized breeds include Maremma, Estrella, Karakachan, Sarplaninac and Great Pyrenees. Tall breeds include Kangal, ASD and Akbash.

Some people only want white LGD, this will limit the breeds to chose from to Kuvasz, Polish Tatra Kommondor, GP and Maremma. Many LGD are coloured.

Availability is often an issue. The CO is regarded as a high aggression breed, but it is virtually impossible to find good, working CO. Most are bred for show or as guard dogs for pet homes and very few are bred in North America as LGD. Similarly, with the Sarplaninac. Most Sarplaninac imported to the USA are from show breeders and for many generations have not been used as LGD. The Sarplaninac and many of the other breeds, have also been used for dog fighting in their home country, breeding selection has been based on dog fighting. Many of these dogs fail as working LGDs, simply because they do not posses the traits of nurturing, calmness, and attentiveness towards the livestock.

Each breed brings a unique balance of “skills” to the proverbial table, and to the discerning buyer, the right breed for their situation is “out there”. Some ranchers like to use a combination of breeds, the feel this maximizes effectiveness whereas I feel each breed has the capabilities to fulfill  all the roles required to protect the flock.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Why are some breeds simply not LGD


Why are some breeds simply not LGD?
©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

It must be in the air lately, but the last few weeks I have spent a disproportionate amount of time explaining to people that their Cane Corso, Elkhound, Wolfhound and Boerbull are not livestock guardian dogs (LGD). So, perhaps an article about this topic is due and then instead of having the same discussion over and over I can share this article with my view on what is and makes a Livestock Guardian dog and why other breeds are not LGD.

I will start with some common statements about LGD.
LGD are breeds that are used to protect livestock from predators. They live with the herd or flock full time and are regarded as “part” of the flock of animals. They work instinctually and are not “trained” to guard or attack predators.  They are bonded to the livestock and through this bond feel a strong attachment to these animals, they feel compelled to protect them. LGD do not “herd” sheep but sheep do follow the LGD and look to the guardian dog for safety.  Active herding like a border collie does, is not what LGD do. All LGD share a similar methodology in how they work, and most share similar phenotypical characteristics that make them suitable for the job. These physical characteristics include size (most are large breed), lupine build, all except one, have a double coat (even the shorter haired breeds), all have ears hanging down, correct jaw and bite (no Brachycephalic head structure), all are loose and thick skinned. LGD can be found across Europe and Asia in any area where sheep are raised, sheep are mostly raised on marginal lands, high mountains, semi dessert and rough land. Most European and Asian countries have their “own” breed of LGD. They are the oldest type of “sheepdog”, earliest accounts go back 2000 years, LGD pre-date herding dogs and are as such the “original sheepdog”. There are basically three types of sheepdog/shepherd dogs, the guardian, the herding, and the droving dog.

Simply co-existing with the livestock does not make a dog an LGD, it needs to have the innate traits of attentiveness, protectiveness and trustworthiness combined with the physical attributes to ensure it can do it job optimally.

In my opinion, certain breeds belong to the group of livestock guardian dogs, but not every dog of that breed is a livestock guardian dog. The dog is only an LGD, if he or she is out doing his job. If someone has a pet Great Pyrenees in the suburbs, the dog is from the group of LGD but is not actually performing the task of being an LGD. I would call that dog a GP, but not an LGD. The LGD is a job description for a specific group of breeds. Within the groups of most kennel clubs the Livestock Guardian Dog does not have its own group name and can be found spread out among multiple groups, ranging from the Herding and cattle dogs to the Mastiff types to Mountain types.

When reading through breed standards of other breeds from the various kennel clubs; America Kennel Club (AKC), United Kennel Club (UKC), and Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) much confusion is created with the use of certain words and language. A lot is lost in translation and in some instances, whoever wrote the breed standard obviously was not well versed in specific jobs for dogs or humans. Traditionally, sheepdog refers to a guardian dog and not a herding dog, however it has become synonymous now with a “dog used by a shepherd”. The word sheepdog can now mean a breed that either herds, droves, or guards the sheep.

With the Sarplaninac, the breed English version of the breed standard specifically notes that they are used in cattle operations, however, the original meaning was lost in translation. The original word was “livestock” and when translated into English became “cattle”. That Sarplaninac are used primarily to guard sheep and goats in their home country and not cattle, illustrates this translation flaw. Reading a breed standard does require some critical thinking and understand the origin and exactly the type of job done by the dog. Not all breed standards reflect the actual role the dogs played and for the writers of the standards, many lack the specifics, using broad language to describe a general role the dog might have had. Even now, some dogs may have had a job as shepherd, but many have either lost their job or the work has changed over time. Where the German Shepherd Dog was a herding breed it is now primarily used as police dog and family guard dog. The selection criteria for this breed has changed over time and one may be hard pressed to find an original sheep herding GSD now days.

There is a big difference between what a guard dog does and a guardian dog. Some people prefer to use the name livestock Protection Dogs as opposed to livestock guardian dog, to differentiate these roles. I prefer the word guardian simply because it also implies a nurturing/protecting behaviour. People who have never worked with LGD or are new to LGD often do not understand why their Labrador or Pitbull are not LGD, particularly when that dog is reliable around the livestock. It may bark or even chase a coyote on occasion, however, that still does not make it an LGD. Every farm dog should learn to not kill the other animals on the farm, that is called socialization and training.  It is the same as your house pet not killing your house cat. They must learn to co-exist with one another. Being a LGD is more than just being accepting/tolerant of the livestock.  Being trustworthy around the livestock is an important part of being a LGD, but it is not the only trait that makes it an LGD. Often those people who feel their Lab or Aussie makes a good LGD do not have their dog living full time in the pasture with the livestock and that is the first big differentiation between LGD and general farm dogs.

I have heard a few people suggesting that Norwegian Elkhound make good LGD. This makes may head spin a little. The general breed description is as follows: “Shipmate of the Vikings, guardian of remote farms, herder of flocks and defender from wolves and bear, a sometime hauler and a hunter always, and a companion to restless wandering men.”  However, reading further, its true nature or job is described: “they are classified as hounds by virtue of their job description: trailing and holding warm-blooded quarry.” ( 
 That the initial description describes it as a companion, found living on farms, this describes a general all-round farm dog as opposed to an LGD, its main task was to help the hunter find his game. Some of the people suggesting elkhounds as LGD, allude to this general description citing that historically Elkhounds did work as LGD. Elkhound may have warned its owners of wolves or bears in the area, its job can be better described as being a property sentry as opposed to an LGD. It was never expected that an elkhound does battle with predators, nor would it live full time with the livestock. This is reflected in the size, weight and general conformation of the breed, nothing physically about this northern Spitz dog, suggest that it could fall under the same working category as all the other LGD breeds.
Similarly, an Irish Wolfhound might once have been used to chase down wolves however they too were never required to live full time with the livestock, bond with the sheep and protect them. Too often once sees cross Irish wolfhounds promoted as LGD, what is forgotten is that hounds were traditionally used to run down and hunt big game, something that you certainly do not want in with your sheep. I think the biggest clue that these breeds are never LGD is if in their breed name, words such as hound, retriever or terrier are mentioned.

Now onto the bully breeds, the Boerboel is the ultimate South African farm dog. I was born and raised in South Africa and just about every farm had a Boerbull. Boer is the Afrikaans name for farmer. In its breed description it is described as the farmers companion, the protector of the farm and livestock. This breed description, similarly, to the Cane Corso and so many mastiff types where more generalized farm dogs. Sure, they would protect “hearth and home” but were not specialized LGD, with that one singular task. They are the “watch dog” of the farm or ranch, somewhat intimidating to see, will bark at strangers, or even predators in the vicinity but they were never used solely to guard a bunch of sheep. As with the Elkhound, their conformation, coat type and other physical features does not lend itself to living year-round in the mountains and other harsh climates with the livestock.

Part of being a full time LGD requires the dog to live full time under all weather conditions with the livestock it needs to protect. If the dog does not live with the livestock it becomes hard to protect them.

 In my opinion the true working LGD lives full time, year-round with the animals it needs to protect. It must have the desire and ability to protect the animals from predators. It must be willing and capable to do battle with predators should the need arise. A LGD conforms to a specific type of build, not too large to lack maneuverability and not too small to be vulnerable during a predator attack. The dog needs to have the coat type to be able to withstand all weather conditions. The floppy ears and soft expression are said to have a less predatory look, and this helps in keeping the sheep calm. I am not sure if this is true, but it is noteworthy that every LGD breed shares this trait and yet spitz breeds and many high drive herding breeds have erect ears. All wild canids have erect ears!

LGD must have the ability to bond to the livestock, the LGD will guard the sheep no matter where they are and not just be a territorial guard dog. The LGD will have been bred and certain traits selected for to perform its job. It needs to be attentive to the livestock, trustworthy and protective. The LGD must have the courage to face up to large predators and the gentleness to be around newborn livestock. The LGD must be an independent thinker as it is not the shepherd who commands the dog to protect the livestock, it is instinctual to want to protect the prey animals it lives with.

I do think that many people looking into using LGD on their homestead, may in fact not be looking specifically for a LGD but are instead looking for an all-round farm dog that covers the diverse role that traditional farm dogs did. The Old Yeller, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie types of dogs. The ones who live alongside all the farm animals, that plays with the kids, guards the yard and family, and a companion to the farmer. Due to its presence on the homestead, these dogs do have a deterring effect on predators. Ultimately, I think many small homesteads may be better served having an all-round farm dog than a specialist such as the livestock guardian dog.

The LGD needs to form a bond with the livestock so that it feels compelled to want to protect them no matter where the livestock graze.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Self Rewarding Behaviours in LGD


A young 8-month-old dog play bowing to these heifers. The play bow is an invitation from the dog to play. This is a perfect moment to give a verbal correction to the dog and discourage play behaviour.

Self rewarding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg 2021
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

People who start off with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) are often confused why their adolescent LGD start chasing sheep, nipping legs, pulling wool, and displaying a bunch of traits that are concerning and unexpected.  Why would the dog harm the animals it is supposed to protect? In this article, I am going to dig a little deeper into what motivates the naughty LGD and the instincts that can be triggered by continuing this behaviour.

Where traditionally LGD were primarily found on open ranges, in shepherded grazing flocks or large operations, many LGDs are now finding placements on smaller livestock hobby/homesteading type places. On big range operations the amount of work, other dogs, and the space they have often provides enough stimulation for a young LGD, that it is less common to see major issues with things like chasing, nipping wool pulling, ear chewing and other bad behaviour. Often, the owners are also experienced in managing LGD and this behaviour is quickly corrected.  
For many people new to owning and working with LGD, this bad behaviour comes as a shock. The LGD  should not hurt the livestock it is supposed to guard. When it does happen, many owners are very confused by this behaviour and are more often in disbelief that their sweet pup could harm the livestock.  There are several reasons why LGD display this type of behaviour, commonly it is seen in poorly bred LGD, where generations of selection for good LGD traits have not been a priority, or among crossbreds with non LGD breeds, a herding dog crossed with a LGD is more likely to show more chase and nipping behavior.  However, even well bred, well raised LGD can display this concerning behaviour and unless stopped, problems can escalate.

Young LGD often go through a naughty phase, this is normal, however what is paramount is how the owner responds to this bad behaviour, that will determine whether the naughty LGD will become a reliable guardian dog once it matures.
All predators (even our LGD’s) go through a learning stage to hone their hunting skills, all predators do this. All young predators play, and the type of playing they do is specific for predators. The type of playing prey animals do is different to that of predators.  Kittens will stalk, ambush, pounce, and dogs wrestle, play fight, stalk, chase.  Lambs learn to run in a mob, they practice jumping off and onto things and become fast and agile. Lambs might head butt and show dominance type playing but most of it is running around together in a mob.
Play hunting consists of sequential behaviours that need to be refined and practiced. The interesting part of practicing these hunting behaviours is that they are self rewarding. Because they are self rewarding, the predator is encouraged to keep doing this over and over, this repetitiveness is how the predator sharpens its skills. As the saying goes; “practice makes perfect”.
 All hunting type games are exciting, for a dog fetching a ball is a “hunting game”. Herding for border collies is a derivative of the hunting sequences, and as most people know, border collies can become rather obsessive with herding and stalking balls, cats, and other dogs. It is exhilarating to do, and it stimulates the reward center in their brain.
If predators practice enough and get down to the kill part, the reward is even greater as they can consume what they caught. For the ball obsessed dog, getting the ball is the reward. This cycle is a self-perpetuating behaviour. The more they do it, the better they become and the more reward they get from doing it. Self rewarding behaviours are the hardest behaviours change. Think about how hard dieting is or quitting smoking is as these are also self rewarding behaviours! This behaviour pattern is hard to stop, even if we know it is wrong or bad, as our desire to be feel that “reward’ often overrides the knowledge that it is bad.

So, what does this have to do with our LGD?  When you are a 9-month-old adolescent pup, full of energy and you want to play, the livestock might seem like great playmates.  The dog may pick a weaker animal to focus all its energy on. Even a larger animal that tries to butt the young dog, becomes a fun challenge.  The chasing and playing starts off innocently enough. As he plays more and rougher with the livestock it becomes even more stimulating for the dog to do.  The cycle of playing becomes a self rewarding behaviour, the scary part is that after only one or two times roughhousing with the livestock this pattern of behaviour can become fairly established in the dog. The escalation in bad behaviour can go very rapidly.

LGD have a unique combination of genetic traits that shepherds have selected for. It is an odd combination of traits, where you have dogs selected for a low prey drive response (guardian) combined with a high protectiveness.  In most working dogs (police, search and rescue, drug dogs, herding dogs) one selects for high prey drive, dogs with high prey drive are easily motivated to work, the border collie always wants to work sheep, search dogs are often rewarded by a game of fetch the ball or a little tug-of war as this mimics the catch part of the hunting sequence.
LGD are selected for low prey drive as we do not want the dog, who lives full time with the sheep, to be stimulated by these prey animals.  This low prey drives allows for the LGD to be able to live with prey animals and not be overly stimulated by their movements or overly focused on weak, lame, or sickly animals. Predators are “triggered” to respond to these attributes. Think of a kitten who gets stimulated to chase a feather, or a falcon to grab a lure, a border collie pup that is “turned on” by the sheep running past a fence.
This low prey drive in LGD can often be seen by their lack of desire to play fetch the stick, their instinct to give chase is often not “triggered”.

Back to the problem of the naughty young dog and his overzealous play behaviour. If this behaviour is not stopped directly and discouraged firmly, it can trigger a prey drive response in the LGD. This low prey drive in LGD is generally dormant, but not gone.  If the naughty dog gets to play rough with the sheep it can “awaken” this prey drive.  Combining the self rewarding behaviour and the possibility for the dog to become more prey focused, the problem that starts off innocently enough soon becomes a major issue where the livestock are hurt, maimed, or killed.

People often ask if a young dog that has pulled wool and chases the sheep is ruined?
It is vital that when a LGD starts to display play behaviour towards the livestock that it is stopped immediately, and the dog prevented from continuing this behaviour. Depending on how long this behaviour has continued, the severity of the roughhousing and if the dog has come to view the livestock as prey will determine if the dog is ruined or not.   Signs of play behaviour are things like a play bow towards the livestock, a play bow is an invitation to play, or where the dog and animals “chase each other around”.  If one can correct the play behaviour at this point, the dog will most likely grow up and become a reliable LGD. If he is eating lambs on the regular, then the prognosis becomes very poor for that dog.
On social media there are hundred of cute videos of the dog “hugging” a goat, or a dog jumping up and mouthing/ nipping the nose of a pony, the pony in turn rears up and runs away then the chase ensues between the dog and pony. The most cringe worthy is where the dog is swinging on the tail of some poor farm animal.  The commentary on these videos is all look how sweet they play together.
To me, this is all bad behaviour, and it needs to be discouraged directly. The LGD should not be playing with his livestock, ever. To correct a self rewarding behaviour the punishment must override the pleasure the dog associates with that behaviour. In this case prevention is always better than curing!

 To conclude, all playing is a self rewarding behaviour that perpetuates even more play behaviour. Most play behaviour is part of the of the prey- hunt sequence for predators.  With LGD, this play can trigger the prey instinct in the young dog, and this can ultimately result in a dog that is no longer trustworthy with livestock as he starts to view the livestock as prey.

A snapshot of this young dog giving indications that he wants to play. The heifer is saying no. Although his behaviour at this point is innocent enough, it needs to be curbed. At this point a firm “no” will usually suffice.  Heifers still like to run around and buck and that could encourage this young dog to want to play with them. Picking the right livestock at the right age also goes a long way to curbing bad behaviour.


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