Friday, 12 August 2022

Herding behaviour in LGD


These guardian dogs are moving alongside the flock during a flock move. They are moving with the flock, this is not “herding “behaviour.

Herding behaviour in LGD

©Louise Liebenberg(2022)

In the last issue I discussed some behaviour that could be misconstrued or misread, where the owner thinks what the dog is doing looks okay, when in fact it could be concerning behaviour or trigger behaviour patterns that should not be encouraged. I have decided to continue with this and will discuss some more behaviours.

The concept of “herding” is a unique one and while herding breeds, herd (border collie, kelpie, Australian Shepherds), guardian dogs, guard the flock from predators. Two totally different jobs. People who have never worked with either group, may not really know the differences between each group. As both groups fall under the same general category of “sheepdogs”.  To add to the confusion, most of the original breed standards for livestock guardian dogs (LGD) were not written by shepherds or sheepdog specialists. Semantics matter, so describing a guardian dog as a herder of the flock is incorrect in terms of the function the dog has in relation to the sheep.

Herding can be described as the deliberate movement of the flock, either gathering up single animals to the group, actively moving the flock from one place to another, or simply keeping the animals bunched together. Herding can be a combination of these activities. Most herding by a sheepdog is under direct supervision of the shepherd who uses the dog to help him control the flock and bring it/hold it where the shepherd needs it.  Herding is an instinctual behaviour that is based on predatory sequences (search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat). The shepherd breeds and selects for parts of this sequence that include, search, stalk, chase, and sometime bite, as this allows him to control the flock. With selective breeding that highlights the “useful” parts of the sequence and good training, the shepherd has a wonderful way to manage the sheep. Herding dogs have a high prey drive (they love to chase things, nip things) and are high energy as this is very demanding work. Herding dogs love to herd, it is the excitement of the search, stalk, chase that is highly rewarding and is the primary motivation for the dog.  Herding is a self rewarding behaviour and that is why some border collies can literally be worked to death, and some can be very obsessive in what they do, sometimes herding vehicles, balls, and other dogs. Most herding dogs are smaller in stature and very athletic in comparison to the guardian dog breeds.

This border collie is controlling the movement, speed, and direction of the sheep. The sheep are not moving voluntarily but are under the direction of the collie, who is being commanded by the shepherd. This is herding behaviour.

Guardian dogs have a completely different role, that is to protect the flock from predators. That is their only job, and it comes with some conditions; the LGD must not hurt, harm, or stress the livestock it lives with.  The ideal LGD will be bonded to the sheep and live permanently with them. They blend in amongst the flock and generally are on the lookout for predators.  LGD have been bred by shepherds to have a very low prey drive, which allows them not to be stimulated to chase and kill the sheep. Most LGD have a low energy level, so that it does not disrupt or excite the sheep when it moves about. Most LGD have perfected the art of mooching around the sheep, sleeping under a tree but always have one eye open for threats. The LGD’s energy should match that of the sheep.  LGD that have too much prey drive generally do not make good LGD as they tend to not be trustworthy around the sheep. Shepherds do not train LGD to obey commands like they do with herding dogs. Most LGD are “trained” with supervision and corrections for unwanted behaviour. Most LGD are large, they have the physical properties to live outside with the flock all year. The have been bred to be powerful, strong dogs to be able to be a formidable opponent to predators.
Interestingly to note, all wild canines have erect ears, most high drive dog breeds (such as herding dogs) have erect ears. Every single LGD has low hanging ears, it is thought that it appears less predatory and therefore more calming for the sheep. Just this simple observation illustrates the difference each category of sheepdog can have on the sheep.

These two types of sheepdogs have an entirely different set of instinctual traits and have been selected for very different jobs.  Understanding these differences and nuances, it is easy to see why “herding” behaviour is problematic in LGD. A LGD herding the sheep may indicate that he has too much prey drive to be suited for this job. Sometimes, I read that people are all excited that their LGD herded the sheep. This is a red flag behaviour, particularly if involves an immature dog. The dog has no business herding/chasing the sheep. This stresses the sheep and can lead to injured or even dead sheep.  Chasing/ nipping and playing with the sheep encourages predatory behaviour and that is the last thing we want to stimulate in our LGD.

Many people think that the LGD “herds” the sheep to safety when predators approach, but the reality is, that the sheep would probably run to their safe space, and a good LGD would go out and “meet the threat”. At least, that is what the brave ones do!


These two LGD are between the threat and the flock. The sheep have not been moved, but the dogs have positioned themselves between the sheep and the predator.

The LGD should position itself between the threat and the sheep, he is the first line of defence. In a flock that is very accustomed to LGDs, the sheep will follow the LGD, they will hangout close to the dog if they feel threatened and will gather behind the LGD. This is all sheep-initiated behaviour and movement. It is not that the dog is actively herding them together and chasing them in a specific direction. I have seen our flock of sheep refusing to go and graze in a certain wooded pasture, unless the LGD go into that area first. They will hang back and wait for the dogs to go up ahead. I have spoken with shepherds in Italy who say that their Maremma will enter a new grazing area and chase the predators away before the sheep go in.

This LGD is leading the way and the sheep are willingly following the LGD back to the night corral.

Some breed standards mention that historically, the breed is used both for herding and guarding, often they will add in a bunch of other job titles such as hunting, home guards and personal protection dogs in their descriptions. Sadly, this really does confuse people new to LGD, as this makes them think that the herding behaviour their dog is showing is normal. If the breed description includes herding, then this makes it seem like the behaviour is permissible. It really illustrates how little knowledge these writers have about working dogs. Semantics matter. Similarly, a coyote might be killed by a LGD while protecting its flock, but the LGD is not “hunting” like coonhound hunts. Just because the coyote was killed does not make the LGD a “hunting” dog.  A polish Tatra might protect its owner, but it is not a personal protection dog like a Doberman is.

Encouraging a herding type of behaviour in LGD is indirectly encouraging predatory behaviour. Some old dogs very familiar with routines might head to the barn at a certain time and it may move with the sheep, this should not be confused as herding. Active and directional movement or bunching of the flock is not what a LGD should be doing. He is allowed to lead the sheep in, walk among them but his job is guard them and not control their movements. Guarding dogs have to allow sheep to freely be able to move and graze, it is the dog’s job to move with the sheep and ensure they are safe wherever the sheep chose to graze.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Misunderstanding behaviour

The LGD job is to guard against predators. This LGD is choosing a high vantage point to oversee this group of ewes lambing, she does not interfere with an ewe giving birth.

Misunderstanding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg (2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

It is heart warming to see humans and animals displaying acts of kindness. Many of us like to always see “the good” in people and animals. However, many times, particularly when it comes to animals, we tend to anthropomorphize or attribute benevolent behaviour to certain actions. This can lead down a slippery slope where we assume the behaviour our livestock guardian dogs (LGD) is well intended, when in fact, it is an indication that the behaviour could become concerning down the road.

Let me start by saying I am not an animal behaviourist, what I do have is many years of working with sheep dogs, both herding and guardian breeds. I am always trying to understand the behaviour the dog is showing within the context of its work. I always question whether it is normal, is it acceptable, when does it change, why does it change, what are the triggers and how can it be corrected. I am a keen observer of all behaviour, when it comes to dogs, livestock, or other animals.

This is a scenario that I read about this week; a LGD owner posted on a social media group that she was not sure what to make of her LGD behaviour. An ewe had lambed triplets and one of these was decidedly smaller and weaker than the other two. Her dog had taken this lamb and buried it in a dirt pile, with just is head sticking out of the dirt. She was wondering if the dog had done this in an attempt to keep the lamb warm and safe, or if she was maybe reading more into the behaviour than what she thought.

When I read this, the red flags and the warning sirens were sounding off in my head. I started reading the comments from other people and I was quite surprised. I was genuinely shocked at how this behaviour was misunderstood. The number of people who praised the dog for this behaviour was astonishing, comments such as “Good dog, did a fine job of caring for the lamb! He's a keeper” or, “I don't think your dog meant any harm from what you describe. He probably didn't know how to get the baby out so decided to cover with soil to protect it”.
I could not help myself but respond. In my opinion, the behaviour this dog was showing was inappropriate for the following reasons:
The dog should never remove a lamb from its mother, it is not the dog’s job.
He should not be carrying the lamb in his mouth.
He should not be burying the lamb.

This is my interpretation of his behaviour, he is burying the lamb as a resource. In wild animals this is called “caching”.  It is the same behaviour when the dog buries an old bone in the backyard or uses his nose to covers his kibble with dirt or hay.  He is caching food to return to it later, this is an instinctive behaviour in many species (squirrels hoard nuts, birds stash seeds, predators hide carcasses).  It is a biological behaviour to aid in survival.  The lamb was lucky that is head was above the ground and that owner found it, otherwise the lamb would have suffocated, starved, or got hypothermia and died.

Another person replied,” I would think if it was a 'snack' the LGD would have killed it first.” What is forgotten is that most LGD do not go from nothing to killing a lamb in an instant, it is a process and small escalations in behaviour. The dog may not have intended to kill the lamb, but his behaviour is a start of a cycle which could lead down the path of further problems.  It might begin with, just keeping the ewe away from the lamb, the next time he is carrying the lamb to the edge of the field, following this, he may decide to hide it, or bury it, finally he might kill it. The behaviour will escalate if the dog is not corrected, and this escalation can happen very fast. Had the owner of this dog not found that lamb, it may have died and then the dog would probably have started to eat it.  This then confirms to the dog that eating the lamb is a big reward, that stealing and stashing lambs is a positive reinforcement. As a shepherd, we really do not want the dog to make this kind of connection. The dog may not have had the initial intention to kill the lamb, but his actions might have resulted inadvertently in the death of the lamb. Either way, we want the dog to understand that he should not be interfering with the ewe and her lambs

Although there are many instances where our LGD do amazing things and do show a high degree of nurturing behaviour, the danger is when we apply anthropomorphic thinking to this behaviour. We like to think that the dog is showing a high degree of caring towards the lamb, we assume he is keeping it safe, warm, and hidden from predators and by doing this, we condone the behaviour, allowing for the dog to repeat this behaviour.

This lamb got separated from the ewe and decided to follow the LGD around.

Once the lamb decided to follow the dog, this experienced female just sat down and waited. As soon as I got the lamb, the dog was happy to go on her way. She did not isolate the lamb, move it, hide it, she just stayed with the lamb.

It is a stretch to think that the dog would enact such a high degree of intentionality, that it would take a weak lamb from the ewe, dig a hole, place the lamb in the damp and cool dirt, cover it up, all with the intention that this would keep the lamb both warm and safe. It simply does not make biological sense. The more logical explanation for this behaviour is that he saw the lamb was weaker, perhaps not keeping up with the ewe and he decided to take the lamb and stash it. As this was not a very experienced dog, he most likely just followed his instincts and was a bit triggered to react to this weaker lamb. This “caching” behaviour is a simple and common behaviour in canines and provides the most logical answer to his behaviour.

In this scenario, the dog is indicating that he may not be totally trustworthy with newborns. It does not mean the dog is a bad dog, but it would certainly be advisable to supervise and watch this dog more closely.

I have seen LGD lay with a lost lamb without interfering with it, I have seen a dog showing concern when an ewe got herself stuck in some bushes and alerted me to this ewe’s predicament, some dogs are saints allowing kids and lambs to hop on and off them, all those behaviours are excellent and what we like to see. It becomes a problem when the dog directly interferes with the ewe and lamb. Some dogs will growl and snarl at an ewe or other sheep when they come close to a newborn, others will follow along with the lamb and keep it separated this way, others will lick the newborn so much that the ewe does not want the lamb and some dogs will frighten an ewe away to the point she will not longer accept her lamb. None of these actions are in the best interest for the ewe or the lamb or the shepherd. These issues are usually seen in younger dogs. If my 8-year-old rock solid female is found with a lost lamb, I am more inclined to trust that she is just watching over it after the lamb wondered over to her. If  adolescent dog  going through his first or second lambing  is found with a lam away from the ewe, then I would be more inclined to watch this dog and his interactions a bit closer.

The dog's primary job is to guard the sheep, not interfer with normal sheep behaviours.

Anytime a dog shows very unusual, out of the ordinary or questionable behaviour, the dog is telling you that he needs to be monitored. Many people have these preconceived ideas that a LGD “would not harm the animals it protects” and that type of thinking is dangerous as it gives the dog opportunity to develop bad habits.  It certainly should not harm them but very many do. Once that predatory instinct has been triggered, it becomes nearly impossible to stop the dog from repeating this behaviour. It is always better to be more alert and cautious than blindly assume that the dog has good intentions.  I would always err on the side of caution than allow a dog to develop a bad habit. Sometimes, we do not have proof that the dog was the culprit, but a bit of extra supervision never harmed any dog. If the sheep are a little nervous around the dog, or hesitant to come into the barn or go to the hayfeeder, perhaps they are cornered in the pasture then it is time to pay attention to the dog. He is the predator that lives full time with them and any behaviour that remotely looks like it could become predatory needs to be corrected (stalking, singling, chasing, nipping, standing over, controlling, wool pulling, ear chewing, guarding a specific area etc.).

To learn to differentiate acceptable from unacceptable behaviour always keep in mind what the job is that the LGD is expected to do. If the dog goes out of those parameters, then supervise. My expectations are:
The dog should guard the flock against predators.
He should not harm the livestock in any manner.
He should not cause stress to the flock by chasing, nipping, harassing, or humping them.
It is not his job to mother the lamb, it is the ewe’s job.

A rule I follow is, any time I get an uneasy feeling regarding a dog, even if I cannot define it, I will always revert to more supervision, watching at a distance or even containing the dog until such point where I can monitor him a bit more. This gives me peace of mind and it prevents bad habits from escalating. If all is well, then the dog just had a bit of extra supervision, and no harm was done.

This dog lives with the cows when they are calving. It is his job to be watchful for predators, the cow will take care of her calf, and the dog will ensure no coyotes or wolves go near the pair.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs


This is where the magic happens, where pups can learn to find comfort and companionship with the sheep. 

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs

©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

This year I celebrate 30 years of working and being around livestock guardian dogs (LGD), I have seen and experienced a lot in those years. I have lived and worked with sheepdogs on three different continents, working with dogs who were amazing at their job requiring very little correction or guidance, to dogs that have harmed livestock. I have tried to rehabilitate “lost causes”, some of which were successful, and others that were not.   I have seen dogs who were not bonded to the livestock and this manifests itself in various ways; uninterest toward the sheep, some become aggressive, and others can live with the livestock without being protective of them. I have always utilized sheepdogs in a professional capacity, my income has always been dependent on my ranching practices. As much as I like dogs, they are first and foremost here to protect the livestock. In the past 30 years, I have seen many trends come and go regarding LGD. Some good, others bad and some questionable. This article is going to look at one of these trends regarding raising LGD puppies.

Lately, the popularity of LGD has increased exponentially and along with this rise also comes a large variety of opinions, on how to raise them and how to work with them. I accept that different folks have livestock in a variety of settings, and this influences how the dogs are worked.  However, I see certain approaches to raising LGD that I really question the validity of.

Back in the 80’s the use of LGD was relatively new in North America. In the 70’s the U.S. Sheep. Experiment Station (USSES) at Dubois, Idaho studied the use of LGD, followed by the Coppinger husband and wife team working on the Livestock Dog Project (Amherst, MA) and finally a study was conducted at Colorado State University (Ft. Collins). These research projects were the basis from which LGD were studied and evaluated in North America. All the research emphasized the importance of the bonding period of the LGD to the livestock. Without this development of this bond, the LGD were simply not “invested” enough in the sheep to want to stay with them and guard them. Everyone emphasized this time as being critical to the development of the LGD puppy. Some of this was taken to the extreme where a total hands-off method of raising was promoted. This continued for the next few decades, and it was common to see completely feral LGD, that could not be handled or touched. At that time, most people using LGD had range sheep and were larger outfits. The dogs, rarely, if ever, mingled with public and as the sheep were grazing bigger areas of land, neighbors were also not a real concern for them. The dogs interacted with the shepherds for daily care. If a dog roamed away, it would often end up at another band of sheep which was not usually a big problem.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, a shift took place in how LGD were being used. They were being used on smaller, more stationary operations, where the sheep were contained by fences and grazed rotationally. At this time, I was promoting a more hands-on way of working with LGD, I spoke at a conference and the topic was “No feral livestock guardian dogs for me, or my livestock”. At this time, it was frowned upon to pet and handle LGD. Many believed that petting them would ruin them. I remember explaining that puppies still needed to be bonded to the livestock but petting, vet care and some regular handling was okay and even beneficial. Some people were skeptical about this approach as they feared that the LGD would end up on the porch rather than out in the field with the sheep. I realized that some people struggled to find that balance, how to have a friendly, sociable dog that was bonded to the livestock.

Moving along, again LGD use has shifted, many people on small homesteads, hobby farms and backyard chicken keepers are looking at keeping LGD for a handful of livestock. The expectation is that the dogs do not bark much, are friendly to all visitors to the ranch, do not roam and are good with the livestock. Talking to many of these homestead people, I feel that what they are wanting is more in line with a general farm dog than a specialist such as the LGD. In this regard I think semantics’ matters and these people need to clearly define what they are wanting and looking for in a dog. This will help them find a dog that is suitable for their situation. Having the work for the dog clearly defined (LGD, farm dog, pet, or guard dog), will also define how the pup should be raised so that it can be successful in the role the owner requires of the dog. I have noticed more of a push from certain groups to promote keeping LGD in the house, to bond first with the family and then over the next few years transition the dog outside to the livestock. I cannot help but feel that this is such a missed opportunity for the pup to truly form an attachment to the sheep. I know, I want my LGD not to feel conflicted about where they need to be, I want them to be happy and comfortable with the livestock. I want my LGD to be protective of the sheep, not just territorial guarding (which most dogs do). I question how fair it is to first raise the pup in the house and then expect it to transition living outside with the livestock?

Too often, I see people saying that a 12-week-old pup is too young to be with the livestock; it is too cold, too hot, a pup could be a target for predators and many such arguments. All these points are moot, as any good owner will know, that a pup requires adequate housing and protection from the elements, no rancher is going to drop his young pup off in some far away pasture just for a predator to come along and kill it. Having a pup grow up with the livestock, does not mean it will not have adequate protection, care, and shelter. That is basic animal husbandry!

This 12-week-old pup is content to be with the sheep and enjoys lots of human interaction while it is living full time with the sheep.

The people that promote this form of raising LGD say that the dog is capable of bonding to both the people and the livestock (I agree with this), and they want to establish this human/LGD bond first, to ensure that the dog is well socialized and attached to the owner. I have very well socialized dogs, they can all be handled, well behaved, and super attached to me despite them living full time with the sheep. Once again, there is nothing stopping an owner going to the pasture and spend valuable time with the LGD. Where they sleep, does not determine how socialized and bonded, they are to the owner. I would argue that it is easier to form a bond with the dog that lives with the sheep, than it is for the dog to form a bond with the sheep that is living in the house!

The same people explain that this is how traditional shepherds, and their dogs live, in my opinion, it is a rather romanticized image of traditional shepherds. I have never seen a true working LGD (in Europe) that lives in the house. Most times the dogs, when not working are chained up outside by the barn. The shepherds appreciate their dogs, some are very attached to their dogs but none of them are raised in the house. The dogs are tied up when the shepherds bring the sheep back to the villages or are locked up in a building, barn, or kennel. Kids do play with pups, but this happens outside. Pups are often left to free range around the yards, while the mother is chained close by. Once the pups are a little older they are chained.

A shepherd’s dog in Macedonia. The sheep are in the village for the winter, the dog is chained to an old truck cab as a shelter. No LGD are raised in the house.

There is a big difference in needing a LGD or wanting an LGD. This need or want, is often reflected in how they are raised as pups.  The folks who “want” will more likely raise the pup in the house, with the family and treat it more like a pet dog than those that “need” an LGD. The people who truly “need” a LGD will want their pup to form a bond with the livestock. These owners will ensure that the dog has every opportunity to learn about sheep, facilitate bonding and provide the right environment for the pup to be successful in its future job. I know, I want my LGD to have a certain level of maturity and seriousness regarding their job as soon as possible, and that only comes with lots of exposure to the livestock.

I am all for people raising their dogs however they want, but I also hate to see LGD fail due to people errors. It saddens me when someone raised their LGD in the house for two years and now it does not want to stay with the sheep, or the dog is so wild when outside with the livestock that it harasses them. It is very concerning that some people feel that this is the way LGD pups should be raised, it sets a trend for animal welfare people to change legislation, similarly, to the “bring-them-inside-when-its-cold” crowd. I feel that the pendulum is now swinging too far to the side of raising LGD as pets, and it feels like I am struggling to convince people how valuable that initial bonding time is to the livestock, how you can have a great relationship with your working dogs and that it is simply not cruel to raise it with the sheep.

My kids can always spend as much time with the pups that they want, provided it is with the sheep in the barn or pasture. This helps to make pups sociable to people and still allows them to bond to the livestock.

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