Monday 5 November 2018

LGD Puppy Selection

Bonding to the livestock has always been high on the priority list for sheep ranchers, but can predictions be made on how the pup will turn out based on selection at a young age?

LGD Puppy Selection
©Louise Liebenberg, Sept 2018
Written for the Shepherds Magazine

I was asked to write an article on selection of a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) puppy. I chuckled and responded that it would be a pretty short article as my idea of puppy selection boils down to picking the puppy I like. I have no science or theories about which puppy to pick or, who will turn out the best from a litter. I do know that if I chose a pup I like, I am generally more willing and excited to work with that pup. I believe that every pup born from true working parents, should work out, why would they not? Why would one pup be “the best” or the most suited to LGD work while others in the litter are not? What would disqualify a healthy, well bred pup from possibly becoming a future guardian at 7 or 8 weeks old? How do we even know if what we see at 7 weeks of age, carries on through to adulthood?

In the companion and service dog world, puppy testing is a normal and accepted form of puppy selection. It is used as a guideline and a (somewhat) objective way of scoring pups. Puppy Aptitude Testing (PAT) is primarily focussed on highlighting the differences in each puppy’s personality, using this to match the pup to a new owner or to find those pups who would be best suited for a specific task, such as guide dogs or hearing dogs. In fact, many years ago, we raised a few border collies for hearing dogs, the organization would come and do puppy tests on a litter to see which pups they felt were most suited to that work. Most failed as hearing dogs, being too high drive for the average hearing-impaired owner. Despite the puppy testing and selection, ultimately the breed traits overpowered the aptitude testing. The decision was made that working border collies were perhaps not the best breed for that job and during that process, we got first-hand experience of what puppy testing involved.

Orysia Dawydiak and David Sims wrote a chapter on Puppy Testing and Selection in their book Livestock Protection Dogs, where they took a deeper look at Puppy Aptitude Tests. Dawydiak and Sims found they could better assess which pups to send to a large range operation or a small homestead based on certain personality types.  In a way, their test scores correlate with common sense; a more active, independent, less human orientated pup might fare well on a larger outfit, while the quieter, more reserved type might suit the homestead situation better. They found that their test scores confirmed their own observations of the puppy’s personalities. They did include a livestock portion to their PAT test to help determine which pups would be more suited as LGD and who might be better placed in a family home.  The authors are clear to mention that the PAT is not decisive in assessing pups and should be viewed as an additional tool to evaluate a litter.  They emphasised that the criteria remains the same for selecting a future guardian dog; get a pup from working parents, select the best pup for the situation and get as much good training advice and support from the breeder as needed.
It is interesting to note that recent research has shown that PAT tests in general, have little predictive ability regarding the adult behaviour of the dog. As Stanley Coren concludes “The only thing that comes out of this is the observation that the puppies that engage in a lot of exploratory behavior turned into the adults who explored their environment a lot. Sociability, fearfulness, irritability and all of the other tests were virtually a washout when it came to predicting adult behavior from tests administered when a puppy is 40 to 50 days of age.” (
This litter of pups are getting evaluated by the ewes.

In my own observations I agree that it is impossible to predict how the adult dog will be. Many years ago, I was selecting a pup from a litter, I decided to choose the softest, most timid pup from the litter, one who did not really engage people, who was fairly introvert in nature and who did not like to explore her environment. I was looking for the dog who would be the “close bonding” type, one who would prefer to be with the sheep than people.  As this dog matured she certainly did not remain timid. She was lethal to any coyote, was brave and wise in her interactions with predators, she would stay with the flock, but did not hesitate to confront predators or patrol the larger pastures. She was super vigilant in her behaviour, could spot a coyote a mile away and was fearless, in a calm manner. She was not that overbearing, dominant dog one would expect to be the one confronting and battling predators. She was fantastic with people, enjoyed being around us and very sociable, despite being very loyal to her sheep. Her behaviour at 7-weeks old, did not reflect her adult behaviour. She grew into her role, matured into a confident guardian and become one of my most valued dogs on our guardian team. I believe many ranchers would have dismissed this dog based on her 7-week-old behaviour.

Pups raised with livestock become relaxed and comfortable with them

So, how does one go about selecting the right pup for the job when things like puppy testing do not seem to be a reliable way to assess pups? Is it enough to pick a pup you like, from a litter born out of good working parents and then raising that pup correctly?  My short answer is yes, I do believe that genetics and correct raising goes a long way to ensuring that a pup becomes a great LGD. Puppy testing may give a glimpse into how a pup may be at that moment, but it does not predict the pup’s adult behaviour. What shapes the adult behaviour are things such as experiences, other dogs, the livestock, terrain and how it is raised.

Not every dog in an LGD pack needs to be dominant and aggressive. A timid pup maybe the one that sticks close to the flock and sounds the alarm when danger approaches. Another pup could be bolder and could make a great dog for patrolling and pushing predators back while another with a strong character might be one that goes out and engages a predator.  Despite the differences in personalities, each pup will grow up and fill an important role within an LGD pack. I believe any pup, from a well-bred litter should be “good enough” to be an asset to any guardian team.

It is hard to accurately describe the actual work that an LGD does, or even define “what is needed” within a pack of LGD. Most sheep ranchers have this image that the dog must always stick tight with the livestock, never leave them and be a formidable opponent if predators come calling. Those that ranged further, are often regarded as inferior or even as failures. Early research focused mostly on ensuring that a pup is encouraged to bond tightly to the livestock. Pups who are more exploratory or people orientated were often disregarded as potential LGD.

Is this puppy displaying a bold or dominant behaviour, does this behaviour at 7 weeks of age, reflect how this pup will mature?
With an increase of large predators on the landscape, ranchers are turning more towards the tougher, perhaps stronger natured dogs. Researchers have been evaluating “tougher” breeds who would be more eager to defend a flock of sheep from bears, cougars and wolves, not just coyotes. 
Over the years, I have seen a shift from the use of a single or, perhaps a pair of LGD per flock, to using multiple dogs. Dogs that are patrolling or perimeter type dogs, are becoming more accepted within the context of a working pack of LGD, where various duties are performed by multiple dogs. Some dogs move ahead of the flock and push predators further back, others stay close to the flock, some dogs are the fighters, some are the alarm system. All work cohesively to provide protection for the flock. All these roles are fluid, sometimes the more inexperienced dogs stay close to the flock while the more experienced dogs confront the predators, other times it is the energetic yearlings who are out making large sweeping circles. No longer is it expected that just one or two dogs are on duty to protect the sheep, it is more common to see 6-8 dogs with a large band of sheep.  Some ranchers prefer to integrate various breeds to provide a spread of various traits and personalities to the LGD pack. The idea is that various breeds and personalities bring a wider variety of working styles and traits to the flock, ensuring a more effective form of protection for the livestock.

Within this context of using multiple dogs, I see that there is a role for all personality’s types in a litter of guardian dog pups and one type is not better than another. If they keep the sheep safe and predators at bay, it is good enough for me. I am not convinced there is a way to test pups on their aptitude to becoming great LGDs, beyond evaluating the parent’s ability and manner of working. When a breeder raises the pups in a working environment, ensures they have a great start, are healthy and well fed, then every pup has a good foundation to becoming a well rounded LGD. My suggestion would be to place more effort into selecting a good breeder, and then raising them correctly, instead of trying to find the perfect puppy within a litter.

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