|This dog has it all, attentive, protective, and trustworthy. He did require some corrections while in his adolescent years, and never missed an opportunity to make go and visit some of the other ranch dogs. Except for those minor flaws, and his intense dislike for strange cats, this dog had “it” all.|
Do they have "it" or not?
Liebenberg June 2020
Written for The Shepherds Magazine
My friend Jill, from Northern California, asked me if I
thought that livestock guardian dogs either have “it” or not. It is of course
an interesting question to ponder. Before, I can delve into this, I think “it”
needs to be defined. I am assuming Jill means the traits, character, and
ability to be successful Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) without much involvement
of the shepherd (beyond the normal facilitation in raising and bonding). The
“it” refers to the part that the dog brings to the “table”, both in traits and
I do believe that some dogs do just have it. These dogs are solid, reliable,
and trustworthy with the livestock right off the bat, with little to no
additional guidance from the shepherd. I
also know that other dogs can be reliable and trustworthy but may require some
more time and input from the shepherd. Finally, there are other LGD who are
never trustworthy and no matter how much time and effort the shepherd puts into
them, they just do not have what it takes to do the job. Some dogs can even be
partially good, reliable in some circumstances and not in others, or effective
some of the time. Even just the presence of the dogs, whether they are actively
guarding or not, still has some deterring effects on predators.
Most of the researchers still use the
three pillars laid out by the Coppinger’s to assess the effectiveness of LGD,
namely are they trustworthy, attentive, and protective of the livestock? In a
study of LGD in Georgia by Robin Riggs, he interviewed shepherds and documented
525 dogs (adults and juveniles). Some interesting numbers roll out from these
studies. Respondents rated their dogs as good (61%) and partially good (22%).
To fully understand the partially good one needs to understand that a dog can
be attentive to the livestock and highly trustworthy, but can lack
protectiveness, therefore “partially good”. Or, it might be trustworthy and
protective, but because they are inattentive; for example, the dog is not
always around the livestock when predators attack, this dog might be rated as
partially good. Shepherds rated their dogs as good when they were attentive to
livestock (51%), aggressive to predators (12%) and unafraid of wolves (7%). Partially good dogs were considered; not
attentive enough (38%), insufficiently protective (33%), or attentive but
afraid of predators (19%).
Respondents were asked about their training regime, 40% claimed their dogs
learnt to do their job by themselves, 31% were raised with the flock and 25%
claimed the dogs learnt what to do from the other dogs. Only 2 respondents
claimed to engage in specific actions to
encourage attentiveness in their dogs by encouraging the dogs to accompany the
flock or by feeding the dogs close to the livestock.
Five farms claimed their dogs were not good citing lack of attentiveness, fear
of wolves, poor breeding, or failure to train properly. (Rigg Robin; Goldthorpe Garth; Popiashvilli Teimuraz
and Sillero-Zubiri Claudio, 2017)
It is interesting to note that some respondents specifically noted that their
failure to correctly train the dogs was a reason for them being “not good”.
This certainly implies that some effort and work on behalf of the shepherd is
required, and that it is not just a matter of the dog having it or not.
In the Georgian study no actual figures were laid out for what percentage of
shepherds felt that the dogs failed in their job, if respondents claimed 61%
were good and 22% partially good, can one assume that 17% were not good? (Rigg Robin; Goldthorpe Garth; Popiashvilli Teimuraz
and Sillero-Zubiri Claudio, 2017)
In a study in Portugal the numbers are a lot more optimistic. In a personal
communication with Silvia Ribeiro, who works with Grupo Lobo in helping to
place LGD with shepherds. The dogs are monitored and scored based on their
effectiveness, trustworthiness, and protectiveness. Data is kept on all the
dogs in their program. It was found that
about 6.9 % of the dogs evaluated were found to be unsuited for LGD work by
their (initial) owners, however some of these dogs were transferred to other
farms and were successfully integrated back to work. Ultimately, only about
2.5% of the dog evaluated were excluded completely as LGD. The reasons cited for this were mostly
behavioral problems, and in 80% of the cases related with lack of attentiveness
(44.4%), trustworthiness (44.4%), or protectiveness (11.1%). In the other 20% the motives mentioned by
owners were related with damages to neighbor's gardens, killing of chickens,
chasing cars, aggressiveness to other dogs, and fear of aggressiveness to
(Ribeiro Silvia; Guerra Ana and Petrucci-Fonseca Francisco, 2017)
Statistics on failure rates in LGD seems to vary, and seems directly tied to
how invested the shepherds are in working with their dogs. A certain number of
dogs do fail, despite being given every opportunity to be successful. “Not all
pups are capable of becoming good livestock guardians, regardless of how they
are raised”. (Coppinger R, 2001)
“Almost all pups in the present study showed some obnoxious behaviour towards
sheep. Even the best dogs vigorously chased sheep when they first accompanied
flocks to pasture at five months old. How shepherds responded to such behaviour
was of great importance. Most disruptive behaviour can be corrected, given
sufficient patience and a degree of tolerance (Sims and Dawydiak 1990:45-80,
Coppinger 1992a). According to these authors, LGD behaviour can change
substantially as dogs mature and a seemingly unsuccessful adolescent may still
prove to be a good guardian.” (Rigg, 2004)
So, it is clear that some troubling behaviour is to be expected, however what
happens with this troubling behaviour and how it is dealt with is perhaps more
determining for the successful outcome for the LGD.
As Ribeiro states “I believe in most cases, in the right context and with the
right owner (experienced/patient), dogs can be recovered. It seems sometimes it
is just a question of lack of maturity, and with time they can outgrow those
undesirable behaviors, especially if not reinforced.” (Personal Communication,
Rigg also reported that during the study in Georgia they often found the dogs
away from the flocks, and the dogs were often absent during a predatory attack.
This indicates a lack of attentiveness
in the adult dogs. He recommends better
rearing practices and starting this with younger pups to help improve
attentiveness in the LGD.
|When the sheep are well protected, the shepherd certainly can rest a whole lot better.|
So, coming full circle back to the question Jill asked about
whether LGD simply have it or not, the numbers and research suggests it is
always a combination of nature and nature. For the dogs to be successful it
does appear that a certain amount of work and facilitation is required by the
shepherd. The shepherds and owners need to be invested in their dogs to achieve
good success rates. The Grupo Lobo dogs
are monitored, shepherds are taught how to work with their dogs. In other
regions manuals on the most successful way to raise and bond LGD have been
written to help improve the (perceived)
success rate of LGD. There does seem to be a common thread in how to manage
these “failures”, and that will be a great topic for a future article.
I do think some dogs are simply not cut out to be LGD, they just do not possess
the right combination of traits needed for the job, either due to poor
breeding, lack of selection, poor character or lack of guidance by the owner. This is of course not unique to LGD, not
every border collie can work a full day or have the innate abilities to work
well. Even some border collies are only “partially good” and some have no desire
to work livestock.
Some dogs who show poor behaviour can be worked with or perhaps as they hit
maturity they can settle down and become effective. I think a lot also depends
on circumstances, someone on a few acres and low predator threat might be sooner
content with how the dog is working than someone dealing with heavy predation.
I think owner perception of the job a dog needs to do, is also determining in an
assessment of how successful they are. Some folks are content when a dog just
hangs out at the feeder with the sheep and other people want to see active
guarding and preferably killed predators. I believe a dog who is inattentive or
lacks protectiveness can still be somewhat useful. I think the hardest trait to
deal with are dogs who not trustworthy with the livestock, in some instances
direct work, supervision and maturity
can resolve that issue, but when dogs have the opportunity to continue bad behaviour, I believe it changes
something in their brain. It ignites the predatory response and once that is
triggered, it is hard to change that behaviour. It is such a fine line for a
canine to live and interact with a prey species, it is easy to understand that
some are simply not cut out for that job.
I believe those shepherds who have dealt with many LGD, do see sooner which
dogs might not make the grade, it could be a feeling, or how the livestock
respond to the dog or early recognition
of troubling behaviour. I know, I have had dogs who I have always felt were
just not attentive to the livestock and later, this changed into more troubling
behaviour resulting in untrustworthiness.
The key is recognizing troubling behaviour or even the circumstances
that can lead to troubling behaviour sooner, will increase the success rate of
Guerra,Ana and Petrucci-Fonseca,Francisco. (2017). The Use of Livestock
Guardian Dogs in North-Eastern Portugal: The Importance of Keeping the
Tradition. Carnivore Damage Prevention News(15), 9-18.
Coppinger R, a.
C. (2001). Dogs; a stratling new understanding of canine origin, behaviour
and evolution. New York, USA: Scribner.
Rigg, R. (2004).
The extent of predation on livestock by large carnivores in Slowakia and
mitigating carnivore- human conflict using livestock guardian dogs. UK:
University of Aberdeen.
Goldthorpe, Garth; Popiashvilli, Teimuraz and Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio.
(2017). Livestock Guardian Dogs in Georgia: A tradition in need of saving? Canivore
Damage Prevention News(15), 19-27.
Silvia Ribeiro, personal communication.