Sunday 9 August 2020

Do they have "it" or not?


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?
©Louise 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 character.

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 people.
(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, 2020)
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 “problem” LGD.


Ribeiro,Silvia; 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.

Rigg, Robin; 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. 

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