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.” (https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/norwegian-elkhound/)
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.