Friday 13 August 2021

What LGD breed is best for my situation?


A shorted coated Estrella working in Portugal. The Estrella also comes in a long-coated version.

What LGD breed is best for my situation?
Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

 With over forty different breeds of Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) breeds, a common question is what breed would work well for a specific situation. Often, the responses are as simple as “I love my … (breed name)”. Rarely do people explain what makes “their” breed unique or why they chose them.  Over the past four decades, several researchers have tried to establish which breed is the best. Coppinger and his colleagues compared Anatolian, Maremma, Sarplaninac and, crosses between these breeds. More recently, Daniel Kinka and Julie Young compared Kangals, Karakachan, Transmontanos and White Dogs (a generic name for a cross of white LGD often found in the USA).  The conclusion from their study was that most of the breeds are more like each other, than different (in regard to working style). This should not be a huge surprise as all LGD have the same job to do and it makes sense that these breeds would be similar in how they respond to predators.

The athletic and reliable Turkish Akbash working on a sheep ranch in Northern British Columbia, Canada.

It is also hard to compare breeds as every working situation is unique, the predators that the dog is expected to protect from, can range from raccoons and weasels to bears and wolves. Even the pressure that certain predators place on the flock varies, in some region’s wolves are thick and in other regions there may be none. How flocks are managed can affect how the work of the dogs is perceived. Owner bias makes comparing breeds difficult as each person will value different traits, temperaments, and abilities all within their own reference point. Sometimes, the lack of good statistical data can get in the way of fair comparisons, if you are studying a population of thousands of dogs, the data will generally be more accurate than if you are studying just a handful of dogs. An example of this is the Great Pyrenees (GP). The GP is often associated with roaming, however there are probably more GP and GP crosses than any other LGD in North America. Yes, these might roam more, simply because there are so many more GP around.

A white Sarplaninac working in Northern Alberta, Canada on a sheep and cattle ranch.

Gross generalizations about breeds are of course, not really the “right” thing to do, for every generalization, hundreds of exceptions will be found. In some instances, there might be more variance between individuals within a breed than between different breeds. However, most people still like to know some of these generalizations, to be able to narrow down which breed might suit their situation best. I know making such a comparison is “treading on thin ice” as some people might feel their breed is being misrepresented. My advice to people looking for LGD is to meet breeders, talk to fellow livestock owners and visit with various dogs. The breeder might ultimately, be more important than the breed itself, as it is the breeder who can help and mentor you while learning to work with LGD.

I do believe, it is primarily, the wolf, that has shaped the behavior and temperament of our LGD, and this can be reflected in the reactivity and aggression level in LGD. The first gross generalization I will make is; if you look at the map of Europe and move from west to east, the breeds tend to get harder the further East you go.  Why would this be? Perhaps it has to do with the number of years that the wolf has been extirpated in certain countries. Wolves were officially declared extinct in France in the 1930s. It is only since the 1990’s that wolves have really started drifting from Italy back into the French Pyrenean Mountains.  Before this, few Great Pyrenees dogs had seen or faced a wolf for many generations in their home country.  With no need for the GP to be aggressive toward wolves for close to 60 years, perhaps this led to selection of milder natured dogs who display high nurturing traits as opposed to high aggression traits. Italy has been a stronghold for wolves in Europe when many other countries had extirpated them. Regions where wolves have always existed, shepherds have always worked with their Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdogs. The “Maremma” would rate higher for protectiveness simply due to the ongoing selection for dogs to be able to work in wolf territory. Russia and central Asia has a large population of wolves (wolves were never extirpated here) and is home of the Ovcharkas. Breeds that are large, powerful, and regarded as high aggression breeds. Predator density plays a big role in the selection of aggression and ferocity in LGD.

People asking which breed would work best for them, often have a list of criteria for the future LGD, these can include no roaming, barking or must be super friendly to visitors and tolerant of dogs. It really does need to be mentioned that all LGD like to roam and expand their territory. All LGD bark, that is part of their working strategy. Incessant barking is often found in immature dogs. Friendliness to strangers can be encouraged through more intensive socialization, however some breeds are naturally more standoffish. As for tolerance towards visitors’ dogs, it is unfair to expect the LGD to be tolerant to strange dogs and yet protect again canine predators.

A pair of working Sarplaninac dogs guarding goats in the mountains of Macedonia.

I am going to make some broad comparisons, as this may help people narrow down certain criteria that people starting with LGD might find handy. I will also include the common abbreviations for the breed names as I go along. I think ideal LGD to start with, are those breeds that have been used for many years in North America. I have selected the more common breeds for this overview and breeds I have some experience with.

Good breeds for the inexperienced homes or ones looking for an easier going temperament may include Great Pyrenees (GP), Maremma, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd Dog (ASD) and Spanish Mastiff (SM). Breeds that are sharper in nature and possibly better suited to high predator areas would include:
Kangal, Central Asian Shepherd (CAS), Sarplaninac (Sar or Shar), Karakachan, or Kommondor (Kom).  This does not rule out the easier breeds cannot work in high predator areas, I know many that function well; however their temperaments are perhaps a bit easier to get along with.

Breeds better suited for warmer climates: most LGD breeds are double coated however some have a shorter length coat. These would include Akbash, short-coated Estrela Mountain Dog (Estrela), Kangal, ASD and CAS.  Longer coated breeds include the Maremma, GP, Sarplaninac, Karakachan. Corded coat is the Komondor and will require a lot of coat maintenance.

Athleticism or breeds that need to cover larger areas. These breeds are often found in Europe and Asia on the more steppe type landscapes include the Akbash, Kangal, ASD some Maremma and CAS. The mountain types are often heavier coated breeds and more stout body types. These would include the Great Pyrenees, Sarplaninac, some Maremma and Karakachan.
Depending on lines the Spanish Mastiff can vary from big and heavy, to sleek working types. Some breeds have such variance a lot will depend on what each breeder selects for. Some are described as “show type” vs working type.

Coppinger in his studies talked about trustworthiness and compared some breeds for this trait. I think some breeds may require more supervision and guidance as young dogs.  Breeds that may be easier to start and that have a high trustworthiness can include the GP, Maremma, ASD and Akbash. Breeds that may require more supervision may include the Sarplaninac, the Kangal, CAS and some Maremma, as they are late maturing and this may lead to some more extended play periods,

Certain breeds are more driven to run down and chase predators while others are content to bark and warn predators away. The more driven breeds would include the Kangal, CAS, Sarplaninac, while the ones possibly more content to stay around closer to the flock would include the GP, Maremma, Karakachan, the Estrella, SM and Akbash.

Size, many people feel that to be an effective guardian dog working with apex predators, they must be large. Size is not so much an issue, I believe character, determination and a certain degree of aggressiveness is what makes the difference. Some breeds are just more willing to fight and are naturally more aggressive than others. Large sized breeds are SM, Caucasian Ovcharka and CAS.
Medium sized breeds include Maremma, Estrella, Karakachan, Sarplaninac and Great Pyrenees. Tall breeds include Kangal, ASD and Akbash.

Some people only want white LGD, this will limit the breeds to chose from to Kuvasz, Polish Tatra Kommondor, GP and Maremma. Many LGD are coloured.

Availability is often an issue. The CO is regarded as a high aggression breed, but it is virtually impossible to find good, working CO. Most are bred for show or as guard dogs for pet homes and very few are bred in North America as LGD. Similarly, with the Sarplaninac. Most Sarplaninac imported to the USA are from show breeders and for many generations have not been used as LGD. The Sarplaninac and many of the other breeds, have also been used for dog fighting in their home country, breeding selection has been based on dog fighting. Many of these dogs fail as working LGDs, simply because they do not posses the traits of nurturing, calmness, and attentiveness towards the livestock.

Each breed brings a unique balance of “skills” to the proverbial table, and to the discerning buyer, the right breed for their situation is “out there”. Some ranchers like to use a combination of breeds, the feel this maximizes effectiveness whereas I feel each breed has the capabilities to fulfill  all the roles required to protect the flock.

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