Friday 6 May 2022

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs


This is where the magic happens, where pups can learn to find comfort and companionship with the sheep. 

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs

©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

This year I celebrate 30 years of working and being around livestock guardian dogs (LGD), I have seen and experienced a lot in those years. I have lived and worked with sheepdogs on three different continents, working with dogs who were amazing at their job requiring very little correction or guidance, to dogs that have harmed livestock. I have tried to rehabilitate “lost causes”, some of which were successful, and others that were not.   I have seen dogs who were not bonded to the livestock and this manifests itself in various ways; uninterest toward the sheep, some become aggressive, and others can live with the livestock without being protective of them. I have always utilized sheepdogs in a professional capacity, my income has always been dependent on my ranching practices. As much as I like dogs, they are first and foremost here to protect the livestock. In the past 30 years, I have seen many trends come and go regarding LGD. Some good, others bad and some questionable. This article is going to look at one of these trends regarding raising LGD puppies.

Lately, the popularity of LGD has increased exponentially and along with this rise also comes a large variety of opinions, on how to raise them and how to work with them. I accept that different folks have livestock in a variety of settings, and this influences how the dogs are worked.  However, I see certain approaches to raising LGD that I really question the validity of.

Back in the 80’s the use of LGD was relatively new in North America. In the 70’s the U.S. Sheep. Experiment Station (USSES) at Dubois, Idaho studied the use of LGD, followed by the Coppinger husband and wife team working on the Livestock Dog Project (Amherst, MA) and finally a study was conducted at Colorado State University (Ft. Collins). These research projects were the basis from which LGD were studied and evaluated in North America. All the research emphasized the importance of the bonding period of the LGD to the livestock. Without this development of this bond, the LGD were simply not “invested” enough in the sheep to want to stay with them and guard them. Everyone emphasized this time as being critical to the development of the LGD puppy. Some of this was taken to the extreme where a total hands-off method of raising was promoted. This continued for the next few decades, and it was common to see completely feral LGD, that could not be handled or touched. At that time, most people using LGD had range sheep and were larger outfits. The dogs, rarely, if ever, mingled with public and as the sheep were grazing bigger areas of land, neighbors were also not a real concern for them. The dogs interacted with the shepherds for daily care. If a dog roamed away, it would often end up at another band of sheep which was not usually a big problem.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, a shift took place in how LGD were being used. They were being used on smaller, more stationary operations, where the sheep were contained by fences and grazed rotationally. At this time, I was promoting a more hands-on way of working with LGD, I spoke at a conference and the topic was “No feral livestock guardian dogs for me, or my livestock”. At this time, it was frowned upon to pet and handle LGD. Many believed that petting them would ruin them. I remember explaining that puppies still needed to be bonded to the livestock but petting, vet care and some regular handling was okay and even beneficial. Some people were skeptical about this approach as they feared that the LGD would end up on the porch rather than out in the field with the sheep. I realized that some people struggled to find that balance, how to have a friendly, sociable dog that was bonded to the livestock.

Moving along, again LGD use has shifted, many people on small homesteads, hobby farms and backyard chicken keepers are looking at keeping LGD for a handful of livestock. The expectation is that the dogs do not bark much, are friendly to all visitors to the ranch, do not roam and are good with the livestock. Talking to many of these homestead people, I feel that what they are wanting is more in line with a general farm dog than a specialist such as the LGD. In this regard I think semantics’ matters and these people need to clearly define what they are wanting and looking for in a dog. This will help them find a dog that is suitable for their situation. Having the work for the dog clearly defined (LGD, farm dog, pet, or guard dog), will also define how the pup should be raised so that it can be successful in the role the owner requires of the dog. I have noticed more of a push from certain groups to promote keeping LGD in the house, to bond first with the family and then over the next few years transition the dog outside to the livestock. I cannot help but feel that this is such a missed opportunity for the pup to truly form an attachment to the sheep. I know, I want my LGD not to feel conflicted about where they need to be, I want them to be happy and comfortable with the livestock. I want my LGD to be protective of the sheep, not just territorial guarding (which most dogs do). I question how fair it is to first raise the pup in the house and then expect it to transition living outside with the livestock?

Too often, I see people saying that a 12-week-old pup is too young to be with the livestock; it is too cold, too hot, a pup could be a target for predators and many such arguments. All these points are moot, as any good owner will know, that a pup requires adequate housing and protection from the elements, no rancher is going to drop his young pup off in some far away pasture just for a predator to come along and kill it. Having a pup grow up with the livestock, does not mean it will not have adequate protection, care, and shelter. That is basic animal husbandry!

This 12-week-old pup is content to be with the sheep and enjoys lots of human interaction while it is living full time with the sheep.

The people that promote this form of raising LGD say that the dog is capable of bonding to both the people and the livestock (I agree with this), and they want to establish this human/LGD bond first, to ensure that the dog is well socialized and attached to the owner. I have very well socialized dogs, they can all be handled, well behaved, and super attached to me despite them living full time with the sheep. Once again, there is nothing stopping an owner going to the pasture and spend valuable time with the LGD. Where they sleep, does not determine how socialized and bonded, they are to the owner. I would argue that it is easier to form a bond with the dog that lives with the sheep, than it is for the dog to form a bond with the sheep that is living in the house!

The same people explain that this is how traditional shepherds, and their dogs live, in my opinion, it is a rather romanticized image of traditional shepherds. I have never seen a true working LGD (in Europe) that lives in the house. Most times the dogs, when not working are chained up outside by the barn. The shepherds appreciate their dogs, some are very attached to their dogs but none of them are raised in the house. The dogs are tied up when the shepherds bring the sheep back to the villages or are locked up in a building, barn, or kennel. Kids do play with pups, but this happens outside. Pups are often left to free range around the yards, while the mother is chained close by. Once the pups are a little older they are chained.

A shepherd’s dog in Macedonia. The sheep are in the village for the winter, the dog is chained to an old truck cab as a shelter. No LGD are raised in the house.

There is a big difference in needing a LGD or wanting an LGD. This need or want, is often reflected in how they are raised as pups.  The folks who “want” will more likely raise the pup in the house, with the family and treat it more like a pet dog than those that “need” an LGD. The people who truly “need” a LGD will want their pup to form a bond with the livestock. These owners will ensure that the dog has every opportunity to learn about sheep, facilitate bonding and provide the right environment for the pup to be successful in its future job. I know, I want my LGD to have a certain level of maturity and seriousness regarding their job as soon as possible, and that only comes with lots of exposure to the livestock.

I am all for people raising their dogs however they want, but I also hate to see LGD fail due to people errors. It saddens me when someone raised their LGD in the house for two years and now it does not want to stay with the sheep, or the dog is so wild when outside with the livestock that it harasses them. It is very concerning that some people feel that this is the way LGD pups should be raised, it sets a trend for animal welfare people to change legislation, similarly, to the “bring-them-inside-when-its-cold” crowd. I feel that the pendulum is now swinging too far to the side of raising LGD as pets, and it feels like I am struggling to convince people how valuable that initial bonding time is to the livestock, how you can have a great relationship with your working dogs and that it is simply not cruel to raise it with the sheep.

My kids can always spend as much time with the pups that they want, provided it is with the sheep in the barn or pasture. This helps to make pups sociable to people and still allows them to bond to the livestock.

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