Friday, 4 November 2022

Bonding and Trustworthiness


Bonding and Trustworthiness
Louise Liebenberg(2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

I have written many columns for this magazine on Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) and the regular readers may be accustomed to me writing about the importance of understanding the nuances in behaviour and the use of language to describe this behaviour.  Terms are tossed around without fully grasping the differences or similarities. We cannot fully appreciate the level of working ability our LGD display, or even manage some behavioural issues that pop up, without fully understanding the differences in the behaviour. A lot of behaviours look similar and yet, they are not. It is in this gray area where confusion and misunderstanding can grow. I like to explain these subtle variations in the hopes to provide some more clarity on the behaviour these dogs display.

This article is going to dive a little deeper into two concepts and how they differ: bonding and trustworthiness.  The most successful livestock guardian dogs are those who are bonded, trustworthy, attentive, and protective towards the livestock. This is the gold standard in working LGD. Some LGD can be effective, to a slightly lesser degree, if they are perhaps not quite as protective or attentive toward the livestock. Less effective dogs can have a deterring effect on predators, but may no be as effective as some other dogs are. The problem arises when a LGD is not trustworthy, this is a total failure, as no shepherd can tolerate a dog that is harming the stock. Trustworthiness can be described as an absence of predatory behaviour towards the livestock.

Trustworthiness and bonding look very similar in normal LGD/ sheep interactions, a dog who is trustworthy can live with the livestock and will do them no harm. A dog can be trustworthy and yet, not be bonded to the sheep.
Many people struggle to differentiate between the two. This can be seen in the numerous comments on social media pages, where people talk about what a fantastic LGD their Pitbull is, or their Labrador. What these people are seeing is a dog that is trustworthy with their livestock, mostly through training and socialization. Rarely, do these dogs live full time with the livestock as our LGD do, so it is not really a true reflection on trustworthiness under all circumstances. Very many breeds, not only the LGD breeds, can become trustworthy around the livestock, the general farm dog is usually a trustworthy dog, but that alone, does not make him an LGD.

Bonding on the other hand is the attachment the dog makes with the livestock, and this attachment is fostered through intense socialization with livestock from a young age. This attachment becomes the primary attachment for the pup. He learns that sheep are his companions and later, his charges. Bonding differs with trustworthiness in the (free) choices the dog makes. A dog who is bonded with the livestock will chose to be with the livestock, it will move with the sheep when they graze, they will want to be with the livestock rather than hang out elsewhere. I have a female LGD who is so bonded with her sheep, if she gets locked out the pasture (usually accidently) she will dig under the fence to get back in with them. When the sheep move around the pasture, she moves with them. She protects the sheep wherever the sheep are.  The bonded dog is attached to the sheep and not to the “space” (pasture, field, corral). A bonded dog can certainly be territorial, but when that territory changes, as it does with flocks grazing in open spaces, then it becomes important for the dog to want to stay close to the livestock. The LGD choses the livestock over being with people, other dogs, or the yard.

Bonding is not just the dog bonded to the sheep; the relationship is bi-directional. The sheep also need to bond to the dog. We must appreciate the level of trust the sheep need to have in the dog (predator) we place with them. To achieve this level of trust both species need to bond with each other. I can usually see on a sheep flock whether the sheep trust the dog or not. If the sheep give indications that the dog is not trustworthy it is important for the shepherd to pay attention to the dog. The sheep “know” if the dog is showing predatory behaviour.

What many of the folks who advocate to “raise them in the house” are doing, is simply training their LGD to be trustworthy around the livestock, but not allowing the dog to form a bond with the sheep. There are very many LGD who are trustworthy, but not bonded to the sheep. These dogs can still make excellent guardian dogs, even though they might not feel super attached to the sheep, the territorial instinct kicks in and the dog will protect the sheep within their area. Good fences usually facilitate this, as the dog can be contained in the area the livestock grazes.

People who have never owned a bonded dog, do not actually know, or see what the difference is between the two. They often mistake bonded with trustworthy, particularly when the dog is confined to a specific area.  We do not know, what we don’t know, and unless you have worked with dogs so loyal, devoted, and protective of their sheep one might never truly appreciate the difference.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a trustworthy dog is an amazing dog and that is what we strive for with the LGD. We need them to be trustworthy, but it is an amazing bonus if they are also truly bonded to the sheep.  

When it comes to poultry, the focus is simply for the dog to become trustworthy. LGD and chickens rarely actually “bond” to each other. When it comes to guarding styles most LGD working with poultry, guard more out of territorial protectiveness as opposed to being bonded to the animals. Most times, chickens are also fairly limited in their range that the move about in, so a trustworthy dog who is territorial will often work well in chasing small predators away.

Years ago, ranchers felt that the dog was bonded to the sheep when it only stayed close to the sheep, many ranchers felt the more perimeter style guarding meant that the dog was not bonded or even doing its job. I believe there are some breed differences here, where some breeds are staying naturally closer to the livestock than others. I also believe that difference depends on the level of boldness in the dogs, if they have a pack to support them, age, level of predator pressure and other factors will shape the style of guarding the dogs do.  Some breeds are more “looking for a fight” type, while others are content to stay closer to the sheep. A bonded dog will still patrol but will come back to the sheep and stay with them.

For many smaller homesteads who may be dealing with few smaller predators, having a trustworthy all round farm dog might be sufficient for their needs. On a larger range operation, shepherds are needing LGD who are bonded to the stock. Trustworthiness does not always mean bonded, but do not discount the value of a reliable dog!

It is heartwarming to truly see these deep relationships the dogs form with the sheep. The sheep look to the dog for guidance and direction, and the dog feels the need to protect them. This is the relationship we want to foster!


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