©Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for: The Shepherd's Magazine
Not all things that go wrong with livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are because the dog made a mistake or was misbehaving. Very often, the owner or breeder made choices that created issues for the young dog and without some prompt and corrective actions can result in the dog failing. Sadly, it is often the dog that pays for these bad decisions with his life.
A good start for the LGD begins with the breeder selecting appropriate homes for the pups. Too often I hear of breeders selling multiple pups into a suburban home or a micro homestead situation, surrounded by neighbours. Of course, a lot of the responsibility lies with the buyer, but a good breeder would simply not place their pups in such a home. It is common knowledge that most LGD breeds bark a lot, can become stranger and other dog aggressive and generally do not do well on very small homesteads with little to no work to do. Very often these pups must be locked up all night in the garage to avoid upsetting the neighbours, people get into trouble with animal control and roaming becomes a problem because the young dogs are bored. Good breeders will simply say no to such a situation as many of these dogs end up needing to be rehomed.
Many owners also have unrealistic expectations for their dogs thinking because they were bred to be LGD, it should all go smoothly. Not every LGD makes the grade to becoming a successful LGD, however many of them could be, if given a chance and some guidance. Recently, I heard of a family that shot their less than two-year-old LGD because it was chasing the sheep. In many adolescent dogs this is a common problem and with some corrections and supervision many young LGD grow out of this naughty behaviour. I believe in many cases some owners grab the gun to quickly, many dog who are given extra guidance and correction can go on and become good working dogs. Sometimes all that is needed is a change of environment, other livestock, different pasture and in some cases a new owner. Perhaps, we need to adjust some expectations and understand that these are living creatures who can and will make mistakes. I have had multiple dogs who have been less than stellar at times, and nothing is more rewarding than years down the road looking back and seeing how that once naughty dog, matured into a solid member of the guardian team. I have helped an owner rehome a dog that they said was unreliable, the female went to live with a friend of mine and has become an absolutely trustworthy dog around their livestock and notably even around free ranging chickens. All this dog needed was a good and timely correction. This dog soon figured out what was expected of it.
We often want the tough dog that will face up to bears and wolves when needed, but in many ways, we are not prepared to deal with the type of character that comes with such a strong-willed dog. I have mentioned in previous articles that high drive, dominant and independent dogs are often “harder” to work with as they bring this hardness with them through adolescence. If we only select for the soft, easy to train ones then, we cannot expect them to ward off apex predators. Bravery, boldness, aggression, and determination are character traits, and although needed when dealing with a high predator load, also makes raising these pups a challenge. When the coyotes are picking off your lambs and your dog will only stand and bark at them from a distance, then you know there might be an issue! At this point, I usually get a call from folks looking for a “harder “dog who will take on those coyotes. However, what most people are not ready for, is that these tougher dogs are more challenging to raise. It is no use shooting the tough dog, because he is tough to raise, when you are dealing with a predator issues.
I think it would be good if more breeders spoke about what they have done to
work through problems. Breeders need to normalise talking about some of the
challenges some dogs presented while raising their dogs. Just because a line
might be more challenging to raise, does not mean they are bad dogs, buyers
just need to be aware of this. There is no need to sugar coat things, as a
breeder you can certainly ask a buyer if they are willing and able to work with
a stronger natured dog and if not, then no harm in recommending a less
aggressive breed. The beauty of the LGD, there are over 40 different LGD breeds,
and many have quite predictable character traits ranging from fairly mild and
softer, to aggressive and strong. Breeders need to be able to offer guidance
and mentorship to their pup buyers. A friend of mine has a lovely, “perfect”
LGD, she is stellar at lambing and has been a great flock protector in heavy
predator country. A while back we were chatting, and she reminded me how that
same dog went through a chase and nipping phase as a young dog. I had
completely forgotten about it as this dog was such an amazing LGD. This friend
worked through this phase, gave corrections when needed and changed things
around to accommodate this adolescent dog, placing this dog in an area with
mature animals and closer to home to keep an eye on her. With some time and
maturity, this dog become a highly valued member of the guardian team, and the
short time spent working with this dog back in her younger days has resulted in
almost a decade of excellent protection to the livestock.
I have had similar experiences where I have needed to place a rambunctious teenager into the bull pen or tether him for a while. I have learnt over the years to differentiate a young LGD intentions, most naughtiness, if not allowed to escalate, can easily be corrected. A dog whose intentions are to kill, or “hunt” livestock can be, differentiated from simple naughty behaviour. The key when dealing with those initial moments of naughtiness, is how the owner responds to that behaviour, that will ultimately determine whether the dog will be successful of not. Dogs who are allowed to rough play and seriously harm the sheep repeatedly, get to a point they can no longer be corrected or rehabilitated as LGD.
Too often we
do not spend enough time with a young LGD to teach it some basic dog manners.
If we ever want or need to rehome an LGD, it is a lot easier if this dog is
accustomed to being handled, knows how to walk calmly on a lead, is not food
aggressive, is used to being groomed and knows general dog manners. Many of
these dogs might not be suitable as LGD but they certainly can go on and become
good all round farm dogs. With shelters overflowing, chances of a young
unsocialized LGD finding a new placement is very slim so every advantage we can
give them is a bonus.
Sometimes we just need to “repurpose” a dog, this could mean a new address, new job or even a different class of livestock. Many years ago, I sold a pup to people who had a grizzly bear problem. The bears would raid their chicken coops and ripped the buildings open. They needed a dog to be an all-round farm dog and just keep the bears at bay. He did a stellar job at that except he become increasingly intolerant of the families own Labrador house dogs. Grizz came back to me when he was about two years old. He had, after his initial pup stage, never been back with sheep so I decided I would just keep him as I needed a guard dog for in my yard. Over the years, Grizz has become solid with the sheep and cattle, and although not a real LGD, he does fulfill some valuable other roles on the ranch. He keeps the yard safe of bears, moose, coyotes, skunks, foxes, and other critters. He is the official “guard dog” for me and my home, he is the all-round companion and for the past few years he has become the hay bale protector keeping the elk out of the hay yards. Due to his good nature, he has found a new purpose here. Having a social and well-behaved dog made this transition easy. Some people get out of livestock and then feel the need to rehome their LGD as they have no animals left. In my experience, many LGD can easily transition to being farm dogs and living out their lives on the place they were raised on.
As owners and breeders, we need to remember that although our dogs do a job
that comes instinctually to them, it does not mean they do not need guidance and
corrections. We do need to allocate the time and energy to work through
potential hiccups and issues along the way. It is not enough just to buy the well-bred
pup; we also need to see it through with time and dedication towards raising the
pup to become a successful LGD.