on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…
In my work with LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dogs), I ran into this question more than any other. It takes many different forms, but essentially what everyone wants to know is what a LGD is, what a LGD does, and conversely, what falls outside the parameters of the definition. This is not only the most common topic of conversation, but also the one that many educators struggle to adequately define.
I’ll start by saying that I am very aware that my worldview is that of someone who has lived their whole life in western society. I have, however, worked very hard to counteract this by exploring the cultures that still keep LGDs predominately as their ancestors did. Cultures with deep and ongoing pastoral roots show a clearer picture of the Livestock Guardian Dog than those who have largely moved to closed registry systems with a heavy emphasis on conformation shows. As these dogs traditionally were true landraces; the people who still promote assortative mating and strict culling practices hold the ancient wisdom of selection and training that made these dogs so solidly valuable as guardians. These are the people who understand that a working dog is a partner, not simply a tool.
This is what I have learned, borne out by LGD champions here in North America and my own personal experience.
1. A LGD is a large, hearty dog.
LGDs were developed to protect domestic prey animals from wild predators. This is the heart and soul of who they are. They cannot protect if they are too small to pose a threat to predators. They cannot follow through on their threats nor provide an comforting presence to their charges if they are anything but strong and stoic in the face of uncertainty.
2. A LGD is both nurturing and protective.
LGDs are equal parts submissive and dominant, affectionate and aggressive. They care for their charges with a mother’s love: devoted, gentle and protective. They defend their charges with a mother’s fervor: decisive, committed and with passion. It is not uncommon to observe a dog expose his belly to an inquisitive lamb and then in the next breath, leap to defend it against a threat. Once trained and mature, LGDs are able to instinctively discern who is friend and who is foe and respond accordingly.
3. A LGD is thoughtfully aggressive.
Although aggressive and tenacious, LGDs never operate indiscriminately or without inhibition. Affectionately nicknamed “thoughtful fighters”, LGDs are consistently in control of their emotions and use only as much force as necessary to prove their point. This does not mean that they will not eliminate predators when necessary, but many LGDs will try to communicate their intent to protect for some time before going on the offensive. LGDs instinctively view weakness as something to protect, never to harm.
4. A LGD thinks for himself.
An emphasis on rote obedience, highly prized in the western world, was not part of the selection process for LGDs. As with most working dogs, an ability to think independently is part and parcel of their core definition. This means that while you won’t find too many members who excel in obedience competitions, they are routinely superior at fulfilling their mission to nurture and protect. Several senses are heightened in dogs when compared to humans; this must be taken into consideration and respected, especially upon maturity. Many times, humans have been unable to identify the threat until much later, but their LGD(s) recognized it immediately.
5. A LGD listens to his shepherd.
At first glance, this point seems in direct opposition to the one above. An independent dog is not at all the same as one who cannot be controlled or who doesn’t defer to any human, however. A partnership wherein the LGD defers to his owner is earned through building trust and consistently fair handling. A shepherd has no fear of managing and correcting his LGDs and expects to have the final say on all important matters. A stable LGD who sees his owner as a partner has no problem listening to him. In order to establish and maintain this partnership, the shepherd must know when to interfere (for example intrapack/interpack aggression ) and when not to.
6. A LGD is a dog.
Tales of the supernatural, mythical abilities of LGDs are fun to recount and fascinating to listen to, but they serve very little practical purpose in the real world. While there is usually more than a grain of truth to these stories, it is vital to remember that LGDs are first and foremost dogs with a dog’s instincts and a dog’s view of life. LGDs have been artificially selected over centuries to have a reduced prey drive and high amount of self control but that does not mean that they are not still dogs. Care needs to be taken to manage and train LGDs so that they become successful guardians. As in all working dog types, there are outliers who are unable to fulfill the job description.
7. A LGD is a social dog.
LGDs develop strong bonds with other LGDs. They employ a complex and nuanced social language with each other that relies heavily on body language and cooperation. As with most canines, individual friendship preferences matter, and gender may matter to some. Almost universally, however, LGDs prefer to live in partnerships or groups.
8. A LGD can be a “hard” or “soft” dog or somewhere in between.
The disposition of a LGD depends on many factors including genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, health, stage of life, weather and how settled they are in their environment. Much of the determining factor in whether an LGD will be “hard” (tough, stoic, resilient) or “soft” (unable to defend against larger apex predators) has to do with their genetics, although the other factors deserve equal consideration. Assessing the individual dog is typically more important than applying broad breed expectations. It is also vital to recognize that a dog who has recently moved to a new home will behave differently than after they settle in. A LGD encountered off of their ‘home turf’ will also behave differently than when approached on their own territory.
9. A LGD bonds deeply.
Whether it is to another dog, their stock, their territory, their human(s) or all of the above, LGDs bond intensely and without reservation. The loss of what or who they are bonded to leaves a LGD with uncertainty and confusion. Many times, I have seen LGDs whose owners believe them to be defective recover and go on to be incredible working dogs when provided with an appropriate bond. Much of working LGD rehab can be summed up in two words: providing direction. It is impossible to compensate for a lack of instinct, however, most dogs with working genetics simply need their instinct channelled appropriately.
10. A LGD is the best friend a shepherd can have.
Shepherds the world over sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that their dogs are working hard to protect their livestock. For many shepherds, their livestock remains their livelihood and subsequently only entrusted to LGDs due to their effectiveness. There is no other guardian who is so equally affectionate and protective, nor one who is so incredibly adaptable. The love and dedication of a LGD is unparalleled. It is a lucky person whom a LGD considers family and a lucky flock with LGDs to defend them. Even more, it is a fortunate LGD whose owner cares for and understands them.