If you’re serious about prepping and/or homesteading, chances are you have some animals on your property. Maybe it’s just a few chickens for eggs; maybe you have some other birds as well. You might have a beef steer or heifer, pigs, or even some goats or sheep. There’s a huge variety of animals to get, and just as many reasons to get them: meat, milk, wool, whatever. The point is that if you’ve taken on the responsibility (and privilege) of raising animals, then you’ve also taken on the responsibility of protecting them from predators. Anyone who’s raised chickens for a long time has probably lost at least one to hawks, foxes, raccoons, or some other hungry outdoor resident. Those who raise larger stock have bigger things — literally — to worry about, depending on the area they live in.
Sure, you could make sure you’re armed when you’re outside (and you’re armed all the time, right?) but you’re not out with your animals 24-7, and fences, pens, and coops only do so much to keep your animals safe. How can you protect them when you aren’t around?
The single best way to do that is with a livestock guardian dog, or LGD.
LGD vs. Farm Dog
A lot of farms have dogs, but an LGD is an entirely different kind of animal — and only select breeds of dog can do this work. Bred from thousands of years of work in austere conditions guarding livestock, the LGD is not “your” dog. They don’t bond to you the same way as other dogs, they don’t seek to please you, and they don’t much care what you think; in fact, they can be quite apathetic toward you, preferring the company of their stock. If properly trained, they are completely bonded to your animals, which becomes their pack of sorts. They spend every minute of every day with their animals, and they are bred to think independently. They can follow basic commands (and should be taught a recall command and a few things like “sit” to make the rare farm visit from the vet a bit easier), but for the most part their job is to evaluate threats on the property, deter them through barking and aggressive posturing, and if that doesn’t work, confront and even kill them — no matter what it is or where you are at the time. Their entire purpose in life is the safety of their animals, and they will do whatever it takes to fulfill that role even if it means fighting something much bigger than they are.
LGDs are bred to have much different traits than your standard “farm dog,” which is often a herding type or mix. LGDs do not chase, play with, or herd stock; they have low prey drives, unlike a border collie or other herder that has the need to…well, herd things. A typical LGD can seem like the laziest dog ever, laying around the yard, napping in the sun, or serving as a park bench for tiny goat kids. They walk among the stock slowly and gently, in a manner that keeps their animals calm. Threats, however, turn this big pile of seeming laziness into another animal entirely. They can smell a predator from literally miles away, and even those sunny naps have a purpose — they’re conserving energy, because it could be needed at any time. If you watch where your LGD takes those naps, you’ll see that they choose the most elevated places, or the places where they can see/smell threats coming while keeping an eye on the stock. If you’re running a team or 2-3 dogs, they’ll position themselves in strategic places, working together as a pack.
They live outside, no matter the weather. They are double-coated, which keeps them dry in a downpour and makes it possible for them to stay cool in the summer while still being able to sleep in a snowbank a few months later. In some breeds, their entire physical design screams protector; they have thicker fur around their necks that almost looks like a mane, which helps to protect them from predators that would go for their throats. Their canine teeth are longer than the average dog as well, and curve backwards slightly like those of a wolf. They make an incredibly fearsome opponent for just about anything — and yet when properly trained from puppyhood, they will also act as a trampoline for baby goats and a gentle guardian for your animals.
Training takes two years; until that time, they should not be allowed unsupervised around the stock or around children. Those first two years are when you as the owner are building their “database” of information; what is normal, what is acceptable, what the stock needs, what types of threats they can encounter. Because these dogs are expected to make independent decisions, they need to be heavily socialized on the farm and worked with daily for that time so that they have a wide understanding of what a threat looks like — such as knowing the difference between a bobcat and your overly fat-on-mice barn cat, or understanding that while it might be okay for the deer and elk to come into the field or yard unmolested, it’s most definitely not okay if anything else does. Unless trained differently, anything that comes near your animals is fair game for these dogs…including your house dog, cat, or your overly nosy neighbor.
One thing that a LGD does not need to be trained to do is guard. That part is instinctual — so much so that when we had a goat die in a freak accident last year, our LGD gently sat down next to her and guarded her corpse from everything, including birds, until we got home. Living out in the wilds of Montana, dead things bring curious and hungry onlookers. Once he saw us, he relinquished his post and went to go dig up a buried snack.
There are several different breeds of livestock guardian dog; while all of them have certain overlapping traits, some breeds are more easily alerted than others; a few select breeders, in fact, guarantee their dogs’ courage, offering a “cowardice clause” in their contract. If the dog ever backs down from a threat, they’ll refund every penny. These dogs just don’t run away — it’s not in their nature.
Our LGD is a huge dog who’s currently tasked with protecting our small Nigerian Dwarf goat herd. In the last year, he’s gone up against a variety of predators, including other dogs. One night as my husband was out feeding stock, the dog alerted him to the fact that there were two mountain lions just past the woodline. The dog positioned himself, snarling and barking the whole time, in the gap between them so my husband could get out of the danger zone. On another occasion one of my baby goats managed to slip through the fence and was placidly munching grass just on the other side when she was spotted by a fox. I came out to investigate a loud ruckus only to find the fox paused about 30 feet from the goat kid rethinking his life choices, as the dog was in the process of tearing down the fence to get to the fox before he got to the baby. What makes that notable is that the fence is linked to his collar as a boundary — he was getting shocked the entire time and didn’t care because he was protecting his stock. Meanwhile, the baby kid kept eating, seemingly oblivious to the danger because her guardian dog was there. The fox ended up deciding that tasty goat kid would not be on the menu today, and I ended up fixing some fence and giving the canine warrior a frozen whole chicken as a reward.
All LGD breeds have their place and strengths, but two breeds that are extremely helpful here in the Northern Rockies are the Sarplaninac and the Caucasian Shepherd Dog. According to DogBreed.info:
“The Sar is a flock-guard dog that needs to be working. This sheep-herding guard dog is unaffectionate toward its humans. It prefers the flock it so enthusiastically protects. It has natural guarding qualities and independent thinking typical of the flock guard group. Usually calm, but when the situation warrants, it is ferocious in its efforts to protect the flock. It takes its work seriously. When on sheep-guarding duty it will investigate anything that catches its eye, and has no hesitation about confronting adversaries larger than itself. This is not a brainless tail-wagger; the Sarplaninac is a very wise dog that chooses friends carefully and trusts no one completely. He is more obedient to his ingrained code of proper behavior than to accept commands from one master, to whom he is most loyal. These dogs are very devoted to their flocks…Sheep and goat raisers are discovering advantages to owning a Sar when the majority of their predator problems disappear. These dogs will tolerate family members including children if they are raised with them, but will be aloof with outsiders. The Sar will protect all of its territory and the living creatures within it. This is a breed that is not to be taken lightly.”
The Caucasian Shepherd, known as the Ovcharka in the West, is another LGD breed that is of great use here with the larger predators we have, including bears and mountain lions. Here’s an excellent video on them, their history, and how they work.
You might see LGD breeds mixed with non-LGD breeds, and some folks will tell you that it’s fine. It’s most definitely NOT fine. A Great Pyrenees, for instance, is an LGD breed with low prey drive and guarding instincts. When mixed with a border collie — a herder with a very strong prey drive and energy level — you’ll have a very confused dog with two competing natures. If you want an LGD, don’t settle for anything less than a full one. Certain LGD breeds can be mixed, but never a non-LGD with a livestock guardian breed.
Should You Get an LGD?
The short answer is “maybe.” Like anything worth having, you need to earn these dogs. You can’t simply buy a pup and throw it in with your stock. Signing up for an LGD in most cases means signing up for 18 months to 2 years of training and working with them. if you don’t, you’ll have a dog that you cannot control — and livestock that are in danger instead of being protected.
According to Caucasian.org:
“[A Caucasian] …can prove to be a serious problem for an inexperienced owner, because it respects and obeys only those dominant and fair members of the family that it deems superiour to itself. Gentle companions and playful clowns when relaxing with their human “pack”, these dogs are generally good with children, although they will not see them as their masters. The great Kavkazec develops a strong bond with its owner and is quite trainable, but will rarely be completely submissive and blindly follow orders, for this is truly a thinking dog, which relies primarily on its own instincts, sometimes even disregarding its master’s directions in certain situations. Being a true protection dog, famous for having well-developed guardian instincts, strong defense drive and lightning-fast reflexes, the Caucasian may become too aggressive and even dangerous when owned by weak-willed, ignorant and unsuitable owners who fail to properly control their dogs or recognize the breed’s true nature.”
If you are running ruminant livestock and have predators in your area, then you probably need an LGD. Don’t take one on, however, unless you can dedicate the time and effort into training them. They are investments, and can be quite expensive to purchase, especially for one that has parents imported from Georgia or Russia. They typically stay a bit longer with their parents as well, to get some foundation training with stock and their family pack. The good news, however, is that you can also consider them farm equipment for the purposes of taxes, leash laws, and other regulations.
There are several breeders I can recommend, but even before that I highly suggest you do some research on your own expected predators, climate, and the type of LGD breed that may be best for you. While we run long-haired, bigger, and more aggressive up here in the mountains due to our situation, this farm down in Texas runs the slightly smaller short-haired Kangal and has excellent success.
LGDs are amazing animals who will pay for themselves a hundred times over. You’ll see a lower predator load, have livestock that’s less stressed out, and not have to worry about coming outside to find your animals dead or injured. Anyone who’s lost a farm animal to a predator knows how infuriating and heartbreaking it is to pour time, money, and effort into an animal only to have it killed and eaten by something else. For us up here in Nowhere, Montana, our dog keeps our farm safe from all threats, both four- and two-legged.