Three Letters Re: Livestock Guardian Dogs

Dear Editor,

We are ranchers in northern Maine and have owned and bred livestock guardian dogs for many years. Our particular breed is the Russian Ovcharka, but we also have a Great Pyranees, along with a Border Collie, who is not a guardian dogs but is used to scout ahead on trails to flush dangerous animals and round up or move livestock.

There are many things to consider when purchasing a livestock guardian dog:

  1. What is their mission.

    Our dogs have a dual purpose. First, it is to patrol the inner farm perimeter and keep out two- and four-legged predators, especially at night when we sleep. We have fox, coyote, black bear, and a few wolves and even lynx around. Livestock guardian dogs use their waste to mark the perimeter to let predators know they are here; also they stay awake all night, and often bark to announce their presence as protectors, especially the Ovcharkas. Barking is the way that they de-escalate confrontation; most predators will hear the barking and go find easier pickings. They will also chase off the eagles that try to steal our chickens or baby sheep. This works well for us, but it might not work for you if you are a light sleeper.

    The second mission our dogs have is to guard our people. We have an inner, fenced, farm perimeter that surrounds our buildings, including barns and home. Two dogs are used at night to patrol this yard, and at least one dog sleeps in each building occupied by people. It might be mentioned that Ovcharkas can be trained not to bark inside unless entry is attempted by an unauthorized person, or if a certain danger bark is transmitted by our outside dogs. Ovcharkas are extremely protective at night, or if the persons or animals they are protecting are lying down. We have raised our dogs not to trust strangers, which increases our security but also requires us to secure the dogs if we have guests. On the good side, there have been many break-ins lately in our area by drug addicts, yet we have never had to lock our doors; the whole town respects the presence of these dogs. Also, our neighbors have had bears tear into their metal poultry sheds to eat their poultry, but our dogs seem to keep them away.

    Our dogs consider themselves ‘off duty’ if we take them on a walk, so although they would protect me if I were attacked, they do not bark and are not aggressive toward strangers who approach me to speak to me on the street, unless the person yells or acts aggressively.

    If you are just looking for a dog to warn you of danger, just about any dog will do, including a small mutt, so you may not need a livestock guardian dog. On the other hand, if you want security, I can tell you that even living remotely with my husband on business travel I feel completely secure having these dogs around, especially at night.

    Different livestock guardian dogs have different natures, although conditioning also affects nature. For example, if a burglar experienced with dogs came on our property with just our Pyranees out and acted properly, our Pyranees would likely not bite him. That’s not so with our Ovcharkas; they are all business, which is both an advantage and a danger. Our Ovcharkas are very loyal, and once they bond to you there is no better personal protection dog. Study closely the nature of each breed, browse the web to read about each breed, then select a dog with the traits best suited to the purpose you have in mind for them.

  2. Your climate.

    For us, we needed dogs that can patrol our yard in 20 below zero, windy weather at night. Many breeds can not handle this; even our Great Pyranees sometimes has to be put inside if it gets below -20, but our Ovcharkas have never gotten cold, even down to 40 below. On the other hand, Ovcharkas and even Great Pyranees would suffer in a temperate climate like Georgia or Florida, so another breed would have to be used in such a case.

  3. Time management.

    Livestock guardian dogs require lots of your time and training. You must have a strong personality to be the dominant figure in their pack, and you must consistently train them to behave the way you want them to behave, especially in the area of socialization. These are not always good dogs for someone to own who is gone all the time, especially when the dog is young.

  4. Breeders.

    Even the best dog can be ruined by a bad breeder. Get the outside scoop and references for a breeder before you buy a dog from them.

We hope this helps you with your selection process. – G.L.

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HJL,

We have an Anatolian Shepherd that we rescued from the pound. Although we have no livestock other than chickens, with no training she is an excellent guard dog. These are very independent, large dogs. She positions herself in our backyard, so that she can keep eyes on both the gates. At times, she follows our chickens around the backyard, staying about six feet behind them. It’s quite humorous to watch. – B.C.

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Dear A.S.,

Having a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) can be a rewarding experience, but if you’ve never owned one or don’t know anyone who has one, they can be frightening. These dogs are “Dominant breed” dogs or the “special forces” of domestic dogs and are not for a novice dog owner. Similar breeds in this category would be Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, Kangal, Barzoi, Kuvatz, Marema, Tibetan Mastiff, and more. Even the English Mastiff is a dominant breed dog. They cannot be trained with physical correction, such as smacking or hitting, because they are bred to oppose aggression and confrontation. They must be trained with non-confrontational techniques, like an electronic collar. I’m sure there are age old techniques, but I was unable to find those. It would benefit you greatly to find a breeder in your state that also works their dogs with livestock. This way they can help you through learning how to make this kind of dog part of your homestead. Buy an appropriate-sized kennel, and an outdoor dog yard that has a canopy and dog house.

My husband and I purchased an LGD puppy in 2013; we thought we had read and prepared enough. We were in your situation, not having someone we could get advice from. The folks we purchased him from are two hours away. These dogs require structure and a daily routine, but raising a dominant breed puppy is even more labor intensive. We have since discovered that a “first-timer” would do better off to get a dog that is older than two years of age and neutered or spayed. This eliminates going through the potentially difficult “rebellion” period that occurs between 16-18 months of age. Depending on the personality of the dog it can be mild disobedience to scary aggression. If you do a web search for guardian breed rescues, you will see hundreds. I believe this is because of that rebellion period that most of them have before two years of age. Even those famous trainers, Millan and Katz, talk about this period in young dogs.

We had a scary time during this period, and we almost put our dog down until we found some helpful information on the Internet and a capable trainer that knew how to handle “dominant dogs”. The techniques are similar to training other strong-willed animals, such as horses, llamas, camels, even elephants. Do your research! You will find a lot of websites with very benign sounding advice on training a LGD puppy, but it is more intensive than these people are saying. Their young lives must be scheduled and regulated daily; nothing is free for them to choose. Just like the animals mentioned above, the training is an investment of the first 3-4 years of daily training, structure, and review. Their time with livestock must also be on the schedule and time learning to obey the dog’s people with leashed walks, grooming, learning commands, et cetera. That’s why I am recommending an older dog and not a puppy. I was blessed to speak with a man who raised English Mastiffs, understood our troubles, and was very helpful. Find someone to guide you.

Our two-year old male is settling down now. We’ve had to regulate his life for the past six months. He’s now beginning to understand his place in our world. He’s very smart and has learned a long list of his commands within 2-3 repetitions. He’s fast and strong, but it’s been ALOT of work. I’m not trying to discourage you but to inform you that this kind of dog requires more of your input than your average Golden Retriever. Good luck, – K.M. in Ohio

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