Livestock Guardian Dog Selection
So you have decided to purchase a livestock guardian dog. Congratulations! 2000 years of breeding on mountainsides around the world has produced working class dogs with incredible instincts, gentle temperaments, fierce loyalty, and the ability to kill if need be.
We raise Anatolian Shepherds and run them with a herd of 17 Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. We have a 4 1/2 year old female Anatolian, 2 3-year olds, one male and one female, and one 18 month old female. We breed 1-2 times a year, and have raised the pups on two different farms with vastly different setups. We are currently in a mountain valley just outside of Canaan Valley, WV, where coyote, bears eagles and big wild cats lurk in the forests on these mountainsides. Our 5 oldest of our 7 children are instrumental in the farm operation, and work with the goats as well as with the training of our pups.
So, now that you know you need one, how do you choose your dog?
The most common breeds to choose from are the Great Pyrenees, the Anatolian Shepherd, and the Maremma Sheepdog. You may run across a Kuvacz, or a Komondor, but they are rare. If you are choosing a young pup, you will have a wonderful opportunity to develop the traits and abilities that best suit your needs. If you are choosing from an older dog, you may be getting a gem with experience. But do consider these factors carefully when choosing.
Your personal circumstances. Do you have the time to develop a relationship with your dog? Will your work schedule, the weather, your livestock breeding schedule, your farm setup and your patience level allow you to supervise and train your puppy or dog to work best with your needs? Chain link pens, movable fencing, appropriate tie-out chain, and leash training can all be used to acclimate a pup to flighty chickens, delicate newborn lambs, and aggressive bucks. The timing of bringing home a new pup should work with your other life circumstances. If you have a new baby, plan a vacation within a few months, or have a very demanding work schedule, now may not be the right time to add a dog to your farm operation. Encouraging desirable behavior and discouraging bad habits in a pup takes time and patience. Be sure you have a healthy amount of both for the foreseeable future: few LGDs are made-to-order with no learning curve, especially pups.
The pup’s temperament. If possible, visit the pup at the farm at 5 weeks and again at 8 weeks. Many breeders will sell pups at 8 weeks. I prefer to keep them until they are 10-12 weeks if possible. My Anatolian pups see my other working dogs in action, and they learn as much from each other as they do from me. The goats also teach them how to respond in many circumstances, and I have 2-4 more weeks to build into a pup the proper manners and behavior patterns, and work through the weaning phase. That short time makes a difference to me.
Pups at 5 weeks should be starting to become more attached to the stock than to each other, although if they are paired off, they may be attached to their teammate. LGDs work well in pairs, but they should be encouraged to be less interested in puppy play than they are in the stock. They should approach a new person confidently, but not aggressively, and should be barking. the pup should not cower or be shaky. Backing up or lying down when a hand is reached out is desirable: nipping or lunging toward a hand is not. They should be willing to give the stock their personal space, not chasing or bullying them, but at the same time be willing to follow and be a part of the herd. “No!” And “Stop!” should be a part of their vocabulary by now, and should get at least some response–perhaps not instant obedience, but at least a pause.
Pups at 8 weeks should be independent of their mama and littermates. They should be alert to the herd/flock, and be found very nearby. The erratic movements of chickens may trigger a chase at this age, especially if you bring home a pup who isn’t around birds. This is often a training issue and not a permanent flaw with the young LGD; however, a few dogs just won’t behave around birds. If you have chickens, do consider buying from a farm with chickens. It can mean a lot less trial and error.
Speaking of error, how important is is that your dog be foolproof? Are you raising prize chickens? Have you spent your life savings on rare breed sheep? If you have less time and patience for the ‘puppy stupids’, if you cannot tolerate the brief phases of nipping and chasing that pups go through, if you have little ability to pen or tie out a puppy for training days, or if you have a need for a full size dog (active large predator activity onsite has already killed, for example), a 12-18 month old working LGD may be for you. Puppies aren’t a lost cause, a bad choice or a poor match if they kill a few chickens or nip the heels of young sheep and snap at the ears of your Nubian mamas. They–and we–are in training, and will make mistakes. It is up to us as owners to work those undesirable behaviors out as they surface. But for some, the time and expense of losing a few young layers or the risk of a playful kid injured in a chase is more than they are willing to accept. Older dogs are less likely to have these risk factors. But always be prepared for at least a 2 month introduction to your farms, facility, stock, and expectations. 2000 years of working history makes these breeds suitable and appropriate for the job. It doesn’t make them mistake-proof machines.
One strong suggestion: Please select a dog from a working environment, and from working parents–preferable who are also on site. Our first Pyr was a Craigslist apartment dog who was too big and shed too much. He was 4, and full of bad habits. He was too protective of our chicks, growling at our children when they approached, and he bit me during a storm when I reached in to clip on a leash. He went back to the original owner immediately. Our second LGD, an Anatolian Shepherd, didn’t even have a name–she was “the dog from the west pasture.” She was responsible for 60 sheep on 165 acres. However, she preferred to be on the front step, guarding the farmer and his family. He needed her to stay down the road with the stock. We needed a dog near the house–it’s where our chicken coop was located at the time, and we needed a dog who was going to tolerate a lot of love from 7 children. We didn’t mind a duo purpose pet/working dog. She was perfect, and is expecting her 3rd litter this summer! She needed little training,but she did need some.
One final consideration no matter what age dog you bring home is fencing. I cannot stress enough that your fencing is often what determines your dog’s success. An LGD instinctively protects all it can see, and it will investigate as far as it can. These are not an obedience breed: they must make independent decisions at 3am in the face of an approaching coyote, so don’t expect your dog to run away and come when called. Mine wouldn’t come for a bowl of bacon grease once they get going. Your fencing tells your dog where his job takes place. And it really does need to be as dig-proof and jump-proof as you can make it. Three foot chain link is not going to work. Mine can leap clear over 4′ field fence with a strand of barbed wire on top with a foot to spare. And I had a female in heat work with my breeding male who helped her to bend a section of 5′ fencing down so she could jump it. And I am about to fill in the holes along the fence line this week: results of attempts to dig out. Many LGD owners resign themselves to fencing challenges for the life of their dog. I plan to address this very important and common challenge in another article. Suffice it to say that your dog must come onto your farm only AFTER your fencing is in place.
More in-depth information will follow in subsequent posts with regard to puppy development, training techniques, breeder selection and fencing. I hope you are enjoying spring cleaning on your farm, and I look forward to writing my next article!
Nikki Merson owns Angel’s Haven Farm in WV.
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