Livestock Protection Dogs

Livestock guarding dogs and livestock herding dogs both fall under the umbrella category of sheepdogs, but it is important to understand that these are two very different dog breeds. Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) were developed and bred to protect livestock from predators such as: wolves, jackals, coyotes, baboons, leopards, bears etc. Herding dogs on the other hand were developed and bred to…well, herd!

Livestock guarding dogs date back several thousand years and even as far back as 2000 years ago were a common sight in many parts of the world. Though many of these working dogs were considered until recently as rare breeds in the West, the truth is there are and have been millions of these dogs plying their trade of protecting livestock all over the world. In fact the protection of livestock could well have been one of the first primary uses mankind had for dogs.

It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that livestock guarding dogs originated from the Middle East especially when one considers that is from there that livestock was first domesticated. Following this pattern of thought it is not unreasonable either to state that livestock protection breeds may be several thousands of years old though they certainly wouldn’t predate the first domesticated animals (sheep; circa 8000 years ago). There are plenty of historical references and drawings of livestock guardian dogs dating back thousands of years.

When one thinks of livestock protection dogs typically certain breeds spring to mind. Such breeds include the following:

Anatolian Shepherd Dog

Kangal Dog

Akbash Dog

Caucasian Ovcharka

Great Pyrenees

Tibetan Mastif

Kuvasz

Komondor

Maremma Sheepdog

Polish Tatra Sheepdog

Tibetan Mastiff

Sarplaninac

Size And Appearance

The above list is certainly not an exhaustive one and though some of the breeds are quite well known others are not. A striking feature of most livestock guarding dogs is that they tend to be larger in size than most other canines. This actually shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since these canines were bred to ward off predators some of which attain considerable size such as bears and wolves. Another notable feature about livestock protection dogs is that very often they are white (a characteristic more commonly found in European based breeds). There’re a number of reasons to explain the tendency to favor white in these dogs ranging from plain superstition to the age-old myth that white embodies purity of strain.

Most local shepherds contend that they prefer white dogs because they blend in with the flock and thus are harder to detect by any marauding wolves or other predators. Another argument along this line of thinking is that the shepherd is less likely to mistake a white livestock guardian dog for a wolf at night and thereby accidentally club it to death. However, whatever the argument, the fact remains that a good number of livestock guardian dogs are white in color which fact probably owes credit to selective culling of litters by local shepherds more than anything else.

Livestock guarding dogs tend to have large litters an aspect that bears an obvious economical burden on the shepherd. Not only is it economically unviable for the shepherd to keep all the puppies, the female dog will naturally tend to be somewhat derelict in her livestock protecting duties for the simple fact that she has a large litter of puppies to attend to. Culling by shepherds tends to favor white puppies for all the above listed reasons, which process (known as postzygotic selection–refining a natural breed) ultimately leads to generations that breed pure for the desired white coat.

Another driving force motivating culling in favor of white puppies is sales to tourists and foreign breed fanciers who are more willing to pay top dollar for snow white puppies. That said, there are plenty of livestock protection canines that are not white and one interesting feature of several regional breeds is that their coat patterns often have a tendency to mirror that of the livestock they guard. Thus for example the Kangal Dog in appearance has a light dun to fawn-gray coat with a black mask head; this pattern unsurprisingly mirrors the features of the sheep found in the region. Undoubtedly the reason why the Kangal Dog breeds pure for these traits is probably because local shepherds favored those animals that displayed such features.

What Defines A Good Livestock Guardian Dog?

Generally speaking the bigger the dog the better it will be as a livestock protector. Ironically the impact of increased size is not so much to ward off predators but rather to ensure that the dog can endure the hardships often encountered by these working dogs. In those countries and regions where shepherds still embark on seasonal migratory treks with their flocks covering huge distances, the toll on the animals (both the sheep and the dogs) can be tremendous.

A bigger dog has the advantage of not only being able to cover greater distances more easily than a smaller counterpart (larger stride), the bigger dog will also be able to endure food scarcities better because it has greater fat reserves. A large dog also has an added advantage; it can endure harsh, cold weather far better because of less heat loss thanks to its lower surface-to-volume ratio.

Certain dog breeds are obviously better suited to the task of protecting livestock than others due to selective breeding for desirable traits over hundreds if not thousands of years. For this reason, innate livestock protecting canines tend to be:

Independent minded (what some describe as aloof or stubborn);

Wary of strangers:

Dog unfriendly;

Territorial; and

Very protective of their wards.

These are all desirable traits in working dogs employed in the livestock-protection profession and such genetic-based traits are what constitute the “nature” component of the “nature vs. nurture” equation. External factors that influence the behavior of prospective flock guardians (nurture component) include the timely socialization of puppies with their future wards so that they ultimately bond as the dogs primary social companions.

Dogs that make the best LGDs are those individuals that are properly socialized within the critical period (normally from 4 – 16 weeks in canines) and also possess the correct genetic makeup for the task. In other words, inherent livestock-guarding dog breeds that are timely socialized with their future livestock wards will make better guardians than timely socialized dog breeds that lack the innate LGDs genetic makeup.

Livestock Protection Dogs