Preventing Unwarranted Aggression in Livestock Guardian Dogs
By Mary Jane Oelke
For many years I kept registered French Alpine milk goats and along with this endeavor, I acquired a Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog. One of my finest milkers was pulled down by a few feral dogs, and the Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog seemed the most logical solution. Unlike the slow death of inhumane poisons, traps and out-right shooting the offenders (which might be a protected species or even a stray pet) a livestock guard dog has the right stuff to protect a herd or flock from predators usually in a non-lethal outcome to the predator, who is usually convinced by the dog (they work best in pairs) to just forage elsewhere.
Other breeds also perform this same specialized task (and most of them are derivatives of the same “type” of dogs) such as Maremma, Akbash and Komondor. These types of dogs have been used for literally thousands of years for this very purpose, and these centuries of development have given rise to the unique qualities that enable such highly specialized breeds to take command of the pasture area and patrol for predators. Rather than an aggressive breed of fierce guard dog, what the observant herders and shepherds of the past have developed are highly intelligent, laid back canines with a very developed sense and awareness of what is and is not a threat, in most cases. You really won’t see aggressive behavior at all…until there is a real threat!
Puppies are socialized at an early age with the livestock as a means to prevent injury to the stock due to over-aggressive puppy play. Playful puppies want to “play” with everything, and without supervision, this could result in unwarranted injury to the stock—exactly the opposite result desired by the herder or stockman. Early supervision and training is a bit time-consuming, but well worth the effort. No, the dogs don’t think they’re sheep… no, the dogs should not have reduced human contact—a relationship of trust between the dog and shepherd is essential. Your dogs will communicate with you and tell you by various barks that you will learn to recognize, what is going on in the pasture! You will love a dog like this because he saves you so much from predator loss and at the same time is a beautiful and affectionate addition to the ranch or homestead, quite willing to stay with the stock and still be always happy to see you. I believe that one of the reasons these dogs work so well is that they are devoted to their humans and are so willing to please by doing what comes naturally—guarding the pasture. Be sure to socialize the dog with people as well. He will know, somehow, if a person is a threat, however, and react accordingly if that threat happens to be a human thief or rustler in the night.
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There’s a lot of good information/sources on these breeds from books, USDA reports, American Kennel Club, etc. My real purpose is to address unwarranted aggression, which is usually avoidable by early supervision. One point I have never seen addressed, which I believe to be of vital importance (and don’t take it lightly because it makes a difference), is the age at which the working (or any) pup is to be removed from its dam. Some might surmise that the earlier the better, and be tempted to start a pup too early. By this I mean younger than six weeks. Don’t do it! Young puppies learn bite inhibition from their dam and littermates, and a puppy removed before this valuable “lesson” will become a problem because he will mouth everything and not recognize if it is causing pain. If you take a puppy too early from its litter/dam, then you will be the one teaching him bite inhibition, and you will not be able to trust him with children or smaller animals until you do! Puppies left with their litters until at least six weeks old are pre-programmed by their own kind to have a “soft” mouth. They might get playful, but the play usually does not result in injury.
There are laws in most jurisdictions prohibiting the sale of under-age pups, and since a livestock-guarding dog will weigh 100 pounds or more, well, it makes a lot of sense. Where I live now, it is illegal to sell puppies less than eight weeks old. People might be tempted to sell you a younger pup, or you might think a younger pup will acclimate to your farm or livestock better, but remember: Young pups learn bite inhibition from their dam and littermates! Be wary of unregistered litters for sale before Christmas. Less informed or less scrupulous “breeders” may be willing to let a pup go early for “Christmas,” but you will be taking home a very cute and adorable “problem” that is about to go through a growth spurt like you have never seen, and within 12 months weigh more than 100 pounds. A registered pup is always better (the date of birth is in the registration papers so you know what you are getting). The price of a registered pup is a little more, but in the long run it will cost the same to keep the dog. Best to deal with breeders that are conscientious (and won’t bend the rules).
Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I would like to add that in this world of less and less wildlife habitat, a livestock guard dog may help diminish the need to poison, trap or kill our beautiful wild predators. In Kenya, where cheetahs are protected as endangered species, Great Pyrenees are in demand to protect the livestock by keeping the cheetahs out of the pastures and holdings. I know of dogs that keep bears and even mountain lions, not to mention wolves, from killing livestock. I have even heard of them guarding poultry and keeping bears out of almond orchards and apiaries. What they are guarding is a matter of training and socialization.
One more thing. In Virginia, which has a healthy population of black bears (and now coyotes) these dogs are a god-send to sheep and goat—even miniature horse—farmers.
Washington State has enacted a program to tolerate bears near human communities (rather than eradicating or relocating) using trash containment awareness and bear-harassing dogs (the dogs are encouraged to “teach” the bears they are unwelcome in certain areas), all without harm to the bear. (Maybe those ranchers near Yellowstone who complain about the re-introduction of wolves need to get a dog. A pair of dogs can cover 40 acres or more and know by their keen senses of smell and hearing where the predators are.) But here in Maryland, bears are less tolerated. Why? I believe the “predation problem“ is invoked by over-zealous hunters who get satisfaction from the act of killing, not because there is an unsolvable problem with bear killing livestock. I would love to know that there are bear in my woods and that humans can still “share” the planet with their fellow creatures, even predators. Bears become a problem when people diminish and encroach on their habitat. Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland has authorized the legal slaughter of black bears in western Maryland (the only remaining bear habitat in the state) with the excuse that the bear eat sheep. (In fact, this seldom happens.) This slaughter would be unnecessary with the judicious use of livestock guarding dogs. Let us also stop developers from putting up even more McMansions in bear habitat, which just increases unwanted bear/human interaction. Now that coyotes have moved into Maryland, livestock guarding dogs might be considered a farm necessity.
Originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.