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Thursday, March 3, 2011

LGDs: Guardians for family and flock

LGDs:  Guardians for family and flock
By Karen McKay House




I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming demons from Hell making their way across our valley, toward our little homestead.  Coyotes!

I lay in the dark, listening.  It was the first encounter I’d had with coyotes, and I was enthralled by the intermingling tapestry of their voices:  yips, barks, howls, all woven together, into an ancient warning…of danger to livestock.  That’s when I decided we needed to get a livestock guardian dog.

When we first moved out on our little 5-acre homestead in Tennessee, we had a dog – a half-Golden Retriever, half-Kuvasz – but Kahlua was a pet, not a livestock dog.  Kuvasz are a breed of livestock guardian dog (LGD), but our dog guarded only my children, and knew little about livestock.

Fair enough, we knew little about LGDs.

That was 16 years ago, and in the intervening years we’ve had a varied experience at raising livestock in a lot of different places.  We’ve had goats, chickens, pigs, and calves, in four different states.  And we have found that the very best deterrent of predators – both the four-legged kind and the two-legged kind – is dogs.  They beat out fences, guns, poison, and traps.

Foxes can find a way into your hen house.  Wolves will go right over and through a fence.  Thieves will wait until the light goes out in the house.  But a good dog is vigilant, especially at night, when it’s most needed.  Dogs generally have poor eyesight, but their senses of hearing and smell are far superior to ours, so they usually know when something is amiss before we do.

Livestock guardian dogs are ancient breeds that derive from areas of the world where sheep flocks abounded.  Sheep have few natural defenses; they are completely dependent on their shepherd for protection.  And in the old days, when there were no guns or fences, dogs were the first line of defense for the flock.  Because of this, the breeds of LGDs available to a homesteader in the United States follow lines of heritage -- specific breeds originated in specific countries.

Most LGDs are large, fluffy, white dogs – they were bred to resemble big sheep, so the shepherd could always distinguish between the dog and the wolf in the middle of a night attack.  Maremmas are a medium to large size dog from Italy.  Great Pyrenees are very popular in the South; they are big dogs from around the Pyrenees Mountains, along the border of Spain and France.  Kuvasz are also a large white dog, from Hungary.

Akbash, Kangal, and Anatolian Shepherds are from Turkey.  The Akbash is white, while the other two can be almost any color, although the most common color is fawn with a dark mask.

Livestock guardian dogs are not “guard dogs,” in the way most Americans think of them.  They don’t guard “things” like a Doberman Pinscher or a Rottweiller; they guard their family.

If a LGD is raised with people, it guards its people.  If it is raised with goats, it guards its goats.  If it is raised with chickens, it guards its chickens.  The bond that one of these dogs establishes as a pup is like steel.  Under no circumstances will that dog allow an attack on his family to go unchallenged.  A LGD with a flock of sheep considers itself the biggest, meanest sheep in the flock, and it will fight to the death against any threat to the flock.

Guardian dogs have been used in Africa to protect livestock from Cheetahs, and in the United States to protect flocks and herds from an array of enemies as varied as hawks (with poultry), coyotes, bears, wolves, and mountain lions.

Critics sometimes say, “No dog is going to win a fight with a grizzly bear or a cougar!”  But people who say that just show their ignorance, because having a guardian dog in the pasture is like having a gun in a dangerous neighborhood – it doesn’t necessarily mean you would win the fight, but it gives you a better chance of avoiding a fight in the first place.  You point a gun at a thief, and he is more likely to go find an easier target.  You have a fierce, aggressive dog barking at a cougar, it’s more likely to go find easier prey.  And these dogs will face up to tremendous odds with powerful enemies, in defense of their family.

These dogs are gentle with those they love, but fierce with anyone else.  A Great Pyrenees that is letting 1-week-old goat kids play king-of-the-mountain on him while he dozes in the sunshine will be the one that immediately zeroes in on a visitor to the farm and bumps her leg with his nose…just to let her know he’s watching her.  An Anatolian Shepherd who trails around the yard after the grandchildren, keeping a watchful eye on the little ones, will be the “big, scary dog” whose ferocious roar keeps the mailman in his truck tooting his horn for someone to come sign for a package.

These are trustworthy guardians, but they come with a caveat of sorts:  Know what you’re getting into when you look for a LGD to buy.  They are not like other dogs.

They are very large – weighing 80-125 pounds.  They are very fast.  And their coats “blow out” once or twice a year – during an amazing season in which there seems to be hair everywhere.

LGDs are smart, but they are not pets.  They don’t do tricks, and they consider obedience optional.  You can almost see the thought process when your dog glances back at you with her intelligent eyes – “Hmm, my person is calling me, but I smell something over there in the bushes that just might be a fox.  I think I’ll investigate the smell first and get back to my person when I’m done.”  If you’re hung up on having a dog that obeys without question, DO NOT get a LGD.

You do need to teach your LGD some basic commands, like – “COME, Suzie!” or “NO!” or “Suzie, SIT!”  If the dog is a guardian for the family rather than the flock, you will add a few other commands to her repertoire, like “OUT” and “OFF the furniture!”

And the dog needs to be socialized to an extent.  If you have visitors coming to your home now and then, and take your dog to the vet on a leash or in the car, she’ll understand pretty quickly what’s accepted behavior, and normal activities, and won’t act in a dangerous or inappropriate manner with other humans and dogs.

Some basic LGD etiquette:
  • LGDs bark.  It’s what they do.  Don’t get onto them for this, but if it gets on your nerves you can go to the door when he barks and show him that you have taken note of the alert, but don’t consider it a danger.  Tell him, “Good boy!” and go back inside.  Usually, once they’ve seen you pay attention to what they’re trying to tell you, they’ll settle down.
  • LGDs will bark at your friends that come to the house.  Warn your friends, and if the dog is loose (on the porch or in the yard), make sure you are able to take control of the dog before your friend gets out of the car.  Let the friend extend his or her hand to the dog to sniff.  LGDs like to be “formally introduced.”  The dog will make a mental note that this person is an acquaintance, and allow him into the house in the company of resident humans…but not necessarily if no one’s around.
  • You must prove yourself the “alpha” in the pack, if you plan to keep a LGD.  I allow a dog to growl at his/her charges ONLY if it’s protecting its food.  Under no other circumstances may they growl at the ones they’re supposed to protect.  Acceptable punishment is to pin the dog to the ground by his throat, get right in his face, and yell, “NO!!”  If it's shown itself agressive with children, be particularly vigilant and do not allow the dog alone with a child until he has proven himself trustworthy.  One way to overcome any reservations a LGD has with a child (usually if the dog was not raised around children) is to maintain an absolute NO TOLERANCE policy regarding growling at the children.  In addition, take the positive approach of allowing the dog to receive treats only from the child’s hand.  He comes to see the child as a giver of good things.
  • This last point brings up the issue of maturity.  A LGD is not fully mature until the age of 3 or 4 years old.  Therefore, a LGD must get used to being around adult livestock as a puppy, and only be put in with the youngsters once he’s shown himself to be mature enough to protect-without-playing.  A 100-pound Anatolian can kill a 2-pound lamb accidentally, just by playing with it as he would another dog.  The peak bonding time for a LGD is around 3-6 months old, so that is when he needs to be with the ones you want him to learn to protect.

When choosing a breed of livestock guardian dog, you need to look at more than just which breed you think is “pretty.”  Your main concern should be what your needs are.

What dogs are more common in your area?  That will affect both the price and the availability of animals to breed to.  If you keep your eye on Craigslist, under Farm and Garden, sometimes you can spot the LGD ads before they get flagged.  It’s a sad truth that people who don’t have livestock don’t see a difference between a working farm dog and a Yorkie from a puppy mill.  There are ads for LGDs, but they are usually snatched down quickly.  Another good source is the Livestock Guardian Dog web site and discussion list:  http://www.lgd.org/

A second consideration is, what do you need the dog for?  If you have small predators like coyotes and marauding dogs, a Great Pyrenees would be good, but if the predators are large, you will likely need a more aggressive dog, like a Kuvasz or Anatolian.

I knew a lady once some years ago who raised sheep and dogs.  She had both Kuvasz and Pyrenees, and when I asked her the difference between them, she told me this story:

“I got up one morning, and some poor beagle had got in the electric fence, but apparently he got buzzed going in and didn’t want to go back out, so when I got up, there was that scared little beagle, cornered by my two Pyrenees.  They were just holding him there until I came to do something with him.  If that had been Kuvasz, there would have been pieces of beagle all over the pen.”

Of course, this was a conclusion by one breeder.  Dogs vary considerably in personality from one to another.

And if you have really big predators – cougars or grizzlies, for instance – you will need more than one LGD.  Good LGDs work together:  One or two will go for the predator, while a third stays with the flock.

There are other breed eccentricities to look for:  Pyrenees are known to wander, if you don’t have good fences.  Some Anatolians can climb a fence.

Individual dogs have their individual preferences, as well.  If you get one to protect your family, and she ends up staying out by the sheep fold, put her in with the sheep and get you another family guardian!

Whatever you decide on, I highly recommend having a good guardian dog on your place.  I always remember reading the book, “Little House on the Prairie” with my children.  One time, the father in the story ran across a family stranded in the wilderness next to their wagon.

“Where are your horses?” he asked them.  “Somebody stole them during the night.”  “Didn’t your dog bark?”  “We don’t have a dog.”

Charles Ingalls just shook his head.  Who would come into the wilderness without a dog?  Such a simple thing, to preserve your belongings, your family, your animals.

It may be that a time is coming when to preserve your belongings, your family, and your animals is the most anyone could hope for.  And for that, a dog is an inexpensive and wise investment.

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