by Anita Fahrenwald Crafton
True or false?
From 7 to 16 weeks of age, livestock guarding dogs (LGD) should be socialized only with livestock.
There is no need to provide training for LGDs.
Both of these statements are false!
Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that LGD pups should be raised with the livestock they will be guarding, isolated from humans. In reality, this is an exaggeration of recommendations made by scientists in the USDA bulletin about selecting, raising, and using LGDs1. The publication’s language about minimizing the dog-to-human bond has been incorrectly interpreted to mean elimination of contact with humans. However, the same publication also recommends that LGDs be trained to accept human handling, walk on a leash, and come when called, and points out that some owners teach additional commands. Training cannot be accomplished without human contact.
Sadly, the isolation protocol is accepted as gospel by many, including some instructors, because most of us really don’t know much about these dogs. This misinformation results in tragic rescue situations – fearful dogs that cannot be touched by humans, much less even caught.
My background as a competition and pet dog obedience trainer caused me to question the “isolation” advice. My advice to pet owners has always been to socialize their dogs to both humans and other animals as much as possible. This is especially true with the personal protection breeds, because the best protection dogs are those who do not fear people. I couldn’t help but wonder, if protective instinct could still develop in a well socialized German Shepherd Dog, why would it be any different for a livestock guarding dog? Yet, I had doubts because I had no experience with LGDs. The argument that the LGD might find people or other dogs more fun than sheep made sense, too.
In 2001, my husband and I decided to raise our newly acquired Great Pyrenees pup pretty much like any other dog in the family, with a few modifications to allow for socializing with the sheep. We knew there was a chance that he might not do his job, but our rationale was multi faceted. We live in an area where the probability is high the dog would come into contact with people, so he needed to have basic good manners. In addition, between our own dogs and occasional clients’ dogs, we hoped our Pyr would learn to be discriminating. Being dog lovers first, we decided that turning him into “just another (big!) pet” was an acceptable risk.
We got Jack at 10 weeks of age from a small farmer. The pups had been raised in a pen with daily exposure to children. The USDA-recommended age to begin socialization with livestock is between 7 and 8 weeks; some breeders recommend waiting until 9 weeks. For the first two weeks, we left Jack with our sheep day and night, visiting him only to feed and water and make sure he was okay. In the daytime, they were all confined to a small corral. At night, Jack was confined in an exercise pen within the sheep barn.
At four months of age, we took Jack to an obedience class, although he was not allowed to socialize nose-to-nose with the other dogs. On my husband’s days off, he took the pup everywhere with him. Workdays for Jack were spent at first in the corral and later in the pasture with his sheep. After the sheep were locked in the barn for the night, Jack rejoined the family. He had playtime in the back yard with our other big dogs before feeding time. At night, he slept next to our bed.
In doing our research, we learned that a dog’s chance for success at guarding livestock is as much related to its individual personality traits as to the amount of socialization with other species of animals 2. While socializing the pups with the species they are to guard is important, it is just as important to choose the right dog for the job 3. The isolation theory of raising LGDs fails to consider genetics and the nature of dogs, most of whom typically develop protective behaviors as they mature. As Jack matured, his natural protective instincts kicked in. He became more reserved toward human strangers entering our property, but would accept them after a proper introduction. He also began acting highly aggressive towards stray dogs outside of our fences.
When Jack was about 6 months of age, we began wondering if he would protect his sheep from his yard buddies (a Samoyed and German Shepherd Dog). Although our fences are pretty secure, we realize that accidents can happen. We decided it would be better to test Jack while we home to observe. We turned our German Shepherd out into the pasture, and he immediately made a run for the flock. The sheep became alarmed and ran, and the chase was on!
Jack seemed delighted to see his buddy, Simba, and immediately joined in the chase. With sinking hearts, we thought, "uh-oh, we messed up", and we headed for the gate to intervene. Though I knew we could call the shepherd off, it appeared that our judgement had proved wrong after all; we had ruined our LGD.
At first, it seemed that Jack had no concern for his sheep. He was totally intent on roughhousing with Simba – body slamming and pawing him, which was typical of their play. Because they veered away from the sheep while playing, we kept quiet and watched awhile longer. After a few such passes at the sheep, it became evident that there was a pattern! Jack kept putting himself between the sheep and Simba. Using body shoves and mouthing, he kept maneuvering Simba away from the sheep – time after time – no small task since Simba (a robust 120 lbs) had a 40 pound advantage over Jack. As Jack kept play-mauling Simba, their circle took them further from the sheep, who calmed down and went back to grazing. With the sheep quiet, Simba lost interest in them.
In Turid Rugaas' video on Calming Signals (also known as “cut off signals”), we noticed a behavior called "splitting" that seemed to be what Jack was doing with Simba. Splitting, according to Rugaas, is when one dog repeatedly runs between two other dogs that are playing too rough. Eventually, the rough play ceases.
We could not be more satisfied with our decision to civilize our LGD. He has turned out to be the quintessential pet dog who wins friends everywhere we take him – from the veterinarian’s office to treat-outings at the local pet store. He loves people of all shapes and sizes, especially children, and he’s polite to other dogs we encounter. He has even performed as my obedience class demo dog. At work in the pasture, he becomes highly aggressive towards strange dogs or coyotes roaming within sight of his pasture fence, but not to dogs that we bring into the adjoining back yard. Because he is such a joy to live with, he’s become about 99% house dog; yet when he is in the pasture, his Pyr-independence and guarding instincts win out over his bond with humans. (Translation: he would not win any obedience competitions!)
Livestock guardian dogs are becoming more and more popular all over the country. Socialization and training to some degree is important for all LGDs3 It is only logical that dogs used on family farms or acreages need to receive more human socialization and training than those used by ranchers in open range conditions. Even range-LGDs must receive veterinary attention at least annually, and they must occasionally be removed from the livestock. They should also receive regular inspections of teeth, ears, coat and general body condition as well as grooming 4.
Instructors: Trust your instincts! To achieve the goals suggested by LGD experts – a confident, alert guardian – pups must be handled by humans and exposed to the variety of situations they will encounter as an adult dog. Instructors should not be afraid to admit LGDs to their classes. In fact, if contacted for advice, instructors should strongly recommend they do attend classes. Some caveats are in order: a working/pet LGD should not be led off the property, but taken from the property in a vehicle; the amount of training given should not emphasize the human-dog bond to the extent that it interferes with the dog’s bond to livestock (and desire to remain with livestock). This will vary from dog to dog, depending on its personality traits (extremely sociable vs. highly independent). With the reputation for obedience that most LGDs have, logic tells us that basic socialization and training will not greatly interfere with the dog’s bond with livestock!
Some excellent online LGD resources are listed below.
1. Livestock Guarding Dogs, Protecting Sheep from Predators. USDA Agriculture Information Bulletin #588, http://www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/pubs/guarddog.pdf.
2. LGD Library – GPCA Breeders and the Family Farm Dog, http://www.lgd.org/library/lgdpamph.htm.
3. LGD Library – Socializing Your Puppy, by Catherine de la Cruz, http://www.lgd.org/library/socializepups.htm .
4. LGD Library – Grooming the Working Livestock Guardian Dog, by Catherine de la Cruz, http://www.lgd.org/library/GroomLGD.ht ml.
Anita Crafton (#463N) has been teaching dog obedience classes since 1978 and has been a member of NADOI since 1985. She has shown Samoyeds and Shelties in both conformation and obedience. She and her husband, Danny, live on an acreage in southern Idaho with three Great Pyrenees, an Akbash, two German Shepherds, two Shelties, a small band of Shetland sheep, a horse, and several cats.