What Turns A Pup Into A Livestock Guardian Dog?

Catherine de la Cruz

Newborn puppy Same pup - 18 mos later

A friend has a sig-line on her e-mail that states “Just because it’s born in a barn and barks doesn’t make it a Livestock Guardian Dog.” So, what does?

First of all, not all Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) are born in barns. Some are whelped in the warmth and comfort of a home, under the eyes of a concerned breeder. Their place of birth is not as important as the circumstances under which they were bred.

Were the parents of the same breed, physically and temperamentally sound? While, to the novice eyes, one big-white-dog in the field looks very much like any other, each of the LGD breeds was originally bred for the geographic and cultural milieu in which they were used. Great Pyrenees were expected to live among people in addition to their families; Tibetan Mastiffs were expected to protect their tents from all intruders, two- or four-legged. In temperament, the rest of the LGD breeds form a bell-curve between the two. As Scott and Fuller proved in 1965 in “Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog”, in the crossing of two breeds, the temperament does not necessarily follow the physical form. A dog may look like one parent, but behave like the other. I’ve had personal experience with Pyr x Shepherd crosses in Rescue where a dog looked very much like a Pyr, but had the prey drive of a Shepherd.

Physical soundness in the parents will most probably be passed down to the pups, just as unsoundness will. Parents with certified hip clearances, with certified normal hearts and thyroids are more likely to produce similar offspring than parents with no genetic information. Temperamental soundness is also critical. An overly-aggressive or very shy parent has a good chance of passing that disposition to some of the offspring; while dogs with both extremes of disposition have be used as LGDs, training is much easier – and working is more likely – if dispositions are confident.

Just as important as the parents is the breeder. Does s/he have enough years in this breed to know about the traits – good and bad – that affect work as an LGD? And is there enough knowledge of general livestock handling to be able to mentor the new owner during the critical first 24 months of the pup’s career?

Good LGD breeders are good observers: they spend enough time watching the pups in the litter box, and later in the training pen, to know which pups are bold enough to be LGDs and which would rather sit on a lap and be house dogs. While there are abbreviated “temperament tests”, they depend on a number of variables, and can’t substitute for an experienced, observant breeder.

Good LGD breeders are good mentors: they plan on spending as much time as necessary over the first two years of a pup’s life to assure that the pup gets the best possible start in his life’s work. This includes guiding the new owner in setting up the pup’s first living quarters, introduction of the livestock to the new pups, helping solve problems as they arise. If the mentor doesn’t know an answer, s/he should know where to find it, or whom to ask to get an answer.

The new owners should not be offended to find they are offered only spayed/neutered pups (or contracts that specify neutering before maturity). The good LGD breeder is concerned that the owner gets exactly what is being paid for – a dog that will devote its full attention to the livestock. The good LGD breeder also has the future of the breed at heart, assuring that a novice owner will not start breeding before they have learned a lot more about LGDs in general and their breed in particular.

Finally, the responsible LGD breeder is entitled to be fairly compensated for the forethought, effort, planning and genetic testing that has gone into a litter. With purebred sheep often selling in the four figures, and purebred alpacas in five, it is not unreasonable to price a pup with certified parents, from proven working background, in the same range as show pups. The good working dog is not less valuable than the show dog – in fact, his economic impact is far more likely to be a positive one, as he saves his owner thousands of dollars in stock not lost.

There will always be the backyard breeder who sells pups for under $500 and the farmyard breeder who claims “born on the ranch” pups that asks low prices for unregistered (and un-neutered) pups. But the reputable breeder – who can support his genetic claims with documentation and support the new owner with solid advice – deserves to receive a fair price for the pups. The ranch is not a dumping ground for unsold “show dogs”, nor a place for failed “rescue dogs”. It should be the showcase of the finest we can produce – working dogs with good pedigrees and a proven work record.