How cute are those three little marshmallows? I’ll tell you: They are so cute that it is physically impossible to speak to them without using that annoying baby-talk, high-pitched puppy voice. “Ook at da wittle puppers! Awe you a cute wittle pupper? Yes her is! Yes her is!” Why we revert to this strange alien language when stricken by cute overload is beyond me, but we do. The cuter the creature the dumber we sound.
If you follow me along on facebook or instagram, then you know we recently welcomed nine cute wittle puppers into the world, and those snuggly marshmallows above are three of them. These pups are 56% Great Pyrenees and 44% Anatolian Shepherd and 100% adorable. There were nine total with eight females and one male. (Why can’t all my animals have that kind of female:male ratio?!) The boy came last, naturally, and gave us a bit of a fright — the story of which will be seen on my youtube channel soon. One of the girls has been chosen to stay with us, and the rest will be going to new homesteads and farms to guard other livestock.
Having these new little bundles of joy has brought to my mind some of the key things I’ve learned about succeeding with a livestock guardian puppy. I know that going forward I will have a new puppy learning the ropes for the next 1-2 years, depending on how fast she matures, as will each person who takes home a puppy from us when they reach 12 weeks of age.
Each dog is an individual. Some of them learn faster than others, some mature faster than others, and some are more challenging than others. Looking at these precious little balls of fluff, I have high hopes that they will each fall perfectly into their role with little fuss or muss. Their sire did so. He was born to guard the herd and he knew it from the get-go. But not every dog is so quick to grow up and get down to business, and I have no way of knowing which of these little ones will be self-taught geniuses like Lakota or which ones may need a little more guidance.
I wholeheartedly believe that each of these puppies has the potential to be a successful guardian dog. They come from working parents who come from working lines and will be given the best opportunity for success by being raised with livestock and learning from our mature dogs until they leave our farm. (All of which is of the utmost importance when choosing an LGD pup.) My goal is to give them the best possible start that I can. I know, however, that there are things we humans can do that have the potential to ruin a future guardian’s career before it gets started. I also know that every dog goes through a puppy stage, and how challenging that puppy stage is depends on the individual dog. Because I know this, I wanted to compile a few things that I’ve learned since getting my first guardian puppy back in 2009. I’ve made mistakes for sure, but in the end I’ve managed to have all three of my LGD puppies grow up to be productive, wonderful dogs — despite occasional bumps along the road.
One last note before we get into the good stuff: I am not a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist. These are things that I have gathered through research, learning from other experienced LGD breeders, and years of my own personal experience. Keep in mind that each dog is different. If you’re struggling with your dog’s behavior (LGD or otherwise) it’s a good idea to reach out to a veterinarian, trainer, or trusted mentor who can work with you personally, as well as doing plenty of research. What may work for one person’s dog may not work for yours. Someone who can see your dog in person and learn about its personality can help guide you toward what may work for your specific dog. Also keep in mind that sudden changes in behavior or temperament can also be a signal that something is physically wrong and causing the dog pain.
Understanding the Puppy Stage
The puppy stage is the most challenging; it’s like teenage years for canines. This is when the dogs are learning the ropes about the world. They have lots of energy and lots of play, and like any teenager they also start to push boundaries. This is not such a big deal if you’re raising a chihuahua, but when the puppy has a job it must learn, and is also much larger than a chihuahua, navigating puppyhood is a bit more challenging.
Larger breeds of dog, which includes the guardian breeds, mature at a slower rate both physically and mentally. Whereas a smaller dog may start to outgrow puppy behavior as young as six months old, large breeds are still puppies up until they’re around two years old. Of course this varies among individuals as well. Our dog Lakota was a very precocious puppy who learned quickly and grew out of his puppy shenanigans in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Sage had the longest puppy stage of our three dogs, and started to reach her stride at around the average age one would expect — about 1.5 years old, approaching the two year mark. Mellow was somewhere in between.
During the puppy stage it’s important to provide stimulation for the dog. This includes being sure they have room to run and play as well as giving them some chews and toys to play with. It’s also very helpful if they have another livestock guardian dog to play with as well. The more they have in terms of space to run out energy, toys to preoccupy their minds, and canine compadres, the less likely they are to display play behavior with the livestock, which is a concern during the puppy years. LGDs work best in pairs or groups anyway, so if you can getting at least two is a good idea.
Puppies are also learning what is and isn’t okay behavior at this age. If a mature dog is around, you will see the older dog reprimand the puppy if it does something deemed unacceptable, like playing too rough. Sometimes you as the human will need to teach the puppy manners as well. Improper behavior should be corrected immediately, even if it seems “cute.” It will no longer be cute when it becomes an ingrained habit carried over to adulthood. It’s important that the puppy respects you and the livestock now or it won’t later.
Extra energy is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it becomes a problem when a bored puppy starts to play with the livestock, which can possibly lead to injury or predatory behavior, or destructive and problematic behavior like digging or escaping.
Respect the Breeds and Respect the Individual
It’s easy to assume that what works with one dog will work with another, but that just isn’t the case. There are big differences even just between breed characteristics, and likewise two dogs (even of the same breed) can be very different as well just like any other dogs. Even though there are common traits that carry across all the guardian breeds — they all have the same job, after all — some individuals will be more prone to certain behaviors.
Each dog might also respond differently to different types of “training.” I put training in quotations, because I really don’t feel that LGDs should truly be trained. My personal philosophy on the matter is this: Livestock guardian dogs should be guided toward their natural instincts, not trained to perform specific actions. LGDs are not your typical house pet type dogs. They are, as a whole, prone to digging, climbing, escaping, barking, roaming, food aggression/resource guarding, being stubborn, being independent, and being very smart. This is just how they are, and we humans have to adjust to these strong personality traits.
Guardian breeds developed these traits for a reason. Historically they were expected to roams acres of unfenced land with their herds, with little human interference. They had to be smart and independent in order to survive those types of harsh conditions and protect their herds from wild predators. It’s our job to recognize and respect their traits as part of the nature of the breed and do what we need to do to work with them. There really is no reason to train an LGD to follow many commands outside of the basics (like a simple “no” command). They know how to do their job by instinct, we need only to help them learn to respect us and behave appropriately. They can handle the rest.
Tips and Tricks
Don’t be overly affectionate.
It’s hard to look at a tiny, fluffy, cuddly wittle pupper and not want to squish it half to death with snuggles. And it’s okay to love on them some. That said, a careful line must be drawn to not be overly doting and affectionate for one reason: you don’t want a livestock guardian dog to feel that it belongs with humans.
Human interactions should be minimal during the first four to six months of life. There’s a little bit of wiggle room there again to account for the individual aspect, but it’s important that the dog learns to bond with its herd during those formative months. Interactions should be kept to the basics: feeding, correcting bad behavior, introducing to smaller livestock if needed, and the like. The vast majority of the pup’s time should be spent with mature guardian dogs (if possible) and adult livestock.
Too much human interaction can lead to a dog who wants to live with humans and guard humans, and does not care to stay with its herd. One of our LGDs was extremely people-oriented when we first brought her home and it was obvious that the breeders and their children had been spending too much time with her. Luckily she was young enough to readjust, but for the first week she desperately wanted to be with us and not the other guardians and the livestock. I have seen failed LGDs have to be rehomed to a pet home because of behavior such as climbing the fence to come to the house — a sure sign it became overly people-oriented and didn’t learn to bond with the herd instead.
Raise them with livestock.
This goes along with not making them become overly attached to humans. I’ve seen some advice floating around to not allow the dogs with livestock unsupervised until they’re an adult, but I strongly disagree with that advice. The puppy needs to grow up in a working environment where they learn to bond with the livestock they’ll be guarding. In order to do so, they must live with livestock 24/7. It’s important that the puppy be placed with confident adult livestock. This helps to teach the puppy to respect the livestock from a young age.
Monitor to be sure that the livestock isn’t bullying or being overly aggressive with the puppy. Typically in my experience a few minor headbutts take place, and afterward the livestock mostly ignore the puppy. If for some reason one of your goats/sheep/etc goes rogue and is being mean to the puppy or risking harming it, remove that animal to a different pen. You want the pup to respect the livestock, but not feel fearful or threatened by them, which may lead to aggression down the road.
It’s always best if the puppy can live with and learn from adult livestock guardians as they work, but that is not always possible. Our first LGD puppy did not have an adult dog to guide her after we brought her home. That is one reason that I personally believe in keeping LGD puppies with their mother until they’re 12 weeks old. This allows more time for them to learn from their mother if they are going to a situation with no other adult guardians.
There are a couple of caveats. I am speaking specifically about LGD pups that have been raised with livestock from birth. If for some reason you are wanting to introduce an older LGD pup that has not been raised with stock (which I don’t recommend), then only do so under close supervision at first. LGD pups also should not be left unsupervised with young stock or with small species like chickens until they are mature and proven guardians. More on that below. I also would not leave a pup with pigs, because the pigs might harm it.
We all have moments of frustration where we lose our tempers. I know I have been there, and I’m sure you have as well. However, a quick temper will get you absolutely nowhere when working with an LGD. LGDs are by nature stubborn, independent, and smart. While they do need to respect you as an authority figure and friend, losing your temper with them is not going to earn their respect.
It’s important to maintain a calm but firm attitude when correcting any improper behavior. If the puppy does not immediately respond (remember, they’re stubborn), keep confidently asserting yourself and enforcing your command. Follow through is important with stubborn breeds. Be patient and consistent.
Begin working with them regarding food from a young age.
Food aggression or resource guarding is a common trait among guardian breeds, and some breeds or individuals are more prone to it than others. Thinking back again to the environment that these dogs historically came from, it’s easy to understand why the have this propensity to guard their resources. When roaming the mountainside following sheep herds with no humans bringing a bowl of kibble everyday, food would be much more scarce and important.
There’s nothing you can do that will completely eliminate food guarding. Instead, the most important thing is to work with the puppy from a young age to recognize and respect you as the food-giver. There are different ways that people do this, but I will tell you what has worked for me personally. When I feed the puppy, I require it to wait patiently for its food and don’t allow it to try to jump or grab the food from my hand. I also pet the puppy as it eats so that it is comfortable with my presence. If the puppy shows signs of trying to guard the food, I reprimand with a firm “no” and pick the food up for a moment until the puppy is waiting calmly, then I return it. I also praise the puppy while it eats as I pet it, as long as it is remaining relaxed and not showing signs of food guarding. One way that dogs are sometimes evaluated for aggression is testing to see if a human can safely pick up the food bowl while the dog is eating. This is something the dog should be comfortable with, recognizing that you are not a threat to them or their resources.
It’s also important to give the dogs plenty of space to eat or separate them completely at meal time, depending on how strong their food guarding instinct is. Feeding older LGD puppies or adults right next to each other or in close proximity to where livestock are eating is setting them up for failure. It is normal for them to guard their food from other animals, so give them some space to prevent this from becoming an issue. An ounce of prevention. . .
Don’t expect them to naturally guard small animals like chickens.
This one is really important. An LGD puppy should never be left alone with poultry without human supervision. LGD breeds developed initially to guard larger livestock — mainly sheep. The historical ancestors of our modern livestock guardians were not expected or trained to guard small animals like poultry or rabbits. Those types of bite sized stock were more likely to be a snack than something to guard. It’s unfair to expect an LGD to naturally guard a flock of chickens, turkeys, ducks, or anything similar. In fact, it’s common for them to attack and kill small stock if it ventures into their living area.
That said, it is possible to train some LGD puppies to guard poultry. To do so the puppy should be introduced to poultry under supervision from a young age. It is absolutely necessary to closely supervise all interactions with poultry and to introduce them early. The often erratic and flashy movements of poultry, such as flapping wings, flying, and running, are extremely tempting to a young dog. It ignites prey drive instincts and makes the puppy want to chase and play, which of course leads to eventual aggression.
If you get an early start and carefully correct all play behavior, you may in fact have a mature guardian dog one day that can live safely with poultry. However, there are no guarantees.
Don’t trust them with baby livestock until they are mature and proven.
This is another super important one, and it goes along with the prior notes on LGDs and small stock like chickens. Mature LGDs can be wonderful with baby livestock. We have personally had one of our LGDs save and protect newborn goats when their first-timer mother wanted nothing to do with them initially. If not for that dog, those three kids would have been dead before we found them. I’ve also seen the kids tap dancing on top of their long-suffering guardian on multiple occasions, too.
When it comes to an immature LGD puppy, however, it’s best to keep them away from kids and lambs except under human supervision. Similarly to what I mentioned about poultry, the erratic and playful behavior of babies can trigger play instincts in your puppy. Newborns are also much smaller — sometimes not any bigger than a chicken — and may strike up some predatory instincts as well. Once the dog is a mature adult who has proven its merit, then it will be safe to allow them to live with the little ones — which is important as the young ones are even more vulnerable to predators.
Don’t allow play behavior with livestock.
This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate to see “cute” videos or pictures of a dog (LGD or otherwise) “playing” with a prey animal like a goat or sheep. Play all too often leads to aggression, and here’s why: Dogs are natural predators and as such they play like predators. Livestock are natural prey and therefore play like prey. Play behavior can often escalate to predatory behavior because the prey-like movements and actions trigger that instinct in the dog. This is not to mention the fact that play in itself can also result in injury for the livestock.
Livestock guardian dogs were developed by selecting the dogs that got along best with livestock and had a low drive for chase and a low prey drive, specifically toward larger livestock like sheep. These breeds therefore have a naturally low prey drive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely non-existent. It may not be as easily triggered as a hunting dog’s, but it’s still present. There’s no reason to allow behavior that may result in disaster. Always quickly and firmly correct any play behavior toward the livestock.
Set them up to win, not fail.
As humans we often put our animals into lose-lose situations through ignorance or happenstance, and then we get frustrated and angry with them when they fail. This happens when we fail to recognize and meet the animal’s needs (such as adequate exercise) or fail to read the animal’s body language (like not recognizing when your horse is about to kick). I see it all the time in different ways. People look for new homes for their animals using phrases like “the kids aren’t interested anymore” or “we just don’t have the time”as code for “the hamster bit my kid because he handled it inappropriately” or “we keep our dog in a crate 12 hours a day and wonder why it never settles down when it’s out.” As animal owners it is our responsibility to care for them by providing their basic needs of appropriate food, water, and shelter; but it is also our responsibility to learn to speak the animal’s language and to provide an environment that sets the animal up for success.
Don’t put your LGD into a situation that makes it bound to fail. Knowing what you now know by having read to this point of the post, it’s easy to avoid putting your puppy into a situation that puts it at an unfair disadvantage. Don’t put it in a poorly fenced pasture and get angry when it escapes to roam the neighborhood. Don’t put it in unsupervised with chickens and get angry when it eats one. Don’t make it share a feed bowl with another dog and get angry when they start to fight. We know the inborn traits of livestock guardian dogs, and it makes no sense to expect them to act any differently than how they’re acted for thousands of years. You can’t train away thousands of years of instinct, and even if you could, to do so would be fundamentally altering the very nature of livestock guardian dogs and the traits that have been essential to their survival and success throughout history. (Fun fact: dogs and sheep were found together in archaeological sites dating to 3585 BC, and a dog living with sheep is mentioned in the Bible in Job 30:1. Livestock guardian dogs are a very longstanding tradition!)
In short, don’t get angry at the puppy because you failed. Making mistakes is part of being human, and you are sure to make some. When those mistakes result in an unwanted behavior from an animal, accept responsibility and make changes. It’s as simple as that. Set your puppy up with an environment that will work to its advantage, not one that is unnecessarily challenging or that tempts fate.
My one final, closing note is this:
Every now and then a pup will be born who simply isn’t suited to guarding. While I strongly believe that the vast majority of LGD pups who start out from working parents and are raised with livestock from the beginning will succeed if raised correctly through to adulthood, there are always exceptions. Sometimes every circumstance can be right and things still won’t work out for whatever reason. If you are struggling with a pup, seek council from experienced LGD owners, research, try new methods, and give it your best shot, but if in the end it doesn’t work out don’t beat yourself up and don’t assume that it’s a reflection of all LGD dogs or a specific breed. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Livestock guardian dogs are such an important part of any farm or homestead. They are one of the best investments you can make, hands down, to protect your herd. Even if there are challenges along the way, it’s worth it in the end.