We have a pack of Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) who help us on the farmstead. I love training and working with the dogs. I would not want to farm, or even homestead, without the help of dogs. Their superior senses alert me to things I would otherwise miss. Their tireless patrolling keeps our herd, our children and us safe from predators and pests. Because of the dogs we never have problems with deer, crows or woodchucks in the garden. People see our dogs here on these pages so I get a lot of questions about how to train, requests for puppies and various other aspects of the dogs.
Is it necessary to get a purebred for herding and guarding?
No. In fact, some purebreds are problematic as they’ve had the working stuff bred out of them and hip or other problems bred in. Ideally get a dog from parents that are doing the work you want your dog to do. It’s not pure bred that matters. It’s inclination, exposure and training that is key.
Can you just take any mutt from the pound?
Picking a random dog at the pound probably won’t work because they haven’t grown up around livestock and had any selection for the work. Even picking a purebred dog at the pound, on the assumption that the instinct is there, is probably iffy since the dog probably wasn’t raised with livestock and may really be a show dog or a family pet rather than a working dog.
We got lucky on that score with our original dog Coy. He simply showed up and started doing the job. We have had many unsuitable dogs that we rejected so maybe it was selection rather than luck. People dump a lot of dogs on our road – People see a farm and toss out their dog thinking we’ll take it in and it will have a nice home. It doesn’t work that way. 99.9% of the dogs go to the dog catcher, the cops, the coyotes, get hit by a car, etc.
What criteria would one use to pick a dog from the pound?
Look for the usual, good health, active, alert, not spastic, intelligent, etc. The few good dogs that have been dumped here at our farm that we kept showed a talent for the tasks right away. In a pound situation there wouldn’t have been a way to see that. Those dogs are in cages in a very artificial environment. The real test is going to be taking the dog home and working with it around your livestock. Take your time picking. Be ready to fail and get lucky. The younger the better for training and exposure to the livestock but the younger they are the less you see of their behaviors.
There are groups that try to place farm working dogs who have gotten old and that may be a good way to start. An older trained dog that has lived a life of working with livestock. That dog will get you started and help train a pup later. Dogs learn a lot from each other. Watching an experience dog work will teach both the pup and you.
The best way to get a good working dog is to look around your area for other small farms and homesteads that have working dogs. Better yet would be to look in the farm classified ads for dogs born on farms. You want to get a pup that was raised with livestock, ideally similar livestock to what it will guard. The parents should be healthy and on the farm working. These things are far more important than being purebred or papers.
Realize that when you get a puppy, it may be 18 months before it is big enough to really work and even train. Some start training much younger but some aren’t ready to train until they’re that old. I start training when they are just a few months old with the basics. A few dogs will herd when they’re just puppies themselves. They aren’t ready to take on big predators until their full grown and really need a pack of their own to handle a cougar or a coyote pack. I find that our dogs typically reach adult muscle and weight when they’re two or three years old.
The quick alternative to a pup is a dog that is partially or fully trained working dog but expect to pay a lot because someone has put months or years into training the dog. Ideally the dog should have been exposed to the type of animals you are planning to have it work or something similar. A good working dog can cross over from guarding one thing to another. If it was exposed to many species then this will be easier.
Can you give me details on how to you train?
Sometime I’ll write about it in depth. Basic ideas in a nutshell:
- Get their attention – if you don’t have their attention you can’t train them – seems to be true of people too. Name, Good, No, Treat, etc.
- Establish communications both ways – teach them the basic commands. Observe them to learn how they communicate. Get down the basic obedience training.
- Positive reinforcement in the form of words (GOOD!), pets, attention and food are all powerful training tools. I hardly ever have to use punishment and usually it is simply NO! or rejection – dogs are very sensitive to being ostrazation so it is a very powerful tool.
- As we have older working dogs they act as role models and actively teach younger dogs. This helps immensely.
- Raise the dogs with the target livestock – it makes a big difference.
- Everything else is details, daily work with the dogs, etc. Time wisely spent and a great investment. Fun too.
It does help to start with a dog with potential – that will speed up the learning curve. Intelligence, health, vigor and a desire to herd, guard and do the work. They must want to do what you say be it working with you or independently. Expect the dog to be capable but have plenty of patience.
Only certain breeds are LGDs. False. It’s not the breed, its the function that matters. Some breeds that are traditionally used for LGD like the German Shepherd and Great Pyrenees now mostly consist of dogs that do shows or are house pets. These dogs are not LGD dogs – they’re from LGD stock but they are really show dogs and house pets. Nothing wrong with that. Other dogs that are mutts are out in the fields working hard to herd and protect real livestock. These are LGDs – it is the function and ability, not the breed that matters. Generally speaking LGDs are typically of larger frame, longer coats and rugged physique so that they can withstand the rigors of being outdoors all the time. That is not universal though and it can vary greatly with climate. Our dogs have long, thick double fur coats and are adapted for our cold climate. They probably would be less than happy in Texas. So would I. :) Evolution and selective breeding are wonderful.
LGDs work totally on instinct – you can’t train them. False! The best LGDs are intelligent so that they are able to work independently and make their own judgements. Ours are highly trainable and interested in learning. They like both the routine of their jobs and also learning new tasks which keeps life interesting. Not doing any training wastes some of their potential. There are all sorts of schools about training from do nothing and rely totally on instinct to clicker training. I train as above and use words, hand signs, tongue clicks, whistles and the occasional growl or howl. Some dogs come out of the womb like their ready to work and seem to just pick up everything by watching their elders. Others need a more shaping but are wonderful working dogs. Some just don’t take yet still make good companion dogs – keep them off the farm if they are actively dangerous to the livestock.
A LGD can only guard one species of animal. False. Ours guard and herd pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, geese and kids – the human kind. I could easily add new species. It is my responsibility to teach the dogs that a new species is to be guarded and the process is simple – Show them the new animal and say “No Touch”, “Guard” and they understand. One might say that comes from training. Yes, but what it really shows is that we have established communications, a common language. That is the key. Do that and dogs can do amazing things.
LGDs will kill chickens. False – sort of Chickens are the hardest animal to train some dogs to because the chickens natural fluttering motion make it such a tempting target and their fragile health make it so easy to even accidentally kill. However, even Killer Kita learned to guard, herd and protect chickens and chicks although she still dines on wild birds. Ducks are similarly difficult for training although a little hardier. LGDs can learn to do both and some dogs just understand.
You can’t interact with a LGD – socializing will ruin it. False! Some people will tell you that you can’t interact with a LGD, you can’t play with them, they can’t ever come in the house, they can’t come in the car, etc. Those are all myths. Over the years I have observed a number of people who follow this rule and fail despite their claims. I have trained many LGDs – Ours interact with our family. I cross train ours to work in the field, the house, the car, on a leash, on voice command, with people, etc. There is instinct but there’s a lot more intelligence. Possibly this myth came about because people wanted to just dump the dog in the field and expected it to do its work without any training. The dog has a lot more potential if your willing to put in the effort. By cross training the dog for many functions you will extend it’s working life. When a puppy it isn’t ready to go out into the field and tackle bear but it can still work closer in with smaller animals. When old and arthritic a working dog can no longer handle the fast herding or fence jumping yet it can still easily herd and guard a flock of chickens or ducks relying on it’s skills rather that fleetness of foot and power moves.
Once a killer, always a killer. False! There is a myth that if a dog kills livestock then it is untrainable. Put down that shotgun! It is just a myth – Dogs can be retrained and they may make mistakes. Unfortunately, people can ruin a dog by miscuing it to the wrong behaviors, spoiling it or simply never training it to begin with – I have retrained several of these ‘ruined’ dogs who had become livestock killers. After retraining they went on to become wonderful working LGDs. Witness “Killer Kita for one beautiful example of how a dog that was ruined by people leaving her chained and untrained. When they moved to an apartment they returned her to us. Later she killed a sheep, ducks and chickens here. The other dogs, including her look-alike twin sister didn’t trust Kita with the animals. She was a livestock killer. Yet, now she is a wonderful, dedicated, trusted, free-roaming livestock guardian dog. I’ll readily admit she was challenging to retrain – she was my most problematic of the one’s I’ve retrained. It was worth the work and the myth is false – Killers can be retrained.
Don’t feed raw meat to LGDs. False. Some people will say that a dog that has tasted blood or eaten raw meat is ruined and will kill livestock. That is false. Alternatively I’ve heard people say that eating pork, chicken or raw food will hurt the dogs’ health, the bones will puncture it internally, etc. Our dogs have eaten raw and cooked pork, lamb, chicken, ducks, mice, wild birds and even crow. I have to wonder where these myths were created. Is it the commercial dog food companies trying to improve sales? Well, BARF – Bones and Raw Food – on them. Wild canines eat a healthy diet of raw food. Traditionally shepherds fed their LGDs raw meat, culls from the herd, just as the shepherds ate from the herd. We feed our dogs raw meat that comes from our livestock. This may gross you out so stop reading – I warned you – but one of the favorite things for a canine is guts. It is the first thing they want given the chance. Yet this doesn’t make them into livestock killers. They don’t kill the livestock – I do. They share in the harvest as they rightfully should being part of our team. Additionally, part of a dogs’ job – another gross out warning – is to clean up any dead born lambs and piglets so that the carcasses do not attract predators. Our dogs hunt, kill and eat pests (mice, rabbits, chucks, coon, coyotes, etc) daily. That doesn’t turn them into livestock killers. They’re intelligent. They know the difference between a domestic chicken from their flock and a wild bird, between their herd of pigs and a coon, etc. They care about and protect their livestock. Dogs are natural farmers and share in the rewards.
You can’t chain a LGD. False. Some people claim that chaining or tying will ruin a LGD. Runs and chains on pins are a useful tool for training when the dog is not up to par as well as for when you have visitors whom you don’t want to interact with your dogs. One trick is put a long overhead cable out in the pasture for a dog. This lets the dog move over a large area and works great. Such a cable run also works for sheep and would probably be great for goats who need training or restricting. We found that putting the lead ewe on a chain on a long cable run or a pin worked great – the flock sticks around on a pasture even without fencing.
LGDs must be spayed/neutered or they will roam. False! The reality is spaying/neutering doesn’t change roaming – out of a great many dogs I’ve worked with I have seen zero difference in roaming or other behaviors in spayed/neutered vs intact LGDs. It’s not real – how did the myth get started? I suspect that this myth was came about in several parts:
- People who feel all animals must be spayed/neutered and are looking for any excuse made this up. They push this propaganda to take away our right to own and breed our own animals. Beware of spay/neuter legislation – watch MyDogVotes.com.
- People spay/neuter the dog when it starts roaming and the roaming phase passes – thus they get a false correlation. It wasn’t that the dog was spayed, it simply matured and does not roam as much. Age is the single largest indicator of roaming – adolescent dogs go for walk-abouts because it is time for them to leave their pack and form a new pack – you’re asking them to form a pack with you and behave more human and less dog.
- People get LGDs to do a job and then are upset when the dog tries to do the job – cruise the territorial boundaries look for signs of predators, intimidate them, mark the edges of the territory with sign posts (scent, hair, piss and poop), know who’s around the area, check for farrowing or lambing going on out in the brush, etc. Then the owner gets upset that the dog can’t read the human maps and know where the human owner’s territory ends. Well, did you piss on the edges?!? Get with the program! The reality is LGD’s roam a bit – they’re cruising the boundaries of their territory and marking it. You need to come to an understanding with them about where that boundary is – that is your responsibility. It is doable. Start by walking the boundary on a daily basis. It is weeks to months before you should let a new dog free roaming so you have plenty of time.
Castration isn’t the answer at all and worse yet, not o
nly does castration not solve roaming but there are health problems that I have seen in spayed/neutered dogs such a weight gain, cancer, sex change and faster aging. This is very sad to see in an otherwise excellent working dog. I would only spay/neuter if the dog is one I do not want to breed due to some genetic fault and there is no other way to control the breeding issue. There is a reason we have those hormones in our bodies. Remove them and you are messing up the entire system.
How do you get maximum performance from your dogs?
Send them to a Dale Carnegie course. Well, maybe that is too expensive. Have great expectations, learn to communicate, set good routines, firm boundaries and train patiently. It does take time and commitment to train dogs, children, spouses, etc to their maximum ability. Ask yourself, what have you done to day to improve yourself and your team? Hmm… Too ethereal?
I’ve read of many people getting excellent work from their dogs so I don’t think our results are unique much as I like our dogs and think highly of them. There are a great many high performing dogs out there and they make wonderful partners on the farmstead. I suspect that the number one reasons people don’t get the maximum potential from their dogs is they don’t have high expectations and patience. The various myths make people think the dogs are less capable than they really are. This lowering of expectations results in a lowering of performance. It does take time and training to establish routines and communications. You are a team with the dog and you need to be the leader. You need to spend time working with them – a couple of times every day is ideal. You wouldn’t expect a person to be born and six months later drop into a full work situation requiring an advanced training and degree. Same for the dog. Train, expect, communicate and be patient.
Can you recommend a dog training book.
Nope. There are many dog training books where people talk about dogs being able to do this sort of thing. I’ve not actually read much about dog training although my wife likes the book by the monks of New Skete. I think they have several books. Start with that or you could try Amazon and look at the reviews if you wanted to pickup a good book.
I’ve got problems with coyote, bobcat and cougars.
Oh joy – the last one’s a killer. If you have a single dog it will primarily operate by alerting you and deterrence of territorial marking. If you have serious big predator problems then you will need two, three or more LGDs. A single dog can easily get killed by large predators or a pack of coyotes so don’t expect a dog to tackle them alone.
Cougar are the toughest in that group. They have vast big territories, are impolite, rude, self-centered, violate territorial boundaries, leap tall fences in a single bound (even with a lamb in their jaws), kill even what they don’t take and are main predator to which we’ve lost livestock in addition to a few owl kills. I’ve read that it takes three dogs to tackle a cougar, known as a catamount in these parts, and you’ll probably lose one and the other two will be injured. Cougar, no matter what you call them, don’t exist in Vermont, according to the Department of Wildlife officials. My wife and I have seen these ghosts several times – in broad daylight. I’ve found their prints (the cougar’s not the game warden’s). We’ve run into them in the dark in the woods – thankfully we had dogs with us. With our full pack of LGDs the cougar seems to generally follow the other side of the valley staying well clear of our main farm area. But as I said, we’ve lost sheep to them on one occasion – I had the fence off in the evening to work on it (dumb of me), the sheep had spread out over the entire south field, the dogs had come to check out what I was doing, the mountain lion took advantage of dinner at the far end of the south field. Rather than taking just one ewe it also tore apart another before leaping back over a high electrified fence with dinner in it’s jaws leaving no sign on the fence. Just a ghost of course that left those claw marks. I guess our sheep just have a mighty powerful imagination… I would never want to contradict the Vermont Department of Fish. Although, if we don’t have cougar why are they putting it on the new license plates?
Black bear seem to be very observant of our dog’s territorial markings. Since we put up a perimeter fence (High Tensile 3 smooth wire electric) they have not come into the fields. We stay out of their dens areas too. The dogs and they seem to have an understanding. Polite neighbors but I wouldn’t trust them with children. We always have dogs with us. The rule is it takes two dogs to tackle a bear. We don’t have grizzly bears so if you’re out west the rules may be different. My understanding is they are worse than black bear by far.
Bob cats are something I’ve only occasionally seen or tracked. We’ve never had trouble with them and probably they stay back due to the dogs. They seem more timid than…
Fisher cats are a serious issue around here for chickens if one doesn’t have dogs. One dog seems to be enough to keep them away, based on our neighbor’s experience, but when her dog died of old age, the local fisher cat came in and immediately killed all her chickens. Easy pickings and a very wasteful diner.
Weasels, skunks, possum and coon are minor predators that can be a big problem with chickens but our dogs seem to have eaten up the local population so I’ve not seen any signs of them in maybe 15 years. One dog should be enough to keep them back. House the dog in the hoop house if necessary.
Rats are a problem with chickens. For two periods we had trash pickup. The garbage trucks delivered rats. Yuck. The rats killed chicks, ate eggs and were up to 16 ounces – I weighed one. Each time the dogs cleared them out after I stopped the trash delivery and that was that. Again, the dog in the coop works wonders. I gave up and now we just go to the dump – hopefully not bringing back any passengers. So far no rats after all these years.
Owls are big problems for poultry – they glide in at night and eat chicken heads, off the still living chickens. Headless the chickens are not very functional. The best protection is a coop with a small chicken door. I don’t find it has to be closed, just small.
Hawks are a danger for small animals. Kita almost got the hawk that attacked that chicken above and that is why the hawk didn’t kill the chicken. Normally the hawks don’t come down because the dogs are actively pacing them from the ground. A hawk can’t get airborne again with much of a load so hunting here is dangerous for them.
Kita seems to think that ravens are a threat although I’ve never seen them harm anything. We’ve always had ravens, long before we had livestock. I like them. The dogs do too but in a different way. They track the ravens from the ground and make sure they don’t land in our fields.
Foxes are easy for LGD to deal with and
crunchy according to Coy Dog who long ago cleaned out the local population.
Coyotes are the worst problem around here. They are smaller, about 45 lbs, than our LGDs but they work on the gang principle. Our gang’s bigger than your gang. They can kill a lone dog and are smart hunters. This is the reason we have so many dogs. Our dogs work on the gang principle too. Generally the coyotes are smart enough to stay out of our fields and even stay on the other side of the valley. When they come into the valley our dogs howl to warn them off – it is quite the chorus and it works. This week we started hearing the young pups so we’ve had singing a few nights – train your dogs not to bark or howl continuously as it doesn’t take much to verbally mark their territory and just annoys the neighbors even if they are a mile away. Every once in a while a foolish coyote or two will try to sneak in to our pastures. I’ve watch our dogs tag team and three-way work the coyotes. It’s not like a dog fight where one dog goes up against another. Two of ours will distract the coyote, the third dog comes in from behind to kill it. In a flash all three on top of it. Very fast and efficient. Then they dine – the dogs have no objection to eating cousin coyote or cousin fox.
Stray dogs can be an issue just like coyotes from our LGDs point of view. Around here we have a problem with bear hunters running their dogs across our land without permission. I call the game warden and hopefully he gets here before the hunting dogs get into our fields.
Rabies patrol is one of the most important things the dogs do. I can’t vaccinate all the animals but I can vaccinate the LGDs who are the first line of defense.
One other detail about good LGDs of any breed or mix, they’re often territorial, roamers and many are loud. They use their voices to communicate (learn their calls) and to deter predators. If you have close neighbors they may not appreciate this. As I mentioned above, you can train dogs to be quieter – it takes time and patience. Barking and howling is part of their tool set for doing their work. They are marking their territory with sound. They also use the barking al a call for reinforcements.
I train them to be specific – not to bark for hours like some dogs I hear. That’s not useful. In time you can learn their language – they will say what they are barking at by category (uncertain threat, known threat, predator, deer, bear, cougar, ATV/Snowmobile/Dirtbikes, etc) and even by specific (Mail call!). Pay attention – it’s just like learning any other language through immersion. You can teach the dogs to bark at specific things that are important to you and they may even give specific barks. Want to be alerted when the mailman is coming and about half a mile away? Teach the dogs to tell you – then you can get out to the mail box in time.
Thursday Outdoors: 81°F/61°F Sunny
Farm House: 76°F/70°F
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/69°F Parging tests on colosseum
Wednesday Outdoors: 81°F/60°F Sunny
Farm House: 77°F/68°F
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/69°F Peeled concrete forms, parged test foam wall