Livestock Guardian Dogs: History and Training Styles 


Between herding dogs who control the movement of herds, and the livestock guardian dogs who protect herds from invading predators, working dogs have maintained their ancient roots as man’s best friend.  Little known unless you live in an agricultural region, livestock guardian dogs play a major role in the safety of herds even in modern times.  While the breeds that stood next to ancient shepherds would not recognize their modern cousins, they still fulfill the same important roles.  Similarly, the training styles of modern working dogs has also remained unchanged, especially in the isolated world of shepherds and farmers.

History of Livestock Guard Breeds:

While livestock guarding breeds have been used since humans first settled down and started keeping herds in pastures, they only recently became widespread in the US in the 1970’s1.  Livestock guard dogs have been recorded by noted historian Aristotle as many as four thousand years ago, and remained a constant presence in agrarian cultures since2.  Early breeds most likely resembled mastiffs; tall, big-boned and with the thick fur found today.  These early ancestors to the current livestock guards were known as Molossoids, named for the geographical area they were originally found.  As humans moved from nomad lifestyle to permanently settled, they brought their non-human helpers and livestock with them to new lands.  In these pockets of human civilization, the livestock guard breeds were selectively bred to help farmers and shepherds in ways better suited to their local environment.

While the Molossoid breed is extinct today, the traits of the breed live on in its well-loved ancestors.  These dogs were bred to help farmers protect their livestock (sheep, goats, cattle and sometimes fowl) from larger carnivores.  By training a dog to guard their animals, shepherds could multitask and expand their farms.  Surprisingly, American immigrants in the 1800’s and 1900’s did not use livestock guarding dogs or bring the knowledge of their training with them.  This is despite coming from regions where dogs were heavily used in livestock protection3.  Some Native American tribes did use canines in herd protection, and it is assumed they learned the practice from Spanish influences.

It was not until the 1970’s that American farmers started training and using dogs to ward off predators from their livestock.  While farmers once used eradication methods (poison, traps and hunting) to fend off predators like wolves, bears, coyotes and foxes, repopulation efforts have stopped this approach.  Now that predator populations are starting to recover and inhabit farmland, the use of livestock protection dogs has seen a resurgence.

Different Traits for Different Needs:

While there are forty-three different types of livestock guard dogs, some not even seen inside the US, they should not be confused with herding dogs.  Livestock guard breeds are large, long-legged and slow moving.  They maintain the safety of the heard by being excellent defenders, not by moving the herd to a safer place.  Herding dogs have an energetic nature and usually develop a close relationship with their human partner.  Guardian dogs will be introduced to the herd at a young age, and will not necessarily be encouraged to develop a close relationship with people.

The major traits of all guard dogs will be consistency in behavior, attention to surroundings, and protectiveness.  They are submissive to the herd, and are often ignored by the animals they are guarding.  They will constantly be aware of their surroundings and be unlikely to stray once fully trained.  The livestock guard dog will be large with a very shaggy coat and thick skin to enjoy any number of climates.  Finally, they are territorial and protective, often establishing an area to patrol and confronting any threat which enters it.  Some breed will have instinctive herding tendencies, such as with the long-haired Komondor, but these traits are not often utilized during training.

Basics of Training:

Training styles in livestock guarding dogs are much like the dogs’ history; anecdotal and particular to a geographic area.  Because livestock dogs are trained from the moment they open their eyes as pups, most training takes place within the family that breeds the dog.  Training styles differ regionally, from farming families who believe in minimal human contact to those who encourage the guard dogs as family pets.  Each family has what they believe to be the best training program for their livestock dogs, and will rarely solicit outside help when problems come up.  Because livestock dogs are viewed as lifelong partners and have a higher than typical breeding standard, they are rarely abandoned or given up.  If a guarding dog wanders away or is abandoned by their old family, they will rarely be given work as a livestock guarding dog again for fear of improper training.

Livestock guard dog training has several common styles, all of which are equally as effective and encourage different levels of human interaction.  The puppy is intensely trained from as little as five weeks old, usually starting by training them to roll over on their back whenever a person approaches.  This habit continues into adulthood until the dog naturally assumes the submissive stance of rolling on the back whenever a large creature approaches.  By eight weeks old, most dogs are introduced to the livestock they will be guarding.  Most trainers use some form of imprinting, or the early exposure to sights and smells of an animal so that the dog begins to identify as a member of the herd.  This encourages the dogs to not harm members of the herd, and to protect it from other animals who they do not identify with.

Some trainers believe in an immersive introduction, where the dog is left to live in a pen with an animal from the herd they will be protecting.  They are then introduced to greater and greater numbers of the livestock until they learn to be submissive towards their flock and are ignored.  Other trainers believe in paired education, where the puppy is tethered to an older dog who is experienced in livestock guarding, until they graduate through different independence levels.

Another method is the only one where human bonding is encouraged, which is not popular with many shepherds who use livestock dogs: the training of the dog is carried out through correction and positive rewards with the human at every step.  In the majority of all training styles, human interaction and bonding is not a priority, but all aggression towards livestock animals is stopped immediately.  Unfortunately, dogs who show aggression to small animals like chickens or baby animals are often the fault of early training and are considered useless for farm work.  As you can see, the methods of training livestock guardian dogs are as varied as the number of breeds, and each style is reported to be the best way.

No matter the history of livestock guarding dogs, they are now widely used in farms across the US in order to help protect against new populations of large predators.  While this growth in wolf, bear and coyote population is good for the environment, it can present unique challenges to farmers.  With the use of man’s best friend in their original role of guard dog, farmers now use the natural protective nature of dogs to help them manage herds without the use of traps or poisons.  While the training methods are still informal and passed down through generations, these styles are proven to work and may offer examples that can be used in modern training styles today.

By Lauren Pescarus

1Livestock Protection Dogs. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/sa_operational_activities/sa_dogs/

2 JaneDogs. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://janedogs.com/early-livestock-guardian-dogs/

3  Gehring, T. M., Vercauteren, K. C., & Landry, J. (2010). Livestock Protection Dogs in the 21st Century: Is an Ancient Tool Relevant to Modern Conservation Challenges? BioScience, 60(4), 299-308. doi:10.1525/bio.2010.60.4.8

4 Livestock guardian dog. (2018, March 21). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livestock_guardian_dog

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