Lessons Learned: Life with Livestock Guardian Dogs
article & photos by Elena Johnston of Tillamook, OR
We Jump in Feet First
Our family (my husband, five children, and myself) live and work on a dairy farm in Tillamook County, Oregon. The farm consists of timber and pastureland bordered on three sides by miles of privately owned timberland. We milk a herd of 80 cows and also have the normal farm menagerie of chickens, ducks, goats, beef animals, barn cats, etc. We were first introduced to livestock guardian dogs (LGD’s) by our friends the Dillon’s. Will and Debbie milk goats in the coastal mountains of South Tillamook County, and we were visiting them to pick out our first Nubian doe in the late 1990’s. We were greeted by Pete, a Great Pyrenees pup, and an older female Pyrenees. Our first impression was astonishment both at the size of the dogs and at the fact that they were so calmly living in the midst of goat herd pandemonium! We have over the years been treated to many stories of Pete and his companion LGD’s and their escapades.
Our curiosity turned to serious interest by way of necessity, however, when in the summer of 2004, our four oldest children saw a cougar several times within a three week period less than 200 yards behind our house and the dairy barn. We discovered lots of information on the Internet about LGD’s, and we immersed ourselves in researching different breeds, training methods, health problems, pros and cons, etc. We also found valuable resources in our friends the Dillon’s and in two other families (the Eckhardt’s of Wallowa County, Oregon, and the Leffler’s of South Central Washington), who spent time giving us advice on our unique situation.
We are fairly isolated from neighbors, so barking dogs weren’t really an issue. However, since dairy is our livelihood and because we have small children and constant traffic coming and going (milk and grain trucks, salesmen, family, etc.), it was critical that we bond the dogs to the cows and children first. Ultimately, we chose to buy a pair of crossbred pups from a wonderful lady, Rita Leffler. The pups were a mixture of 3/8 Great Pyrenees, 3/8 Maremma, and 1?4 Akbash. Knowing the results of hybrid vigor in our milk cows, it was logical that this was a good combination of three very reliable guardian breeds. We were also convinced that these pups would blend well into our farm since they had been raised with livestock similar to our own.
We made the trip to the Leffler’s with excitement! It was a little overwhelming to choose puppies in a short time frame (we had to get home to do chores), and they all looked alike! Rita had suggested that, because of the amount of acreage on our farm, that a pair of them would be necessary to guard it. We had decided that we didn’t want to deal with a socially dominant “alpha male,” since we were so new to this world of LGD’s. Rita had kindly put a collar on the alpha male so that we would know which pup NOT to choose. As I get older, I discover that sometimes it doesn’t work out to plan ahead. Naturally(!!!) when we entered the goat enclosure, the alpha male pup immediately attached himself to our children and claimed us as his own! Duke and his brother Charlie had a new home.
Considerations before buying a LGD
- Realize that these are working dogs, not pets. They need responsibility and space.
- How much are you willing and able to spend on the pups? This includes purchase price, veterinary expense, feed cost, fencing, etc. These are large dogs (most will be over 100 pounds) and they eat a lot! We go through about two 40 pound bags of food each month, plus excess milk, meat scraps, and fat. Purebred dogs can cost upwards of $1000 apiece. Crossbred dogs have hybrid vigor, are less expensive, and have a combination of good qualities from different breeds.
- Make sure the breeder is reputable, knowledgeable, and honest. Spend a lot of time talking to him or her, asking questions and taking notes on their answers. Don’t be offended, but rather grateful, if they ask YOU a lot of questions. Both of the breeders I spoke to thoroughly quizzed ME on our particular situation. Neither of them would have sold us a pup if they were not satisfied that we were offering a legitimate, responsible home to their dogs.
- Do you have the time and ability to be consistent in training and in health care? Most LGD breeds have thick skin and lots of fur, which affords protection when they get in a tangle with coyotes, bears, cougar, wolves, other dogs (you get the picture), but which must be combed in the springtime. Don’t forget clipping nails and checking ears and mouths regularly, multiplied by however many pups you plan to have.
- How large is your farm and how many and what kind of livestock do you have to guard? The answers to these questions will determine how many LGD’s you need to protect your property. Having a mentor to help answer these questions is imperative.
- Do you want male or female dogs? Do you want to neuter or spay the animals? In our case, we neutered both pups at four months of age. We have no intention of raising pups at this point, and felt that it would direct the dogs’ interests to guarding if they did not have raging hormones to contend with. We have no regrets there!
- What kinds of livestock do you expect the dogs to bond to? It is helpful to buy pups that have been raised with animals similar to those on your farm. Are there small children around? Is your farm a high traffic area? Will the dogs have to be taught to deal with a lot of visitors? We started from the time they were little pups to greet visitors politely but aloofly, which is sometimes easier said than done, and it has been a struggle. Our mentor assures us that if someone comes on the farm with BAD intentions, the dogs will know and take care of the problem.
- Is your property fenced? What boundaries will the dogs be expected to respect? Do you have close neighbors who will be bothered by barking? These dogs have big, deep, loud voices, and they won’t give up until the threat is gone. For a LGD, the first line of defense is BARK. The second is CHARGE. And the final is ATTACK.
- Find a mentor to help you when you need advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they sound silly. It is better to ask and learn than to blunder or ignore problems and have a problem behavior to deal with later.
- The article “Kids and Dogs: Safety First,” listed under resources at the end, is a must-read if you are considering having LGD’s on your farm who will be around children.
- Be absolutely certain that you are getting LGD’s for the right reason. If you want a pet, then buy a pet. If you want a faithful guardian for your livestock, then do your homework and do it right! There are shelters all over the country with LGD’s that didn’t “work out.” Make sure you can make a permanent commitment.
- Don’t be in a hurry. Choose your pups carefully both for healthiness and character. Have your farm prepared ahead of time to avoid chaos when you get them home. One of our first mistakes was in borrowing a dog crate to bring the pups home in. In retrospect, we should have disinfected it beforehand. We didn’t, and as a result unknowingly gave our new 10 week old pups a raging case of pesticide resistant fleas! Instead, make sure you have your ducks in a row before jumping in feet first!!!
We are continually amazed at how intelligent these animals are! However, the first thing we noticed was a huge difference in temperament between the two dogs, although we expected them as littermates to be very similar. There have been times when I have been tempted to regret the decision to take the alpha male, whom we named Duke, but not really. As a pup, he barked at anything and everything, and figured out at a young age how to get along with the adult cows – no eye contact. At a year old, he has finally overcome the “ignore the human” habit, and is now very submissive, loyal, loving, and obedient to us “alpha humans.” His personality is highly conducive to our farm situation as the explorer/leader in boundary patrol. He is aloofly affectionate; doesn’t like his feet and ears messed with, although he does submit to it; is generally polite and calm with visitors; and holds the dominant position over Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, doesn’t bark unless there really is something to bark about; is always on the offensive with the adult cows; initiates fighting with Duke over food, cats, or bones, and is always the loser in the end. He is the follower, very affectionate, submits readily to handling and training, can’t leave visitors alone, and loves anything baby. We call him “Mr. Mom,” as he adopts all the babies as his own. It would take pages to go into details, but suffice it to say that they are so very different, yet those differences compliment each other and make these pups a well-rounded and efficient team. At a year old, our dogs spend most of the day in the woods and fields with the young stock and goats. They also spend considerable time with the children, and any time they are away from the house or barn, at least one of the dogs follows and stays with them. We could not possibly be more pleased. Duke and Charlie are doing exactly what we dreamed they would do, and it is mostly due to a year of directing their instincts.
Basic Training or Directing Instinct
I am going to make no claims here as to having any special knowledge of training a LGD. Actually, I would hesitate to call what we have accomplished “training.” It has been more of a molding experience, disciplining unwanted behavior, abundantly praising appropriate behavior, and gaining their respect and love. There are a lot of resources out there if you have the time and patience to research. But I would like to give you the reader an idea of how we went about directing the instincts of our pups. Our mentor, Rita, gave us invaluable advice from the get go. First and foremost the new LGD owner must decide where the pups’ territory will be, what animals and/or children they will be expected to protect, where they will be fed and bedded down, etc. A safe secure spot for young puppies is a necessity. The pups need a place where they can be confined at night until they are about six months old. They should be protected where no livestock or wild animals can harm them if you are gone or are not in the immediate vicinity. Cows in particular will chase a pup and either scare the wits out of it or hurt it, if given a chance, until they get used to a canine presence. We began with the basic premise of bonding the pups to the milk cows and our children (we didn’t have any goats on the farm at the time). The puppies were housed in the front of the cow barn next to the goat barn, with baby calves and where the milk cows would get used to the sight and smell of them and vice versa. The pups now have come to permanently associate this area with feeding and “home.”
It is very helpful later in life to train the LGD to be tied up for short periods of time. If you start when they are little pups, you will meet with almost no resistance, and it comes in handy at times. There will be exceptions, however. Our dog Charlie is claustrophobic. He will stay tied or confined for about ten minutes before he starts hyperventilating and trying to escape in whatever way he can. Duke, on the other hand, doesn’t care. He can be tied for hours and not be bothered. As the pups have gotten older, the need to confine them has become virtually eliminated. They understand that they are to stay home when we are away, and that their job is to protect our livestock.
Adequate fencing is necessary to contain the dogs where you want them. Remember that these are big dogs, but if they can get their head through it, the body will follow; and if they can jump or climb over it, they will. LGD’s are very intelligent, so your farm needn’t look like a prison yard with ten-foot fences and electrified barbwire at the top. Once they learn their boundaries they will stay within them. We found that, in addition to an existing New Zealand style fencing system, an added white electrified tape about six inches off the ground is a good visual barrier as well as a physical one if the pup attempts to cross it. In our situation, we are surrounded on three sides by miles of private timberland. It is fenced for cows with the bottom wire approximately one foot off the ground, and it would be impractical and cost prohibitive for us to fence it to keep the dogs in. We really only have one boundary that the dogs are not allowed to cross, so we trained them using a hot tape to mark that property line. While one person crossed the boundary, another followed the pups, who were dragging light ropes attached to their collars. When the pups approached the tape and attempted to cross over, the lead person put up their hand and gave an emphatic “No, back!” At the same time the person behind stepped or pulled on the ropes to physically stop the puppies. A command of “Stay home!” follows obedience from the pups. This also works for gates if your dogs are confined to fields with your livestock. Reinforce obedience daily with ridiculous amounts of praise until they respect the boundary with no prompting when you cross the boundary or gate. It is good to use the voice command frequently to remind them of the lesson even when they are older. Voice commands and hand signals are easily taught to young pups.
Having five children under the age of eleven has taught me a thing or seven about being consistent and in control. If you are not in control of the situation, bad habits can form quickly. Decide before the pups come home what basic and special commands you want to teach and how to discipline unwanted behavior. We chose to teach the pups these commands: come, sit, down (no jumping), wait, back, quiet (there are times when they need to know to stop barking), no, enough (meaning back off and wait quietly), stay home, leave it (drop whatever you are packing off or chasing), and easy or gentle (especially when introducing new species or babies whether human or otherwise). We started with the simple ones; no, come, and sit. The pups were not allowed to eat until they came, sat, and the grub was poured.
We were advised never to hit the pups, but to exercise dominance by rolling them on their backs, grabbing the underside of the neck, and giving them h–. Most of the time a verbal scalding is sufficient since LGD’s are very intelligent and like to stay on your good side. There may be times, however, when real discipline must occur for serious misbehavior. I have been known to throw things at our dogs, which is also effective in getting a message of displeasure across when you are too far away to grab them. Of course, as with children, if you start something, you’d better finish it until the dog submits or stops the unwanted behavior. The usual sign of their submission is what I call “flop syndrome.” End the process with lots of verbal praise. Don’t be surprised if the pup growls and fights back the first time you roll and pin him. Don’t let go or give up until he relaxes and allows you to be alpha. I have never been bitten, although from a distance, my husband wondered a time or two at the sound and look of it. You must establish this dominance right from the beginning, because it becomes harder and more dangerous as they get older.
It is a fine line, as you do not want the dog to be afraid of you, but he must know that you are in control and alpha over him. There will be times where your perception and knowledge of a situation will override his perception and instinct. He must have the respect and wisdom to allow you to take over if need be. In other words, you must be able to call him off and have confidence that he will obey you.
It is helpful to have more than one pup so they can play and establish a pecking order with each other instead of you, your children, or your livestock. Expect them to spend hours sparring, sometimes seriously. It is very interesting to watch them, and you will quickly learn how they will react to a real threat later on in life. Probably my favorite thing to watch is Duke at a dead run with Charlie behind him. At a full run, Charlie will grab Duke at the base of the tail and flip him end for end with a great big THUD as 130 pounds of Duke hits the ground. They will do this over and over until the one gets tired of being slammed!
Probably the most important thing to remember in directing the dogs is that they have been bred for centuries to be guardians, and they will not and do not want to respond to humans as a “pet” would. It is vital, if you have children or there are children around your farm, that you teach them some basic rules before you get puppies. Granted, you must teach the dogs how to respond to children, but no dog is 100% reliable, and it is your responsibility to train your children what and what not to do around LGD’s or any dog, for that matter. They must NEVER bother a dog who is tied up, sleeping, eating, or fighting with another dog. They should NEVER make eye contact if the dog is growling or barking at them, as he will take this as a challenge. A dog never sees a child as being in a dominant position over him. NEVER allow small children to be left alone with any dog, no matter how reliable he is. Finally, NEVER allow any adult or child to tease the pups. This includes rough play, tug of war, chasing, wrestling, teasing with food, jumping or nipping. All of these activities undermine your work to be in a dominant position over them and put the human at the pups social level. Let the dogs “play” with each other! These may seem rather harsh, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Bonding to Livestock and Knowing their Job
The most amazing thing about these dogs is their innate instinct to stand guard and protect their territory. After being on our farm only a couple of weeks, at about twelve weeks of age, our pups were sitting on the hill in front of the barn checking out their territory. From that spot, they have a view of the entire farm, and to this day that is where they spend the night, rain or shine. Even though LGD’s are active all day, they are very nocturnal animals.
We made sure the pups had direct contact with the baby dairy calves right from the start to condition both the calves and dogs. There is not much danger of them getting hurt, except maybe getting stepped on, which the dogs quickly learn to avoid. The dogs were also raised a few feet away from and in plain sight of the adult milk cows. They can wander the barn without trouble, although once in a while a Jersey cow will get aggressive with the pups. The Holsteins and Brown Swiss ignore them for the most part. We taught our pups not to bark at the cows unless they were protecting the children, since Jerseys in particular can get ornery, or were telling us something was wrong in the barn. Charlie has on several occasions warned off a Jersey cow who was getting aggressive with our kids while they were in the barn. When the vet comes every two weeks to preg check, Charlie is generally right there making sure everything is OK. Actually it happens to be very handy to have the vet come so often. If we need anything done to the pups, he is able to do it then, thus avoiding a trip to the clinic. We have never taken the dogs off the farm except to be neutered. I believe this has helped them to “stay home.” They are not pets; their job is to protect the farm.
We happen to have some very good barn cats, and did not want the dogs learning to chase or injure them, so we also got two baby kittens to be raised in the dogs’ “home.” Now we have two pesky cats that think they are dogs. They sleep on top of or curled up with the pups and even get away with sharing the same food dishes. The only problem has been ear mites spread from the cats to the pups. We introduced our chickens and ducks from the first, and the dogs also became protective of them. They have recently been keeping a large barn owl away from the chicken coop. At about six months of age the pups were bonded to a white-faced beef heifer we raised in the goat barn. A couple of months later we bought an older bred Nubian doe that made the threesome a foursome. When she commenced kidding, Charlie was a mere foot or two away, with the doe’s permission, and helped with the licking off of three beautiful kids. About fifteen head of beef and dairy young stock run with the foursome, which is now a sixsome, including two of the goat kids.
As time progresses, the pups spend more and more time with the stock. Some days we hardly see them at all, except at feeding time. About twice a week the pups head across the farm and make a full circuit through the woods and fields of their territory, and at night they are all over the farm keeping any threats away. It has been fun to see their individual likes and dislikes. Charlie hates elk and deer, which has given the added bonus that we now have leaves on the trees in our orchard for the first time in ten years! Duke gets pretty wound up over owls, but neither of them will tolerate a coyote. Who knows what else they have kept away? We have lots of black bear in our area and cougar also. One of the first things we noticed after getting the pups was that the cows had calmed down considerably. They are locked in the barn for the winter months because of our wet climate and have had a terrible habit for years of running circles around the barn if they smell bears or other predators. You can imagine what their udders look like the next milking after running all day or night, not to mention the possibility of broken hips or tits being stepped on – none of which are a pretty sight. I can honestly say that I could count on two hands the number of times those cows ran this last winter. The only thing we can attribute it to is the presence of the pups and the cows somehow knowing they are there to protect them.There is nothing more satisfying than to see a group of cows, goats, kittens, and pups all together grazing whatever suits their particular species. It is a culmination of months of joy, frustration, doubt, loyalty, trust, and the Lord’s blessing. Thank you, Duke and Charlie, for taking care of our critters and our children. We pray for many more years of your abiding on our farm!
November 28, 2006 Update
Our pups are now 2 1/2 years old and have settled down into a consistent routine. Hurray! We are past the puppy stage of chewing and acting like adolescents. Our plan is to bring in a puppy at the end of 2007 in order to build our pack and to keep young dogs in training with the older more experienced dogs. Duke had his first and hopefully last brush with a porcupine about a month ago. As an added note to the considerations, make sure your veterinarian is comfortable working with large dogs and doesn’t mind making house calls. We have found it necessary to use anesthetic on Duke on the occasions when he was hurt and needed veterinary care. Charlie, on the other hand, is a good patient and will allow treatment. Get to know your dogs and use your best judgement. Remember that safety comes first and use the knowledge of the individual personalities of your animals to determine what course of action you or your veterinarian take. We have lots of stories to tell, and many good, and a few not so good, memories of our LGD learning experience and many more to come I’m sure. Happy guarding!