Our Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs)
We get a lot of questions and comments about our livestock guardian dogs, so I thought I would share some info about them.
These three LGDs are sibblings. We purchased them as weaned pups from a local ranch near Belle Fourche, SD .
Dionysus - the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy
Athena - the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, mathematics, strength, war strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill
Aphrodite - the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation
A three-way mix of Great Pyrenees, Maremma, and Akbash. I was told this three-way mix of these three breeds was developed on the great cattle ranches in Montana (hundreds or even thousands of acres). They started with the Great Pyrenees, which is a great livestock guardian dog, but the ranchers still needed to feed the dogs when on pasture for months at a time. They added the Maremma and Akbash to make the dog a bit lighter and faster. The result is a dog completely capable of livestock guardian duties, but fast enough to catch much of their own food (e.g rabbits, gophers, etc.).
At Bear Butte Gardens, these LGDs protect our sheep and poultry - mainly from coyotes. Before we got these dogs, we had issues with coyotes. The coyotes would come up very near our house at night. Since we have these dogs, the coyotes don't come near.
The LGDs are also well acquainted with cattle, but have not had guarding duty yet -- because the cattle we've had have been large enough and old enough to take care of themselves. In the future, we plan to expand our cattle operation and have our own newborn calves. At that time we are hopeful that these LGDs will help guard the calves as well.
Intelligence - In our experience, we have found these dogs to be extremely intelligent. In researching these breeds, I found some information indicating they are not as trainable as other dogs, suggesting they are less intelligent. I believe that information was in reference to parlor trick type training (e.g. sit, lay down, rollover, beg, etc.). In that regard, I can see how these dogs would not be very trainable. They don't tend to pay attention to voice commands much. As a "working" class breed that is expected to do their duties (guarding livestock) out in a pasture in the middle of the night, without the guidance of their master, these dogs have a different kind of intelligence. They are "free thinkers." I have experienced these three dogs exhibiting a high degree of intelligence and cooperation when working together to guard our livestock, to hunt, and to patrol our property.
Size - Our male, Dionysus, is about 120 pounds. The two females are about 95 pounds. They are all about 36 inches tall at the top of their head when standing. Compared to a wild coyote of about 40 pounds, these LGDs are much larger and stronger, and about as fast.
Athletics - I have witnessed Athena (the smallest) jump over a fence and clear the top strand of about 5'3". Both of the females can easily jump up on top of a large round bale of hay (the 1500 pound variety) with a single leap. Our male, Dionysus, does not jump like the females. Instead, he uses his sheer strength to his advantage. All three have incredible stamina. I've seen all three chase jack rabbits for well over 1/2 mile at full speed and hardly be winded.
Weather Hardiness - These dogs are tough. They can withstand the most brutal of weather conditions. Even though they always have shelter, they prefer to be out in the very, very cold winter temperatures -- even at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer heat, as long as they have access to water and can find some shade, they do just fine.
Temperament - These dogs are either with me, or in a paddock with good fencing. We do not allow these dogs to run free without me nearby.
With people they know, they are very calm, loving dogs. They approach with wagging tales, and want to be petted. With strange people, I believe they could be aggressive if I (alpha male) was not there. However, they learn real fast, that if I am talking to stangers with a calm, friendly voice, then the strangers must be OK also.
Instinct - These dogs have a very, very strong instinct to protect anyone or anything (our lambs, our poultry, our cat, etc.) that belongs to their pack, that is on their turf, from any perceived threat.
If these LGDs were not in their paddock and a visitor let a strange dog out of their vehicle, they would simply go kill the strange dog.
These dogs are basically nocturnal - up all night, and sleep most of the day - unless there is something exciting going on.
Their methods of protecting livestock are numerous. First of all, they leave their scent everywhere. I believe this is the first message to any would-be threat to stay away. Second, they bark a lot -- all night long. I believe this is another message to any would-be threat to stay away. Third, they work together. Whenever they suspect a threat, at least one of the female LGDs will usually retreat back and stay with the livestock they are guarding, while the others attack the threat straight on. Even when they are very focused on a single threat, I've noticed they like to make a quick look around their back side -- looking for additional threats I think.
Many dogs don't look to the sky for threats. These dogs do. Whenever a hawk or eagle gets too close, they start barking and chasing it.
On our daily perimeter walks, the two females are usually out in front of me by about 50 yards, moving back and forth quickly, looking for anything interesting. Zeus, our older Saint Bernard, is usually right next to me. Dionysus is usually about five steps behind me, mainly watching his sisters for any sign of danger. If he picks up any signal, he charges in at full speed.
One story I like to tell folks is about their instinct to guard baby lambs... One time, when the pups were only about five months old, we had them in our fenced-in back yard with lambs that were about three months old. Michelle and I heard a disturbance in the middle of the night, so we looked out the window into the moonlit night. A pack of coyotes came in very close -- just outside of the fence. The coyotes were yipping and howling. They were obviously interested in a meal. The lambs had bunched up in a tight group. The two female pups stayed with the lambs - circling around them. Dionysus would charge out to the fence with the meanest little barks and growls he could make at his age. Each time the coyotes would scatter. We watched this in the moonlight over and over, ready to jump in if needed. But the pups handled it just fine. The coyotes gave up.
When researching this three-way mixed breed (and other similar breeds), I found a lot of information about a variety of training methods. Based on this information, I decided to develop a simple training program that focuses on just a few key points. In the wisdom of Joel Salatin, I wanted these dogs to be able to exhibit their natural, instinctive behaviors to a very high degree.
This is what I did:
1) I taught the dogs that I am the alpha male of the pack. I did this by playing rough puppy games with them when they were pups. I got down at their level and rolled them around, and always maintained the upper hand. When they needed discipline (e.g. biting me with their sharp little puppy teeth) I would push them down or sometimes give them a quick little tap, along with a stern voice command of "no" (or a low toned grunt).
2) I taught the dogs where their turf is. Our property consists of 120 acres. Nearly every day, rain or shine, we walk the perimeter. As young pups, the walk was short -- just around the buildings. As the pups grew, our walk would expand, until we were walking the fence line perimeter. If the pups crossed a property boundary fence, I would cross the fence myself and would yell and flap my arms and clap and grunt at them, until they crossed back onto our property. When they were back on the correct side of the fence, then I would reward them by talking calmly and petting them. They learn about turf quickly. As they grew older, if they would test the boundary, I would generally only need to grunt at them and say "no" to get them to come back.
3) I taught the dogs who else is in the same pack and also reports to the same alpha (me). Again, they learn fast. They learn that the cat is OK because they see me holding and petting the cat. Same thing with the poultry and lambs. I basically give the LGDs the message that the cat is with me, the chickens are with me, the turkeys are with me, etc. Whenever we introduce a new animal, we make sure the LGDs are safely in their paddock, and can see me (alpha) being accepting of the new animal. This is basically the same approach for introducing new people to the LGDs.
With these three training points, along with their instinct, the LGDs have everything they need to know to do their job -- protect anyone or anything that belongs to their pack, that is on their turf, from any perceived threat.
Zeus, our older Saint Bernard, has been a wonderful mentor for the LGDs. He has taught them many lessons that only another dog can teach. Things like: when the tone of alpha's voice gets low, you better pay attention; don't get close to a moving automobile; don't get close to the honey bee hives; it is OK to let the baby lambs crawl over you, and skunks always win. Zeus weighs in at about 145 pounds, is larger than the LGDs, and is much older. So, the LGDs have never really challenged him. One time, Dionysus tried to challenge Zeus over a bowl of dog food. That didn't work out well for Dionysus.
The only voice commands I work on are "come" and "no". Every time, every time, they come to me based on the command "come", I reward them -- no matter what kind of naughtiness they were in at the time. If they don't respond to "no", then I escalate the negative pressure. When they finally respond, I reward them -- again, no matter what kind of naughtiness they were into. Generally, they mind fairly well. However, I must remember how their instincts guide them. If they think they must protect me or the pack, there is no command I can give them to get them to stop their guarding behavior. They are free thinkers.
Fencing and Facility
I don't know that I could build a fence to keep these dogs in without using electric fencing. For the paddocks we keep the LGDs in while unattended, we use two strands of electric "hot" wire -- one as high as I can mount it on the fence posts, and the other at nose level for the dogs. We use the small twisted/braided strands of yellow wire with a standard, solar-powered livestock electric fence charger. They have all been shocked a few times and have learned to respect the small yellow wire.
We have always provided some kind of shelter for the LGDs, but they seldom use it. They do need shade in the summertime, and I think they need shelter from hail. But other than that, they prefer to be outside.
Just as a fun little game, I often try to sneak up on the LGDs in their paddock. I've never been able to completely surprise them. At least one of them has always sensed me coming. And, I can't remember ever seeing Dionysus in his shelter due to cold or wet. He is always outside on guard.
We are very satisfied with our LGDs! We have complete trust in them to do their job. Without them, we would certainly experience predator problems.
Dionysus, Athena, and Aphrodite at about 8 weeks old
Even though they have shelter, they prefer to sleep outside
The LGDs live with, and protect the lambs, especially at night
Aphrodite is always excited for our daily walks - she jumps straight up with her back feet about 2' off the ground
Athena loves playing "king of the hill" on a
big round bale of hay
Zeus, our older Saint Bernard has been a great mentor for the LGD pups as they grew up
Dionysus, learning about chickens
The LGDs, living with their lambs
Aphroditie, inspecting the chicken coop
Dionysus, contemplating the beauty of Bear Butte
The LGDs are basically nocternal. On this day they found a cool, shady place to sleep. It is very rare that we can sneek up on them and get a pic without waking them up.
They love the snow!