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Livestock guardian dogs (or LGDs as they’re affectionately known) have been employed by farmers and ranchers for centuries as a means to effectively protect livestock from predators. Gaining popularity first in Europe and Asia, they were introduced to the United States in the late 1970s following government bans on using poison as a means of predator control (Bommel).
Though livestock guardians are typically large dogs, their primary means of livestock protection is through deterrence in three ways: territorial exclusion, disruption, and confrontation of potential predators such as birds of prey, bears, coyotes, wolves, stray dogs, mountain lions and other large predators (Texas A&M Agrilife Extension).
Often the biggest threat to domestic livestock, such as goats, sheep, or even chickens, is other dogs that may be roaming the area so the LGD being there and marking a scent establishes territorial boundaries and keeps other dogs away.
Disruption refers to barking or other types of aggressive behavior to encourage potential threats to stay away.
When all else fails the LGD uses direct confrontation to attack the predator to keep the livestock safe.
Guardian dog vs. family dog
People often wonder what makes LGDs unique compared to other “farm dogs,” or even herding dogs, such as the border collie. They differ from herding dogs in that they are not trained to move or gather livestock and have a less threatening appearance in comparison to livestock guardian dogs, who have been bred to stay calm around livestock.
Above all though, perhaps one of the most important characteristics of LGDs is that they are not pets. They are bred to work, roam, and yes, bark loudly, as needed to guard livestock which makes them not a good fit for being kept as companion dogs and in areas where you have close-by neighbors.
Common Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds
This article covers the most popular LGDs in North America. The breeds fall into what’s called a “working group” of breeds. Historically working LGD have ancient breed origins as they’ve been bred specifically to have innate protective instincts for their livestock with any perceived threat.
This type of dog tends to work on its natural, strong instincts with very little to basic training needed as compared to a typical pet dog or even herding dog.
The different breeds of LGDs covered include:
- Great Pyrenees
- Maremma Sheepdog
- Anatolian Shepherd
- Tibetian Mastiff
Originating from the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, the Great Pyrenees is one of the most popular and recognizable breeds of LGD. They typically sport a solid white coat that can also have patches of gray or tan, making the most recognizable as the “big white dog” LGD breed. Their thick coats make them great dogs for regions with cold winters.
Great Pyrenees tend to be independent dogs and even when bonded with their livestock can often be found at a distance from them to keep watch. Great Pyrenees are also considered to be quite gentle, with people and livestock alike.
The Maremma Sheepdog comes from Central Italy and looks similar to the Great Pyrenees with longer and thicker coats that are usually solid white with occasional spots of pale orange or yellow. Though sheepdog is in the name, they are also used to guard goats and cattle and generally stick close to their livestock at all times, rather than wander.
Maremmas are known for being calm and content while on the job and are most active at night. They aren’t always the friendliest toward human contact, especially strangers who try to approach them, though they’re not known for being overly aggressive.
Originating from Turkey, the Anatolian Shepherd dog is recognizable by its curly tail, short-haired yellowish-brown coat, and black face “mask.” Here in the U.S. they’re often used to guard cattle on large swaths of pasture or open ranges without a lot of supervision and are calm and observant over their livestock and surroundings.
Anatolians can have a strong prey drive making them incredibly territorial, aggressive towards intruders (human or predator), and tend to be overly playful with livestock as young dogs, due to their tendency to mature slower than other LGD breeds.
Also originating from Turkey, the Kangal dog is technically a type of Anatolian Shepherd with a similar temperament though larger and perhaps a bit faster with more color variants.
Hailing from Tibet, the Tibetan Mastiff historically was bred to not only guard livestock but also caravans, properties, villages, monasteries, and monks. They have long coats that are usually black, brown, or even blue/grey.
Over the years these dogs have been bred to have a softer and calmer demeanor with a tendency to gravitate strongly towards people, therefore not always making them the best guards of livestock here in the U.S.
Another Turkey originator, Akbash means “white head” in Turkish which is exactly what this LGD breed is known for, along with an all-white, sleek coat. They’re also known for their speed, agility, and stamina when guarding their livestock and keeping an eye on their territory.
Akbash dogs tend to have strong bonds with their livestock and also have a tendency to be quite aggressive in their guarding, especially against other dogs.
- Linda van Bommel. “Guardian Dogs: Best Practice Manual for the use of Livestock Guardian Dogs”
- Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. “Livestock Guardian Dogs”
- Orysia Dawydiak and David Sims. “Livestock Protection Dogs: Selection, Care and Training” (affilate link)
Photo credit: iStock photos