The original purpose of the Anatolian, Kommondor, Kuvasz, Maremma, Pyr and similar breeds was to protect livestock from predators. The Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) share some common traits: they are about the same size and color as the livestock they were bred to guard; they exhibit the traits of “responsibility” (the tendency to remain with the livestock) and “reportability” (regular checking-in with the human caretaker of the flock.) There are many more similarities among the LGD breeds than there are differences between them. Some breeds, like Pyrs, were developed for tractability around people; others, like Tibetan Mastiffs, were developed for hostility toward those not of their camp – most LGDs fall somewhere in the middle.
For thousands of years, the economies of Europe and Asia alike were agricultural/pastoral. The LGDs were an essential part of the economy and dogs, like people, were judged solely on their ability to work. Then, 150 years ago, the Industrial Revolution began to change that; two World Wars and fifty years of “me-first” consumerism continued to change the face of the world inalterably.
With the exception of Australia and New Zealand, sheep populations world-wide have declined dramatically. It is no longer necessary for every family to own enough sheep to produce the wool for mother to spin and weave into clothing for the family. Cities have replaced farms, houses have replaced yurts and huts and the only predator that threatens the livelihood of most people is two-legged. In the United States, sheep production has been steadily declining since the 1940’s; there are now fewer that 10 million sheep in the entire country. Ninety percent of those are in the hands of 10% of the growers; the remaining one million sheep are found in backyard and family farm flocks of 50 or less. The situation is similar throughout Europe and Eurasia. In short, just as our own jobs are now different from that of our ancestors, and the skills needed for those jobs are different, so do our dogs have different jobs, requiring different skills than did their ancestors in the Old World.
In France, it was acceptable for the Great Pyrenees to wander the village during the winter when her sheep were stabled in the farm yard. When spring came she would follow her sheep to the mountains. The tendency to travel great distances that was originally a positive trait is a now liability in a country crossed with highways and heavy traffic. In Tibet, a stranger in the camp was usually up to no good and a Tibetan Mastiff that could pull down a man on horseback was highly valued. Such aggression in our society today would lead quickly to lawsuits and the destruction of the dog.
So, the question of “transferrable skills” arises today as much for our dogs as for ourselves. An LGD needs “reliability” and “reportability” as much in his job as family watchdog as he does as a livestock guardian. What differs is his reaction to stimuli. The barking behavior that warns predators that something larger has staked a claim to territory becomes “problem” behavior when indulged on a city lot. The Mark-Warn-Chase-Attack sequence that serves to keep livestock safe from wolves must be truncated after the Warning behavior if the dog’s owners are to remain safe from charges of harboring a vicious dog. The sharp temperament that indicated a good working dog in the high mountains finds little place in a family whose members freely bring strangers to trespass the dog’s territory.
There are those in the business of raising LGDs who advocate “going back to nature”, “doing it like the Old Country” or “breeding only for `working ability.’” The reality is that we live in the time and the place that we do and few of our dogs will spend their lives wandering the unfenced range with their sheep. Even those of us who breed specifically for “working dogs” -i.e. dogs who will spend their entire life with the livestock, not interacting with families – recognize that, just as there are few “100% successful show” litters, so there are few “100% successful working” litters. I was once asked, during a Congressional hearing, whether I culled my guardian-dog litters, and what I did with the culls. Tongue-in-cheek, I replied, “I sell them as show dogs.”
Even if every commercial sheep producer were to use LGDs, there would still be a surplus of dogs – dogs that don’t exhibit responsibility, dogs that have the “wrong” disposition for the circumstances. There would still be people who may have never seen a live sheep, but want to own a LGD for reasons of their own. (Witness the number of people who don’t hunt, but own Golden Retrievers.) So it becomes our responsibility, as owners and breeders of a large guardian breed, to recognize that behaviors that once were useful may now be liabilities. If we are considering breeding, we must ask ourselves the big “WHY” – Why am I breeding? What do I hope to produce? Have I studied enough individuals of this breed to really understand their behavior? Is it possible for me to spend enough time educating would-be buyers about those behaviors – and turn down those that I don’t feel really need this breed?
Rather than sidetrack ourselves into specious arguments – type-vs-soundness, show-vs-working, inbreeding-vs-outcrossing – we need to take an unbiased look at the realities presented in our society. We need to pay attention to the anti-dog legislation making its way into our communities, and start to educate ourselves as well as the public about the responsibilities of dog ownership in general and LGD ownership, in particular. If we don’t, we have only ourselves to blame when we find our beautiful guardians legislated out of existence.
Biography of Catherine de la Cruz:
I have owned and bred Great Pyrenees dogs for over 30 years; I also raise sheep (in fenced pastures.) My present show dog is of my own breeding; he has five generations of OFA-clear dogs behind him; he and his entire litter cleared OFA Good or Excellent. He spent his first three years in the pasture, taking responsibility for a large band of purebred sheep. I bathe him on Friday night, bring him into the house (which he respects as “my” territory, so doesn’t raise a leg to mark it), show him on the weekend, then return him to his sheep Sunday evening. He is protective in the field, friendly at the shows. He is an example of what I consider to be a Livestock Guardian Dog for today’s times.