Dogs guard and protect our livestock


One of the dog’s historic jobs was to guard and protect our livestock but to do so meant they had to have learning abilities we could not only take advantage of but also somehow modify. They had to learn to do something they wouldn’t normally do. 

I first became interested in the brain’s learning centres when I read Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct. I thought that if we’re born with a hardwired brain circuitry to learn to speak, then it should be possible, working backwards from observing what dogs do, to calculate what learning centres they have in their brains. There must be natural brain circuitry already in the dog’s brain that we harness so that they guard and protect our livestock rather than chase and kill it. I drew up a list of ten discrete learning centres that must exist in the dogs brain and that we might be able to modify or influence, but never add to or subtract from.

1. A dog knows what should and should not be eaten.?

2. A dog naturally chases anything that moves quickly.

?3. A dog knows how to choose where to live, both for safety and for productivity.?

4. A dog has a natural understanding of danger and how to be cautious.?

5. A dog has an innate understanding of the behaviour of other animals including the ability to predict their behaviour by observing their actions.

?6. A dog has the capacity to mentally map large territories.?

7. A dog has an intuitive inclination to patrol, investigate and mark territory.?

8. A dog has a natural knowledge of motion and forces and an understanding of mechanics.

?9. A dog has a natural understanding of the value of relationships, both of kinship and of dominance. A dog bonds to its family early in life.?

10.A dog intuitively has a need to mate, knows the time to mate and understands differences in sexual attraction

You dog’s ability to think and to communicate with you is based on these discrete ‘brain’ abilities that it inherited from the wolf. All dogs inherit hard-wired modules for each of these ten specific types of behaviour, but in some breeds, modules for certain behaviours are more efficiently wired than for others and that’s a consequence of our ancestors seeing that certain dogs had looks or abilities they liked and making sure that these dogs were allowed to breed. This is how the livestock-guarding dog evolved.

Livestock guardian dogs guard flocks, on their own, by instinct. They work in the absence of a shepherd or a master. Simply by seeing the difference between pups raised from birth with people and those raised outside of human contact, ancient dog breeders saw that dogs adapt best to the environment they’re raised in. Raise a dog from birth with people and it’s both less inclined to attack them and more inclined to be defensive of them. People saw that the same applies to dogs raised with livestock, with sheep or goats. When this happens, the guardian becomes a member of the flock, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The majority of the livestock guarding breeds are described as “independent” or “stubborn” or “selectively deaf” and they consistently receive a lower ranking on canine “intelligence” tests than herding and droving breeds receive but this isn’t necessarily true. It depends what you mean by “intelligence” and I’ll get to that shortly.

In 1990 I took my kids to a 20th anniversary veterinary class reunion in Banff Alberta and afterwards we visited a classmate Daryl who ranched sheep in British Columbia. The other sheep ranchers constantly lost sheep, especially newborn lambs to coyote predation but Daryl had what was then an exciting new answer, European sheep guarding dogs. He’d imported Kommondor pups. This Hungarian breed was (and still is) used for its original purpose. Kommondor pups are raised from infancy with sheep, live with them, are even shorn with them. Daryl habituated his two Kommondors both to him and to his sheep. He proudly told me he was the only rancher not laying down poisoned bait to kill coyotes. Since adding the two livestock guarding dogs to his flock he hadn’t lost a single head of stock.

I experienced the livestock guardian’s inherent ability to guard and protect in 2005 while traveling with my dog on a seldom used track in the Polish Tatra Mountains close to the Slovakian border. It was autumn and sheep had just been brought down from high mountain pastures, for overwintering in the valley. On a track through the hills I chanced upon a sheep-filled corral guarded by seven large resting dogs, either Tatra Mountain Sheepdogs or Slovakian Kuvacs. One dog got up to do no more than turn around and find a more comfortable position and as he did I noticed he would not bear weight on a visibly swollen forelimb. I had a medical pack with me so I stopped but as soon as I took a step towards the corral all seven sprang to their feet, faced me down and barked. Ferociously. I’m familiar with aggressive dogs but this was as frightening a display of guarding as I’ve ever seen. My dog and I decided to simply move on.

Impressive size and a quiet disposition are vital aspects of the livestock guardian but even more so is the guardian dog’s lack of “prey drive”, lack of an instinct to chase and kill. A dog naturally chases anything that moves quickly but through selective breeding this instinct has been diminished in livestock guarding breeds. (In other groups of dogs such as terriers, this instinct has been enhanced. Some terriers are so reactive to movement that unless they’re trained not to do so they’re inclined to bite anything that moves, including people’s legs when they walk past.)

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