Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
Training Livestock Guardian Dogs Requires a Specialized Approach
Training livestock guardian dogs requires a specific, individualized approach considering how different these dogs are on various levels.
For instance, these dogs were selectively bred for specific tasks that are unlike others many dogs were bred for. This required specific physical and temperamental features.
You are basically dealing with dogs who were bred to be independent thinkers, blessed with strongly ingrained protective tendencies and with low to almost non-existent predatory drive.
What Were Livestock Guardians Bred For?
Livestock guardians, as the name implies, were specifically bred to protect livestock from potential predators and human rustlers.
The use of these dogs has been steadily increasing as they are able to fill a niche by providing a natural way to protect herds of sheep from predators like wolves who, at the same time, also need to be protected.
Indeed, every year, farmers kill wolves by shooting them or even poisoning them, despite the fact that these practices remain illegal.
Furthermore, livestock guardians are also being put to good use as guardians of penguins and marsupials in Australia.
Behavioral Traits of Livestock Guardians
Livestock guardians tend to protect their livestock by using their posturing accompanied by their booming barks. If their barks don't work to send intruders away, they will escalate.
Since they are meant to work alone, without much human guidance, they tend to be independent thinkers and are very intelligent.
Due to the fact that they must protect livestock, they have a low prey drive. They are also very loyal and protective of children.
Their jobs required them to courageous and confident, engaging in fight rather than flight (that is, confronting rather than fleeing). Any threat requires them to be quick on their toes.
They are blessed with a great sense of smell and eyesight, so that they can scan their environments and notice signs of trouble from quite a distance. You'll often find them on elevated areas so as to effectively observe their surroundings.
Some livestock guardians aren't very food motivated. This is likely due to their low metabolisms requiring less food despite their size. They also have an instinct to conserve their energy, saving it for when it matters the most.
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Common Issues With Training These Dogs
Following are some possible issues that dog owners may stumble upon when they are in the process of training their livestock guardians:
As mentioned, the important task of guarding livestock required these dogs to often make decisions on their own. Biddability is something that seems to be lacking in these dogs.
This independent thinking can therefore clash against the best training program due to the fact that, when asked to perform a behavior, these dogs may look at you with a black stare as if they need to think about it.
In other words, they think they may have more important things to do.
You really need to motivate them and strategically time your training sessions in time and places with little distractions.
Low Prey Drive
Toss a ball and a golden retriever or Labrador retriever will be the happiest dog on earth when he grabs that ball and brings it back to you. Do that with a livestock guardian and they may look at you as if you were crazy.
These dogs' low prey drive may therefore put a dent in your training. If you're planning on using certain types of toys and have your livestock guardian fetch them for you, you may remain disappointed, although I managed to train a Pry to fetch a ball for me, as long as we did this no more than 4-5 times!
Low Food Motivation
Several owners of livestock guardians complain about their dogs not being food motivated. This can really put a dent in training efforts.
Often tackling this requires some experimenting, trying a variety of different foods and strategically planning training sessions.
Dislike of Other Dogs
Some owners of livestock guardians struggle with their dogs not liking other dogs, especially dogs they do not know. This can put a dent in walking these dogs and participating in events that involve other dogs.
As much as it may be tempting to take these dogs to the dog park, they tend to be more on the aloof side as they mature, and they may struggle having unknown dogs or people approach their perceived "dog park territory." They also may engage in too rough play involving body slamming.
Livestock guardians tend to bark-a lot and often at the most inconvenient times, such as at night when everybody is sleeping. This can cause lots of anger and frustration from neighbors if you live in a close knit neighborhood.
It's these dogs' job to protect and sometimes their protection may go overboard. Strangers and guests may not be happily welcomed and accepted as other dogs do. Even when they seem OK, they may tend to be on the aloof side once they mature.
Some guardians may struggle with people making unexpected gestures, or hugging. Children playing roughly may be misinterpreted, triggering their protective sides.
Some livestock guardians may also feel the need to act protective of their food. Resource guarding is something that you want to prevent rather than cure.
11 Tips for Training Livestock Guardian Dogs
As seen, livestock guardians have several traits that can clash against the best training efforts. However, they also have many qualities.
Livestock guardians are loyal, very intelligent and docile and several are being used in a variety of dog sports and activities such as canine nosework, carting, clicker training and some have also become wonderful therapy dogs.
With all of this in mind, the following are several tips for training livestock guardian dogs.
1) Use Positive Reinforcement
Livestock guardians may look stubborn and independent, but they are quite sensitive dogs. Make sure to make training rewarding using positive reinforcement training. Research has found positive reinforcement to be the best training method for dogs.
2) Experiment With Treats
Don't just be quick to label your livestock guardian as not food motivated. Rather, experiment with a variety of foods and treats. Most likely you'll eventually stumble upon your dogs' favorite one that will get things moving.
It may be Cheerios, it may be animal crackers or it may be frozen peas. To each their own!
4) Keep Sessions Fun and Short
Long, tedious training sessions are the biggest killer when it comes to training livestock guardians. These dogs need several breaks and you must keep it fun, otherwise, you risk them losing their focus.
5) Train Away From Distractions
Start training in an area where there are not many distractions going on.
Outdoor noises may cause them to lose focus quickly triggering them to want to check things out. We can't blame them though, being attentive to their surroundings is what they were bred for!
6) Use the Premack Principle
When training livestock guardians, one of my favorite methods is using the Premack principle, where a less likely to occur behavior takes place before the more likely one. It's as if saying "you can have ice cream if you eat your veggies first.
Therefore, if your livestock guardian hears a noise and wants to go out in the yard to check it out, make it a habit to ask for a sit (or any other exercise) first.
7) Train to Trade
Never forcibly remove something from your livestock guardian's mouth. Instead, teach the art of fair trading. And while you're at it, you can also train the leave it and drop it cues.
Teach these good habits starting from a young age. Here is a general guide with exercises to prevent resource guarding in puppies.
8) Socialize Puppies
Socialization, ensuring it's always positive and never overwhelming is very important in these dogs.
You want to make sure to socialize livestock guardians to as many different people as possible as these dogs tend to get more and more aloof as they mature, and you want them to habituate to how humans normally behave. Puppy classes are a great place, and you can also organize puppy parties under controlled exposures. Here's a guide to organizing puppy socialization parties.
10) Get Them Used to Handling
You want your livestock guardian to feel comfortable with you touching him or her in various places. This once again is best started when your dog is a puppy. Here are some handling exercises for getting puppies used to tolerating touch.
11) Use Management
Use management to prevent rehearsing problematic behaviors -like have a tall fence (5-6 feet) to prevent escaping when older as these dogs are great at climbing, provide a designated area to dig (they love to dig craters when hot), keep your livestock guardian in a separate room when children are over (they may misinterpret their play fighting), etc.
Bonus Tip: Keep Your Livestock Guardian Entertained
It's without question: These dogs need a job. If you don't give these dogs something productive to do, they'll be forced to craft their own forms of entertainment.
These forms of entertainment are often not welcomed by most dog owners. If you provide your livestock guardian with acceptable outlets for his need to work, you will help reduce unwanted behaviors.
Here are several ways to entertain a Great Pyrenees, but these activities may be welcomed by other livestock guardians as well!
A Myth About Training
It is often thought that all you need to do to train a livestock guardian to guard livestock is to place them with the animals they are meant to protect from an early age and instincts will take over. This is very wrong!
Training a livestock guardian requires lots of commitment as it's usually only after the age of two that these dogs become reliable and mature enough to start seriously working.
Prior to this age, juvenile livestock guardians may engage in untrustworthy behaviors such as chasing livestock, escaping and making bad decisions. Most of them outgrow these tendencies though as they mature and through your gentle guidance.
These dogs are slow to mature and those territorial, protective instincts may not develop fully until they are past the juvenile, doggy adolescent stage and well into adulthood.
Did you know? Youngsters benefit from watching adults working with livestock. Through social facilitation, they may therefore learn the ropes of livestock guarding.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli