Livestock Guardian Dogs: Different Breeds for Different Needs

Over the years, farmers and ranchers have used many methods to reduce predation from coyotes, bears, wolves, mountain lions, jaguars, and packs of domestic dogs –  and not all of them have been “green” (chemical poisons), mindful of territorial wild life (fencing), or the effects on non-predatory wildlife. A more aggressive method – shotgun or rife – rarely ends well for the predator which is sometimes an endangered species like the jaguar.

For centuries, another “tool” was the use of Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs), but as large predators became eradicated throughout much of the world, use of LGDs also declined. Happily, this is changing; the dogs are making a comeback, and with hugely successful results. In South Africa alone, LGDs have virtually eliminated livestock depredation on 90% of farms participating in the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Anatolian Shepherd program. In Texas, Texas A&M AgriLife’s Research Ranch weaned only a 20 percent lamb crop in 2009, but when LGDs were acquired to reduce predation in 2012, the lamb crop exceeded 100 percent every year since.

That said, it can be daunting for the owner of a ranch, small farm, hobby farm, or homestead to know which breed would be best for their circumstances given how many LGD breeds there are in the world.  

Anyone considering an LGD should know that like ranchers, Livestock Guardian Dogs also have different “methods” to protect their herd from predators, and the three main protective behaviors are territorial exclusion, disruption, and confrontation. 

Territorial exclusion is especially important for protection against canine predators. All dogs, wild or domestic, use scent to mark the boundaries of their territory. Other canids, even of different species, recognize these boundaries and tend to seek unoccupied areas rather than risk invading another dog’s territory.

Disruption is aggressive behavior such as barking and posturing, and it occurs when an LGD interrupts the predator’s hunting behavior and “discourages” him from continuing his hunt. There is, however, no direct physical aggression.

When the first two behaviors don’t work, confrontation is used, and even then, the face-off isn’t necessarily lethal to the predator.

All that said, the first step in finding the right breed is to assess one’s needs. What is the LGD guarding? Sheep, cows, alpaca, goats, poultry, or a combination of animals? Will the dog be interacting with people – and in particular, children? What is the dog’s terrain? Will it be working in open fields, mountainous country, high country desert?  What is the climate?  Most LGD breeds were developed in specific regions ranging from Asia to western Europe to Asia, and choosing a breed that is accustomed to similar climate is just good common sense.  Some dogs prefer to stay with the livestock all the time, whereas others like to roam the perimeter. And how many dogs should one have? The general recommendation is one dog per 100 ewes or does, but flocks of 1,000 or more seldom have more than six LGDs. How about color?  Some meat and wool producers believe that because white dog breeds (the Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremma, etc.) were initially selected to protect small ruminants from coyotes, they may not be well suited to deterring larger predators like gray wolves and grizzly bears.

Rather than have definitive answers for different scenarios, we pose important questions and offer a few hints. Ultimately, it pays to do one’s research. Information on the Internet is vast, and narrowing down the particulars will result in a satisfied owner and a contented dog – a win/win for everyone.

The French routinely use the Great Pyrenees. They are typically one of the least aggressive LGD breeds, and tend to be very nurturing towards with children and young animals. This is a good fit for people who have small flocks and live in more populated areas, but if there is fencing, the dog may be tempted to dig out to satisfy its urge to roam. Great Pyrenees also bark more than many LGDs, and that’s something to consider if one has neighbors within hearing range.  A heavy coat makes this breed a poor choice in a hot and/or humid climate.

With a short, rough coat, however, an Anatolian Shepherd, however, does just fine in a hot climate. Anatolians like to roam (these dogs are quite fast and agile), and are described as being unmatched in their devotion to the herd. They aren’t particularly friendly toward humans, however, and some don’t even like being petted. Historically, Anatolians were often left alone with livestock for extended periods. (Ed note: Please refer to comment below for the feedback of an Anatolian Shepherd owner).

Working Pyrenean Mastiffs are suspicious of strangers, but will stand down when introduced to visitors. Like their Great Pyrenees “cousins,” PM’s are excellent with children, but unlike the Great Pyr, this breeds tends to bark less.

Another breed that excels with children is the Polish Tatra, an affectionate and gentle tempered breed that may be well-suited to smaller farms with frequent visitors. A heavy coat should be a consideration, as should its loud bark. As an aside, a Tatra’s alert is unique: The dog moves between the flock and the predator and alert barks, only attacking if the predator moves closer, and only if absolutely necessary. The Akbash shares this same quality.

Other LGDs reputed to do well with family members include the Bulgarian Shepherd Dog (aka the Karakachan), the Estrela Mountain Dog (another loud barker), the Bucovina Shepherd, the Mioritic Shepherd Dog, and the Kangal.

Breeds for cold climates include the Kuvasz, Tibetan Mastiff, Komondor, Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, and Bulgarian Shepherd. An interesting “factoid” about cold weather and LGDs comes from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture which offers this guideline for working dogs:  At about -32°C, medium-sized dogs (under 32 kg) start to take action against the cold by shivering or increasing their metabolic rate (burning energy to produce heat). Larger dogs, such as LGDs that weigh around 45 kg, can withstand even lower temperatures before reacting to the cold.” (-32C = -25.6F, 32 kg = 70.5 lb, 45 kg =99.2 lb)

For hot climates, consider the Bakharwal of India, the Akbash, Kangals, and Anatolian Shepherds.

A caveat: All the aforementioned breeds should be carefully socialized! There are those who believe that owners should never interact with their LGD, but we believe this is wrong. A Livestock Guardian Dog has to be socialized in order to handle him, feed him, medicate him, or treat an injury or illness. Unless an LGD is taught otherwise, people, and all other animals including other Livestock Guardian Dogs could be seen by the LGD as a threat to his livestock. Those interested in getting a working LGD may also want to give serious consideration to acquiring their dogs from breeders who breed from working parents.

The aforementioned information is intended mainly to inspire more questions in order to foster more research by anyone interested in getting an LGD to protect their stock.  While there are breed traits, dogs are individuals, and there is no “one size fits all” LGD breed. We strongly encourage readers to do their homework, ask questions, and then do more research.

It’s important to understand LGD behavior! We came across a fine example of why this is important: A ewe gives birth in the pasture, and the lamb is born dead, or dies shortly after birth. To protect the rest of the goats, an LGD might eat the dead lamb so that predators aren’t drawn to the herd. How easy it would be to misinterpret this situation. How many might see this scenario and initially think that the dog killed the lamb?  Another example: An LGD stays with a sick or lame animal, and what some might interpret as harassment is actually the dog is trying to separate the animal from the herd for the herd’s overall protection, or the dog trying to force a downed goat to move towards its herd for its own protection. A good LGD can sense if an animal is dying, or if it stands a good chance of survival.

We’d love to hear from owners of working LGDs. We’d like to learn what breed you chose, and why.

Photo of a pair of Estrela Mountain Dogs by Penny Glacki

21 thoughts on “Livestock Guardian Dogs: Different Breeds for Different Needs”

  1. Sad to see the tornjak doesn’t feature in the article, id love to know why when they have a great work ethic and love their family.

    • The omission, Sally, was only due to our own limitations. Please tell us more about this breed so that we may feature them more in the future!

  2. Nice article!
    Congratulationa, you even mentioned some old landrace as India’s LGD or Bulgarian shepherd, but you forgot mentioned some of recognized breeds as Tornjak is from Dinaridi mountain region (BiH and Croatia with big amount of wolfs and big predators) and Sharplanina Mountain dog from Balkan peninsula as same you didn’t mention kavkasian from Russia and Georgia.
    These breeds are full recognized at FCI and spread over The World … But there are also old landrace of dogs in function LGD almost in any World’s region where exist sheeps, goats or other livestock.
    Hope you will include this facts in your article.
    Thanks a lot in advance!

    • Ljiljana Nakić-Petrina, if only we were the font of all knowledge! We depend upon our readers like you to help us fill in the blanks, as it were. We are eager to learn more!

  3. Great picture by Penny Glackin! Wonderful article on LGDs. Sorry to say so many that end up in rescue organizations.
    My Great Pyrenees was a working dog that tried to extend his territory. When picked up as a stray, and unable to find his owner, the rescue had him neutered, only for the owner to show up. This owner did not want him back since the dog had been neutered.
    This owner had not socialized the dog, leaving him with some pretty intense issues. After 3 failed attempts at rehoming him, Garner landed with us as a foster. Happily, that foster failed, and we’ve had him for 6 years now. He is still intensely protective of our home and can be dog aggressive, but has stolen our hearts. He is no longer a ‘working’ dog, but seems to love his fenced backyard, his two doggie doors, his two doggie beds, his English Shepherd sister, and the air conditioning. Oh yes, and us.

    • Trish, perhaps it’s impolitic of us to say, but we think there has to be a special ring of hell for people who turn their back on a dog they once owned. You, on the other hand, will have a particularly fluffy cloud on which to reside when your time comes, at least that’s how we see it. On behalf of all dog lovers, thank you for taking this dog in.

      • We are not a foster fail but rescued a Great Pyrenees with a similar background: rancher/owner dumped her in a kill shelter when the vet told him she had a clotting disorder (she does not) at the age of 2.5, two adopters returned her to the rescue, and we ultimately adopted her and she has lived happily with us for 3+ years. She is a house and law firm office dog who excels at lounging and has become a certified therapy dog. We are lucky Coco is our girl.

  4. As the owner of a properly socialized Anatolian working dog, and being introduced to LDG’s by some of the most respected breeders in the country, I must respond to some inaccuracies in this article.

    I do believe that much of the misinformation, and bad reputation that many of these breeds are getting, lies squarely on ill-informed and/or irresponsible breeders. This of course happens with other dog breeds, and other species of animals as well. It is really hard to police the HUMAN factor. Owning an LGD, whether as a working dog or a companion, comes with a huge responsibility and, sadly, there are too many breeders who just sell puppies for the money, and that is it. No wonder so many LGD’s are getting dumped at shelters.

    Some of the inaccuracies in this article are:
    1) Anatolians are not a “white breed.” Fawn with a black mask is the color most associated with the breed, and the breed standard permits any color, including brindles and pintos.
    2) They are not inherently roamers They are getting this reputation because of irresponsible owners. When properly bonded with their herd they do not even require fencing. This is why the breed was chosen by the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Livestock Guardian Dog Program in Namibia Africa. Our Anatolian’s breeder, Louise Emanuel of Birinci Anatolians, donated the first 10 Anatolians for the seed stock for this program. I suggest that anyone wanting to know accurate info about Anatolians, google Birinci Anatolians.
    3) Not friendly and some don’t like being petted? These are poorly bred and/or poorly socialized Anatolians. Sure, they are naturally wary of strangers, which is a desirable trait in a livestock guardian, but once properly introduced to friends and visitors, many are super sweet and affectionate, and are just the biggest cuddle bugs! When “off duty,” such as at our vet’s clinic, our vet reports that our Holly is just the most awesome gentle giant to work with. They can put their hands way up in her mouth to examine her teeth, and do all sorts of other “rude” examination things, and her response is to kiss them and wash their ears!

    This is Holly with a young visitor to our alpaca farm after she was properly introduced! She LOVES kids. She probably thought we were adding a boy to her herd to guard!

    • Rachelle, we are delighted to have your input as there is no substitute for experience which your comment provides. In time, we’ll likely update the post to be more accurate and may call upon you for your insights, if we may?

      • Thank you for your reply! You may certainly call on me, and I will be most happy to also refer you to some of the other most respected breeders of Anatolians in the US, who have also made very informative videos. PS, Can you turn my photo right side up? At least when clicked on, it is the correct orientation.

        • I re-read my original comment and realized I did not clarify the “fencing not required” statement. It is certainly recommended that Anatolians be fenced in with their livestock, and fencing is a must for companion dogs, but in Africa, where they are guarding livestock from big cats and other predators, they move with the herd. If they roamed off, the livestock would be left vulnerable. These are huge territories without neighbors nearby who will call law enforcement if your LGD comes on their property! Sorry I did not clarify that! For liability reasons, Anatolians and all LGD’s should be fenced with their livestock.

    • Thank you, Rachelle. As I read the part in this article about Anatolians I wondered where NPDD got their info from. If they were referring to non socialized dogs then probably. Socialized Anatolians are the most affectionate dogs. When they are ‘on’ they are all business. When they aren’t they will soak up the love as long as a person will give it.

  5. I am the proud owner of a Spanish mastiff and she is different from any dog that I have ever owned yes she is very loving but most of the time she would prefer to be out with her animals she guards a multitude of species from my horses my goats my sheep rabbits chickens and even baby chicks she has run at hocks when they swoop down to grab a check and if two roosters are fighting she will continually walk back-and-forth between them to break up the fight she prefers to sleep during the day and tends to be more awake at night she has a very good sense of who belongs and who does not I no longer have coyotes coming down my street and twin or possums try to raid the chickens she is charging After them grabs them and throws them down she does not tear them up and kill them She loves children but when strangers come to the property she can be pretty scary standing up on her hind legs and charging the fence. however she never does that if children come. As I said I have never had a dog like this and she is my friend but she doesn’t seem to want to be a pet she came from a goat farm in Wisconsin . I might have there are two types of Spanish mastiff’s the Lignero and the Pesado mine is the Pesado. (heavy). These dogs do not take heat well though and have a heavy double coat

  6. I am the proud owner of a Spanish mastiff and she is different from any dog that I have ever owned yes she is very loving but most of the time she would prefer to be out with her animals she guards a multitude of species from my horses my goats my sheep rabbits chickens and even baby chicks she has run at hocks when they swoop down to grab a check and if two roosters are fighting she will continually walk back-and-forth between them to break up the fight she prefers to sleep during the day and tends to be more awake at night she has a very good sense of who belongs and who does not I no longer have coyotes coming down my street and twin or possums try to raid the chickens she is charging After them grabs them and throws them down she does not tear them up and kill them She loves children but when strangers come to the property she can be pretty scary standing up on her hind legs and charging the fence. however she never does that if children come. As I said I have never had a dog like this and she is my friend but she doesn’t seem to want to be a pet she came from a goat farm in Wisconsin . I might have there are two types of Spanish mastiff’s the Lignero and the Pesado mine is the Pesado. (heavy). These dogs do not take heat well though and have a heavy double coat

    • A wonderfully informative comment, Ann, thank you for sharing it!

  7. I have 2 Tibetan Maztiffz and muzt zay I feel pretty zafe 🤣🤣 the big-1 arrived few weekz back and the little-1 Ztill protectz me When he comez too cloze When I am azleep 🤣🤣 the little-1 iz a bitch and working-type, the big-1 a male and liontype ❤️❤️

    • We’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few Tibetan Mastiffs, Dieter, and they are most impressive! We can image how safe they make you feel! Thank you for sharing their photograph (and we’ll rotate it as soon as we figure out how!)

  8. Wonderful article! I hope in time you do revise it to include the great information and even more breeds that people commented about. I especially enjoyed Rachelle’s contribution to the Anatolian information.

    • Thanks for writing, Dana!We welcome all the terrific comments that help round out the information, and indeed, we’ll be doing more on the Anatolian in the future!

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