I know that by now you have seen the many pictures I have posted of our wonderful Livestock Guardian dog, a beautiful Great Pyrenees named Esme. She has been a great addition to our family, and by now, at more than eighteen months of age, she has developed into a fantastic guardian dog for our goats and chickens. The care and training of a Livestock Guardian Dog is an investment that will NOT disappoint, as long as you do it the right way.
Great Pyrenees are one of the oldest dog breeds in the world. They were bred as dogs of war and then used during peacetime as sheep guarding dogs. They are one of the least aggressive of the large guardian dogs (LGD), so often people cherish them as family dogs. They are regal, independent and aloof compared to other dogs breeds, traits necessary to spend days alone guarding flocks. This independence shows when you call them—they come, but maybe not on the first call.
Raising a livestock guardian dog is much different than raising a pet dog who lives with you in your home. Making the right decisions in the period of training will guarantee that you livestock dog performs his duties perfectly for the rest of his life. But choosing to raise him as a pet with little or no specific guardian training will give you a dog who cannot be trusted with your livestock.
Raising puppies to become livestock guardian dogs is a 12 month to 18 month venture. These breeds of dogs are slow to mature and thus are often not trustworthy and reliable before this age. I want to take a brief look at three major areas of training for a livestock guardian dog.
- How do I teach my livestock guardian dog to bond with my livestock?
- How does my livestock guardian dog learn to obey fence and gate boundaries?
- How do I socialize my livestock guardian dog to people and my surroundings?
How do I teach my livestock guardian dog to bond with my livestock?
Livestock guardian breeds come with an inherent ability to guard that which they bond to. When you bring your pup home be prepared for him to spend the night where you expect him to spend his nights as an adult. With the stock. Not in your house.
Every day the pup will need to exercise and have interaction with his charges. You can allow free time outside the puppy pen whenever you are around to keep an eye on the action. For the first few weeks, lock the pup up when you are not there to supervise. During the small puppy-stage (which doesn’t last long in a Great Pyrenees) we used a large dog kennel and kept it in the barn with the goats. Our Esme slept in the large dog kennel at night and during the day we put her in a separate fenced section. She could smell and be out with the goats and chickens, but the fence kept her from developing any bad habits of chasing the livestock.
NEVER throw your puppy in with your livestock and expect him to naturally take on the role of a Livestock Guardian Dog. A Great Pyrenees does NOT equal a good Livestock Guardian Dog. A well-trained and time-invested Great Pyrenees DOES!
Over the next several months supervise the pup and discipline any unwanted action toward the animals such as chasing, chewing, and biting. And by discipline, I do not mean you EVER hit or kick a livestock guardian dog. This will leave a bad impression and could ruin the demeanor of the dog forever. You firmly say, “NO…my chickens,” and then walk away from the dog and show them no attention. If they continue to misbehave, you lock them in their pen (which they utterly hate). You can also praise the pup for good behavior. Pet and feed the pup when he is with the livestock, not when he is away from them so that he never develops the bad habit of being possessive of his food. Do not take the pup up to the house for food and attention. As the pup matures you will notice if he is bonding to your livestock or not.
If the dog is to guard, it is not good to raise it around other non-Great Pyrenees dogs where it can pick up bad habits such as chasing poultry or livestock. Great Pyrenees don’t normally chase, but if the big puppy bounces up to a chicken and the chicken runs the other way, the dog will give bounce after it. Once chasing starts, the chicken soon becomes a diversion, and that dog can no longer be trusted with poultry. Closely monitor your Great Pyrenees puppy for its first 12-24 months if you desire to raise a trustworthy poultry guard. Some dogs take 2 years to become trustworthy around chickens. We found that Esme took 15 months till we were confident in leaving her alone with the chickens but the training was SOOOOOO worth it.
How does my livestock guardian dog learn to obey fence and gate boundaries?
A large part of success with raising puppies is being able to teach them to respect boundaries. Under no circumstances is climbing over or crawling under the fences going to work. Supervise and correct any attempts to go over or dig under fences as you see them. Use the time that you have the dog nearby and bonding to stock to set up the enclosure with hot wires, and allow the dog to learn the consequences of crossing electric fences.
Gates also need to be included in the training. LGD’s are smart dogs and will figure out that fences may be not so good but gates are okay. They need to know they do not cross gates unless invited out by you or moving with the flock. When raising puppies doing the work of teaching the pup respect for fences will go a long way to eliminating the core problem seen in LGD’s—wandering away from the flock and farm.
Adult Great Pyrenees will naturally cover a one to two mile radius. If that’s not allowable, the dog will have to be trained to a smaller area. Fences, electric fences, and invisible fences all work good. Neutering helps to keep a male dog at home. Close supervision and correction the first two years will help yield a dog that stays within the property lines.
When you bring your new puppy home, make sure you walk the perimeter of your property every day for a few weeks so that pup understands it’s boundaries.
How do I socialize my livestock guardian dog to people and my surroundings?
The calm nature of Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs around livestock, combined with proper training, will bring out the naturally gentle and submissive breeding that makes these dogs a wondrous thing to behold around small and delicate kids and lambs. However, we need to always remember that these dogs aren’t bred for obedience. Patience is a must. We expect our LGDs to think and react when we aren’t there to protect our flock. We cannot simultaneously expect independent thinking and mindless obedience. These dogs are ALWAYS multitasking; they are bred to reject human instructions where they see a better way to behave. This is what makes them the perfect pasture companions to our chickens, sheep, goats, cattle and even horses. This is also why we have trouble with them obeying fencelines and expanding their territory. They are good at what they do, and they know it. Be patient with them and they will be everything you expect, and then some.
Some livestock guardian dog trainers believe that LGD pups should be raised with the livestock they will be guarding, isolated from humans. In reality, this is an exaggeration of recommendations made by scientists in the USDA bulletin about selecting, raising, and using LGDs. The publication’s language about minimizing the dog-to-human bond has been incorrectly interpreted to mean elimination of contact with humans. Training cannot be accomplished without human contact. We love, pet, show affection to our Esme, and in return, we have seen that nurturing blossom into an incredible human-dog bond.
Livestock guardian dogs are working dogs and a balance of how much interaction to have with the dog must be found. Be wary of how much attention you foster on the pup. The idea is not to make him into a pet but to let him know your touch by petting him and handling him. Let him know you control the food, and the access to stock and you set the boundaries. LGD’s grow into large independent natured dogs. You will need to stay on top of the pecking order, not by using force but by quietly assuming the role because it is your place and your stock and your duty to keep everyone safe.
The health of your Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog
Great Pyrenees generally stay in good health. Some more common problems may include mats in the fur (especially around the neck and ears), the double dew claws growing too long, ear infections (due to dirt and moisture in the ear), eye infections (pink eye), allergies and “hot spots”. Hot spots are caused when an area of the skin becomes inflamed. The fur will fall out, the skin will turn bright red and the dog wants to bite at it. Some ointment from the Vet and keeping the spot dry cures this problem or a mixture of lavender and melaleuca essential oils mixed into a all purpose salve (here’s my recipe I use).
Genetic problems include: underbite, entropia (small eyeballs), seizures and hip dysplaysia. Pronounced underbite shows up as wet spots under the chin and neck. Entropia is when the eyeballs are small for the socket size and the eye lashes stick inward causing irritation. This can be cured with simple surgery, but the dog should not be used for breeding. The cause of seizures is unknown, but from what we have heard, changing owners, being confined to a small area, or other highly stressful situations will tend to bring them on. Hip dysplasia is not quite as common as in other breeds because Great Pyrenees have not been over bred. The most common form of death that we hear about is being hit by a car or being stolen.
We had to have stomach surgery on our Esme due to the fact she ate two rocks that got lodged in her stomach and small intestine. Thankfully, she made a full recovery! We corrected this behavior by providing her plenty of raw marrow bones to chew on in the late puppy stage and continuing to feed her a large breed high quality puppy chow to supplement the raw feeding that we do with her when we have extra meat laying around.
Investing in a Livestock Guardian Dog was the BEST decision we made when we started our homestead. We found our puppy on Craigslist and she came from a working farm with working parents. We have invested hours of training into her and I couldn’t imagine our farm without her. The ultimate satisfaction of this investment comes when I look out the window and I see her laying down near where the goats are grazing and our free-range chickens are pecking happily in the dirt beside her.