Homestead Guardian Dogs
Thinking outside the box for training an LGD puppy
I don’t mean to be a contrarian, I really don’t. Generally, contrarians seem to adopt opinions and practices that go against the grain of what everyone else in the community is doing. Even though they go the opposite way, the group is still controlling them and their ideologies. Group moves north, Contrarian then moves south in response. Once again, I find myself wrestling with a contrary idea, also once again, the motivation behind my action is rooted in experience, independence, and curiosity, not a reactionary spirit.
I have come to the point in my journey as a homesteader where I hold another contrary idea because I find that a Livestock Guardian Dog’s value for the small-scale farmer and homesteader is greatly overrated.
While all dogs generally add to the enjoyment of life, I won’t deny that the breed I have experience with and is the most common, Great Pyrenees, isn’t an exception. They can be incredibly sweet dogs and their soft expression while they gaze into your soul with those pools of melted milk chocolate is enough to pierce even the stoniest of hearts. But I can’t say that I believe they have done our homestead more good than any other breed who barks at everything that goes bump in the night or lifts a leg to every clump of grass.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that they may have been more trouble than they’re worth…
Not an easy thing for me to admit since I know how militant the LGD crowd can be. They are as fiercely dedicated to their dogs as they claim their dogs are supposed to be to their livestock.
I’m going to speak from my experience and observations over the last decade with LGD’s and the issues I’ve seen them have with multi-species, small-scale farms. It was bad enough that I was ready to be done this them altogether (that’s a helluva feed bill) and count on my house pets who bark and mark just as reliably. I am not discounting their ability to effectively do their job on a large, single-species ranch and believe that’s an entirely different job that they may do very well (though, after watching every video Texas A&M had up on their LGD program at the time, I couldn’t help but observe their dogs had some of the same issues with roaming and containment that we do, making it feel hopeless since our dogs will never have even a fraction of the space on a ranch.)
The Problems with Livestock Guardian Dogs on the Homestead
I believe the biggest issues with livestock guardian dogs and the homesteader stem from the very nature of these breeds and our unrealistic expectations. If you want a dog with the instincts to protect your farm, you’re also asking for a dog with other instincts that are less than desirable.
With that protective instinct also comes bad habits that could get your dog killed when living closer to civilization. Habits such as roaming, disdain for being contained, aggression, stubbornness, and a penchant for bringing the most rotten of carcasses home to save for later.
On a small landholding, often without a dedicated full-time farmer, these are huge challenges that are very difficult to overcome.
It is incredibly frustrating to open the door to let your house pet out in the morning to see them bolt for the latest deer hide to be brought back from the woods, rolling on it, coating themselves in ticks and stench. Or to look out in the garden and see the LGD digging a big hole in your tomatoes so she can bury the cow hoof your neighbors threw in their gut pile. One year, ours brought back an entire pig head and left it in the driveway. We never did figure out which neighbor had butchered that week. How far did he go to get it?
We’ve had them beat themselves off of electric netting, tangling themselves up, yelping in pain, until they escape containment. They’ve dug out ground stakes, chewed through the thickest leads with a few grinds of their teeth, learned how high to jump invisible fence to avoid the shock, and more to avoid being contained for livestock exposure during the training period and beyond.
One dog, nicknamed Egg Suck Dog for the obvious reason, we discovered was wandering miles up the road when she blew through the invisible fence to roam. We found out she was traveling to a hunting property and chasing the deer, infuriating the owner to such an extent that he thought he’d introduce himself by flying up our driveway and jumping out of the truck waving a gun, threatening to kill her if he ever saw her again. We re-homed her to a fenced yard in the city and when the new owner was picking her up we had to keep dragging her away from a dead deer that was hit on the road in front of our house that morning.
Our chicken coop is set up to make the perfect bonding pen for a livestock guardian dog. It is split with a third of the enclosure fencing off the birds from the area where we gather eggs, store feed, etc. the birds are safe from puppy but the puppy can watch them through the wire mesh. But when the prey drive is so strong, even a few month-old puppy will batter themselves off the wire until they can punch through and eat the birds. And this was stock descending from one of the most reputable breeders in our state. That summer he killed more meat chickens than the fox. Except the fox wasn’t bold enough to attack while the kids were camped out in a tent near the chickens. But the pup was. And he would chew his lead clean through and kill a couple before the kids could even scramble out of bed.
Another issue to navigate is poor breeders. On the one hand are breeders primarily concerned about confirmation… and rightly so. Preserving breed standards is important. As long as they’re honest about the dog’s potential on the farm. On the other are breeders who have a couple of dogs protecting their farm and decide to make a few bucks off a litter. They have the benefit of claiming the pups were raised with stock but the reality of raising puppies means the exposure is often limited and the most meaningful bonding period with livestock is after most puppies are in their new homes. I confess to having accidentally been there myself, though I did my best and raised the puppies in the hoop house with chickens. Ideally, a breeder would be concerned about both confirmation and preserving the working traditions.
Genetics are incredibly important when you want a working dog to do its job and we must be ready to hand over the money it takes to raise these puppies right from the very youngest age, compensating breeders fairly for the extra time and investment it takes for their effort. The breeders need to not feel the burden of keeping the puppies until 10, 12, or even 14-16 weeks of age so they can be properly exposed to how the parent dog behaves around its stock. But with that comes a huge amount of responsibility on the part of the breeder to make sure the pups are getting that exposure and conditioning. After my experience with breeders, I don’t know if I would trust them to do the job, I’m sorry to say.
Ultimately, even with ideal guarding genetics, I still think that the challenges presented by a Great Pyrenees outweighs their benefit and that there are other, more trainable breeds that can be a general guard dog who is vigilant and alert at night, will readily bark to scare predators away, and liberally scent their territory to mark it.
These are some of the characteristics I was looking for when I considered one last time whether we would replace our aging Great Pyrenees, Ollie, who is nearly 10. He is sleeping more every night, having more trouble keeping clean, and getting up after he’s been laying down.
Ideal Traits for Our Homestead Guardian Dog
When I was considering which breed to bring to our homestead I had strict criteria and if I couldn’t find a dog that seemed as though they would meet them I wasn’t going to get a dog at all.
Here’s what I was looking for:
A dog that could bond with both people and animals (because the reality is we all live in close proximity to each other)
Extremely good with children (I still have 7 at home and hope to be simply swarming with grandchildren one day)
Fiercely loyal to their family and not the least bit aggressive to them (My kids are my main flock and, whether we’re talking man or beast, I want a dog that is wary and will protect them, not walk up to strangers and beg for a scratch behind the ears)
Remarkable guardians of their home and farm
A marker & a barker in the hopes that they never even have to face a predator
Able to take down predators if needed, even larger ones (we’ve seen 3 bobcats on our trail cam at the back of the property)
Not prone to wandering (this has been the biggest pain point for me to stress over… outside of the dogs counterproductively eating our chickens)
More manageable coat (Not to shame him, but Ollie can no longer keep his backside clean and needs to be heavily sedated so we can crotch him like an expectant sheep. Bless Bill, he’s done the job, but not without vomiting.)
Intelligent and easily trainable, unlike the stubborn Pyrenees who have little desire to please their people
It was a tall order. And, to be honest, I couldn’t believe I found one that checked all those boxes…
The Estrela Mountain Dog.
They almost sound too good to be true. The breed is of Portuguese origin and very rare in the United States (another benefit in my opinion because that means they aren’t being overbred). A standard specimen of the breed is reputed to meet each one of those attributes I desired.
We brought our puppy home last week and already she has been an absolute delight. She has shown a protective barking instinct, prefers to be with people than our other dogs, and seems to pace back and forth which demonstrates she will be a vigilant guard. She’s calm and intelligent and learned her name, Penny, in a day, “sit”, and “leave it”.
We will be training this puppy very differently than what is typically recommended for a livestock guardian dog since we have more realistic expectations and adjusted priorities.
Normally, we would train our LGD with name recognition, come, sit, food aggression mitigation, take them on daily perimeter walks of the property (or the boundary we want them to maintain), keep them part of the day and overnight in a bonding pen/area focused on chickens, and tie them up at the barn while we do farm chores. The dog would have very little human bonding so as not to interfere with their livestock bonding, which is already difficult since dogs typically bond with the one who feeds them.
With this pup we are going to encourage her to bond with us first.
Since we all have to live together on a few tight acres, I want a dog that wants to please me and is well-trained to follow commands. After having successfully trained several house dogs that obey with a motion of my hand, I want that from our farm dog too, especially since most situations will be outside where I have far less control. This means Penny will be living in the house where I can take full advantage of secondary training situations (those that pop up when she is misbehaving rather than primary ones where I grab a handful of treats and put her through the paces.)
Training our Homestead Guardian Dog
I’ve got a slow cooker chicken all cubed up and ready to go in the fridge with more in the freezer. As she gets to know and love us we will be teaching her with positive reinforcement training so she proves to be a manageable, obedient dog.
This is bonding week. It’s a pretty chill week and I have low expectations. This week is about softening the transition away from her only home and mother and helping her to get used to the new place.
Learn her name
Leash conditioning - She naturally walks better than some adult dogs I know. We’re letting her take her time, sniff around, exploring her surroundings and are trying not to let her have any scary experiences.
Kennel Conditioning- We also want her to get used to being contained because this is necessary for managing homestead dogs.
Touch Desensitization- We’re handling her whole body (ears, toes, and mouth in particular), including while she is eating, to minimize food aggression and get her used to being touched so we can groom her and care for her in the case of medical treatment. (Ollie was 6 months old when we got him and has never allowed us to go near his backside for grooming, hence the aforementioned need for sedatives.)
Eh-Eh- We don’t use “no” as a command for our dogs. I stumbled upon the realization that they respond so much better to “eh-eh” than a booming “no.” Naturally, we’ll be using this right from the start.
I’ll be starting with some primary training lessons at this point, using the chicken treats as a lure, while continuing with the above exposures & training. Before these weeks are over I’ll have her trained to:
Vehicle conditioning (she’s a car puker)
Livestock exposure- I won’t begin closer livestock exposure until she will reliably “sit” and “down” for a few days so if she reacts to them by lunging on the lead I can gain some control and teach her how I want her to behave around the animals. Again, my goal is so that if her instincts don’t kick in, I can still have control and she will know obeying me is a good thing.
Grooming- Because of our struggles with Ollie’s coat & grooming issues we will be bathing and brushing this puppy weekly right from the start.
I will keep expanding on all of the above training, continuing to practice those skills while building on to add:
Vehicle Training - will involve trips to the store or perhaps on a hike to expose her to other people in a controlled environment where, if she does bark, we will be there and ready with a treat to train her to stop barking when we say everything is ok.
Livestock Exposure- We will keep exposing her to the various sights and sounds of the farm, and keep her with us while we do chores once we think we can do them without her causing an interruption.
Habituate to Following the Kids- Once she is obeying the children too, I will want her to be going on leashed walks with them whenever they ramble about the property. They are infinitely more valuable to me than any chicken dinner and if my theory is right, as she protects and guards them, predators will naturally stay away from our home space where the chickens are too.
Gun Conditioning- I hope to have her near when we do gun conditioning for our English Setter puppy so she isn’t afraid of guns. Ollie is deathly afraid of guns and it always surprises me how he can pick up on the quietest of clicks. Once Bill shows up for backup in a predator situation, we can always count on Ollie to abandon the scene and hide for hours.
Look at me - Distraction training
Let’s Go (when on a leash)
Right here (Something all farm dogs should know so you don’t have to clean up spilled milk or other food on the floor. A great example is when I’m making butter. Every now and then the buttermilk will splash up and over the bowl and onto the floor. I just call Kizzy and tap my foot on the ground, saying “right here” if she doesn’t find it all. One less thing for me to clean up when I’m done.)
At this point, it will be nearly winter. Most of our primary predators will be done raising their young for the season and will be thinking about hibernation. Coyotes won’t pose a problem until they start mating season, if at all. They’ve never bothered us before but it’s always a concern they might start. I’ll continue reinforcing all that she has learned, making her obedience almost involuntary. (The best example I can think of for this is when a Springer Spaniel I had started the bad habit of running up and jumping on us when we got home. I was rarely prepared to train him while trying to unload a carful of kids and shopping hauls so instead learned that if I made my hand signal for “dance”, which is his command to spin in a circle, as he ran towards me I could ward off the attack and slobber. He couldn’t help himself, he wanted to jump but the ingrained obedience to the command was stronger.)
Before the nights are warm enough to even think about calling it spring, my kids will be begging to sleep out on the porch. And the not-so-little puppy will transition to being an outdoor dog by camping out with them. By this time, I hope she will be enough bonded to us to quell any desire to roam she may have, eliminating that problem altogether. We’re outside nearly all day 8 months out of the year (and still a good deal of it the other four) so she will, no doubt, be with us most of the time and ready to start sounding the alert when the next predator season rolls around.
By then, we should have a fairly good idea about whether my hope that a “barker and a marker” is all that’s necessary to keep most homestead predators at bay and if she proves herself not up to the challenge (which I doubt) we still have a dog that is well-trained enough to be an indoor dog and excellent family companion, unlike our last one who, when he started decimating our chicken flock, was aggressive over food, dogs, and towards the kids and lacked all desire to please people or obey after being raised with the traditional LGD protocol.
I guess what I’m wanting to encourage you to do is to think outside of the box.
Stop reading and watching which breeds and training programs everyone else is using for protecting their homestead and use common sense to make choices for what will work best for your own farm rather than train your dog as though you live on a thousand-acre ranch. Before you bring your puppy home, have a goal for their training and make a plan to execute it. However you train your dogs, it’s good to bear in mind that scolding dogs after their infraction has, in my experience, only made a dog more eager to repeat their escapade and be even sneakier about it to boot. A harsh tone (or worse) only makes your dog more likely to avoid and disobey you. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the partnership.
Try to think of any scenarios they will need to face in the future and purposefully plan to expose them to them under your calm control while they are young.
When I have cheese to make, garden rows to hoe, kids to teach, dinner to make, and more while my husband is at work, I’m not able to spend time supervising a young pup in a bonding pen. A new, scared puppy will seem docile enough the first few weeks as they adjust but it won’t be long until their energy bubbles over and the urge to chew during the teething phase will cause problems. More likely than not, they’ll get their first taste of chicken when you’re nowhere near and it will be too late. Ollie was over 6 months old when we first brought him home and while that has presented its own challenges I believe the reason we had the least issues with him and our livestock is because he didn’t pick up the bad behaviors as a puppy. By the time we got him, he had calmed down some and he has guarded our farm without that early exposure.
It is best to look at the dog’s misbehavior as our own negligence. Whatever they did, we weren’t available to train them on the right path. I’ve found that by losing control of putting the pup outdoors from the start, you also lose control of training during the situations they encounter throughout the day which could be valuable training opportunities.