BIG FLUFFY WHITE DOGS – Look Before You Leap

Lana Kaiser M.D., DVM

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February 13, 2024

Since we are often in a position to educate and influence other humans, I thought I might talk livestock guarding dogs (LGD). Across the US, LGD are being surrendered and euthanized at an alarming rate [1]. The vast majority of these are big fluffy white dogs (Great Pyrenees > Maremma) which are the most common LGD in the States. For the past three decades the Carolina Great Pyrenees Rescue would take in and rehome 100 to 150 LGD per year. However, in the first 8 months of 2023 they were contacted about 670 LGD, and by the end of the year it was 1296 LGD [1,2]. These dogs are obtained from shelters in south and central Texas and the greater Houston area. This trend, seen throughout the US, is especially problematic in Alabama, California, Tennessee, and Texas. On January 25th, 2024 National Pyr Rescue had over 100 dogs available for “adoption [3].” Four days later they were looking for fosters for twelve additional puppies – 7 seven-week-old puppies and 5 eleven-month-old puppies – all from the same place.

 

Susan Innamorato of National Pyr Rescue says “A few years ago, it was the very occasional Great Pyrenees that found itself in a shelter, and the great Pyrenees rescue organizations were generally able to act quickly and get that dog out and into a foster home. Sadly, that is no longer the case [4].” In addition, National Pyr Rescue states “unfortunately, our owner surrender program is currently closed to intake due to the volume of incoming dogs from kill shelters and the lack of fosters [4].” It is not uncommon to see on social media “anyone missing a Great Pyrenees?” with replies from multiple people like “My two are also missing.” On January 22, 2023 the Great Pyrenees Rescue Society of Texas listed 77 dogs available for adoption[5]. Dogs from southern states often find their way to shelters and rescues in northern states and western Canada. British Columbia SPCA is caring for an emaciated GP and her 7 puppies, and has an additional 7 LGD available [6]. A colleague, Erin Williams of Livestock Guardian Dogs Australia is seeing a similar trend in Australia [7].

 

 

 

 

There are literally hundreds of social media posts wanting to rehome LGD, often Pyrenees. In general, the dogs are less than 2 years of age. Although there are legitimate reasons for rehoming (death, illness, etc.), many times the issue is behaviors specifically selected for successful livestock guardian dogs, including barking and guarding behaviors. With no understanding of the traits these dogs were selected for, pleas for rehoming (after saying how much they love the dog) include “needs more space,” “barks, but no so much,” “but bothers the neighbors,” “food aggression that we cannot have in our home and neighborhood,” “doesn’t get along with any other dog,” “she runs the neighborhood,” ”must be the only animal,” and “he’s an escape artist.” Education and research into working with the dogs’ genetics, rather than what you think the behavior should be, might have “saved” these dogs from potentially aversive handling and/or being abandoned, relinquished, or euthanized [Figure1].

 

How did this happen??

 

There are likely multiple reasons for the increase in LGD being abandoned or relinquished. One of the “top reasons” involves the “homesteading” movement where individuals with small acreage, inadequate fencing, and no predator pressure feel they need a LGD to protect their two goats and a handful of chickens. When their 12-week-old puppy does not guard and instead chases their chickens, they wrongly assume the puppy isn’t “really” a LGD.  They failed to understand the resources required to successfully train and manage their LGDs i.e. time, finances, knowledge and understanding of the breed. And so, the puppy is relinquished or abandoned.

 

Credit: Carolina Pyr Rescue

 

Another reason for the increase in “available” LGD is homesteading organizations encourage breeding dogs as a revenue stream and people trying to recoup the cost of their dog by breeding the dog. Most farmers/ranchers with working LGD, who make their living from livestock, are not interested in obtaining a dog from back yard breeders, with questionable genetics and no health testing/clearances. These puppies, often adorable and heart tugging, may end up in uninformed pet homes in condos, apartments, and cities. There are also unscrupulous humans looking to cash in on the homesteaders naivete; puppy mills; failure to spay and neuter; and the oops litters of LGD and LGD crosses – the most interesting and frightening might be the Pyrenees x Malinois.

Most reasons for rehoming and relinquishment involve humans who fail to understand the selection pressure on guarding behaviors and what behaviors are “normal” for LGD [Figure 1]. While behaviors that humans genetically selected for can be modified, they cannot be extinguished. Because of the humans’ lack of knowledge and understanding, and failure to research the breeds, these dogs suffer and their welfare is compromised.

 

 

Another colleague, Elizabeth Ingalls a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (IAABC), former director of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, and consultant to National Great Pyrenees Rescue notes “A vast majority of my LGD clients are coming to me at or near the age of social and sexually maturity, where the dog is transitioning from giant puppy to mature guardian. The average home seems to be startled with the emergence of very typical guardian behaviors. “I thought I did my research” is a common theme when coaching new to LGDs clients [8].”

 

LGD have been selected for millennia to guard stock from wild predators, feral or owned dogs, and human thieves. Unlike herding dogs, who were selected to move stock, LGD were selected (by humans) to guard stock [9,10], dogs that failed to guard stock were culled.  Although the specifics of their origin and chronology have not been systematically studied, the development of LGD coincided with the domestication of sheep and goats in areas where apex predators threatened and killed stock. The oldest unambiguous description of dogs guarding stock is found in Aristotle’s History of Animals written in the 4th century BC [11]. The origin of LGD breeds coincides with areas in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East where transhumant and/or nomadic shepherding occurred in the presence of large carnivores [9]. In the presence of large carnivores, shepherds were and are willing to spare the time to train and expense to feed LGD because they understand the financial and security value of the dogs. Small numbers of sheep and goats in proximity to towns generally did not require a LGD, as the predator load would be low. However, large herds and flocks in remote areas moving to mountains in spring and to valleys in winter would routinely be exposed to apex predators. Number of LGD varies with the size of the herd/flock and the predator density.

 

The diversity of LGD breeds represents their cultural heritage and national pride [9,10]. Breeds are often named for the area of their origin – Great Pyrenees from the French Pyrenees Mountains; Maremma (Maremma-Abruzzes region of Italy); Polish Tartra (Tartra Mountains); Kangal (Kangal Province, Turkey); Caucasian Ovcharka (aka Caucasian Shepherd, Caucasus region); etc. There are at least 50 breeds of LGD originating from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the eastern desert of Mongolia. Despite the diverse origins, what is striking about LGD is their phenotypic similarities – all are large, have drop ears, and a coat (and tolerance to heat and cold) that is suited to the region of the origin; most are double coated and long haired.

 

LGD are very perceptive about human and predatory intent, this perception allows them to assess the threat and not “waste” energy. They have the ability to understand and assess threats, and to show restraint, when appropriate, by “holding” the threat rather than engaging. The breeds vary in their reactivity to strangers, dogs, and predators. Pyrenees and Maremma are considered softer, less bold/less hard. As you go east from France and Italy, the boldness and hardness (and “ability to engage humans”) of the breeds increases (Caucasian Ovcharka, Kangal), which is often attributed to the increased size, number, and fierceness of the apex predators. While the Pyrenees and Maremma are minimally reactive to strangers (green light), and mildly reactive to strange dogs and predators (yellow light); the Armenian Gampr is highly reactive (red light) to strangers, strange dogs, and predators; and the Turkish Kangal is minimally reactive to strangers (green light), mildly reactive to strange dogs, and highly reactive to predators. LGD were selected for specific traits and specific environments, which may vary subtly or greatly between breeds and among individuals.

 

So, what makes a LGD? What traits did humans select for decades ago? The selection of traits for LGD is different than traits selected for guardian dogs (Rottweiler, Doberman, etc. ). LGD were specifically selected (by humans) to show ritualized aggression (bark, growl, lunge) when they perceive a threat. The goal of ritualized aggression is to “encourage” the threat to move away. They are fully capable of engaging if the threat chooses to not move away, but engagement is behaviorally expensive for both the LGD and the predator. LGD were also specifically selected to NOT have an intact predatory sequence (orient eye stalk chase grab-bite kill-bite dissect consume). The goal was to guard, not to hunt. Lack of predatory sequence should not be confused with generic puppy play and chase, as LGD puppies need to be trained either by adult dogs or humans to not chase the stock, even in play. These dogs were selected to work and make decisions independently (i.e. think for themselves).

 

LGD are born with the genetics to guard stock but they have to have their skills honed; they need to be trained, either by an adult LGD or a skilled human. LGD are generally not considered “safe” to guard (alone and unobserved by humans) until they reach social maturity at 2 years +/-. It is also important to note that LGD were selected to guard sheep and goats, not chickens or other fowl. Not all LGD can be trained to guard chickens. If one considers the cost of a LGD, the time and energy to train the dog to guard birds, and the lack of apex predators at most small acreage homesteads in the US, humans with a dozen chickens would be much better off to lock their chickens up at night.

 

Credit: Norwegian Institute for Nature Research

 

When people get a LGD they are often surprised at their independence, thinking they are stubborn and willful, not realizing these breeds were selected to make independent decisions without human guidance. People also find the behaviors LGD were selected for (guarding) unsettling (resource guarding, territorial aggression, protective aggression, dog-dog aggression etc.). The purpose of growl, bark, lunge is to obtain distance (get the threat to move away), the growl is a warning. Punishing the growl results in dogs that fail to give warnings.

 

In general, LGD do not favor traditional obedience, do not like body handling, and do very poorly with aversive handling or treatment. They prefer to be outside in all kinds of weather, on the highest part of their territory. As companion dogs these breeds do poorly in big cities, may do OK in suburbs with adequate fencing and tolerant neighbors (most, especially Pyrenees, bark when they perceive “a threat”), but do best in well fenced areas of several acres of more with no close neighbors. If there is inadequate fencing, they will create their own territory and are “accused” of roaming, when in reality it is a management issue. Social maturity is often where the behaviors (unwanted by humans) begin to increase in frequency and intensity, and abandonment or relinquishment increases.

 

As behaviorists, trainers and veterinarians we are acutely aware that humans often obtain a sentient companion without research or careful thought. This is particularly a problem for LGD, as the behaviors they were selected for are often the behaviors that become problematic in pet homes. These undesirable behaviors can be exacerbated by aversive tools/training designed to “fix the bad behavior.” The problematic behaviors, and the attempt to fix them, may result in relinquishment, abandonment or euthanasia. Understanding and working with the genetics, rather than “demanding” behavior is likely to result in a more positive outcome. A recent increase in the number of LGD and LGD crosses relinquished, abandoned, in need of a new home, or euthanized for space just adds to the burden of municipal shelters and rescues, compromising the welfare of all dogs unwanted dogs.

 

Many thanks to Erin Williams, Certificate IV in Animal Behaviour and Training; Elizabeth Ingalls CDBC (IAABC); and Rene Smith CDBC; and Nicki Weston LVT for review and constructive criticism. Opinions and errors are mine.

 

[1] Lena Beck Modern Farmer “These Dogs are in Crisis. Who Looks After the Guardians?” Sep 18, 2023 https://modernfarmer.com/2023/09/guardian-dogs-in-crisis/

 

[2] https://www.facebook.com/carolinapyrrescue/posts/pfbid02LdNj8J8ZrnjVyifZ7NSrisjyaknaAj1w22FSHid4sMqxZoKLr1S7hWRZq7PvKT5Sl

 

[3] National Great Pyrenees Rescue https://nationalpyr.org/

 

[4] Susan Innamorato Director of Intake, National Great Pyrenees Rescue https://www.facebook.com/susan.innamorato

 

[5] Great Pyrenees Rescue Society https://www.greatpyreneesrescuesociety.org/forms/

 

[6] SPCA British Columbia https://medical.spca.bc.ca/?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=hero&utm_campaign=medicalemergency&utm_content=2024-01-08-grace-and-her-puppies

 

[7] Williams, Erin. Personal communication 1/24/2024 https://lgda.com.au/ https://aggressivedog.thinkific.com/courses/livestock-guardian-dogs

 

[8] Ingalls, Elizabeth. Personal communication. 1/28/2024 https://www.elizabethingalls.com/about

 

[9] Aristotle’s History of Animals In Ten Books BOOK THE NINTH. Chapter I. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59058/59058-h/59058-h.htm#Pg194

 

[10] Linnell JDC & Lescureux N. Livestock guarding dogs. Cultural heritage icons with a new relevance for mitigating conservation conflicts Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. 2015

 

[11] Rigg, R. 2001. Livestock guarding dogs: their current use worldwide. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group Occasional Paper No 1. http://www.canids.org/occasionalpapers/