As you research the literature, limited studies, and first-hand accounts of livestock guardian dog use in North America, you may notice a chasm forming between 2 primary LGD camps: Hands-Off and Hands-On. I want to address both camps as I’ve seen them presented over the last decade and a half. This doesn’t mean that all hands-off LGD folks own a section or more, nor that all hands-on LGD folks live on a smaller plot. Generalizations fail to capture the complete picture, after all. For the sake of this post, I will present the *typical* differences between the two camps, and you can decide wherein you feel the most comfortable. Chances are, it’s neither extreme- but we’ll get there.
The Hands-Off camp preaches, believes and practices the procurement, breeding and use of feral or nearly feral livestock guardian dogs with their herds.
These ranchers tend to have thousands of acres of land in their use (whether by ownership, lease, or otherwise), run large numbers of livestock, and may or may not have a range rider or other human presence with the herd through the grazing season(s). Typically these are multi-generation ranching families who started working livestock back when wolves and grizzly bears were nearly eliminated. Since the Endangered Species Act passed (in the United States), they have experienced increased predation losses and damage to their stock. This affects their bottom line in more than one way.
The pittance of a reimbursement check from livestock loss organizations doesn’t touch the true value of a ewe who consistently throws top-finishing twins and triplets. It is out of desperation that these ranchers are willing to try out a livestock guardian dog model, not an interest in peaceful coexistence with native predators. The purchase, feed, containment, and veterinary costs associated with running LGDs with their stock on range are usually too large for these producers to consider the dogs a viable, long-term option. Add to that the time and effort to build a bond with the dogs and spend valuable time and energy on them? It’s too much for most large-scale ranching operators. They have thousands of animals to care for and enough on their plates for 5 humans, so it is understandable that the dogs could be the back-breaking straw that throws a traditional rancher over the edge.
Livestock guardian dogs were selected by humans to work with us to protect our flocks and herds. LGDs are not robots; neither are they herd animals that can subsist, like a cow or goat, from the land and their herd alone. Dogs have been selected for millennia to thrive and work WITH humans. While LGDs specifically do not need us to make their working decisions for them (they have that covered once they understand the rules), they do need us to supply direction when young, feed, vet care, and consistency in bond to feel secure in their place. Without these staples, our dogs can become more like wolves than dogs. If they are forced to care for themselves, they will take to hunting rather than starve. They will see their owners as a threat to their territory rather than a working partner and asset. This is understandably dangerous when we are talking about a 100-160+ lb dog who sees his owner as a challenger rather than a friend.
The Hands-on camp of LGD owners believes that a dog deserves to start out indoors with a family and slowly transition to living outdoors with livestock.
Typically, small-acreage ranchers/homesteaders, often with their first LGD/non-pet dog.
These are kind people who make every animal a pet. Every chicken, rabbit, and goat has a name. Perhaps their new LGD puppy cried alone in his kennel when they brought him home, so they brought him inside. He was quiet! This felt right and they rolled with it. Or maybe an online trainer recommended this practice and claimed this is the only proper way to raise an LGD- in the house before he lives outside. Either way, the puppy is being treated like a pet from day one, which can be confusing later in life.
Consistency is a value above most to a livestock guardian dog. When we establish a rule, protocol, or expectation with our puppy, he will expect that to continue, in perpetuity. However, when we are inconsistent with our messaging to our puppy, he can easily become confused. Starting a puppy in our home is not necessarily inconsistent with him living outside as an adult- but the rules have to hold true over time. Crate training easily transfers to a kennel run outside, but sleeping in your bed with you- there is no comparable equivalent outside. It is important to remember the intended purpose of your puppy. If you want them to be doing (or not doing) something at their full size- build that expectation when you get them home. If you start your puppy inside the house, have a clear plan on how to get them settled OUTSIDE and not turn them into just another pet dog if you need a stock guardian.
What does Apex do?
We raise our litters inside until they are stable enough to go outside, weather allowing. Then our pups remain outdoors, training with their parents and our pack with our various stock. We spend a lot of time working with our dogs, outside. Pups go to the Vet and to a store town once a month for the first year to desensitize them to the sights and sounds of civilization and prepare them to be accepting of all environments as adults.
We bring our females into our mudroom when they are in heat for lockdown, and our dogs are comfortable entering our home when we take them in. Otherwise, they prefer to be outdoors, working. Our dogs are our working partners and they know our whole family on a deep, trusting level.
The Apex pack works together with the humans here to support livestock and property security. They are all collar, leash and car trained. They all load into a crate when asked, and can be tethered or kenneled as needed. We use perimeter invisible fence wire in combination with our 4′ field fence to reinforce to the dogs that boundaries are clear and fences aren’t for crossing. We believe a balanced training approach is best for these dogs, and we maintain strong bonds with each dog on the property.