Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD’s) are a type of dog bred for the purpose of protecting livestock from predators such as wolves. Instead of helping shepherds move their livestock like herding dogs, LGD’s protect the herd from external threats. There are currently about 50 different breeds of LGD’s. The groups include breeds such as the Maremma Sheepdog, the Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog, the Alentelo Mastiff, the Anatolian Shepherd, the Akbash, the Tibetan Mastiff and the Komondor to name just a few. LGD breeds are usually large and powerful, and they will fiercely protect their herd. They use several methods of protecting their herd. Some will chase predators away. Some will take their herd to safety. Others will notice when one has strayed and go retrieve it to bring it back to safety. They are independent and live full time outside with the livestock in all weather and terrain so they must be rugged and agile. LGD’s have water-repellent coats and tend to retain heat better because they carry more fat reserves, and this helps protect them from severe cold and allows them to go longer without food. Most often, their colouration will depend on the colour of the herd they live with so they can easily blend into the herd. Using LGD’s to protect livestock is an ancient tradition however their use as livestock protectors from predators remains the most efficient and sustainable method. With the reintroduction of many large predators around the world, the use of LGD’s is currently growing in many regions.
Where Did the First Livestock Guardian Dogs Come From?
The use of livestock guardian dogs (LGD’s) has been pivotal to the coexistence of domestic livestock and predators such as wolves. They have been used in Europe and Asia for thousands of years to guard livestock against wild predators, from thieves and from feral dogs. This group of distinct dogs were developed throughout Eurasia over a period of several centuries. It is believed that the origin of LGD’s began in what is now known as Turkey, Iraq and Syria nearly 6000 years ago. It was also in these and surrounding Near East regions around 7000-8000 years BC, that sheep and goats are thought to be first domesticated. Since this time, humans have had to protect their livestock from wild predators.
Archaeological records indicate a relationship between the existence of dogs used to protect livestock from predators dating back to 5600 BC but without any real indication as to the use of the dogs. The oldest clearly stated description of livestock guardian dogs on record is found in Aristotle’s History of Animals, Book IX, written in the 4th century BC:
“Of the Molassian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere; but sheep-dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals. Dogs that are born of a mixed breed between these two kinds are remarkable for courage and endurance of hard labour.”
From those first ancient times of livestock domestication in the Near East, livestock breeding soon spread across most of the world. Currently both stationary and nomadic livestock production systems (pastoralism) cover approximately one quarter of the Earth’s surface, with up to 200 million people depending on the highly sustainable practice of pastoralism. Pastoralism is a sustainable system of subsistence farming, involving the raising of domestic livestock characterized by high mobility. These practices are vital to the survival of people in many countries. It would have been nearly impossible for shepherds to keep their herds grazing safely without the presence of LGD’s to watch over and protect their massive livestock herds. LGD’s were essential to the development of these bio-cultural systems which allow humans to inhabit some of the world’s vast dry lands. Pastoralism and the use of LGD’s are still very relevant and important in today’s world.
Changing large carnivore conservation policies in the 21st century includes the reintroduction of many large carnivore predators to areas where none or few have been for the last century and LGDs are regaining relevance. LGD’s represent a key component to facing the challenges of extensive livestock grazing and the co-occurrence of these newly reintroduced predators. In Western and Northern Europe and in North America, many farmers and shepherds are returning to using LGD’s as a non-lethal method to protect their herd. LGD is a cost effective method that can reduce a farmer’s animal loss by 11%-100% hence many government agricultural programs support their use. One thing is certain, LGD’s have a long history working with humans and are an important component of our cultural heritage.
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