Livestock guard dogs

They pursue ancient work as shepherds' aides


Maremma, Akbash, Komondor, Kangal, Kuvasz — the names of obscure breeds barely known to the most interested of dog owners hardly roll off the tongue, but these livestock guardians and more remind modern pet and show dog owners of the ancient partnership between man and canine. Developed in Europe and Asia to protect flocks of sheep in all terrain, these independent, loyal, courageous dogs have done their job well for centuries.

“The history of the dog is the history of man; when the tribes migrated, their valuable flock-guarding dogs went with them,” said Colonel David Hancock in his book Heritage of the Dog. “The flockguarding breeds have three principle elements in common: their general appearance, their protective instincts and the fact that they are found wherever the Indo-Europeans settled.”

Hancock describes the migration of pastoral peoples from the area of the Black and Caspian seas in Eastern Europe and the Near East (Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, etc.) to the Tibetan plateau in the Far East and throughout Europe to the British Isles. These wanderers conquered and settled lands as they dispersed from the cradle of civilization, and they brought their dogs along. Farmers in each settlement developed dogs that could adapt to the climate and terrain — large dogs, but not oversized; heavy-coated dogs impervious to cold and snow and courageous enough to protect the flock against wolves, bears, and other predators.

Shepherds in these settlements often kept their flocks and dogs together when wandering in search of choice grazing. The dogs protected the masters and the sheep in the high mountain summer pastures and the winter valleys and foothills. The even-tempered, low-key dogs were accustomed to the sheep when very young — often from birth. Unlike the herding dogs, they patrolled slowly around and among the flocks, keeping a keen eye and nose on their charges, ready for interlopers.

Sheep still provide wool and meat, and in some areas, milk for cheese, and the shepherds and their dogs still stand guard over the flocks. Shepherds in the US also use guardian dogs to protect a variety of livestock, both on the open range of the west and the farms of the east. Different breeds are suited for different circumstances, and farmers and ranchers select carefully to find the dog best suited for their needs.


Dogs developed for particular jobs combine size, temperament, behavior, and conformation that allow them to do the job. Herding dogs are generally medium-to-large and agile; sled racing dogs medium-sized, speedy, and capable of working in a team; and draft dogs medium to large and built to pull. Guardian dogs tend to be large enough to startle or intimidate predators, able to withstand extremes of weather, bonded to the sheep so they can work independently of man, and with arrested prey drive so they are not a threat to the animals they are protecting.

Writing in The Domestic Dog, a compilation of papers about dog behavior and evolution edited by James Serpell, Raymond Coppinger and Richard Schneider wrote: “Livestock guarding has little to do with the legendary brave companion fiercely protecting its master’s property. Rather, guarding dogs protect by disrupting predators by means of behavior that is ambiguous or contextually inappropriate: barking, tail-wagging, social greeting, play behavior, and, occasionally, aggression. Many species of predator will stop a hunting sequence if disrupted and ‘discovery’ by a big dog is often enough to avert predation.”

In other words, a livestock guard attempting to greet or play with a coyote or simply barking at a wildcat or wolf can derail the hunt and save the livestock.

In a few words, livestock guard dogs are not the best pets for the average family. These dogs are large, independent, and often aloof, characteristics that are not the easiest to assimilate into a family with children.

The Great Pyreness, the most popular of the group, is probably also the most adaptable to family life, but Great Pyrenees rescues can report that many owners find that they cannot deal with a 100-plus pound dog with a mind of his own and the body bulk to go with it.

The less common livestock guardians are closer to the dogs developed by European shepherds to watch over the flocks in high pastures and rocky terrain. Each of these breeds has character that harkens back to its original region and job. Some may follow the Anatolian Shepherd into the AKC registry, but most are likely to remain rare because they are not suitable as pets.

Although livestock guardians are not used as much in the US as they are in Europe and Asia, the US Department of Agriculture has done some research on the use of various breeds in this country. The booklet Livestock Guarding Dogs: Protecting Sheep from Predators is available from USDA at no charge. Ohioans can call Doug Andrews, (614) 469-5681, and ask for Bulletin Number 588 from the USDA Wildlife Services division.


The ideal guardian dog is one that calmly moves among the sheep without disturbing them, so bonding to the sheep — not the shepherd — is essential. During the prime socialization period — roughly from the pup’s fourth week to its 14th week — the pup should receive minimal attention from people and maximum exposure to the livestock to be defended. As the pup ages, it should be prevented from romping with the sheep either by correction or by separating pups from play stimulus until the play-seeking period (beginning at about seven months of age) passes.

Livestock dogs should be taught basic commands such as “come,” “sit,” and “stay” and learn to walk on a leash and stand for a medical examination or a quick check in the pasture. They should also learn to tolerate people and the other farm animals, but they are not allowed the privileges of a pet because they must keep their minds on the sheep, not the couch or a game of fetch.

Growing pups will exhibit some of the behaviors of a guardian as early as four or five months of age, but they do not become reliable protectors until they mature sometime after a year of age. Signs to watch for include: raising a leg to mark (even females!); scent marking; more purposeful barking; increased interest in the sheep; and deliberately patrolling around the flock rather than random wandering.

Livestock dogs developed to help shepherds guard sheep in open terrain, but they are also used by farmers in fenced pastures. Training methods differ somewhat, for these dogs must be taught to remain in the pasture and to ignore the goings-on in adjacent fields unless the flock is threatened. On the open range, the dog aides the shepherd as custodian of the flock and is fed by the shepherd. In a pasture, the dog is provided a shelter, food, and water and is checked daily by the farmer but is left on his own to shield the sheep from predators.

The breeds

Some flock guardians are accepted for registration by the American Kennel Club. The most popular of the AKC bunch is the Great Pyreness, but popularity is relative. In 1997, the breed ranked 44 among the 145 registered breeds with 4709 individuals and 1727 litters, a drop in the bucket compared to number one Labrador Retriever’s 153,366 individuals and 41,822 litters. The remaining AKC registered flock guards are Kuvasz, 110 in order with 320 individuals and 84 litters; Komondor, 133 in line with 123 individuals and 40 litters; and Anatolian Shepherd, a newcomer to AKC’s miscellaneous class, with 184 individuals and 45 litters.

Anatolian, Akbash, and Kangal dogs

In Turkey, “Anatolians are never housed as pets, and their sole worth lies in their value as livestock guardians,” Cathy Flamholtz said in A Celebration of Rare Breeds. “They are functional tools in the Turkish shepherd’s struggle for survival.”

Akbash comes from the Turkish word for “white head,” and Karabash (another name for Kangal Dog) from the word for black head. However, some people lump all three of these breeds together as Anatolians, while others separate them according to color. Turkey has no kennel club to keep track of pedigrees, so the westerners who discovered and purchased these dogs have had to decide on their own whether these are breeds or types differentiated by color and some structural differences. AKC, Britain’s Kennel Club, and Federation Cynologique International, the governing body of the dog sport in European and other countries, allow registration of Anatolians of all colors.

The first Anatolians came to the US with Lt. Robert C. Ballard, USN, after his tour of duty in Turkey in the mid-1960s. Ballard bought his first dog after his car was vandalized and started the Anatolian Shepherd Dog Club after he returned to the US. The US standard describes the breed as at least 27 inches tall (female; males start at 29 inches) and 80-120 pounds (males 110-150 pounds) with a well-balanced, muscular body. Ears must drop to the sides of the large skull; muzzle is blocky, and teeth must meet in scissors or level bite. The double coat is either short (one inch minimum) or rough (about four inches), somewhat longer and thicker around the neck and perhaps with feathering on the legs and tail. All colors are acceptable.

The Anatolian's temperament suits his purpose; he is alert, intelligent, protective, highly adaptable, and aloof with strangers and off his home territory.

Suspected of being a cross between native mastiff-type dogs and a rather coarse native sighthound, the Akbash dog is more streamlined than the Kangal. Standing 28-31 inches at the shoulder, the male Akbash weighs about 90-130 pounds; females are 27-29 inches and tip the scales at 75-100 pounds. The character is that of the Anatolian; the coat is white, sometimes with biscuit markings, and can be long or medium length with feathering on the tail and legs.

The Kangal Dog in Turkey is the subject of a government program to preserve this type as a separate breed from the Anatolian and the Akbash. More mastiff-like in appearance than the Akbash, the Kangal is comparable in height and weight and sports the same double coat. He comes in short and long coats; he has a black mask and a body color ranging from dun to steel gray.

The Turkish breeds are complemented by several others developed from the same basic mastiff stock disbursed throughout Europe by various conquering armies. We’ll continue coverage of these breeds and their purpose in other articles.

Great Pyrenees

Developed on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, the Pyr guarded sheep against wolves and bears. His calm, royal bearing, and fierce courage won him a spot in court in medieval France as a guardian of palaces and nobility. He also served as a pack dog during World War I and today he still guards French chateaus.

The Pyr made his way to Newfoundland in the mid-17th Century and with a black retriever brought from England, provided foundation stock for the Newfoundland dog.

In the US, the Great Pyrenees is 44th among the 145 AKC-registered breeds with 4709 individuals and 1727 litters in 1997 — between the Cairn Terrier and the Scottish Terrier. Male Pyrs range from 27-32 inches at the shoulder and weigh up to 125 pounds. Females are a bit smaller but are still giant-sized dogs. The breed is always white but may have tan or badger gray markings, especially on the head.

A white ball of fluff as a puppy, the Pyr quickly becomes a big dog. Fortunately, he is gentle and affectionate to the family and low-key in the house. Unfortunately, his independence and strong-minded personality do not take well to obedience training, so he is completely unsuitable for a timid owner.


King of the Hungarian guarding dogs, the Komondor is a heavy-coated white dog descended from a Russian dog of the steppes called Aftscharka. Today's Komondor is “characterized by imposing strength, courageous demeanor, and pleasing conformation” according to the breed standard — the same traits that made him a herd guardian without equal in his native land.

The Komondor has a white, corded coat that gives him a unique appearance. Puppies are born with a regular coat that tends to fall into cords; adults have a double coat in which the coarse hairs of the outer coat and the soft hairs of the undercoat become entangled and fall into mop-like strands. In other words, the Komondor generally looks rather unkempt, an appearance that added to his mystique as a protector of flocks from predators and thieves.

In 1997, only 123 Komondor dogs and 40 litters were registered with AKC, putting the breed well into the realm of rare. In the US, most Komondors are show dogs and a few are livestock guardians, for this up-to-30 inch, 125-pound dog makes a difficult-to-handle pet. Powerful, dominant, and independent, he can become aggressive if not properly socialized and handled.


The last of the AKC-registered flock guardians is the Kuvasz, a breed probably dating back to Turkey and Tibet but with its modern origin in Hungary. His name is derived from the Turkish for “armed guard of the nobility,” a job he performed with great skill. In the last half of the 15th Century, the Kuvasz was also used as a hunting dog by kings and aristocrats, and puppies were given as gifts to visiting noblemen and dignitaries. Eventually, however, the Kuvasz became a commoner's dog and flock guardian.

Another large white dog, the Kuvasz stands 28-30 inches for males, 26-28 inches for females. A bit lighter than the Pyr or Komondor, the Kuvasz weighs in at 170-115 pounds with females at the lower end of the scale and males at the upper. Slightly more popular than the Komondor, the Kuvasz ranked 110 with AKC last year with 320 individuals and 84 litters. He is territorial, domineering, and reserved and can be aggressive to other dogs; he must be well-socialized as a puppy.

Tibetan Mastiff

Some historians credit this breed with being the progenitor of all the mastiff breeds, making him the granddaddy of the livestock guardians and of such breeds as the English Mastiff, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, and the Neapolitan Mastiff. A native of the mysterious east in the region of the Himalayan Mountains, this is another loyal and powerful dog that passed these attributes to his distant descendants. According to Cathy Flamholtz in A Celebration of Rare Breeds, “Marco Polo, the early explorer, mentions the breed and likens their size to that of a donkey.”

Although the breed was revered in ancient times, when Communism reared its head in China, the dogs were considered symbols of the ruling classes and were ordered killed. Only dogs in remote areas survived to carry on the breed.

Along with size, the Tibetan has a bold attitude, a rugged constitution, and a dense coat able to withstand extremes in climate. He ranges from 25-32 inches at the shoulder and from 70-140 pounds, again with females smaller than males. The Tibetan is black, black and tan, blue and tan, brown, grizzle, sable, or cream, but never white. He is extremely territorial and must be socialized and trained from an early age.


The Maremma-Abruzzese is the Italian version of the sheep-guarding dog. These dogs still live with the flocks in Italy; bitches are bred by the strongest males and may whelp their litters under a bush or in a simple cavity they dig in the ground. Independent, intelligent, and like other guardian breeds, in need of socialization and firm handling, the Maremma is a devoted family guard as well. However, he may be too rough for play with young children.

The Maremma is 27-30 inches tall (males) with weight in proportion to his height. He has the typical thick double coat for protection against the weather, a coat that is always white but may have lemon, fawn, or biscuit markings. Rare in the US, the breed has found a home with some livestock farmers.

Tatra Sheepdog

The Tatra is a Polish breed from the Carpathian Mountains in the southern portion of the country. Seriously bred only after World War I, the breed was seriously depleted during World War II. The Tatra made its way to the US in 1981 with a foreign service officer who served in Poland for the previous four years. In Poland, it serves as a companion to mountain guides as well as a livestock guard.

The Tatra is shorter and heavier-set than the other guardian breeds. Reaching 26 inches at the shoulder, he can weigh up to 130 pounds. A hardy breed with a lush double coat and a minimal appetite, the Tatra can withstand severe winter climates. Although he is tough in the face of threat, he appears to have a cheerful temperament at other times and is not nearly as aloof with people as the majority of other guardians.

Slovak Tchouvatch

This rare breed is seldom seen outside its native Czechoslovakia. Originally used to guard sheep and cattle from large predators, the Tchouvatch today is also a watchdog and companion. The breed is well-loved by the Czechs; it is part of the opening and closing of a popular children's cartoon show and an esteemed search and rescue dog in the Alpine terrain and in the water.

Similar in size to the other sheep guardians, the Tchouvatch is about 28 inches tall and weighs up to 105 pounds. His long, harsh white coat can have yellowish markings.

Described as an independent and trainable one-family dog, the Tchouvatch is serious about his duties. He is also affectionate, gentle, and patient with children, qualities that make him sought after as a family pet. However, he is not suitable for the faint-of-heart.

Caucasian Ovcharka

Developed in the Caucasian Mountains of Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, the Caucasian Ovcharka has a history as a herd guard, a protector of people, and a fierce fighter of other dogs. There are no written records to trace the history of these dogs, but they are considered to be descended from dogs of Tibet about 2000 years ago. Bred in small enclaves in the mountains, these dogs are considered a natural breed, i.e., they have not been shaped by purposeful breeding for anything but working ability.

Tough, bold, independent, and very protective, the Ovcharka is headstrong and needs early and continuous socialization and training.

This breed has a minimum height of 25.6 inches for males, 24.4 inches for females. However, males are preferred to be from 27.2-33.5 inches and bitches from 25.6-29.5 inches. Weight must be proportional to height to give the dog an impressive appearance. The Ovcharka has a range of colors from agouti gray with or without white markings to cream, fawn, red, tan, with or without white markings. He can also be white, brindle, piebald (pinto), or white with gray patches.

Castro Laboriero

This Portuguese shepherd dog resembles a Labrador Retriever far more than the typical herd guardians. He is usually black, from 22-24 inches tall, and between 66-88 pounds.

Developed in a small, remote village in Portugal, the Castro has been in service for more than 1000 years. His medium size and short coat make him ideal for small homestead flocks.

The Castro is tolerant of other dogs unless they get too close to the sheep. Although smaller than other guardian breeds, he is a formidable fighter when his charges are threatened.

A bit more tractable than other guardians, the Castro is still an independent, intelligent breed well-suited to his task.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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