How should we define a livestock guardian dog’s intelligence?

livestock guardian dog and livestock
Reina, a young Turkish livestock guardian dog, watches over the herd, at Farei Kennels, in Maine. (Farei Kennels photo)

“I hope a dog is smarter than a cow!” This was a comment my mother made during a conversation about moving stock through gates. My immediate reaction was to laugh and say, “I hope so!”

But then my brain started ticking along down that path, a habit it has that is both a blessing and a curse. I started thinking about intelligence and how the struggle to measure it is a part of the human condition. Does thinking differently, having different priorities, or different solutions make a species more or less intelligent than humans? Why do we care so much?


I watched a video on the evolution of humans, the scientist stated that when she considered important evolutionary milestones, tool use was not the first one on her list. They found a skeleton that had a broken femur, had healed, and gone on to live quite some time. That, she said, was our turning point. That the individual was cared for long enough to make a full recovery because for most species a broken leg is a death sentence.

Now, intelligence is a high priority in my breeding program, no matter the species. It is my belief that there is a certain amount of “ dumbing down” involved in the domestication process, especially dogs. We need animals who are happy in pens and barns, and doing jobs for us. Wild instincts do not fit well into that equation.

Because we do things differently here, I like animals with some good old fashioned brains. Especially my dogs. So that brings me back around to the equivalence of intelligence.

I like sheep who remember where the good forage is. Where on my land they can find a drink if the troughs run low and what to eat if they don’t feel good. Animals with half a brain will self medicate through a lot of situations if they are given the resources to do so.

I also pay attention to what my animals do so I can lend a helping hand if they need me. In the fall our walk up the hill is slow as the sheep gobble up fallen acorns, they are a good source of fat and a natural dewormer. I poke along and let them do their thing. In late winter when the winds shift and the spruce tips rain down onto the hard crusty snow. These are a much desired food item and I have even seen the dogs eat them. I understand, by March I’d give my left arm for a fresh fruit or veggie. The list goes on.

Good instincts

Intelligence in dogs though, that is a double edged sword, and livestock guardian dogs even more so. We often confuse obedience with intelligence but they are not the same. In many ways they are the exact opposite. Compliance over creativity, in a way.

If you own one then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I rely on my dog’s instincts and brains to do their job and there are times when they disagree with me. There are times when my assessment of a situation is incorrect and they turn out to be right. Part of being a good leader is apologizing and learning from your mistakes.

Now, all of my dogs are obedience trained and I can tell you that it doesn’t interfere with their instincts one bit. Obedience training is simply communication after all, despite our human tendencies towards compliance. Those who state that livestock guardian dogs cannot be trained have simply failed to learn how to communicate with them.

As for the human condition, I think part of our quest for intelligence is directly related to our desire to not be alone in the universe. A need to find another species “like us.” Me? I’ll take my four legged companions, the lessons they’ve taught me, and continue to appreciate that their intelligence is not like mine.


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