Don’t miss the cues with livestock guardian dog behavior

livestock guardian dogs and sheep
Seven, left, and Allanon, right, watch over the sheep, at Farei Kennels, in Maine. (Farei Kennels photo)

It didn’t start yesterday.

Every day, I have owners contacting me, looking to solve unwanted behaviors. They all have a common theme. Their frustrations are the same. “It was unprovoked.” Or “It came out of nowhere.” Or “He’s never done this before.“ Regardless of the end result, I tell them all the same thing: It didn’t start yesterday.

Missed it

You missed the beginning stages, I tell them. There was communication long before the behavior you saw today. You just missed it. Body language is universally understood. Except by humans. We’ve given most of it up in favor of verbal communication. What little is left is subconscious, and most people don’t even realize they do it. If you’ve ever taken a good class in people management, you’ve probably touched on some of it.

Animals do it without thinking. It’s their first form of communication. If you expect to be an effective owner, you’ll have to learn it, too. Really learn it.

Pay attention

That means paying attention. Being there, watching and not getting involved. That’s the hardest part for most people — they have to get involved. It’s part of the human condition.
I had Reina, a young female livestock guardian dog, doing chores with me, recently. She followed me into the horse pasture while I handed out hay, sniffing around, until she found a choice frozen cobble. Our newest addition, a pony, has only been here for a short time and is still uncertain about the dogs.

The pony came forward, head lowered. Reina watched her approach and stood up as she got closer. When the mare pinned her ears, Reina lowered her head and dropped the horse cobble. Moving backwards slowly, all of her body language said she understood and had no intention of being a threat.

She moved well back, until the mare’s body relaxed again. Reina promptly flopped down and sighed, over her lost treat I’m sure. Although I was keeping an eye on them to make sure everyone succeeded, they didn’t need me. I’m confident in Reina’s good sense. The mare is a level headed individual, too. They worked it out.

Comes to blows

When you tell me something happened “out of the blue,” I’ll say you missed those first conversations where it wasn’t worked out. Now, it’s come to blows. Aggression toward their livestock is the most common theme.

“My young dog attacked a goat, completely unprovoked.” Really? Forgive my skepticism. Something along the way led up to this altercation. Maybe it’s an older doe who had no experience with livestock guardian dogs and overreacts. Livestock guardian dogs can get tired of pot shots and eventually defend themselves.

Young dogs can sometimes resource guard bedding, food that doesn’t belong to them or prime sleeping spots. If you aren’t there, you’ll miss those first signs of inappropriate behavior. Maybe it’s a new addition still trying to figure out its place in the herd. If you aren’t there, you’ll miss the interventions when they try to interact. The hard stares as the herd queen asserts her position.

Young dogs can misconstrue normal herd maneuvering as hostile and take steps to protect “their” stock from new members. The same goes for breeding season. A new buck or ram can be viewed as hostile and aggressive.

Then, there’s the other side of the coin. I’ve seen stock that were just plain mean to dogs. I know that putting a young pup in with mothers to teach them manners is an accepted practice, but stock aren’t always reasonable. Young dogs who are bullied grow up learning the golden rule: always bully those who are smaller than you.

House dogs

House dogs are another common theme. I hear of livestock dogs attacking them “out of the blue” on a fairly regular basis. On the one side, we have those with only a relationship through the fence or from afar. The house dog runs back and forth, barking at livestock and dogs alike, threatening to show everyone who is boss. When the inevitable meet up does occur, the only reasonable conclusion is a fight. At long last, the livestock guardian dog gets to say its piece.

On the other side, there are the house dogs who resource guard the new puppy from its owner, the bed, the food and snap and growl whenever the puppy approaches. It always comes as a surprise when the livestock dog grows up and, eventually, plows the house dogs into the dirt.

These are just simple examples of complex relationship failures. Missed communication that leads to behaviors seen as “unprovoked.” But, in all cases, the underlying theme is the same: It didn’t start yesterday.


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  1. Hello we have a fourteen month old male anatolian shepherd who is pretty good with our goats but there are some goats that have tried to beat up on him and lately he will answer there agression with his own. He will stop barking and chasing when we tell him no.he is only with them until under supervision. I’m interested in your thoughts.
    Thanks so much.

    • We believe in a safe working environment and mutual respect. We not only reprimand our stock for poor behavior we allow our dogs to defend themselves appropriately.


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