Saturday, September 5, 2015

LGD / Livestock Guardian Dog Siblings Revisited

Another article on running sibling (litter mate) pairs of Livestock Guardian Dogs…..just because, I cannot promote the benefits of litter mates enough.  Particularly when I see self-proclaimed "LGD Experts" whose cadre of sheep-like Facebook followers hangs on their every word, fawning over them when they are making such disturbing statements like this:

"In fact, two pups can be overly focused on each other instead of you or your stock and will often encourage each other to get in trouble as they pass through their troublesome teens. Littermates are especially problematical. Most experts recommend staggering the ages of your LGDs if possible."    --- Jan Dohner

"Most experts".  This is why you don't hear me calling myself an expert.   

These "experts" typically thrive in huge Facebook forums.  What these "experts" typically lack is real life experience, something I have - 60 years worth.  Very few, if any of them, I will venture, live full time on a ranch in a pack of twenty or so 200 pound dogs, but I do. And by keeping my mind and eyes open, I learn and see things every day.  

One of the biggest lessons has been the necessity to respect these great dogs, and one way of showing that respect, is allowing and promoting pack life.  That can be accomplished by running and supporting sibling pairs.  It is something that is really quite easy to do, once you understand these dogs - but few people seem willing to do that.  Especially on these 8,000 member Facebook LGD groups where all the "experts" pontificate - opinionated, harsh and misguided drivel, typically regurgitated from outdated books.  

Why is it if people cannot do something, they immediately have to claim it cannot or should not be done?  When did learning about these dogs turn into a contest of egos? 

Leave your selfish ego at the door when it comes to learning about and from these great dogs.  

It has no place amongst giants.

Here is my latest article for sheep! Magazine on the benefits of sibling LGDs.

Sibling Success!
The Advantages of Littermate Guardian Dogs

Brenda M. Negri
Published in
sheep! Magazine September/October 2015
Copyright 2015 

Have you ever heard dog people talk about “Littermate Syndrome”?  Until about a year ago, I never had.  But I ran across an Internet blog bemoaning the “horrors” of “Littermate Syndrome” in sibling pups. The writer warmed of the many “dangers” of buying sibling pups out of a same litter.   

Perhaps you too, have heard of or read about this purported “syndrome” and you’re curious, confused or wondering if buying littermate LGD pups is a mistake.  Well, don’t fret.  I’m here to to show you the much brighter side of the littermate coin: that is, it can be done, and done well.  In fact, once you’ve tried it you may never settle for just buying a single pup again!

It may help the reader to understand why I am such a proponent of running sibling pairs of LGDs.  First, there are the advantages, all of which I’ve experienced on my ranch and LGD kennel operation:

  • Littermate pups are already bonded to one another thus there is no need for introductions
  • Two LGDs present a much more formidable obstacle to threats, predators and trespassers than one thus getting protection for your stock much sooner than a solo pup, who alone is quite vulnerable to predators
  • Two siblings will back each other up and add to earlier confidence and added security for the pup; less stress on the dog means a healthier dog that lives and works longer for you
  • You get all the puppyhood training and ‘ups and downs’ over with at once, instead of stretching it out longer for two separately purchased pups over longer period of time
  • You can run two males, two females, or one of each sex together as sibling pairs
  • You respect the dog’s natural preference for pack life and company, and will find this adds to the dog’s contentment and stability


There are people who decry running littermate pairs as a “disaster”, and there are a lot of fallacies floating around out there about running siblings.  You’ll hear and read things like:

  • The pups will only bond to each other, and not the livestock
  • They will teach each other ‘bad’ habits 
  • They will never work together well and only play 
  • They will do nothing but fight each other all the time
  • One will work while the other just sleeps

Perhaps you have heard some of those negatives before. But in my personal experience, there is no “downside” because none of the aforementioned “negatives”  have ever happened on my ranch.  And who am I to issue such a bold statement? Someone with a lot of sibling experience.  How much experience?  More than most: fifteen (yes, 15) siblings.  If owning and running sibling pairs was the disaster so many paint it to be I would have stopped after the first two sets I brought here (three Great Pyrenees siblings, then two Maremma/Anatolian brothers).  I went on to keep and raise a dozen-plus siblings more.  Not in one instance did I ever encounter what people call “littermate syndrome”. 

Many of my customers have had success with siblings too - in fact, I sell more sibling pairs to people than I do solo pups. I have a customer in Arizona who bought six pups from one litter.  They are doing a fabulous job keeping her sheep safe in an extremely heavy predator load area that now has the Mexican Gray Wolf reintroduced to it.  Those littermates stay plenty busy, and she’s never lost a single head of sheep to predation.

Nuts and Bolts

Now, how do you do it?  What’s the secret to running siblings?  Here are some tips.  Its really not “more difficult” as some wrongly claim it to be, and I find rearing two or three pups together simultaneously much easier than just one pup.  Just be patient, consistent, and don’t over-expect too much, too soon.

  1. Genders.  I’ve run all gender combinations here with high success therefore I never recommend one mix over another.  My only observation is that you’ll have eventual “disagreements” come up no matter what the gender combination you choose.  If you do run brother and sister, you should spay the female before she has her first cycle, or separate her from her brother during her first heat.  If you run two brothers, neutering will take the “edge” off of males, and prevent accidental breedings should a female come around, but its certainly not necessary.  Sister pairs can pack a terrific punch, and also get in spats between themselves just as much as the boys, sometimes even more.  Spaying them will prevent unwanted pregnancies and add to the calm.  A female in heat means you are less one guardian as she’ll need to be removed from her job, which in turn, puts more pressure on her brother, and leaves your flock less protected.  In short: there is not, in my opinion, a “better” or “best” combination.  Its a matter of personal preference.
  2. Observe the entire litter.  Inevitably in a litter, pups will often pair off with one another.  Some will be buddies, others will have minor conflicts, and some will be loners.  If you can, observe the litter you are choosing pups from and ask the breeder what pups seem to like to stick together, play together, or go off on “expeditions” together.  Those are the ones you want to pick as a team.  A reputable and knowledgable breeder will give you good guidance and help in the picking process, and they’ll also support your decision to buy two.
  3. Respect the pack.  Dogs are by nature, pack animals.  They are more secure and thrive in the company of other dogs, and their complex pack hierarchy is passed on from parent to pup. Puppies in a litter naturally grow up together bonding to one another, and what they learn from their parents and litter mates in the first several weeks of life molds them for what they will be in the future. Running sibling pairs reinforces this pack dynamic and thats part of what makes it work so well.  
  4. Bringing home babies: easier with two.  When you remove a pup from a litter anywhere from 8-12 weeks of age, he will naturally be frightened, confused, and insecure for the first several hours or days, depending on how he was raised.  When you take two siblings at the same time, however, there is less stress when separated from the litter and parents.  They still have each other to lean on, and this bond only becomes stronger.  They also continue the education of the pack and their other siblings, with each other.  There is a continuity in ongoing education that would not happen if the pup leaves by itself.  You won’t be up all night with a howling pup when you bring home two; they’ll cuddle up and go to sleep together, just like normal.
  5. Don’t separate!  One of the biggest errors I see first time sibling buyers make is that they bring home then immediately separate their sibling pups and try to keep them apart.  This defeats the whole purpose.  Don’t do it!  Let them sleep, eat, play, explore and work together.  Give equal attention: praise when they do good, correction when they make mistakes.  As time progresses and they age, you’ll begin to note personality differences.  This is normal, and use this opportunity to study and get to know your pups so you can better understand what makes them “tick”.
  6. Apples and Oranges. You may have the slower, shyer male pup, and a more vocal, vigorous or feisty female. Or vice versa.  Don’t consider the quiet pup a failure.  The quiet one may be the pup who will hold back and stay closer to your sheep while the more inquisitive sibling ventures off to do perimeter patrol.  These dogs are amazingly smart and if you will be patient, you’ll see they will work as a team so that all is covered.  I never cease to be amazed how siblings will cover for one another.
  7. Resolve conflicts.  Either free choice feed or make sure feed bowls are separate and apart far enough so one pup never “hogs” the meals to himself and you have food aggression issues.  If one pup starts to pick on the other, you need to nip it in the bud immediately; raising LGDs is not a “spectator sport”.  You get in there and let the instigator know the behavior is not correct.  A firm growl, or as I refer to it as, my “Mr. Miyagi grunt” (the Karate Kid star), and a firm grip on some neck skin will get any pup’s attention and a growl is usually more quickly understood by a dog than a “no”.  If you have a particularly rambunctious or stubborn pup, I will take one front leg and place it inside and through their collar, rendering them suddenly “three legged”.  A pup typically struggles a bit then settles and lies down.  As soon as the pup quiets, I take the leg back out of the collar and the message (90% of the time) has clearly gotten through to her to “settle down”.  I use this when verbal growling is not getting the desired response.
  8. Train as a team.  Take them both out on perimeter patrol once they are old enough to tag along, following you along the fence line.  You are pack leader and their new parent.  Praise them for following you.  Be consistent, fair, patient, and calm.  Don’t expect them to cover a mile the first time around your place.  When you go into your sheep, take them both with you, and encourage them when they nuzzle, smell and lick their charges.  Again, do this together, not one at a time...there’s no need to separate.  Give equal praise and attention; equal correction and guidance.
  9. Stay a team.  When its time for vet visits and vaccinations, take both in at the same time.  If for some reason you must remove the dogs from your flock (shearing time for example), remove both together and let them be in the barn together.  Big juicy beef soup bones are a bit hit around my ranch and can buy you lots of calm, and relax dogs who may be tense or worried from being removed from their charges.   Feed several feet or yards apart from each other again, to discourage food aggression.  When the shearing is done, let them both back in the sheep together.  Keep them together working as a team, as adults.  If you separate them, you are possibly setting up a scenario where one sibling will then begin digging out or jumping fence to join his brother or sister to bring things back to what he perceives as “the norm”.  When you rear your pups together, keep them together.  If you need to separate them to cover more area or increased livestock, the message is clear: you need to be adding more dogs to your operation, not separating the two you have!
  10. Spay/Neuter.  You don’t need a tragic “oops” litters from a brother and sister.  Ask your trusted vet for advice as to when is the best time for spaying.  I usually advise my clients to run males intact and spay the female but perhaps you’ll neuter the male as well.  Again, refer to your vet.
  11. Accept Differences.  No two sibling pairs will be exactly alike. You’ll see some who are glued to each other till death, never wanting to be a few feet apart.  I have two girls here who are absolutely inseparable.  In a fight, they are a force to reckon with and do great damage to an opponent.  Other pairs may wax more independent from one another, but still are not far from each other and back each other up. Example:  I have three very independent Pyrenees, my very first LGDs: brother Peso, and sisters Pinta and Petra.  They don’t “run” or stay together as a whole.  But several years ago, Peso and Pinta came to the rescue of their flailing sister Petra when she was down and fading in a vicious fight with a Kangal. I stood there unable to move in shock as I watched Peso and Pinta both take turns working as a team to dislodge the Kangal off of their fading sibling. Peso (a solid 150 pounds) would go off a distance then at high speed, body slam the Kangal, then Pinta would dive in and grab an ear or leg.  It finally ended with plenty of wounds but no casualties.  It was one of the worst dog fights I have ever had in my pack, but I will never forget the stunning display of intense partnership of those Pyrenees siblings coming to their sister’s rescue.  It added to my conviction of how valuable siblings can be to one another in a conflict.  
  12. The Dynamic Duo.  As they evolve, grow and mature, if you bought two healthy specimens from proven parent stock with good, ingrained guarding instinct, a bonded, well bred pair of LGD siblings is nothing to trifle with.  They will earn their keep and then some when it comes to staving off predators from your valuable sheep.  The sibling girls who took down a dog twice their size and age built each other’s confidence up by being together and growing up together.  Honing skills like this does not need your training as much as it requires your respect, understanding and support AND most importantly, allowing it to happen.  Because truly, so much of what makes LGDs great is their innate guardian instinct.  Most of the time, what we as owners and operators need to do, is just “get out of the way” and let them do their job.  And by continuing and nurturing the pack dynamic with a sibling pair that works together as a team, you encourage and enable the learning and growing to continue.
  13. No one’s perfect, all the time.  If one pup shows less inclination to guard sheep, don’t write him/her off.  Work with the pup and try to salvage his guarding role.  If he is just not cut out to be a sheep guardian, it may be you can put this pup on “farm yard duty” or guarding something else.  Situate him close or next to the pen of sheep where the other sibling is, so they are still in eye contact and relatively close to one another, thus preventing any separation anxiety.  Permanently separating siblings at an older age can be severely traumatic for them and can cause them to become depressed because their life-long littermate and workmate is suddenly gone. Don’t do it.  Work to keep them together, even if it means one pup is more of a family companion and guardian on your farm than flock protector.  Both dogs will be happier for it.  You may discover with delight that the non-sheep guardian has a penchant for fiercely keeping your hens, hogs or goats safe...or your children and home!  
  14. As time goes by.....  When your sibling pair becomes 3-5 years old, think about bringing in another sibling pair of pups for them to rear up and help raise so that by the time they are in their golden years and slowing down, you will have two youngsters coming up, offering you continued protection.  Remember it takes a good year and a half or longer in some cases for a pup to mature and be able to confidently and safely be on his own guarding stock.  The maturation rate will still remain the same even for siblings run together, even though they are more of a force to be reckoned with.  Don’t wait until your dogs are too tired and old to serve as teachers and mentors.  Depending on the intensity of their work, some LGDs are “done in” sooner than others.  Truthfully gauge your dog’s health, stamina and condition and don’t wait till its too late to bring in new pups to train.

As they progress and age, sibling “teams” present a much stronger deterrent to predators at a much earlier stage in their growth because there is indeed, strength in numbers.  Where as one pup could be viewed as an easy meal for a hungry coyote pack, two pups will present much more of a formidable challenge.  As many of my customers have found out, a pair of pups can tackle much bigger problems than just one alone, and at a much earlier age.  Running siblings can be done successfully, and is something to consider especially for those experiencing heavy predator loads where one LGD simply is not enough.  Next time you add to your pack, or if you’re just venturing into LGD ownership for the first time, give serious consideration to bringing home a sibling pair instead of a solo pup, and stand by to be pleasantly surprised.