The History of Livestock Guardians; By Bryan Cummins, Nov 2010
Almost everybody has heard of the remarkably trainable herding dogs and the important work they do helping shepherds maintain control over their flocks. Even when not fulfilling their traditional roles, herding breeds such as the Border Collie amaze us with their performances in the agility and obedience rings. However, there is another type of “sheep dog,” one whose work is equally important and whose role is more ancient than that of the herding breeds.
Sheep and dogs were the first animals domesticated, with the latter preceding the former by at least a couple of thousand years. Dogs first appear in the archaeological record about 14,000 years ago and sheep about 10,000 years ago. The bones of domestic sheep and dogs appear together for the first time in sites that are 5,600 years old, suggesting a very early use of the dog in a working capacity. It’s likely that, once domesticated, the earliest non-companion roles the dog filled were – in roughly chronological order – as scavenger, watch dog (not guard dog, which implies something other than an alarm), hunter and – in certain cultures – food item. The use of dogs as herders seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon.
It is believed that The Book of Job was written between 3,800 and 4,000 years ago, in all likelihood making it the first book of the Bible to have been written. It is also one of the very first texts to link the dog with sheep. More likely than not, the dogs were livestock guardians, not herders, based on inferences we can make from subsequent ancient writings, for the ancient historical record doesn’t end with The Book of Job.
Aristotle made reference to dogs guarding sheep in The History of Animals, c. 347 BP (Before Present). He wrote, “Of the Molossian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere; but sheepdogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals.”
Varro, writing c. 37 BP, distinguished between two kinds of dogs, those used for hunting and “alterum quod custodiae causa paratur et pertinet ad pastoem” – “another kind which is obtained for the purpose of keeping guard and is the concern of the shepherd.” He also provides us with more evidence of the value of flock guardians, writing, “Dogs… are of the greatest importance to us who feed the woolly flock, for the dog is the guardian of such cattle as lack the means to defend themselves, chiefly sheep and goats. For the wolf is wont to lie in wait for them and we oppose our dogs to him as defenders.”
Columella, who wrote about 2,000 years ago, also offered considerable insight into the use of such dogs, noting that “The shepherd prefers a white dog because it is unlike a wild beast, and sometimes a plain means of distinction is required in the dogs when one is driving off wolves in the obscurity of early morning or even at dusk, lest one strike a dog instead of a wild beast.” Furthermore, “he must be strong and to a certain extent prompt to act and vigorous, since the purpose for which he is acquired is to pick quarrels and to fight and to move quickly, since he has to repel the stealthy lurking of the wolf and to follow the wild beast as he escapes with his prey and make him drop it and bring it back again. Therefore, a dog of a rather long, slim build is better able to deal with these emergencies.” With all these references to dogs guarding the flocks (and, in some texts, cattle), there are no references to herding dogs.
A survey of the cynological and academic literature suggests that dogs were originally employed to protect herds and flocks in about 30 countries. This area spread throughout northern Africa, Europe and Asia, from Morocco to Mongolia. However, with the recognition that these dogs provide a valuable service, they are used today throughout much of the world wherever predators are found.
Because of variations in type and disagreements as to what constitutes a “breed,” it’s difficult to state with certainty how many livestock-guarding “breeds” exist, but the number is probably between 40 and 50. Exact determination is further made difficult because many of the breeds are not recognized by national kennel clubs (such as The Canadian Kennel Club). They are, for the most part, large animals that weigh between 35 and 70 or more kilograms (77 to 154 pounds) and stand between 61 and 80 centimetres (24 to 31-1/2 inches) at the shoulder. Most of the breeds are white or predominantly so. The white livestock-guarding breeds include the Pyrenean Mountain Dog (France), Kuvasz and Komondor (Hungary), Tatra (Poland), Akbash (Turkey), Maremma (Italy) and Slovakian Cuvac. To the uninitiated, these breeds are, with the exception of heavily corded Komondor, virtually indistinguishable.
White has been a preferred colour among some shepherds from at least Roman times. One belief is that the white colouration helps distinguish the dog from predators. Another view holds that it makes the dog more easily discernible in the dark. Others suggest that white dogs stand out better against the countryside, making them easier to detect by the shepherd. However, one might question this, for at a distance it would be just as easy to mistake a dog for a sheep. Others have suggested that a white dog is less unsettling to the sheep than a darker-coloured dog that resembles them less. Yet another view holds that original flock guardians were white (a dubious assertion) and therefore white shows signs of great antiquity and must be the real thing. Be that as it may, the fact remains that there are livestock-guarding dogs that are not white and this needs explaining. One theory suggests that it was a case of matching the colour of the dog with the wool of the sheep (dark dogs with dark sheep). Another states that, when first domesticated, sheep and dogs were both dark, and so the dogs have simply remained the original colour.
The breeds share numerous behavioural traits. They have an inherent aptitude to guard and to stay with their charges, plodding alongside the flock or, in some case, in the middle. As the sheep move seeking grass during the course of the day, the dogs move with them. Otherwise, it is usual for a dog (or three or four) to seek a slightly higher elevation and watch for predators. The dogs prefer to be motionless, or placidly walking so that their actions do not excite their sheep. They move, head and tail down, so that they look as sheep-like as possible. This behaviour is in stark contrast to the herding dogs, characterized by exuberance and quicksilver movements. In brief, the livestock guardians are placid until aroused. When challenged, the dogs are serious, although actual combat between a predator and dogs is rare. Because predators must be fit and healthy to hunt, they will not risk injury and, when threatened by a 100-pound dog, will seek easier prey.
The lion may never lie down with the lamb, but with livestock-protection breeds fulfilling their millennia-old role, we have the next best thing.