The Difference Between Sheepdogs and Flock Guardians

Long before mankind began to grow crops, flocks of animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats were kept to supply families and tribes with a reliable source of protein. It is thought that the early domestication of animals began approximately 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. However, groups of relatively helpless sheep or goats would be subject to predation by wolves, bears, lions, and hyenas that were endemic to the region and a way would be needed to protect these valuable assets. Humans were already using dogs for hunting, so it was only one more step to take to use them with their flocks.

Undoubtedly specialization of dogs began very early with larger and more ferocious dogs being used to protect flocks. Besides the need to keep the flock or herd safe, dogs would also come in handy when the animals had to be moved to new pasturage or to winter quarters. In time, two distinct types of dog evolved to fill these needs – sheepdogs and flock guardians.

Herding Sheepdogs dogs have proven to be invaluable to pastoralists over the centuries. Able to move as fast or faster than their charges, sheep or cattle dogs are trained from an early age to obey a fairly large number of commands from their master. Because of the large vocabulary sheepdogs must become familiar with, these are accounted among the most trainable and intelligent of dogs.

The basis for the dog’s control over the flock is that the sheep is fearful; most herding dogs display stalking behavior that the animals they are controlling recognize instinctively. Sheepdogs display what is called ‘eye’ to help intimidate, along with darting at the flock and nipping at the legs of the animals. These dogs are all quick and have a great deal of stamina.
Sheepdogs work closely with the shepherd, to form a team to control and move the flock. These dogs come in a range of sizes, with relatively small dogs like Corgis being used to herd not only sheep, but also cattle and ponies. In addition to the Cardigan and Pembroke Corgis, other herding sheepdogs include Border Collie, Australian Cattle Dog, Belgian Malinois, Puli, Shetland Sheepdog, Old English Sheepdog, Collie, and Beauceron.

Most of today’s sheepdogs seldom get the opportunity to practice the craft at which they have been so successfully bred, and are kept mainly as companions. Although all of these dogs make good and loyal pets, several are very protective of the human family and can be suspicious of strangers, and all need a good deal of exercise every day. Sheepdogs that are deprived of the chance to run and burn off some of their energy can develop behavioral problems and/or become overweight.

Flock guardians or livestock guardians have been known since the time of Ancient Rome, when mastiff-type dogs were used to drive predators away from flocks. Unlike herding sheepdogs, which can be small or medium in size, flock guardians are massive, heavy dogs capable of dealing with almost any threat to their charges. Some of the popular flock guardians are Maremma Sheepdog, Komondor, Great Pyrenees, South Russian Ovtcharka, Anatolian Shepherd, and Carpathian Sheepdog.

To produce the best flock guard dog, the puppy is introduced to the flock that it will guard at as young as 3 weeks of age. This helps the pup to actually become bonded to the flock and become a part of it. Previously, it was thought that humans should have as little contact with the dog as possible, but it has been found that the owners should oversee the bonding of the puppy and young dog to the flock. Guardian dogs take up to 2 years to mature fully.

The goats, sheep, or cattle that the dog is guarding are not afraid of the dog, but rather will usually look up to it as the leader. The guardian takes its responsibilities very seriously, and will protect the flock with its life. When a predator approaches the flock, the guardian dog will bark to attempt to scare it away. If that doesn’t work, or the predator continues to come, the dog will attack. These dogs tend to be fearless and will take on predators much larger than themselves in the line of duty.

Unlike herding sheepdogs, many of these livestock guardians are completely unsuitable for living in an apartment or the confines of the suburbs. These are tough, hardy dogs that thrive on extreme weather conditions, and they generally do not appreciate being kept indoors. Some of these dogs, such as the Anatolian Shepherd or Ovtcharka, will attack to kill, even humans that they do not know, so must be kept in a situation that allows them to fulfill their potential without causing harm. Also, unlike sheepdogs, flock guardians are not the most trainable of dogs – they have been bred to act independently, away from humans.