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What Makes a Good Guardian?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

I talk about this a bit in my philosophy section, but I want to discuss what makes a guardian breed with proper temperament. I was recently listening to an old Pure Dog Talk episode with Sue Huebner of Cordmaker Pulik. She spent a good chunk of time talking about pulik temperament and the phrase "sensibly suspicious" in their breed standard. The Beauceron standard says that they should be "confident and discerning". These should be catch phrases for guarding breeds.

If you do any research at all into bite sports and protection work, you'll hear words like nerve and courage. What do those mean? In that context nerve and courage refer to a dogs willingness to stand their ground in the face of adversity. In order for a dog to stand their ground, they need to be absolutely sure of themselves. They can't be relying on their owner for emotional support. They need to internally believe in themselves and their abilities, not rely on that external support from a handler, otherwise your dog would never behave in a reliable, predictable, controllable fashion in adversity. Many reputable bite work training facilities will not train a dog that doesn't have the correct temperament, because that's not something you can completely change (influence but not change).

So what do bite sport and protection dogs have to do with azawakh or livestock guardians (LGDs) in general? A dog that doesn't have courage and nerve is a liability. If they won't stand their ground when under threat from a predator, why have a livestock guardian at all? They have to have courage. The piece that is often lacking in working LGDs is possessing a level of discernment.

A dog that attacks any person who enters the property is a liability, especially in the modern age where litigation is common. It also shows that the dog lacks an understanding of what truly is and is not a threat. The family friends with two bouncing boys welcomed by the farmer should be treated differently than the UPS delivery truck which should be treated differently than someone sneaking in during the dead of night. In my opinion (and naturally this will vary from person to person's preferences), a LGD might alert bark and then relax in the first case, alert bark but remain vigilant in the second, and alert bark and then engage if necessary in the third case. A different person may want different behaviors and reinforce different behaviors in as many situations as possible.

So how do you get appropriate behaviors in each of those circumstances? Firstly, a dog's natural temperament is paramount. If your dog is reactive to every noise, dog, and person from birth, while you can temper this behavior and work through it, it is likely that your dog will be prone to reacting to every new noise, dog, or person. Though there is no science to tell us exactly how much temperament is genetic, pretty much every reputable breeder will tell you that temperament is in part genetic.

As a trainer, I have seen a tendency in less reputable guardian breeders to breed for a naturally insecure dog. To the average person, it is easy to mistake a dog that is unsure and vocal with a dog that is confident but has good defense drive. A dog that barks as people or dogs approach looks like a good guardian to the untrained eye. I would say more than 75% of the surveys I get back from my Reactive Rover clients say that their dog is reacting because they are protecting their people. However, in reality, I have yet to find this is the case. In all of those cases I have found that their dogs are extremely insecure and unsure around the new and novel. While they bark and lunge when their trigger is at a distance, if they were truly confronted face to face with their trigger, most of them would turn tail and run (or would lash out once and then turn and run). To this day, I have yet to find an insecure, reactive dog that would stand their ground when confronted. This is a perfect example of why most protection breeders are looking for the calm, confident dog who isn't frightened when approached by the new and novel. Fear does exactly no good (and a lot of harm) in protection work.

Secondly, socialization can make a world of difference in your dogs, yes, even (or especially) your guardian breeds. A dog that is whelped in a barn and then when they're old enough turned out into a paddock with limited human interaction and no interaction from people outside of their farm is going to have a very different reaction to the new and novel than a well socialized one. The dog in the example is going to be suspicious of any new person, any animal they've never me, every sound and sight outside of their own home. Depending on how stable they are genetically they may bark or lunge or snap or bite in new situations, especially when cornered. They are a bite risk.

In contrast, let's look at Amidi's upbringing (although you could look at any of my azawakh's upbringing and find the breeders had great socialization practices, Ami is just the one I know the most specifics about). I would describe Amidi's base personality as happy, bouncy, submissive, and a bit insecure, in particular with new dogs. As a puppy she would get defensive with her food around other animals and would alert bark at some people, dogs, and odd things (garbage cans in the dark, etc). At her breeder she: had her nails dremmeled many times, listened to sound effect tapes of loud noises, dog shows, etc, learned how to tolerate a collar and be on a leash, learned the basics of crate training, experienced an outing with only one of her litter mates before leaving her litter, she stayed in a hotel room at Nationals in Orlando at 6 weeks, she drove hundreds of miles in a car, met so many people and dogs, and so much more that I'm certain I'm forgetting. She did all of that before leaving her litter (and much more with me after I brought her home). None of that altered her basic emotional tendencies, but it did help her see a wide variety of situations as interesting rather than frightful.

Amidi meeting a chicken for the first time at her breeder's house

These days I can have her off leash in a 40x60' room full of 20 other people and 7 other dogs all doing agility obstacles. I can walk her around cows and horses and have her be alert and watchful, but calm and focused. I can board a Doberman and have zero issues with her. She has helped me with reactive dogs as a neutral dog (though I'm careful how often and with which I dogs I pair her). She is fantastic standing for exam during shows. She can still be prone to acting without assessing, but this is what you can get with a minorly insecure dog with appropriate socialization (which I'll have to do a post on because not all socialization procedures are created equal).

If you don't expose your dogs to every safe situation under the sun, how do you expect them to recognize an unsafe one? If they don't have a sound understanding of the wide assortment of situations that are acceptable, how can they tell what isn't? I've talked to so many people that have told me I'm ruining my dogs' instincts by socializing and exposing them heavily, by doing therapy work, or agility. But I've also seen my dogs jump into action barking and standing in front of me when someone in a black hoodie and sun glasses at night rounded the corner right next to me and nearly bumped into me. This was perceived as a threat and I found that an absolutely correct and acceptable threshold. I've had a client dog break away from their owner and come bounding over to me while my dogs were still in the car and again, I found it reasonable when my dogs responded by barking loudly.

The discerning nature can be seen in young LGDs. Most LGDs are giant breed dogs and are not considered adults until 18 months of age at a minimum. That means that when they

Dogs are capable of telling a friend from foe if we teach them. However, they're only capable of this if they have sound genetics supporting extensive, appropriate exposure. So what do I look for in my azawakh (and well bred guardian breeds in general)? I look for a confident dog, naturally watchful, slow to act, but decisive when they do. I look for ones that recover quickly, generalize well, and are steady in any situation. I am forgiving of fear when they are in a fear period (either their puppy or teenage ones) but outside of those times, that's what I'm looking for.

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