Blog #24 – Livestock Guardians

It’s not very often that I talk about or share much about the livestock guardian breeds but they are always in the back of my mind. I have great memories of growing up and seeing these big hairy dogs around the farm. They were quiet, shy and almost lazy looking but they had a presence about them and it wasn’t just their size. They were like sleeping giants, once awaken they were a different dog all together.

I remember asking my grandfather about them more so than any other type of dog on the farm, as I was young and didn’t understand why I only saw them a few times a year as they lived with the livestock as it moved from one pasture to another through out the year. They were expected to live and work under their own guidance and common sense. They had to make very quick decisions on what was friend or foe. They were rarely fed, as they would eat any livestock that passed away during the year and were also expected to hunt and eat anything that they came across as they moved around. The trust my grandfather gave these dogs was huge and he regarded them as some of the very best and some of the most intelligent dogs any man could own.

I remember them wearing large collars around their necks, some were all metal whilst others were homemade by my grandfather out of leather and nails. They looked like a medieval torture item but on many occasions saved the dogs life from wolves and lynx’s who had tried to take on the dogs hoping for an easy meal. These hairy giants worked in tandem with the livestock, the most dominant male ram or bull wore large bells around their necks and the rest of the herd would follow closely behind. This helped the dogs with knowing in which direction the herd was heading and how far ahead the herd leaders were.

This was a time a long before the internet and some of the more exotic livestock dog breeds that we see and hear about a lot today hadn’t really spread around the world as they have now. The dogs used were local breeds that had been tried and tested for many generations by my family. As they say, if it’s not broken why fix it! My grandfather had some Serra da Estrela dogs, Rafeiros do Alentejo and Castro Laboreiros. All three are very old traditional Portuguese breeds. The Rafeiro do Alentejo is the local breed of where I’m from and it’s believed that its existed in the area for many many years. There is talk of it even being there during the wars between the Romans and the famous Lusitano warriors who the Portuguese people descend from.

Rafeiro do Alentejo  literally means the Alentejo Mongrel. It’s not a very appealing dog, it doesn’t have a fancy coat colour or anything extraordinary about it. It’s just a large strong shepherd type dog that does the job that it’s been bred to do for many centuries. You can normally pick a pup up for about 50 euros and more often than not they are gifted between friends and families. The scary thing now is that the Rafeiro do Alentejo is being shown at dog shows and I see pups being sold for as much as 500 euros each, all because of a piece of paper. I hope that it’s not the start of the end for what was and still is in the majority a great old school working Portuguese dog breed. My grandfather would turn in his grave if he knew that these dogs are attending dog shows and being sold for these kinds of prices.

What I speak off is not what I have read in books or online or even been told about, its what I saw and lived whilst growing up on my grandfathers farm. The only time that all of the dogs were all together on the farm was in Spring when the weather was beginning to warm up. The sheep would be sheared and looked at by a vet, whilst the dogs would also have their yearly check up. I remember the dogs having their flea and tics treatment at the same time. A large barrel would be filled 3/4 of the way up with water and the flea and tic treatment and each dog would be grabbed by its collar and dunked in the barrel for a second or two. That was it for that year and it would be another year before they faced the dreaded vet and the hated barrel.

In the last 20-30 years, more and more livestock guardian breeds from Eastern Europe and Asia have become popular and are being owned by a variety of people all over the world. There is a huge market for these dogs and they sell for big money. These dogs have gone through several changes as some types/lines have clearly been crossed with other breeds. I also see that many of these breeds are not stable and could never be fully trusted around anything that moves let alone livestock. This is due to breeders crossing them and breeding them for others functions that were never their original purpose. I have no issues with dogs being used for a variety of tasks and I’m a huge fan of a dog that’s a bit of a Jack of all trades but by outcrossing them and breeding these dogs for other functions they are changing the dog completely. They are no longer the same as the dogs I described above and could never be left alone to their own devices as were many of the livestock guardian breeds through out Europe in the old days.

I do think that this trend has been created because everyone wants the biggest and the most aggressive dog they can find. The majority of the breeders in the Balkan countries and Asia have began breeding solely for this very large market. I see pups being sold for ridiculous amounts of money to any foreigner stupid enough to part with their hard earned money. I will say this, I doubt very much that the local farmers who still use the real livestock guardian types would pay any where near what some of these dogs are being sold for on international markets. I am sorry to say this as I have many dog connections in the States but they seem to be the biggest buyers of these large aggressive dogs. Once these dogs reach the states, many owners don’t know how to properly use a livestock guardian breed and especially not one that has been “tuned up” to be more aggressive. This is how and why so many of these breeds end up in shelters as owners struggle to train and control these super aggressive large dogs.

Let the gentle giants that have protected livestock and farms for thousands of years be gentle and loving as they have always been. They were bred and created by early dogmen that way for a very good reason!

4 thoughts on “Blog #24 – Livestock Guardians”

  1. Amazing article, thank you. I’m reading it, close to colos in alentejo. In this area we still see working rafeiro alentejano but less and less.
    I have two alentejanos, they are definitly the most stubborn breed i know…

  2. Great article, am I wrong in thinking that the Rafairo do Alentejo is the only one of the Portuguese mastiffs breed to be man aggressive. All the ones I’ve encountered in the Ribatejo have all been man aggressive and were all great guard dogs.

      1. I know that the fuzileiros (marines) have or had their own breeding program of the estrela dog for sentry guarding. This might mean that they too are man aggressive and maybe more obidient (less stubborn) than Rafeiros? Jackal, how do you compare the Rafeiro to the estrela?

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