Updated: Jun 22
Barking is the primary way LGDs protect their livestock – and themselves – from predators. Barking lets the predators know, before they come anywhere close, the presence of the dogs. In most cases predators are deterred from coming any closer; this is especially true if two or more LGDs are doing the barking. This is good even if the barking annoys you!
LGDs represent a sizeable investment of time and finances. Although they are bred to be willing to take on a predator I’d rather they didn’t have to because I don’t want my dogs hurt. The beauty of the relationship between LGDs and predators is that they may never have to because they deter predators just by being present.
This means they will bark at nothing – or do they?
The Oregon state trapper told me that a mountain lion can smell prey from two miles away, so I wonder how close that lion needs to be for my dogs to know he’s there. In almost every case the dogs will sound off much before I, limited human that I am, am aware of the presence of a predator. I was told once that the measure of an LGD who is good at his job is that he makes you think you don’t need him because you never see a predator. This is wonderful because in this scenario nobody dies.
There is a blog on my site called “No Illusions.” In it you will see a photo of a bear and a mountain lion fighting it out at 1:00 am on my ranch. I was shocked to see this when my friend, who monitors the game cameras on the ranch, showed me the photo. He chuckled and let me know that he sees altercations like this often on the cameras. Apparently my dogs routinely guard against this sort of thing while I sleep through it, blissfully unaware of the drama taking place in the forest adjacent my pastures.
An experienced LGD knows how to discriminate between all the stimulus in his world, from what is normal and safe and what isn’t. He may use his “alert” bark when he senses something new or his BIG bark when he really wants to sound the alarm. By the way, that is a bark you will recognize when you hear it! When it happens here all my dogs join in and run to the closest point to the threat and are ready to help; the whole ranch lights up. In the early days I used to dash out there thinking I would save my dogs and livestock but by the time I got there the dogs always had it handled. Now, I trust them to do their jobs.
Inexperienced dogs tend to be noisier than experienced dogs, in part because they don’t yet understand what is truly a threat, but also because guarding against something that could kill them can be scary. Inexperienced owners sometimes tell the barking dog “it’s OK” in an effort to quiet the dog, but a human absolutely cannot know with certainty that everything is OK because our inadequate senses limit our awareness of where the predators are. For this young dog trying to learn his job this mixed message can be very confusing and worrisome because it is conflicting information.
A dog raised here cares about his owners being happy – and loves his job. What is to be the choice if those things are at odds? This can really set up a feeling of insecurity for the dog, and scared dogs bark a LOT more than confident ones. So, if you’d like one of my pups to be quieter praise him for doing his job (barking) and be patient as he learns to fine tune what he should consider a threat.
Single dogs bark more than a pair of dogs because the threat to themselves from a predator is greater than if he has a partner for backup, and the job is bigger in terms of watching over an area by himself. An LGD knows two things: he must do perimeter checks and he must stay with the livestock. How is a single dog to do both? A single dog has a lot more to worry about. His best bet is to bark a lot in the hope that nothing ever really comes to threaten him.
It is also true that indiscriminate barking can become a habit. A single pup may learn this guarding style out of fear and then continue to guard this way as an adult. Many people who use single dogs have the perception that LGDs are noisy. I just don’t believe that is true. I have sixteen adult Maremmas working here. If they were noisy dogs I’d never get any sleep. Some nights are noisier than others but in general my dogs are quiet if there isn’t really something to worry about.
So, my suggestion here is this: set yourself up for success. Allow your dogs to work as pairs, don’t give them more responsibility than they are ready for as young dogs, and praise them for doing their job. That’s right – praise them for barking. This will help to cultivate their confidence in themselves and they will be less reactive to stimulus. They will learn to trust themselves and will come to think before they sound off.