Our main priority in breeding Sarplaninacs is for their supreme ability as working livestock guardian dogs. It’s a task to which these dogs have been bred for for thousands of years and one to which they excel at IF they have been bred for it. As a rule we recommend people who are buying a Sarplaninac specifically for use as a LGD only buy from breeders who have proven working parents on site. The thing to remember though is that even if a dog comes from proven lines it will still need some proper supervision and reinforcement earlier on in its life. There are many training methods and tactics that can be used to increase their effectiveness and reliability in guarding livestock, some of these tricks going back many generations and some being more relatively recent discoveries. The information given in this subsection should only be considered by those who wish to train their dog in the task of livestock protection. If your dog is only to be kept as a pet or companion then this section will probably not apply very much to your training needs.
When starting a dog off for livestock protection, it is ideal for puppy/livestock socialization to begin almost as soon as the eyes are open. It has been suggested to build the whelping pen adjacent to the sheep pens. Giving puppies this early exposure to the sights, smells and sounds of livestock is a great way to start the bond early on between the two species. Directly placing puppies as young as 8 weeks right into or adjacent to the lambing pen is often the next step. Some sheep may take to the dog although they should still always be watched with a close eye to ensure that any play or rough housing doesn’t lead to potential injuries against the livestock or the puppy. Other sheep, such as some of the more primitive short-tailed breeds, may be more aggressive at first so penning the puppy next to the pen may be more suitable. Daily walks through the pasture with it are advisable and are a great way to teach the pup the perimeters of it’s territory. Resist the urge to leave the puppy with the sheep unattended for the first year or two though as young dogs are naturally playful and should never be fully trusted until you are confident they will not chase or be too rough with the stock.
As the puppy matures, make sure to socialize it with other things that it may encounter during its tenure on the farm. Not being fearful of tractors, trucks, and 4-wheelers may be important; making sure the pup gets to know you though is essential. Though you don’t necessarily want it to bond to you 100%, as this could cause the dog to abandon the herd to come and try to find you at some point in the future, you do want it to recognize you as its master. You also don’t want the dog to ever become timid or nervous around people and this regular contact should help prevent this from ever becoming an issue. Some LGD owners take a different approach and believe that any handling and bonding whatsoever with the dog will only take away from their bond with the herd. However, with Sarplaninacs regular human contact is almost essential as human aggression can be present in some lines and this will be one of the few ways to lessen and control it. Also get them used to being around other farm/ranch animals. Some livestock guard dog owners report their dogs acting defensively toward other sorts of farm animals other than those they’ve been trained to defend. Occasionally letting them around the chickens, cattle, and horses early on should help prevent this. Similarly, make sure to socialize it with any pet or herding dogs that it may encounter during its tenure on the farm. A working Border Collie may look strikingly similar to a stalking coyote to a naïve LGD and they will have to learn the difference between the two. Generally Sarplaninacs will get along quite well with other herding dogs that they are brought up around and their protective instinct of the sheep seems to be turned off if the sheep are being chased or herded by a dog that they’re accustomed to; just be careful of livestock aggressive neighbor dogs, which your LGD may have also become familiar with, as they may not react to these dogs as a perceived threat either. If the puppy is to work with other livestock guardians, you will want to introduce them to each other as well early on so the dogs don’t eventually recognize each other as threats. Letting the puppy bond and imprint off of more experienced guardian dogs has also been found to be one of the more successful methods of training and priming them as they grow. If your dog is definitely not going to be used as a pet, don’t socialize them with any dogs other than those that may exist on your farm though. A large portion of livestock kills, in recent years, have actually been found to be caused by stray and feral domestic dogs. Though seemingly less threatening than a wolf or a coyote, stray dogs can be incredibly destructive to sheep and goat herds and will often times kill far more than they actually eat (if they eat any of the animal at all). It will be imperative for your dog to recognize them as nothing less than a threat that will need to be dispatched like any other predator. Even after acquainting it with all of these other members of the barnyard, be sure to always return your dog to the sheep pen as it matures.
Determining when a dog will be ready to start accompanying the stock to pasture more and more on it’s own will be dependent on many things. Sarplaninac pups grow VERY rapidly. If fed adequately, a growing puppy can reach 90 pounds by 7-8 months of age. It can normally begin accompanying sheep to the pasture long before then but you have to take many things into consideration. The juvenile stage is the most dangerous and vulnerable time of any young livestock guard’s life and this is when most are killed. Coyotes are now found in every single one of the continental United States and they are social with family groups of 2-4 animals traveling and hunting together being relatively common. They are most certainly known sheep predators and perhaps any dog used for protecting livestock in North America is sure to encounter at least one at some point in its lifetime. Coyotes aren’t nearly as aggressive around mature, average sized domestic dogs as are wolves, but will opportunistically kill and eat smaller breed dogs as well as young puppies. A male Eastern Coyote can reach 50 lbs. in size so it may be appropriate to wait until your dog is at least this size before letting them regularly accompany livestock without your immediate round the clock presence. Always be vigilant though to any chasing or aggressive behavior from your dog. Remember, a little chasing at this age may just be play and they can be broken of it. However, they should really never be left alone with the stock for long periods of time until you are absolutely certain they are trustworthy. This is seldom ever before 1.5-2 years of age.
If sheep aren’t your main concern and instead you will be using your dog for protecting something else, such as cattle, you will want to go about things a bit differently. Acquiring a few orphan calves from maybe a feed lot or a dairy farm will be your first step; even a few yearling steers or heifers should suffice though. Now the main difference between training your pup on calves as opposed to sheep is that the puppy will never be allowed to be kept together in the same pen as the cattle, at least not until it is a bit larger in size. A kick or trampling from a calf has the potential to really inflict some damage to a young dog and even if it makes a full recovery, the experience is likely to have been quite traumatic and may have a large negative impact on how the dog views the herd for the rest of its life. Similar to dealing with aggressive sheep, the easiest way to safeguard the dog is to place it in a pen adjacent with and connected to the calf pen while still being fully separated from the stock by a gate or fence panel. We’ve had dogs leave our kennel which were placed onto cattle operations and generally they all seem to have worked out remarkably well. Cattle which are either naive to LGDs or have only ever experienced aggressive dogs (including herding dogs) and/or wild dogs may take longer to bond with an LGD puppy. However steers and heifers which grew up with a friendlier dog in their presence are capable of bonding with them and becoming quite tolerant of their presence.
As your dog continues to accompany the stock more and more to the pasture, you will have to monitor it for many of its initial expeditions in order to help train it on what it is and isn’t allowed to do. As hinted at earlier, walking the fence lines with the dog regularly earlier on is an excellent way to teach it the extent of its territory and where its boundaries are. Keeping an eye on the dog during its first lambing season is also highly essential. Most dogs get the taste for blood in their mouth from newborn lambs, whether born healthy or stillborn. It is around them that inexperienced guard dogs should be especially closely supervised. Most LGD attacks on lambs seem to be associated with younger dogs under 2 years in age so up until this age it is advisable to keep an especially close eye on them. One thing to always consider is that some livestock guarding breeds have had wolf blood occasionally infused into their genome over the centuries. The intention is to toughen the dogs up and prevent inbreeding but this out-cross can inadvertently increase their prey drive as well. As a result, some young LGD’s have been known to get into the habit of killing the stock that they are supposed to be protecting. Quickly correcting the dog if it begins chasing or showing any other aggressive behavior toward livestock, even if apparently only out of play, is absolutely critical. The use of dangle sticks (which are attached to the collars) has proven highly effective in helping to calm younger, more playful dogs around the herd. The idea is that when the dog has the stick attached to it’s collar, the stick will bounce around and hit the dogs front legs when it tries to run or jump suddenly. Eventually they will learn that calming down and walking is much more comfortable when wearing the collar. We’ve also had a lot of success attaching 20-30 ft. long, 2/3 in. ropes to the collars of our juvenile dogs while they’re out in the pasture with the sheep. It gives the dogs plenty of freedom to run around and interact with the flock but it still gives us plenty of control to correct any bad habits.
If wolves, bears, or cougars are a regular threat to your stock, there are many precautions you will want to take to ensure your dog isn’t sacrificed to the cause of these predators. First of all, it would be advisable to wait until a juvenile dog were at least 18-24 months in age before ever leaving it with stock completely unaccompanied. Though there has never proven to be much difference between the effectiveness of either male or female livestock guardian dogs, it is highly recommended to have numerous dogs working together if you run hoof stock in wolf or big-cat country. The American Timber Wolf is a highly social species and is sure to be one of the most dangerous rivals your dog would ever encounter. While it would be difficult for one to defeat an experienced Sarplaninac one-on-one, wolves often beat livestock guarding dogs by having a far higher numerical advantage. It is for this reason that I recommend at least 5-10 dogs working a herd together in areas where Gray Wolves are found. In Eurasian countries, packs of 10-15 livestock guardian dogs in areas with heavy wolf populations are very common. Though it is a more expensive initial investment, stockmen who have used multiple dogs in the past report far fewer predation problems associated with these more dangerous big-game carnivores. Neutering and spaying adult dogs is strongly recommended as this can help keep your dog’s focus on the stock as well. In some countries it is quite common for LGDs to actively socialize and breed with the very wolves they are suppose to be defending against. Neutering/spaying early on should eliminate these behaviors from ever becoming an issue. The use of 1 ½ to 2 inch wide, spiked leather dog collars is also strongly encouraged. They are relatively inexpensive ($30-40) and can be especially effective in protecting the dog’s jugular and spinal cord from bites by wolves as well as cougars (carnivores which typically both kill their prey with a bite to the throat or nape of the neck). If a known wolf or bear den is located on or near your property, it is advisable to try and keep dogs away from the area throughout at least the spring and early summer months when the parents of these cubs are at their most protective state. Bear cubs usually disperse out of the winter hibernation den with their mother soon after their emergence. However wolf cubs may stay located in these denning areas for several months and during this time members of the pack are usually on high alert and will not hesitate at removing anything that they deem a threat to the young…even if it includes a threatening looking dog. Groups like Defenders of Wildlife have also proven that the use of electrified hot wire, flagging ropes, flashing lights, and night corrals can be used in conjunction with livestock guarding dogs to further help in deterring wolf and bear predation on livestock.
Another concern which has been brought to our attention from other Sarplaninac owners who use their dogs as working livestock protectors is the risk of these dogs being shot by hunters who may mistake them for predators themselves. Unlike many of the other white LGD breeds (i.e. Great Pyrenees, Maremmas, Akhbash, etc.) Sarplaninacs often have a greyer, more wolf-like coat. It is easy for someone naïve to the breed to mistake them for strays or even as a wolf as the dogs trail a herd around and the hunter may actually think they’re doing the livestock owner a favor by lethally removing one. Sarplaninacs will also protect their property from any people that they don’t know who they may mistake as being a threat (i.e. a strange hunter dressed in camo who is lurking around the woods and pasture following game around) and confrontations between the two are seldom in the dog’s favor. It is for these reasons that we never allow hunting on our property. Placing “Livestock Guardian Dog on Duty” signs around your fence posts may also be a good idea. We also fit our dogs with bright orange hunting collars during the fall and winter months to help prevent them from being mistaken for a wolf or coyote and generally most hunters seem to respect this.
These are training tips and remedies that we’ve acquired over the years from talking with experts and past clients along with fellow working LGD enthusiasts. However, given that all dogs are going to be a little different from one another, you have to use whatever methodology best suits you and your animal’s needs. There are many other more lethal methods that have been used over the years in controlling predators; gassing dens, poison baiting, and aerial hunting just to name a few. In this era of conservation though, science has proven that it is much more effective to try and work with the predators a little bit rather than constantly against them. The reality is that you’re never going to kill every single last coyote, so why waste your time and money attempting to do so? Wolves and bears have made a great comeback in the last few decades at the encouragement and delight of the vast majority of the American public. Hence, it is very doubtful that they are going anywhere again anytime soon. Gray Wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have killed a lot of livestock guarding dogs since their initial reintroduction and some even seem to specifically target domestic dogs out at certain times of the year. Sarplaninacs have been protecting stock from these predators for thousands of years and have a great potential as livestock protectors in North America. They seem to have an instinctive hatred of wolves and are more than willing to accept the challenge from them in any fight. Given the right upbringing, they can greatly reduce your losses to these powerful predators and really help your farm thrive no matter what kind of wildlife you may share your land with.