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What Do “Guardian Instincts” Really Mean?

March 28, 2009

Are We Losing The Guarding Instinct?

In the Australian Shepherd Breed Standard it states, that “The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding and guardian instincts.” In my large dictionary it defines “guardian” as one who guards, protects or defends.” Under the word “guard” it says “to protect from harm, watch over, or defend ….” Although these definitions may seem obvious, they still do not clearly define for me what “guarding instincts” imply in relation to the Australian Shepherd. Yet, the words “guardian instincts” must have been rather important to the original authors of our standard to be included in the same sentence along with “working” and “herding.” But what does it really mean? To that end, this article is to invite dialogue to see if we can come to some consensus on what its meaning has for us today.

Since I’ve been mulling over the possible significance of ‘guardian instinct” for quite some time, and why it was written into our standard with such levity, I will share with you what I think it means to open discussion. Contemplating a clearer definition, I’ve often asked myself such questions as: “Does it mean guarding your truck and the tools inside?” This would almost suggest guarding like a Guard Dog breed, like how Dobermans and Rottweillers are frequently used. Surely it must have more import to Aussies than that. “Does it mean to guard your home, farm or ranch? Your family and your kids?” Somehow, that seems a little closer, but many dogs do just that. Then, I’ve pondered, does it mean something more? Especially for a working, herding breed? A larger, broader, more encompassing picture? Like, “to protect from harm, watch over, or defend…” your livestock too? What if “guardian” were to really mean a sense of stewardship? And, if so, wouldn’t that notion bring on a whole new connotation of what an Australian Shepherd should be – or do? Taking this thought to a further conclusion, if we have herding trials should we now have some sort of test or trial to prove a level of guardianship? Could be an interesting idea…… Again, the nagging question persists, why were these two characteristics given equal weight in the same very poignant, and obviously intentional, sentence?

I would like to share with you some stories that actually sparked my curiosity and interest on this subject:

In 1994, I was asked to write an article for my local newspaper about an upcoming stockdog event and therefore highlighted my good friends, Billy and Linda Pickel, who started out in Aussies and now have Border Collies. I also had to include descriptions of the many uses of herding dogs. The following is an excerpt:

“Over the years, Billy has not only amassed a great deal of knowledge about stockdogs, but many a tale as well. My favorite is when Billy and Linda were traveling back from the Grand Canyon through Arizona. Driving down a deserted back county road, Billy and Linda noticed a band of sheep off in the distance in the nearby hills. At any moment, they expected to see a herder crest the hill and appear over the horizon, so they stopped their car and waited for him by the road. Instead, what they saw was merely three dogs tending the flock. One dog sat atop a hill while the other two worked the sheep at a gentle pace. Suddenly, a lamb separated from the fold. Instantly, the dog on the hill swooped down and put the lamb in check and then calmly retreated back to his hill. The band continued their slow steady grazing. A shepherd never did appear.”

So, is this guardian instinct?

In 1998, I was invited to Warren Livestock, a large family-run ranch, to watch a large band of sheep being unloaded by trucks to be tended by a Peruvian herder, a Wyoming Black and Tan Bobtail,” and a Pyr for the summer. Of note, the Black and Tan Bobtail looked exactly like an Aussie. She, BeBe, calmly collected her sheep – about 2,000 – without fuss and little ado – and proceeded to naturally wear along the back line of the flock to keep them gently grazing. This was just one band; Warren Livestock had a great many. In the Fall, all the bands would be gathered up and trucked down to Laramie to a large holding facility with corrals, pens and chutes. At this time, the spring-born puppies were brought back to reunite with their mothers. It was here that they learned, by example, how to be working, herding dogs. At first, it was a little un-nerving to watch. All those wee pups among the densely crowded sheep. But after about a minute, they all “turned on” as if they knew exactly what to do. The following summer, they too, would be sent to the high ground to work all summer just like Bebe. Little training, most only by example, no stockdog clinics. Makes you wonder. So, is this what our standard’s authors meant by the guardian instinct?

A few years later, my then husband and I took a trip for several days down to Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. There, we saw small flocks of sheep or sheep and goats everywhere. Usually they were tended by two to five dogs. Some looked like Border Collie crosses, some looked like Aussie crosses but the majority looked like blends of who knows what. As well, one we saw looked like a Lab and another like a pure-bred Chow. In every instance the flocks were being calmly grazed. And, there was never a human. Surely, this must be some form of guardianship!

So, too, my first Aussie, Freya, (Freya Delamere STDd OTDc ATDs)….. I could leave her out with my sheep for hours on end. (Pictures attached) To her, they were “her” sheep. She would patiently push them along to cover the pasture. Although she could be tenacious on cattle, heading and heeling, if need be, she was also a good, wise, and fair shepherd of her livestock. If an authoritative bark would suffice before a grip, she would use it. She knew instinctively the difference between her sheep and her lambs. She knew, again instinctively, the difference between a duck, a ewe or a steer and whether they were going to be cooperative or belligerent. She would herd friends’ children if they were getting too close to a precipice or harm’s way. She was reserved around strangers and protected our home with vigilance yet was one of Laramie’s first Therapy Dogs. While she was most definitely the Alpha to the rest of our pack – one slight curl of her lip would leave the others prostrate on the floor – she was also a benevolent ruler. Undoubtedly, these natural instincts illuminate some sense of guardianship.


In light of my experiences, particularly those above, this is what I suspect comes close to a good definition of the guardian instinct – a shepherd with a strong sense of stewardship. Not for just a truck with a toolbox, not for just the ranch….. your husband, wife or children. But an all-encompassing notion that all in the immediate and familiar environment must be guarded and protected with honesty, fairness and respect. So, if stewardship and guardianship could be synonymous, what would be the implications? What might it force us to conclude? Perhaps that we might be thinking about, breeding for, and training for a different kind of Aussie today than what was originally intended in our standard. As well, of late, I often hear the term “prey drive,” most often in conjunction with people saying they would like to add more of this to their lines. Although these words do not appear anywhere in our standard, taking this to its logical conclusion, wouldn’t this be adding the complete antithesis of what our standard calls for? So too, if strong guarding instincts were so important and integral to the original draftees as to be included in the same sentence with herding, is its primary significance being overlooked? Or, better yet, completely misunderstood?

So, if stewardship is a reasonable definition of the guardian instinct, then why are we not more mindful of it? Why, conversely, are there so many covers and pictures in the Aussie Times, on calendars and websites with the same picture, the same message – an Aussie about to hit the head of a cow? Yes, a good stockdog should be able to turn an obstinate head. And, yes a good Aussie should be able to head and heel, if need be. But, doesn’t that go without saying? Like a car comes with wheels? But, should we portray this – the aggressive stance so redundantly, over and over again? Is this the message we want to convey? And, more importantly, was this the intent of our breed standard? Or rather, instead, should we be championing, above all else, the calm, confident, authoritative worker who is truly a shepherd – and strong guardian – of our livestock.


Freya Guarding Her Sheep
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