In 2014, I wrote and published a document that has been shared the world over regarding some of the misinformation out there regarding Livestock Guardian Dogs. I’m currently updating it and thought it would be good to share it on here to kickoff the new change in the blog. Since it’s a long document, I’m going to divide it into parts for easier digestion.
Myths and Misinformation about Working LGDs – Carolee Penner
1) Livestock Guardian Dogs should be raised hands off.
This is a common assumption that is wide spread in North America. We can trace this advice back to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger who, between 1977 and 1990, bred and placed more than 1400 LGDs on sheep farms and ranches across the US and Canada through their government funded Livestock Guarding Dog Project . Ray Coppinger is a biologist whose passion was studying dogs around the world and running sled dogs. The original dogs bred for the project were imported by the Coppingers from a variety of countries overseas where these dogs were traditionally used. Even though Ray Coppinger observed the dogs in their native lands and handpicked the ones for import, he failed to recognize how much the pastoral environment and group/family dynamic that the LGDs were raised in contributed to their success. As a consequence of this failure, he recommended that all LGDs should be raised hands off and kept solely with their charges from a very early age, with minimal human handling. The impact of this advice is still felt today in that raising with little human intervention is still seen among many farmers and ranchers as the ideal way to care for these dogs.
We know now that this approach has caused many dogs to lose their lives or to live in such a way that they are overly fearful or aggressive towards their owners. Good working dogs have had to be shot or are unsafe for rehoming when the operation they work on is sold or downsized. Dogs have to be lassoed or trapped for the most basic of health care or vetting and as a consequence wounds and injuries often go untreated. Dogs are unable to discern between a viable threat or the approach of someone to care for them and behave aggressively, resulting in being shot or put to sleep. Young pups can easily become overwhelmed by aggressive stock and resort to defending themselves aggressively. Adolescent dogs may try chasing stock and are deemed unsuitable for the job instead of being open to correction from their owners. In short, raising LGDs hand off is a very bad idea and results in wasted time, money and ultimately in the loss of what could be or are very valuable working dogs.
2) A Livestock Guardian Dog should automatically know what to do and not to do with the stock.
As in most misinformation, there is a kernel of truth to this. LGDs have been selected and/or bred for a long time in various countries to enhance desired traits around livestock. Since the animals they protect are naturally easily frightened by predators like dogs, LGDs have developed nearly the polar opposite body structure of the prick eared, lithe wolf or coyote. LGD ears are wide set and drooping. Their eyes have a mournful, soft or relaxed expression to avoid triggering fear in the stock. Their bodies are larger than most dogs in order to be an effective threat to predators and their heads and muzzles are round and soft, mostly lacking in chiseled angles. Their movements are naturally slow and fluid, except in the presence of a threat. When mature, they are not triggered off by the prey movements of their charges – indeed, their reduced prey drive is often evident when they are young pups and find little interest in chasing balls or playing tug. Everything about their structure and nature avoids triggering prey response in their charges and at the same time inspires confidence and security.
Raising a successful LGD is quite often dependent on guidance and input from older, more experienced dogs willing to correct inappropriate behavior and model appropriate behavior as well as input from the shepherd/owner. LGDs learn the ropes as they grow and mature – by watching, trying things out and responding to appropriate correction. In the absence of canid role models, their owners need to step up to the plate and train them appropriately. Given the widespread nature of #1 above, many LGD pups do not get what they need to be set up for success.
Historically, dogs with the completely wrong instinct would be culled, but it is also true that as the litters were heavily culled initially, the remaining pups would often be set up for success due to the higher amount of personal attention they received by the more experienced dogs and the shepherd. Even in our modern western approach to farming and ranching, inexperienced LGDs and pups need to be set up for success at every turn initially in order to understand what is expected of them and so that they don’t end up in a situation they are not prepared to handle on their own.
3) Livestock Guardian Dogs need to be rehomed or killed if they hurt the livestock.
Each situation needs to be examined on its own merits, but it is true that many successful LGDs make mistakes with the stock when they are inexperienced or not yet mature. The reasons for this can range from being placed with stock that bully them when they are young to being bored as adolescents and discovering that chasing flighty stock is a fun game. Since every behavior that is practiced becomes stronger, it is very important that any unwanted behavior be caught early and appropriate changes made in the environment in order for the dog to be successful. Alternately, the dog should be corrected and/or put away when they display the behavior, but the correction must be just enough in the dog’s mind to convince them to abandon the behavior. LGDs are typically very sensitive to correction from their owners, especially when they have a good respectful relationship. Corrections must also occur in the act, just before or just after.
In order to effect these changes, supervision is necessary to catch the dog before they mess up or in the act. When the dog cannot be directly supervised, they should be retired to a pen in or directly adjacent to the stock. Alternately, owners can put their misbehaving pup/adolescent in with less vulnerable stock who won’t put up with the behavior. Care must be taken to ensure for the safety of the dog if that approach is taken. If the behavior proves hard to eliminate, it may be that the correction is not sufficient or done with inappropriate timing. It also might be that the dog is unable to comply at that time due to immaturity or health problems. If in doubt, consult a more experienced farmer and/or trainer.
Another scenario where LGDs can be susceptible to unintentional harming of the stock is during birthing time. All LGDs should be strictly supervised or separated from birthing stock unless they have proven themselves previously and are mature. Maturity does not occur with most LGDs until closer to 3 years of age. Since there is a lot of blood and bodily fluids in the birthing process and the new babies are covered in the same, it can prove to be too tempting for immature or inexperenced dogs. Their predatory instincts can be triggered even when trying to help the mother clean the babies, and many instances of owners coming across partially eaten newborn babies have been reported. Some dogs naturally clean up stillborn babies, so it is important to understand that not all dogs who have been found with partially eaten newborns are doing the wrong thing. If the owner is unsure, however, supervision is the only way to ensure that the dog is behaving appropriately.
Since both mothers and babies are the most vulnerable at birthing time, it is imperative that proper supervision or separation is enacted until the LGD has proven themselves and is fully mature. If a dog takes up going after newborn stock when they were previously reliable, they should be removed and the possibility of a dietary imbalance or other health issue should be explored.
Finally, LGDs are very orderly dogs. Much of their success as guardians relies on knowing the routine and what is normal and not normal in the environment. Therefore, introducing new stock or rehoming the dog to another operation can result in confusion about what is acceptable and not acceptable for them. Introduce new stock slowly and introduce the dog to his new environment slowly and carefully so that he has a chance to acclimate to what is expected and what is normal. Injuries may happen if this process is rushed without allowing the dog to accept and understand the new stock or environment.
4) Livestock Guardian dogs are just tools and don’t need the same care as pet dogs.
LGDs provide a much needed service on farming and ranching operations, but they ARE animals and not objects. They, like the stock on the farm/ranch, need good input (food, water, vaccinations, deworming) and regular care in order to produce good output for the farmer or rancher. If farmers are not willing to put time, effort and money into their dogs, it is highly likely that the dogs’ ability to perform will be negatively impacted. It is the wise producer who realizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping animals, and in this, LGDs are no exception.
Good physical structure is just as important for LGDs, since they are just as prone to having chronic pain due to badly formed bodies as any other animal. LGDs do have a naturally high tolerance for discomfort and pain, in other words, they are very stoic. However, this does not mean that they don’t suffer, just that producers may have to look a little harder to find evidence of the suffering. It often displays as aberrant behavior – being picky at mealtimes, sudden aggression, moving slower to get up and a reluctance to sit or lie down, being off by themselves, etc.
Rest is vital to the optimal performance of LGDs. Many producers under stock their dogs, thinking that one dog can take care of a flock alone or that few can take care of large flocks on range. While a producer’s individual predator pressure needs to be taken into account, in general, these dogs need a partner to trade off with and in the case of range work, need others to back them up in any battles they encounter. It may look as though the dogs aren’t doing much when they are observed in the daytime, but it is important to note that most of their duties are performed between dusk and dawn, when predators are most active. In order for the dogs to get appropriate rest, especially during seasons when predator pressure is high, they must be kept in pairs or groups.
5) Anyone who has been running these dogs for a while on their operation will understand them well.
Due to their substantial independent natures, farmers and ranchers can have and work LGDs for years and still not understand them or care for them very well. A good indicator of a producer’s understanding of their LGD is the relationship the dog has with them. Evident fear of or aggression towards their owner are not signs of a good relationship. Another indicator is if the dog is in good shape and easily approachable. No one who respects or understands their LGDs well will keep them in poor condition or be unable to put their hands on them. Heavy chains or feral behavior are both warning signs to look for on a visit.
– Up next: Part II