Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Selecting, raising and training LGD pups, Part 1

This begins a series of posts on puppy raising and selection that I believe is overdue for both owners and breeders. I find most information on this subject to be lacking in substance, with very few exceptions. Some is downright inappropriate, touting the best forgotten Coppinger methods or encouraging people to raise these dogs as you would the smallest of house pets.

I’ve written here before about the inherent problems with the old Coppinger-style method of LGD puppy rearing. It bears repeating that Ray Coppinger, while responsible for the proliferation of the working LGD in North America, also set all LGD owners off on the wrong foot by insisting that all pups are raised “hands off”, a term used to refer to methods of raising pups by touching them and interfering with them as little as possible. He is single handedly responsible for most of the problems we have here with LGDs now, both through inappropriate breeding selection criteria and the inability to meet their needs. I would go so far as to say that anyone providing guidance on raising LGDs who does not also acknowledge how Coppinger harmed the evolution of the North American LGD should not be trusted.

On to pup handling and training.

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Unfortunately, we rarely have control over the first weeks of a pup’s life unless we have whelped them ourselves, so most of the advice contained herein will be focused on what to do after 8 wks of age. That is not to say that there isn’t value in pressuring breeders to do differently with their pups, nor that mistakes made either during breeding selection or the first 2 months of life won’t impact the pups into adulthood. In my opinion, (and there is good science to back this up) there is priceless value in paying better attention to both breeding selection and the early raising of LGD pups. Arguably, with better breeding selection and more thorough socialization in early life, we would have more success and less work to do with the them afterwards. Fixing early mistakes and deficient genetics is not something that the average owner is prepared to do – nor is it always successful for seasoned professionals. The early period of a pup’s life is so critical to their ability to weather the maturing phases, albeit not quite as important as resilient and appropriate genetics. For example, no matter how you treat a working bred herding dog during early time of their life, you will not turn them into a successful LGD without a fight – and it is highly unlikely to happen even then. You also cannot easily turn a timid pup into a confident guardian, nor can you easily convince an overly aggressive pup with poor self control to direct and control their instincts in a more appropriate manner.

One thing we settlers often forget here in NA, due to our shallow experience living with dogs, is how vitally important groupings (packs) are to shaping our dogs to working success. We are enamored with the solitary dog trope more often than not, romanticizing the dog as solitary creatures capable of being all things to us. Apart from hunting dogs (who are rarely required to do complex behaviors outside of periodic hunting excursions), we keep most of our dogs singularly or only in pairs . This is not reflective of how our working LGDs were raised historically, and still are quite often today in their countries of origin. The “pack” or group, typically familial, plays as vital a role in the shaping of a good working LGD: as does the shepherd, their family and sometimes the village as a whole. Coppinger himself acknowledged a few years ago that his observational skills regarding raising and training LGDs overseas were greatly lacking. He now attributes the success of the LGDs overseas to this pastorally communal influence on the pups, both in terms of genetics and environment. It’s unfortunate that he has chosen to only acknowledge this when pressured, preferring to continue the illusion that what he did for early LGDs on this continent was a good thing.

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Two Armenian Gampr pups share the proceeds of a recent lamb slaughter by their shepherd. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer 2015

The other thing I have spoken about before in this blog is how our westernized canine handling and body language skills are not of the highest order. We struggle to relate to our dogs, as evidenced by the sheer number of failed and struggling dog/human pairings we currently have.  The exception to this misunderstanding is with working herding and gun dogs, as we have a long and strong history of working with them. Outside of this sphere, however, we struggle hard to adapt our interaction and observational skills. Nowhere is this more prominent than with LGDs. I cannot count the number of times I have had to encourage owners and trainers to listen more, give more freedom and space to LGDs – our natural default is always to micromanage and to be very heavy handed. Successful relationship requires the realization that we are only one side of the equation and further,  that everything we do affects the other side. In other words, everything we do – both consciously and unconsciously – affects our dogs and the ultimate satisfaction of the relationship. When we approach our dogs to work with them, it is always better to be thoughtful and to act carefully than to be rash and risk making more of a mess than is there already. With LGDs especially, as in many dog types with a longer arc of maturity, making a training plan that focuses on the long term and allows for latent learning is the way to go. Quite often, I won’t train or interfere daily, choosing to allow the times of training I do have to be very targeted, incremental and to allow for periods in between for the dog to absorb the information. This works well, as the dogs tend to make large learning leaps between sessions. This also keeps both of us from becoming frustrated with each other or bored with rote learning.

If we can start from a place where we acknowledge our inherent deficiencies when it comes to understanding and handling these dogs, we will always be in a better position to do the right thing by them. If we can open our minds to learn from those who have the historical knowledge of LGDs, we will do even better.

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  1. Choose your pup carefully.

This is the one thing that is the most important piece advice I can offer. So many problems can be prevented by just taking the time to choose the right pup. Unlike many others, I am not a proponent of certain breeds over others, nor do I care whether a pup is from registered parents. Some of the best dogs I have encountered and owned are from cross litters of LGD breeds. Some of the worst are from registered purebred breeders. Conversely, I believe that consistent, “pure” breeding helps us to retain certain characteristics, so it is of value. After years of experience, I am thoroughly convinced that a good dog can be found in almost any circumstance, but that most people have trouble sorting out how to evaluate that. So, choose pups from working parents who themselves show good LGD characteristics. They should be stable dogs, not quick to strike at their owners. They should have been treated well, with fairness and access to all they need in terms of food/shelter/water/vet care. If they don’t receive this currently, it will have changed their character in a negative way.

Watch the parents of the pups for signs of health problems and ask a lot of questions about their character. Are they showing signs of chronic pain? Are they watchful, alert? Do they roam? Do they appear to be in general good health? Does the breeder have vet records and are they willing to share with you? Remember that dogs who live outside and defend against predators won’t look the same as pampered house pets, but they shouldn’t appear sick or emaciated.

How do the pups look? Are they also showing signs of good health? How many survived in the litter and what happened to those who didn’t? Some mortality is to be expected, but it can also indicate genetic problems such as high levels of inbreeding. Are they active and curious? Are there some who look well but others who don’t? Are some cowering in the corner? This can indicate unmitigated temperament problems.

Where are the pups kept? Coppinger-style rearing typically shows itself here first – the pups are kept in smaller areas away from people or in with the stock (with no escape) from day 1. Neither option is good and leads to insecurity in the pups. Have they been handled? If so, how much? Have they been exposed to children, cars, other people, off farm or household noises? How important are these things to you?

Have the pups had any worming or vaccinations? These are things that aren’t deal breakers necessarily, but very good information to have. Pups with heavy loads of parasites will have a “potbellied” appearance and will not look generally healthy. They can be overly hungry while still appearing undernourished. Pups with external parasites will be itchy or appear uncomfortable. Their coat will not be glossy and they may have red patches on their skin and missing hair. While these things are fixable, living like this will affect the character of the pup. Some parasites like ringworm are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmissible to humans.  There are also very serious diseases that vaccinations prevent, like distemper and parvo. Parvo especially is difficult and expensive to treat and causes long term effects. It is also highly contagious.

How and what are the pups fed? While this is perhaps less important a consideration, it is good information to have. Communally fed pups, especially after weaning, tend to have more problems with resource guarding (RG) later on. Underfed pups will also tend to have problems with RG. This is not insurmountable, but it’s an important consideration. The type of food they are fed could also cause problems later on or indicate an issue; LGDs were selected to subsist on low protein, high carb food stuffs. There is evidence that too high of a protein or caloric content in food (causing pups to grow rapidly) can lead to hip dysplasia later on, as does breeding for large pups over athletically sound pups. Further, if pups or parents have to be kept on a certain restrictive diet, this can indicate allergies or intolerances, things that can become costly to maintain and ultimately undermine a dog’s working effectiveness. There is sufficient indication that allergies and intolerances have a genetic component and definitely go hand in hand with high levels of inbreeding. Take any information given to you about restrictions as a red flag that there could be costly health problems in the future. Your dog will also have a shortened working life span and perhaps a shortened life span overall.

Have the pups been exposed to livestock and if so, which kind and how? It goes without saying that if you want a working dog, ideally you should get that working dog from a place where that work is done. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find a working pup from a breeder who doesn’t work their dogs or from a rescue where the working ability can’t be tested, but those would be decisions that require extra caution and that carry more risk. Pups should be introduced to stock gradually or at least with extra forethought to ensure they cannot be harmed or harm. They should be supervised at least part of the time to ensure that their interactions are appropriate and safe. The breeder should be willing to correct overzealous pups and spend the time helping more timid pups gain confidence.

Choose the pup with the correct temperament for your needs. Sometimes breeders will insist on making this choice for you, but they should only do so if they are aware of the complexities behind puppy/owner matches and after they have asked you questions about your current situation, experience and future plans. While puppy temperament is not always predictive of the adult character of that dog, it does give a lot of information about who that pup is right now. Much will go into the shaping of that dog’s character as they grow, but their needs are evident very early on. Is the pup more timid? Then they will need to gain confidence and have patient guidance. Is the pup bold and enjoys taking risks? Then that pup will need to learn risk assessment and firmer leadership during the process of maturity. Be reasonable and practical about your abilities and your expectations when choosing.

Choose the right gender. If this is your first pup, then this choice will revolve around personal preference more so than if you already have one or more LGDs working for you. If you have other intact dogs on the property or living nearby and not contained, that may also affect your decision. If you plan to breed someday, that will also be a determining factor. Keeping an intact dog through to maturity is not without risk or extra work, and should be done with that in mind. That said, inform yourself about the risks of early spay and neuter, especially for male dogs. Males are cheaper to fix (sterilize) and do not carry the risk of turning up pregnant, but they can be the cause of unwanted litters even in your neighborhood if they wander. They can be more laid back, but often don’t coexist well with other males, especially if kept intact. Females can be more intense, but again, the individual differences of each dog are more important than gender stereotypes. Both females and males will be more distracted during times of heat and both may be less willing to get rid of any opposite sex stray that happens on to your property. They may also attract wild canines, but hybrid litters are less common than many people believe. Consider as well the eventual composition of your working LGD pairings or groupings. If you have a male already, it is wiser to get a female pup if you want them to work well together over time. The opposite is true. This is not to say that pairs of females or males don’t work out – in fact, they can be some of the best pairings if done thoughtfully. Two pups raised together or a young pup with a same sex older LGD are two of the easiest ways to accomplish this. Same sex pairings do require more hierarchy conflicts over time, as do groupings. Some breeds/types will be more prone to conflict than others. A certain amount of comfort with social conflict is required on the part of the owner.

Will the breeder provide support for you and if so, is there a laundry list of requirements that you need to follow in order to receive the support? Personally, I refuse to buy puppies from breeders who insist on a lot of control over the pup after money exchanges hands. A handful of requirements is always fine, and I prefer a breeder who stands behind what they produce, but I also believe strongly in the autonomy of an owner over their dog. In purebred breeding, the control from a breeder can be a indicator that health and temperament is a concern in the parents/lines. Do not assume that breeders will tell you all there is to know about a pup and their background. If a breeder is more concerned about telling how awful every other breeder is than about their own program, this is also a red flag. If they claim that they have never had any problems with their breeding program or with their pups, and if all faults are blamed on the owners, then this is also a good indication that not all is as it seems. Some breeders are willing to provide support only as long as you agree with them and their methods. It is wise to find other outlets for support as well as your breeder.

Most importantly when choosing a pup is to match the breed or type to your expectations and needs. Apart from the general warning to keep your expectations appropriate to life stages (do not expect a young pup to protect your animals/property from predators or an adolescent pup to get their instincts sorted on their own), it is so very important to determine what your ideal LGD would look like. What behavior appeals to you most? What sort of human traffic do you have on your property? What infrastructure does your operation have? Do you have small children and do you want them to interact with the dog? LGDs should be excellent with children of all sizes, but a rambunctious pup will struggle to behave appropriately with very small children. If a more assertive pup needs strong guidance, this will be harder to maintain with younger children. Do you have a business on your property or a large extended family? Do you want the pup to grow to protect property, livestock or a combination of both? Will wandering be a problem and if so, can you install and reinforce fencing? Some breeds/types are more likely to bond to stock over territory. Others accept strange humans on their home turf more easily than others. Some view people on the same level of threat as a wild predator. Be sure your comfort with liability matches the predisposition of the dog you buy.

(the second post in this series can be found here)

 

 

 


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Rules to live by.

As I’m wrapping up my life on this farm, I find myself thinking about the hard and fast rules that I wish current and prospective owners knew about working LGDs.  Here is a compilation of some of them for easy reference.

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Do not buy a pup who has not been handled or socialized.  This stupid trend NEEDS to end and the only way that will happen is if buyers stop supporting it.

Do not wait to address inappropriate behavior.  Teach your pup or dog the expected rules (ie. manners) from the get go.  More problems occur because owners slough off the responsibility to teach their pups and then wonder why the now-large LGD is behaving badly and not listening.

Don’t post: “ISO perfect young LGD who will never make a mistake, or challenge a fence.”  Where do you think LGDs come from, a robot factory?  If you have no time to put in and expect perfection right out of the gate, abandon the idea of a LGD.  I’ll happily slap you myself if you don’t.

Don’t expect more of your dog than they can handle for their age or experience.  A small pup is not the physical or mental equivalent of a mature LGD.  No one with half a brain thinks that a young herding pup could move sheep all day or a pup raised for detection work could sniff for bombs all day long – no, working dogs are given time to mature and learn the ropes before being thrown in the deep end.  Get a grip and stop being an idiot.

Socialize all pups.  Don’t look for excuses not to and don’t think up reasons why you can’t.  DO IT.  If anyone says otherwise, run -don’t walk – away.  They’re just playing “expert”.  Ain’t no one got time for that. (See the previous post for a more elaborate explanation on “experts”.)

If it comes down to practicality or taking the long way around when it comes to training techniques, choose practicality.  LGDs are working dogs.  They understand clear, honest communication as long as your overarching priority is to retain and build relationship.

Do not rescue a dog that you are not equipped to handle, no matter how much other people pressure you to or how badly you want to “save a life”.  Only do it if you are certain you can handle the consequences if everything goes sideways.  You could well end up on the business end of a set of sharp teeth or picking up dead stock in your pasture.  When in doubt, leave the rehabbing to the experts.

Don’t limp a broken dog along.  Dogs are mentally broken for different reasons, but it always comes down to either nature or nurture – genetics or care.  The fact of the matter is that unlike many other dogs, LGDs grow into a certain hardness that is difficult, if not impossible, to change.  They are meant to be this way so that once taught well, they are able to stick to their guns no matter what goes on around them.  Unfortunately, this also means that a dog who is treated badly early on may well never get past it.  It also means that while a pup is fairly malleable (especially when very young), this window closes quite rapidly and often isn’t long enough to make up for genetic deficiencies.

Start giving a crap about health.  The LGDs we have here are often so inbred or overbred that health problems are wide sweeping and endemic.  If a breeder wants to give you a laundry list of things you cannot do with their dogs or has dogs who are impaired or consistently passing away early, don’t buy from them.  A good lifespan for a working LGD should be well past year 10, especially if they are not under a lot of strain from predators.  Dogs should not be falling apart in the pasture before then.

There is never any substitution for a well bred, stable, dog.  EVER.  If you choose to limp a dog through their inherent problems, don’t breed them.  If the problem is not genetic in origin, remember that even issues that arise due to environment or handling can and will impact future generations.  Seek a qualified independent assessment of your dog or try to match them with a mate who is strong in their weak areas.  This way, at least some of the litter should be better equipped to deal with life.

A dog who is mean to your children or young stock is not a good LGD.  Period. No more needs to be said on the subject.

Stick your tongue out at anyone who tells you that LGDs are mystical creatures who lived with unicorns back in the cradle of civilization and eat lions for lunch.  LGDs are pretty special, but they are first and foremost dogs and need to be treated as such.  They make mistakes, they need training, and they need a capable human to lean on from time to time.

LGD/non-LGD crosses DO NOT MAKE GOOD LGD PROSPECTS.  Stop testing this, stop thinking you know better or can be a part of a new wave of exciting non-traditional LGDs.  You’re being a moron like many morons before you.  If it was possible to consistently produce good LGDs from such pairings, they’d be everywhere by now.

Get off the large LGD forums.  There are so many voices on there that are just loud, not necessarily informed or experienced.  You’re going to do much better by doing some independent reading, stalking of smaller groups, following common sense and listening to your gut if you have one.  You’re going to do much better by digesting different portions of information that make a lot of sense than by trying to do random things people tell you to do online.  Stop outsourcing your research and your thinking.  In this day and age, there is no excuse for being naive about any new venture.

Finally, YOU alone are ultimately responsible for your choice to employ LGDs.  You are responsible for everything your dogs do.  Take it seriously and don’t be a part of the reason why the use of LGDs is restricted in the future.  Protect your dog and protect your community equally.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside….

It occurred to me today, as I sipped my second cup of coffee and looked out on a winter wonderland, that there really is a dearth of information regarding the appropriate care of LGDs in very cold weather.

I live in a part of Canada where we often see the extremes of both ends of the thermometer.  We have high temperatures with higher humidity in the summer and very low temperatures with dry air that cracks your skin in the winter.  This type of exceptionally seasonal climate is one of the more challenging places to keep Livestock Guardian Dogs.

Even if you don’t experience winters where the mercury regularly dips to -40 or more, but you live where humidity is higher, if you’ve move recently or if your seasons are changing dramatically with global warming, you may wonder how to tell if your LGD is adequately provided for.  The advice provided by the pet sector, which is the most readily available information, often leads people to the wrong conclusions.  While perhaps well intentioned, most pet and shelter suggestions given out at this time of year focus on the dog that was never intended to handle cold climes: the small, slight, single or short coated dog.  They then extrapolate that information to all dogs in the hopes that people will err on the side of caution.  Sometimes, they get the information wrong for farm animals and dogs alike.   Memes like the ones below just make things worse.

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Information like this relies heavily on anthropomorphism which is the notion of ascribing human attributes to something non-human.  “If it’s too cold outside for you, it’s too cold for them.” is the ongoing mantra of this movement – no matter how illogical that sounds.  Dogs are not built like humans, don’t think like humans, and some really prefer to be outdoors rather than confined to a hot, stifling house.  For us producers, an acknowledgement that LGDs are not, in fact, pets, and that they have a job they’ve been equipped to do outside regardless of the weather would go a long way towards healing the rift between farmers and the pet sector.  The more responsible we are about recognizing what our dogs need in extreme weather, the more we will help to head off any Nosy Nellies who want to know how we could be so cruel as to keep dogs outside year round.

Let’s talk a bit about that responsibility.

From my point of view, the most important thing we can do for our LGDs is to choose dogs with a coat type that can handle the environment they are expected to live in.   No matter how much you like the look of a certain kind of dog, if they are not equipped to live outside all year where you are, it is unethical to require them to do so.  Very short coats are not appropriate for working in extreme weather.   Single coated dogs are very susceptible to weather changes and typically only do well in very hot climates without extensive care; therefore, all LGDs should have double coats.  Double coated dogs have exactly what you’d expect from the name: two coats.  The outer coat is comprised of longer guard hairs that are naturally water repellent.  They retain this coat throughout the year.  Underneath grows a slightly shorter plush and fleecy coat that traps warm air in the winter and retains it close to the dog’s skin.  In essence, the properly double coated dog wears a downy, weather repellent coat all of the time – a perfect accessory for living in the cold.  Contrary to what many people think, this coat serves equally well to keep the dogs cool in summer, shedding out when the warm weather comes to allow maximum air flow close to the skin.

The double coat comes in short, medium and long versions.  I personally feel that any dog who is meant to live and work in extreme conditions should have at least a medium length double coat.  Take your cues from the predators who live in your area – what length of coat do they have? This should be the minimum coat on your dogs.  The last thing you want is for your dogs to be handicapped by needing to be more concerned about keeping themselves warm than defending the flock.  Dogs with overly short coats for their environment will spend more time seeking warmth and will need to eat significantly more than dogs who are able to retain more of their body heat with longer coats.

It’s important to note that not all LGDs here in North America have been bred with proper weather resistant coats, even if they are double coated and of a good length.  A good example of this is the “cottony” coat that has been bred into many show Great Pyrenees and that finds its way into the working populace.  This coat requires extensive grooming, mats easily, absorbs moisture instead of shedding it and consequently does not serve to keep the dog warm in the winter or cool in the summer.  When freshly groomed, this coat resembles a cotton ball and consequently often has to be shaved in the summer to avoid matting completely.  A proper double coat, regardless of length, will shed out on its own twice a year, will be very self cleaning, and will require only minimal annual or bi-annual brushing.

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Ivy models her mid-length double coat in the winter. Her coat is ideal for this length, keeping her very warm through to -50 (along with access to insulated shelter) and shedding any dirt or debris on its own. Bolt’s winter coat as pictured in the blog header is another proper, mid length coat.

How do we know if a LGD’s double coat is doing its job in the cold?  The easiest time to check at a glance is when it’s snowing.  If the snow lands on the dog and remains intact, not melting, the coat is working well.  If the snow turns to water, this means that too much heat is escaping from the dog’s body and melting it.  Sometimes a puppy coat can do this but correct itself when the adult coat grows in; more often the coat is appropriate from the beginning.

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Ivy (back) and Anneke (front) show off their mid length winter coats. Anneke was approximately 7 months old in this photo.

 

Jojo's dogs Jo and Mo

A friend’s LGDs in a winter blizzard. If you look closely, you can see that the snow rests on them and would shed off easily with movement. In weather such as this, the dogs curl up with their feet and heads tucked into their bodies. The snow acts as another insulating layer. Many producers report that their dogs will choose to lie like this despite available shelter just feet away. We have certainly witnessed this here on our farm as well. (Used with Permission)

Even the most well coated dog can have trouble staying warm in the very extremely cold weather, especially if it is prolonged.  It is important to remember that even if the thermometer reads only a moderately cold temperature, the wind can drive that number much lower.  For this reason, a windbreak of some kind is crucial if a full shelter cannot be provided.  Since most LGDs prefer to stay with their stock (who also help to provide body heat), a windbreak for everyone will be more readily used than a stand alone dog house under these circumstances.

Extreme weather requires the dog to burn more calories to stay warm, just as it does for livestock.  Apart from changes to the environment, if your dog continues to have trouble keeping weight on in the winter or begins to shiver, consider increasing the amount of food they are fed daily.  Feeding twice a day instead of once, adding a bit more fat and/or carbs, and adding warm water to the food are all ways to tackle this problem.  Thirst increases in the winter as well, making free access to liquid water a necessity.  This helps ensure that the dogs remain healthy and that their digestive systems continue to operate properly.

Provide warm bedding, especially bedding that has insulating properties and doesn’t easily trap and hold moisture.  We use straw here, since it is plentiful and fits the criteria.  Only consider providing a coat for your dog as a last resort and only in the most extreme weather, as it can interfere with their ability to acclimate to the elements.  It may be tempting to bring your dogs inside to the comfort of your heated house.  In my opinion, it is better to allow them free access to a heated spot outside.  Our houses are kept at almost unbearable temperatures for properly coated dogs who have acclimated to living outside. A heated portion of an insulated building or a heating mat are much better options.  It is also very difficult for a devoted LGD to protect and nurture their charges from inside the house.

A pair or multiple dogs may well do much better in the winter than one.  They are much more likely to get moving, through play or patrolling, and keep their bodies more limber and warm than if they were to lay around all day.  They are much more likely to work together against predators and as a result be able to conserve as much energy as possible.  A well rested, well nourished dog who is not anxious about their ability to drive off predators will be a much more effective guardian year-round.

*** A few important notes: 

  •  Both age and health problems will compromise the ability of a dog to regulate their body temperature outside.  The responsible producer will keep these in mind when assessing the condition of their dogs in the winter and make changes accordingly.  Read about age, compromised health and complications here.
  • Humid cold weather will affect dogs with arthritis much in the way it affects humans with the same condition.  It is best to work with a vet to address this problem if at all possible.  For further reading, click here.
  • It is more important than ever to check LGDs over from head to toe frequently in the winter.  In this way, you are likely to find any problems early on and be able to address them before they get worse. 
  • Cold weather slows wound healing, as mentioned in Merck’s “Wound Management”.  Keep a close eye on any wounds and their healing process.  Be proactive in contacting your vet if you notice anything amiss.
  • If your dog’s feet gather a lot of snowballs during parts of the winter, trim the hair on the bottom of their feet.
  • Further reading on LGDs and cold weather can be found here.  A good post regarding cold weather and other types of dogs can be found here.

 


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Life hits hard.

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I don’t think this has ever been as clear to me as it has been over the last two weeks.   Having lost all manner of animals on the farm over the past 5 years (despite best efforts and education), I thought I was fairly innoculated to whatever could possibly happen when I finally became a dog breeder.  I was SO wrong.

I can’t remember exactly when I decided on my breeding philosophy, nor can I remember exactly the moment I decided that Ivy, my main LGD, needed to pass on her genetics, but suffice it to say that this litter was in the works for quite a while – years.  I worked my way past the “only registered dogs deserve to be bred” poppycock (yes, I believed that too, once upon a time), tested Ivy in all kinds of ways both medical and behavioral, measured her worth to the future gene pool as best I could, and agonized dramatically over every eventuality; lost sleep became a pretty common occurrence in my life.  Breeding dogs responsibly who only have a limited pedigree information in a world that wants to crucify those who don’t shelter in the kennel club system and often just breeders in general takes nerves of steel.  No exaggeration.  It’s always hilarious to me how it takes so much internal fortitude to carve a new path while consistently being accused of just not caring at all…. but that’s fodder for another post.  Back to Ivy and what happened in the last two weeks.

This is Ivy.

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You’ve seen pictures of her before on here, and if you’re FB friends with me or on the BWD group, you’ve seen more than a few – most notably the one where she is wrapped around the 2lb ewe lamb we had this spring.  She has been our stalwart guardian, the quintessential LGD: nurturing, protective, ever vigilant, ever willing to go to the mat with anyone or anything that is a threat to her charges. She has always been “as healthy as a horse” despite no veterinary care whatsoever for the first half of her life.  She overcame a puppyhood and early life of misunderstanding and neglect to become everything that a stock guardian should be.  At 5.5 years old, I believed that without a doubt she deserved to pass on her genes to future generations.

I picked a complimentary sire, a nice Great Pyrenees, for the litter – which was easier said than done given that I had no options with registered dogs (ew, who would mate a registered dog to one who isn’t????  Grrr.) and had to pay for testing of whichever working dog I chose.  I hoped that I would find an amenable owner as well (I did, incidentally – she far exceeded my expectations).   Getting two working dogs together was no easy task either.  Ivy and I managed it all, better than I could have hoped; then we sat back and waited.  Well, I sat back.  Ivy just went back to doing what she always did, guarding her wooly children.

Since this was the first time for both of us, after it was clear that she was in milk and getting bigger all the time, I decided to take her in for an x ray.   Ivy thought that was a pretty stupid idea and her normally tolerant self nearly bit the vet as we were removing her from the table.  Still, we had this:

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PUPPIES!  Many, many more puppies than I’d expected for a maiden litter at her age.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t over the moon, but still worried.  If anything, this post should be a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks that being worried and vigilant will keep disaster at bay.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details leading up to labor, but since I was determined to whelp in situ, I will set the stage in the barn, late Sunday morning.   The first pup was born, a fairly colorful, wormy-squirmy little girl.  She was joined in short order by a little boy who looked just like his dad.  We were on a roll and Ivy was doing fabulously.  Then we had the first stillborn.

When all was said and done, 24 hours later, we had 4 stillborn pups in various stages of development.  The vet felt at that time that it was likely to be coincidental and wouldn’t affect the remaining pups – 7 in total.  I moved everyone up to the house before whelping was done – I was taking no chances. When we had one who seemed lethargic from the get-go, I wondered if the stillborns weren’t more of a red flag than we’d both thought.  When one died in his sleep the next morning, my daughter and I packed everyone up for a trip to the vet.  When two seemingly vigorous pups died on the way home from the vet, the icy cold fingers of dread traveled down my spine and touched my toes.  We were in deep trouble.  Both pups were packed off to the vet to be sent for necropsy.

Ivy was frantic.  She’d had a hard labor – a lot of pups – and now only 4 remained.  One was hanging on by a thread by the time we got into the house.  My daughter revived her; I revived her 3 times after that.  I dribbled electrolytes onto her tongue with a tiny syringe. She was dying and there was nothing I could do.  The urge to weep was overwhelming, but no tears would come.  Screaming seemed easier, but I couldn’t.   I whispered to her to hang on as my mind flailed desperately, trying to sort out what to do.  As she took her last breath, I decided to post on a FB reproduction group.  Typically I try to stay away from such postings as the advice can be so random and conflicting on larger groups… but I needed something, anything.  Ivy looked at me with her pleading eyes as two more pups flopped more than they should.

Fortuitously, one of the first commenters advised me to get antibiotics into the survivors.  Finally, something I could do!  Within a short time, I had the antibiotics (a big thank you to my vet!) and we started on our journey to health.  There was still around the clock care, temperature management and managing a first time, traumatized mom who wasn’t used to being in the house… but we’d pulled those two pups back from the brink of death and nothing else mattered.

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l-r Augustus (Gus), Bogs, Frank the Tank

It turns out that Ivy, the ever healthy, ever vigilant, ever working girl that she is, had an overgrowth of bacteria; three types, all three common, run-of-the-mill strains.  They infiltrated the pups’ placentas, and since Ivy didn’t show any signs of infection herself, we were none the wiser.  Nature kicked our collective asses, and none of us had a clue.

Breeding in general is not for the feint of heart, I knew this going in.  What I didn’t know is that breeding my beloved working dog would impact me far and away more than any other kind of breeding ever has.  I also didn’t know how polarizing this experience would be for me, and as a result how it’s informed my choice of who to trust as a friend in this crazy dog-eat-dog world.  Those who professed support but were nowhere to be found when the proverbial shit hit the fan and those who made themselves available to support me through this both surprised and reinforced for me that I’m on the right track in what I’m doing.

I’ll leave you with pictures of these future stock defenders I’m sharing my life with at the moment.  They’re just 2 weeks old in these.  As sheep breeding starts up here on the farm, grazing winds down and winter preparations kick into high gear, I am left with thoughts of what to do for Ivy’s second and final litter.  I do know that I am a much wiser and empathetic dog breeder for having gone through this experience, and that if I can manage to produce as tough and fiesty pups as Gus, Bogs and Frank the second time around, I’ll be doing something right.

Augustus (Gus)

Augustus/Gus (boy)

 

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Bogs (girl)

 

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Frank (girl)

 

P.S. –  Gus is going up north to join two working LGD with their sheep flock, one on the verge of retirement.  Bogs doesn’t have a placement yet.  Frank the Tank will be staying with us here on the farm.

– Carolee


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Shake those hips – the foundation of a strong dog. Part II

If you’ve spent any time on my FB groups or have spoken to me about dog breeding, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of closed registry breeding and conversely, I really like some forms of health testing.  Screening for hip dysplasia is one of those health tests I will always do – in fact, it’s smack dab at the top of my list.  This is despite the fact that clear screens on both parents is not a guarantee that the pups won’t end up someday with HD.  There are plenty of breeders who feel that it is unnecessary to screen their dogs, claiming both that they’d implicitly know if their LGDs had the condition and that the lack of guarantee for a HD free outcome for the pups makes it not worth the expense of testing.  While the former is highly debatable, given the stoicism and work ethic of the dogs in question and the fact that HD is a spectrum disorder that worsens with age, the latter is simply – in my opinion – a cop out.  There are plenty of things in life that we don’t have complete control over, but that doesn’t negate the need to stack the deck in our favor, especially when we are bringing animals into this world.  Canine hip dysplasia is so rampant in large dogs that if we claim to care about them, we cannot continue to afford to do otherwise.

As well as screening potential parents through OFA or PennHIP, what else can we do to reduce the chances that our dogs will develop HD?  The answer, like the condition, is multifaceted.

The first line of defense of course is to screen the parents, not only individually, but also familially.  The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals provides us with some guidelines to go by (information in brackets, mine):

  • Breed normals to normals {normal meaning those that pass screening}
  • Breed normals with normal ancestry
  • Breed normals from litters (brothers/sisters) with a low incidence of HD
  • Select a sire that produces a low incidence of HD
  • Replace dogs with dogs that are better than the breed average

Clearly, in order to follow these guidelines, breeders need to have access to and keep ongoing accurate records regarding not only their own dogs, but also about their families and entire litters that they’ve produced.  This type of record keeping, typically only reserved for dogs eligible to be registered with certain organizations such as the AKC and UKC, would have to become commonplace for the working LGD.

The Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University has this to say about the rates of HD in the litters of both affected and unaffected parentage.

“The knowledge that hip dysplasia has a genetic basis allows us to make decisions about breeding. Dogs that are known to be dysplastic should not be bred. The mating of two affected dogs produces an incidence of 75 percent in offspring – in other words, 3 out of 4 puppies produced by two dysplastic dogs will themselves develop hip dysplasia. In contrast, on average only 25 percent of offspring of a mating between two healthy dogs will develop hip dysplasia. There is clearly an advantage to a mating between normal dogs. By limiting the breeding population to only those dogs with healthy hips, we can lower the number of new cases of hip dysplasia that will appear in the coming generations.”

While an incidence of 25% may not be ideal, it is much better than the 75% produced by dysplastic parents, and may be able to be further reduced through management of the offspring (see below).  It is also no more than can be expected and is accepted from imported landrace LGDs or those from otherwise untested ancestry overseas.

Anatolian litter at Cheetah Outreach.

Anatolian litter at Cheetah Outreach.

After the litter is on the ground there is still a lot that can be done to try to avoid the development of HD in the individual pup.  The USDAA, a canine agility organization, has a great article outlining one of the most recent studies related to the prevention of HD.  Here are some of the highlights, however, it is highly recommended to read the full article and follow up with the links listed for a more complete picture.

  • the period from birth to three months is the most influential time for decreasing the manifestation of HD
  • litters born in the spring and summer, and those on a farm had a lower incidence of HD
  • low impact, self driven (not forced) exercise is beneficial
  • avoid jumping and daily use of stairs
  • avoid running for periods of time
  • “daily exercise outdoors in gently undulating terrain up to the age of three months is very helpful”

This study did not find a connection between growth rate and the incidence of HD despite the fact that previous studies have.  Such studies were undertaken at Cornell, where one 14 yr long study showed that feeding less and controlling the growth rate resulted in a significant decrease in the manifestation of HD, as well as increasing longevity and lowering the risk of developing osteoarthritis.  The findings are certainly significant enough to warrant the elimination of free feeding regimes, especially for dogs who do not limit intake on their own.

How else can we control diet during growth to reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia?  Susan Wynn, DVM, says that we ought to consider not only the type of food that we are feeding large pups, but also the level of protein, calcium and fat in the food.  In “Feeding Large Breed Puppies”, published by the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, she states:

“The most important factors in preventing developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) are rate of growth (which is proportional to the caloric intake) and dietary calcium level.

A common misconception found in many internet articles is the claim that dietary protein should be controlled in large breed puppies to prevent skeletal abnormalities. This theory was disproved some years ago (Nap, 1991). Most commercial puppy foods contain more protein than is thought necessary, but studies have shown that protein contents of 23% to 31% (dry matter) do not have a deleterious effect on growth. The effects of high dietary protein contents in the range of those found in raw diets have not been investigated, to this author’s knowledge.

An overweight body condition is an important risk factor for DOD, and feeding for maximum growth increases that risk. Commercial puppy and adult foods containing 10% to 25% fat (dry matter) are considered adequate for growth. Raw diets tend to range from 20% to 40% fat (dry matter) so it is particularly important to slow growth by maintaining a very lean body condition when these diets are fed. It has been shown that body fat is higher in puppies fed very high fat, low carbohydrate diets during growth.”

In other words, not only is the rate of intake by the individual pup important, it is equally important to consider what is in the food they are fed, and to keep them lean through to maturity and beyond.  Below is the generally referenced chart for assessing canine body condition.  It is important to note that an accurate rating cannot be given unless the assessor physically feels the dog with both hands.

Purina's Canine Obesity Scale (BCS)

Purina’s Canine Obesity Scale (BCS)

 

There is currently no cure for canine hip dysplasia, and no DNA screening available to pinpoint affected LGD dogs or carriers of the defective genes that lead to it.  Any therapies or surgical interventions involve great expense, pain, and heartache which is why this is truly a situation where prevention is paramount.   If we don’t do all that we can to give our dogs a solid skeletal foundation from which to operate, we cannot be said to be setting them up for success as LGDs.  Considering the labor and expense that goes into raising an effective Livestock Guardian Dog, it only makes sense to ensure that they are not predisposed to developing such a debilitating condition as hip dysplasia.

I recently bred my main LGD, Ivy, and had both her hips and elbows tested and evaluated by the OFFA.  If you go to the OFA database and look up Maremma, Ivy – you’ll see her results: Good.  I paid for testing of the sire’s hips as well; Gibbs, Great Pyrenees, results: Good.  While this does not give us familial information and does not ensure that no pups from the litter will develop HD, it does put us ahead of the game – preventing any undue stress on Ivy during the pregnancy and subsequent whelping, and reducing the risk of HD for the pups.  It also gives us information to build on in the future, to build the familial information necessary to reduce HD in future generations.  Hip dysplasia is not a kennel club problem alone, and those of us who breed mainly outside the system need to recognize our part in the perpetuation of it.

 

References in addition to in text links:

Baker Institute: http://bakerinstitute.vet.cornell.edu/animalhealth/page.php?id=1104

Effects of limited food consumption on the incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs (Kealy et. al, 1992): https://www.enrichwithpurina.ca/media/1452/getresourceaxd-2.pdf


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Shake those hips – the foundation of a strong dog. Part I

It’s no secret that hip dysplasia (HD) is a common serious problem for working dogs, especially the larger ones like our LGDs.  It’s truly not a secret, but given the way that some breeders are reluctant to discuss it, it can certainly feel that way.  One of the reasons for this reluctance is that there have been very few concrete answers about the prevention of HD.  It is a polygenic (informed by multiple genes) disorder that is highly influenced by environment and care and may also be epigenetic in nature – complicated, to say the least.  If you’re not familiar with the term ‘epigenetic’, here is a good run down on what it means for our canine partners.

Before we get too far into what’s behind HD, let’s take a little look at why we should be considering HD in our LGDs.

Canine Hip Dysplasia was first described in 1937 by Dr. Gary Schnelle.   At the time it was assumed to be rare, but not quite 80 years later is the most common inherited joint disorder in dogs as well as the leading cause of arthritis of the hip.  It affects up to 50% of some registry breeds and disproportionately affects large purebred and mixed breed dogs.

Here are some illustrations and a radiograph of what HD looks like.

sagecreekanimalhospital.ca

sagecreekanimalhospital.ca

justadogg.info

justadogg.info

Radiograph of bilateral hip dysplasia in a Labrador Retriever - Wikipedia

Radiograph of bilateral hip dysplasia in a Labrador Retriever – Wikipedia

 

A healthy hip has a ball and socket construction.  The ball sits at the top of the femur and is nicely rounded.  It fits snugly into the socket in the side of the hip, one on each side.  If you ball up your right hand into a fist, cup your left hand like a semi circle or “C”, then place your right hand into your left, you’ll get a fairly good idea of what this looks like.  You can move your right hand around in the cup of your left hand to replicate the movement of the ball in the hip socket.  In the joiny, of course, there is a lot more to it – ligaments to hold the ball in place, cartilage and synovial fluid to cushion and lubricate the joint motion, etc.

ouh.nhs.uk

ouh.nhs.uk

 

The failure of any of these parts is detrimental to the hip joint, but nothing quite as destructive as a malformed ball and socket.  Instead of sliding smoothly in motion, the bones grind and rub against each other, causing the bony spurs to grow that can be quite painful.  As the disorder progresses, osteoarthritis sets in.  The affected dog will have difficulty raising and lowering their body and will be stiff after periods of rest and during climate changes.

Dog with hip dysplasia - dog-health-guide.org

Dog with hip dysplasia – dog-health-guide.org

There are degrees of malformation with HD and a variable rate of onset, although 95% of dogs will be diagnosable (via x-ray) by 24 months of age.  All pups are born with normal hips but within months or years begin to show visible signs associated with joint laxity (looseness).  The most common symptoms are as follows:

  • decreased activity
  • exercise intolerance
  • reluctance to rise. sit/lie, run or climb stairs
  • “wobbly”, swaying gait
  • pain, tender to the touch
  • “bunny hopping” with the back leg(s), especially when running
  • increased muscle mass in the front shoulders due to over compensation carrying body weight
  • grating sound on motion of the hip
  • arthritic signs as the condition progresses

Since this is a disorder that presents on a spectrum (meaning that there are milder forms, moderate and severe forms), not all dogs experience a lot of pain, especially if arthritis has not yet set in.  For this reason, an owner’s reliance on observation to diagnose HD can’t be trusted.  Some dogs with severe changes on x-ray show little pain or reluctance to move, whereas some with mild changes are quite lame.  The correlations are still poorly understood.

Apart from the fact that living with any of the above symptoms will negatively impact the ability of the working LGD to fulfill their role as guardian, the stress of living with such complications will shorten their working life.  It is a well known fact that arthritis causes chronic pain, which in turn can cause heightened anxiety and irritability, interfering with the thoughtful process necessary to guard livestock.  It also causes chronic stress which contributes to a shortened life span.  Given the stoic nature of our LGDs, it could take some careful body language interpretation to deduce.  Some dogs are able to behave very close to normal most of the time, but their tolerance for anything out of the ordinary is greatly compromised.  This is often the cause of “out of the blue” type aggressive behavior towards trusted people or animals.  In the worst case scenarios, the dog becomes unable to rise or carry out their duties at all far before old age sets in and often has to be euthanized.

Pregnancy can increase the rate at which HD progresses in the bitch, as outlined in this informational post by Rachel Counts.  It can leave her unable to rise or walk without extreme discomfort, compromising both her health and that of her pups.   Birthing is very difficult on the bitch’s hips and can exacerbate the problem further.  If a bitch is intended to work during her gestation, ensuring that she is free from HD will make her much more likely to comply.  Canine hip dysplasia has also been determined to be in part hereditary.  As such, if one or both of the parents has the condition, it is much more likely that a significant portion of the pups will as well.

So what does all of this mean?   PennHIP, which along with OFFA screens and rates radiographs for HD puts it best:

“In 1966, Henricson, Norberg and Olsson refined the definition of CHD describing it as: “A varying degree of laxity of the hip joint permitting subluxation during early life, giving rise to varying degrees of shallow acetabulum and flattening of the femoral head, finally inevitably leading to osteoarthritis.”

Today, the general veterinary consensus is that hip dysplasia is a heritable disease manifested as hip joint laxity that leads to the development of OA.

Canine Hip Dysplasia afflicts millions of dogs each year and can result in debilitating orthopedic disease of the hip. Many dogs will suffer from osteoarthritis, pain, and lameness, costing owners and breeders millions of dollars in veterinary care, shortened work longevity, and reduced performance. The occurrence of CHD is well documented in the large and giant breed dogs, but there is also evidence that CHD is prevalent in many small and toy breeds as well as in cats.”

 

 

Stay tuned for the second part of this discussion on hip dysplasia, up next.

REFERENCES:

Orthopedic Foundation For Animals: http://www.offa.org/hd_info.html

Baker Institute, Cornell University:  http://bakerinstitute.vet.cornell.edu/contentimages/library/File/Canine_Hip_Dysplasia_brochure_11_05.pdf

PennHIP: http://info.antechimagingservices.com/pennhip/navigation/hipDysplasia/introduction.html

Veterinary Referral Surgical Practice: http://veterinaryreferralsurgery.com/article_dysplasia.php