One would hope that with the now over 40 years of mainstream use of LGDs on this continent, we would see educational information releases that are becoming much more enlightened. If the new release from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center out of San Angelo is anything to go by, however, we are still very far off the mark.
First, the good news.
The explanation of how Livestock Guardian Dogs work is one of the better ones I have seen in agricultural publications. It is very beneficial for a producer to have a basic understanding of why their dogs do what they do, so as to prevent misunderstandings, eliminate myths and to give them direction when training. Understanding fosters empathy and connection, two things necessary for increasing welfare of LGDs.
Encouraging producers to inform their neighbors of the presence of LGDs as well as educating them on what to do if they find the LGDs on their property is a nice touch. Setting out on the right foot with fellow residents is always a good idea and could lead directly to saving lives. The use of proper signage to indicate the presence of LGDs is just as important.
The article also talks extensively about the proper care and feeding for LGDs, making special note of the fact that longevity makes the monetary investment in LGDs easier to swallow. The emphasis on care is one of the bright spots of the publication. The aquisition costs in the associated chart seem to be somewhat inflated, given that Texas has one of the highest rates of homeless LGDs on the continent; however, the effort to convey the cost/benefit ratio over time is well placed.
A portion of the writing is set aside to talk about the effect of LGDs on surrounding non predatory wildlife. This is an important topic that is too often not covered in other publications.
For the above reasons, I cannot discard Texas AgriLife’s publication entirely, as I have done with many others previously published. It is refreshing to see no mention of the Coppingers here, which indicates to me that distance is finally being put between them and the new generation of LGD researchers – if in name only. There are still a great deal of references to “research”; no citations are given apart from the one under the chart of mortality. I can only assume that the research of the Coppingers is what is being referred to, although I cannot be certain. In any case, if the authors of this publication intended themselves to be taken seriously, they should have include citations for any and all research referenced.
On to the not-so-good news.
Where we begin to run into to serious trouble aligns with where the information typically falls apart in North American publications: bonding and training. Bonding is an especially muddy concept for us westerners, and the advice given reflects the fact that we have only had a few decades of experience at this. Of special concern for me is the continued inability to glean important information about the care and training of these dogs in their homelands.
“Old world shepherd dogs typically spend their first sixteen weeks with one or two littermates, a few adult dogs including their mother, a few hundred sheep or goats, and a shepherd. After sixteen weeks, the dog has been behaviorally molded in such a way that it prefers to spend the rest of its life with the group. Since most sheep in Texas are not herded, a human is most often absent from the flock social structure. During the bonding phase, modifications must be made to allow the young guardian dogs to bond with small ruminants without constant human supervision.”
It is largely accepted here that LGDs would, despite being selected over centuries to thrive in highly social settings, adjust well to living alone with only stock for company. Dogs themselves have evolved over time to desire significant human interaction as well as interaction from their own kind, which in itself contradicts the previously mentioned line of thinking. This is again fodder for a future post where we can look at this subject in more detail, but in the meantime I wish to put a bug in your ear regarding the unfairness of how we most often expect LGDs to live.
Too much emphasis is put on imprinting, as usual, and a mention is made of research that indicates bonding is compromised if not done before 16 weeks. It may be important to note that ‘exposure at a critical time’ is perhaps a better term than bonding for what happens between the puppy and the stock. Ray Coppinger is famous for saying ridiculous things like “A LGD will not guard any animal it has not be exposed to when young.” (SPARCS, 2014), so I can only assume that the information in this section leans heavily on his “expertise”.
The portion that talks about reward vs. punishment is especially opaque. The scientific definition of punishment (in terms of behavior modification or training) states that it is anything that reduces a behavior from occurring. In other words, it is anything that causes an animal to no longer exhibit that target behavior; in equal measures, it can be the removal of something positive or the addition of something negative. Unfortunately, this publication chooses to focus on the use of an air horn as a “training aid”, claiming that it is not punishing but does stop the behavior by interrupting it. None of suggestions are clearly laid out using scientific terms – if they were, it would be well understood that what is punishing or rewarding is only determined by the individual dog. An air horn can be punishing to one dog and yet be unable to stop the undesired behavior of another. The reference to using reward vs. punishment is also far too simplistic and in my opinion lacks any kind of useful information for the producer. LGDs are particularly good at learning from observation, experience and feedback (both negative and positive). This is very likely due to the fact that historically, their lives depended on the ability to disseminate information quickly, and at a young age. There are many ways to train them apart from simply giving reward and adding punishment.
I won’t go through the entire portion that addresses behavior and training, as there is far too much information to refute in one post. The important things to note about this section are what I mentioned already: the research relied on is most likely from the desk of the Coppingers and therefore quite inapplicable, and the very, very wrong presupposition that LGDs should have minimal influence from people (as well as thrive within a stunted social structure) bleed through all of it. As such, I feel that this part could be thrown in the fireplace and we would all be better for it.
Two more things ought to be pointed out before I close. The claim that “Females tend to stay with the flock/herd and males tend to roam more and protect the perimeter.” is patently false. More than gender, individual temperament as well as breed type/lineage determine whether a dog cares to be a close flock guardian or perimeter guard. It is fabricated information like this that cause people to care more about the sex of their prospective guardian than about any other relevant information. Secondly, the idea that you should cull a pup if they try to escape the fence during the “bonding period” is reprehensible. There can be many reasons that a pup would display such a behavior, and those need to be addressed before deciding to start over. Culling a pup should be a thoughtful decision and only done after they have been set up for success at every turn.
All in all, this agricultural publication could be gutted thoroughly to make a useful piece focused on some unique points…. but as it stands, it fall far short of anything I could feel good about recommending. I fear that the longer we continue to pass on the inappropriate information about our beloved guardians, the harder it will be to give them what they need to thrive.
** There is a chart included showing that nearly half of all LGDs here do not see their 6th birthday. The two main causes of death are “Accident” (including lost, shot, run over, poisoned and other) at 57% and “Cull” at 33%. Granted, the study is nearly 30 years old and the percentages may have changed somewhat, but to me, the death rate of 1 in 2 is entirely unacceptable. If anything should encourage us to open our eyes and expand how we think about LGDs, it’s this.