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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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What’s in the works

Winter prep is in full swing here on the farm, and as it’s the first time all is down to me to plan, execute and assess, I’m a bit nervous. This is further complicated by the fact that I’m in a new area of the country on a new piece of property and just don’t have a really good feel for what to expect. That said, I’m not one to ever back down from a challenge easily and I have wonderful family support, so all will be well – or at least doable. Winter in the colder parts of Canada is a bit like entering a deep, winding tunnel that just has to be traveled through no matter what.  At some point the light will show up in the distance and you’ll know that you’re going to get through to the other side. It can be brutal, but there is a lot of truth to the notion that tough circumstances breed tough people.

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Titus and Ivy are getting to know each other better and better all the time. Ivy had a harder time adjusting to being back with me than I’d expected, but most likely a fair bit of that had to do with the fact that I was no longer on familiar turf.  Titus also had a slower start on the farm, but through some focused binary feedback is maturing in leaps and bounds. I’m very pleased with his capacity for ‘single event learning’, meaning his ability to learn something the first time he experiences it or receives feedback about it. I’ll be detailing more about this important LGD trait, as well as talking more about the dynamics between him and Ivy as their relationship continues to develop.

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I’m working on a post about Resource Guarding (RG), a fancy term we trainers use for the behavior dogs show when they don’t want anyone else to touch or take their possessions. There are two main types: RG against other dogs/animals and RG against humans. We’ll talk in depth about both of those, how to assess if the RG is normal or abnormal, strategies to prevent and address it and a bit of perspective on RG in LGDs in particular. This seems to be a subject that comes up quite often with people who are used to using certain training methods with other types/breeds of dogs or who have had some success in the past with forceful methods of behavior modification. This may turn into a series of posts, considering how involved the subject matter is.

This year, I’ve had one trainer in particular reach out to me for advice with LGDs.  I’ve been thrilled with how receptive he is to learning about the mind of the working LGD. As more and more LGDs are making their way onto small holdings and into urban areas, we are in desperate need of ensuring the right information gets into the hands of the trainers and behavior consultants who see them first. This can be the difference between life and death for these beloved dogs. To that end, I’ve opened a consulting service that focuses on both domestic and international consultation with a deeply discounted service for non-profit organizations. The focus will be on training and problem solving for the oft difficult to understand working dog mind.

So there is a lot in the works! I continue to be a slave to my domestic and farm duties as well as to my COO Saluki siblings (if you’ve ever been owned by sighthounds, you’ll understand) so life is just as I like it: busy.  Looking forward to continuing to hear your stories, so keep them coming. You can find me on FB anytime as well at Rolling Spruce Farm or Guard Dog Consulting .

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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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Alduin: A Look at E Collar Training With LGD Pups

Alduin is a lovely Maremma/Sarplaninac pup that I am raising to be a helpmate for Ivy, my main LGD.  We don’t have a lot of luck up here finding trained adult dogs without significant issues, and through the course of my recent experience with Ivy’s pregnancy and litter, it became clear that we require more full time guardians.  Enter Alduin. This is one of the pictures his breeder sent to me.

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Wasn’t he just the cutest thing?  Of course, by the time we picked him up, he looked more like this:

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My husband carrying Alduin after we picked him up.

Big, BIG boy.  Here is what he looks like now, at 4 months old.

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At the vet for puppy/rabies vax.

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Showing off his uber intense focus – in this case for a treat.

For scale, here he is with Ivy.

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Waiting for dinner.

Now, Alduin is a pretty big pup at 49 lbs and just 4 months old.  He looks like an older dog, but make no mistake, he’s all puppy, and as such, acts like one.   He’s been known to chase the odd chicken that gets into the pasture, harass the sheep when he’s bored, and to just generally be an obnoxious nuisance as puppies are wont to do. Here he is, annoying Ivy.

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Early on, a sharp word or short well timed confinement were enough to discourage Alduin from continuing his puppy antics past the point of tolerance.  He was allowed a wide range of expression, and a lot of leeway when younger, both by me and by Ivy.  He had to learn the “ropes” as it were, and a the vast majority of his training at that point centered around encouraging him in a positive way to behave with some decorum.  Roughhousing with the livestock was never tolerated, and as he grew Alduin was put up in a safe area when he wasn’t under direct supervision.  My expectations of him were always directly related to his age, need for play and his attention span.  It was also a time (and this continues still) that I concentrated on exposing him to as much novelty as possible, socializing him to strange people, places and things.  We took him for car rides and to the pet store.  We introduced him to visitors and took him for a walk in town.  We handled him all over his body, trimmed his nails and taught him to walk on a leash.  My daughter taught him to sit – with emphasis! – before he was given his meals.  I taught him to wait at thresholds, and to respond to his name.  He was never allowed to escape the pasture or to exit the barn to the yard without first having a leash put on.  All of this was done with a lot of praise and reward and very little correction or negative input.

Alduin’s personality is more laid back and thoughtful than some of the other pups we’ve had previously, likely due to his Sarplaninac father’s influence, which accounts for his size as well.  That said, he’s a smart cookie and gets bored fairly easily.  He also has a rather goofy side that doesn’t always mesh well with his size and the delicacy of living with livestock.  Up until very recently, he responded very well to verbal communication and took what I asked of him as implicitly more important than his own desires.  However, as anyone who has raised a LGD pup will tell you, this lovely, rather easy stage ends with the advent of pre-adolescence at about 4-6 months.

Alduin started by becoming selective about when he’d respond my voice.  I believe that it’s best to ask LGDs to do things less often than other working or pet dogs, but to always follow through when you do speak.  In this way, you are much less likely to frustrate them; LGD’s aren’t fond of rote repetition.  If you approach training in this way and respect their independence, I have found that they are more willing to partner with you and to respect your decisions.  Asking them to do random exercises (subordination or otherwise), that have no immediate relevance in their minds is a very quick way to lose compliance and respect.   If you remember nothing else about what I say here, remember that respect and relationship are the cornerstones of a good working partnership with LGDs.  Since I only ask for a few things and not often (if I find I’m nagging at a pup, it’s time to separate them and consider going to the next training step), it’s really easy to pinpoint problems with compliance and address them in a timely manner.

Two very important “commands” or “cues” that I teach to all pups and adult LGDs are “Leave It” and “Come” (also known as recall).  Together with “Sit” and “Wait”, which are self explanatory, and “Be Nice”, “Enough” and “Mine” (which I’ll go into another time) they make up the backbone of my current training program.   If you can ask a dog to disengage from an activity/walk away from an item as well as come to you when you call, you have the bulk of your management concerns under control.  A great deal of LGD training consists of learning both through observation as well as trial and error, both of which take time and exposure to various naturally occurring situations.  LGDs are experts at learning on the job, having been selected to do so for centuries.  They need to interact with their environment, with their charges, ideally with each other and with their shepherd to receive a well rounded education.  Keeping very young pups under direct supervision is a necessity, but as they grow and need to be exposed to broader and more complex situations, an e collar can be a great tool for the shepherd to impart information accurately and effectively.

Good timing in communicating with LGDs is critical.  I cannot emphasize this point enough.  Poor timing and ineffective communication are two of the issues I run into the most with LGDs and their owners.  With this in mind, I’ll walk you through Alduin’s first serious e collar training session.

***Important note: Alduin had been introduced to the collar in several brief sessions previously that went as follows: 1) Collar placed on and left on with no stimulation added, then removed later.  2) Collar placed on and left on for a time while he went about his business, then both increasing low levels of stimulation and the vibration tested to gauge his reaction.  Responses noted and looked for: slight facial expressions that show a recognition of the collar stimulation, eye movement that indicated the stimulation was felt and recognized, slight turning of the head to the left or right.  As can be expected, these signals vary by individual and require a high level of observational focus on the part of the handler.

In this session, I worked on “Leave It”, which was a fairly new concept for Alduin, and “Come”, which was very familiar to him.  He’d begun ignoring me when I called to him to “Come”, and I used the vibrate function to gain his attention.

Now that it’s winter, I’d begun wearing my gloves to the barn for chores.  So far this year, I’m wearing a lovely pair of felted mitts made by a friend of mine out of Icelandic wool.  Underneath, I wear a pair of gloves.  Some chores require me to take off the wool mitts and do more fine motor work with just the gloves.  It wasn’t long before Alduin sensed an opportunity for a fun game of keep away and decided to steal a mitt.  Now, I know that it’s great fun for him, but as he has other things to play with and I need my glove near me and not out in the middle of the snow banks where I can’t reach it, I chose to use this development as a foundation for more “Leave It” training.

Here is Mr. Smarty Pants, rounding the bale feeder, carrying my glove.  I’ve already called him and asked him to “Leave It”.  We’d been in this situation before.

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I’ve made this picture bigger so you can see the glove out the right side of his mouth.

He’d been wearing the collar for a while now, and from the previous sessions I described in the italicized section above, I had a good idea of the level of stimulation I needed to start at to get his attention.  As you can see, he pays me no mind.

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From here, he heads out past me to an area where the snow is deeper.  Ivy looks at me as to say, “What are you going to do about this boy, Mom?”

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I’m very calm at this point, as I know that I will get his attention in the end.  He thinks he has bested me at a very fun game, but that is not the nature of our relationship and I need him to know that.  When a ewe is in labor, or injured, when I need to complete my activities to care for them, the last thing I need is a large dog interfering thinking it’s time to play.

I continue to say “Leave It” at intervals, in a serious voice and addressing him by name (which he knows very well).  There is no doubt in either of our minds that he has heard me and is choosing to ignore me.  I increase the stimulation level, pressing the activation button on the remote for no longer than a second at a time, but in successions of three.  It goes like this:  “Alduin, leave it!”  <pause> <stim> <wait for reaction> <stim> <stim>.  No reaction was forthcoming from him for longer than I expected, but I kept going, raising the stimulation 3 or 4 levels at a time.  It’s important to remember that whatever stimulation level is effective in a controlled environment with little distraction will often not be sufficient when distraction and higher arousal levels are in play.

Finally he responded, and followed right through to compliance.

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He leaves the glove and returns to me.

At this time, he doesn’t associate the stim with me but instead with the glove, as I intended.  He is content to return to me, and I immediately praise him.

He heads out to Ivy, and as he passes the glove, I once again ask him to “Leave It” just as he glances in its direction.  He does.

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I decided not to pick up the glove while he was with Ivy, and to see if the cue would hold on his way back.  I didn’t call him back; he came back to the glove on his own.  As the pictures show, he did pick up the glove this time despite my request to “Leave It” as he approached.  This gave me a chance to reinforce that I did, actually intend for him to hear me every time.  It took much less persuading this time for him to comply, and he dropped the glove, trotting off to the fence where a couple of the house dogs were hanging out on the other side.  Watch what happens when I get back to the barn (with my glove) and ask him to leave them and come to me.

 

Over time, I’ve come to know where that line of going too far or too long with a session is, but generally, it’s better to end a session earlier rather than later.  Latent learning (learning that solidifies in the time in between sessions) is a very big thing with LGDs, and I expect that the next time we visit this, Alduin will respond much more readily to me at the beginning.  Still, I feel that this session went very well and he learned very quickly with a minimum of stress.  Directly after the video portion, I spent some time sharing affection with him, fawning over him a little and letting him know how much I believe him to be a very special and smart pup… an integral part of the training process known as building relationship.  LGDs tend to prize moments of affection like this.  I didn’t get any pictures of he and I right into our love fest but that’s because we were concentrating on the moment, which is after all, so very important.

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Recreating for the camera doesn’t always go as planned.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or on the FB groups where this will be posted.  Until next time!

Carolee


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Training Tools: The E Collar, An Introduction

I’ve had a number of requests over the last while to detail exactly how I use the e collar (aka “shock” collar) when training LGDs.  As I have worked with dogs at different stages of their lives and at differing stages of training and levels of instinct, I’ve decided to concentrate on the most common uses for the collar as opposed to specific, more rare usages.  You are always welcome to contact me for clarification on any of the points I share, but please know that I hesitate to give broad suggestions when it comes working with the e collar and LGDs, especially with adult dogs.  In  my opinion, there are far too many variables in the dogs, their handlers/owners, and in life circumstances to do such a thing and still remain ethical.  While electronic (e) collars have come a long way in the last number of years in terms of quality and efficiency, I cannot caution enough against using them indiscriminately.  They are not a “magical” tool; slapping one on your dog and hitting the activation button will not automatically give you the results you are looking for, and may indeed cause more problems than the one(s) you intended to address.

My daughter works in a local pet store and tells me that a lot of people come in asking to buy an e collar to modify their dog’s behavior.  I’m not going to touch on pet dog behavior and e collars here, but I will say that unless you frequent an enlightened pet store that stocks high quality collars, it is a very bad idea to buy one there.  The vast majority of collars at retail stores are of low quality and do not have the range of levels or reliability needed to communicate effectively with your dog.  The exception to this may be at hunting/outdoor stores, although for the prices asked there, you will do better to order a versatile collar through a trainer/dealer or directly from the company itself.

I am a dealer for E Collar Technologies and use and recommend their products only.  I’ve found them to be reliable, rugged, effective and user friendly with a high level of customer service.   Their collars come with a minimum of 100 stimulation levels, from imperceptible (to me) to a high that I rarely use except in life threatening situations.  Robin MacFarlane, a noted low stimulation (stim) e collar trainer and the creator of the acclaimed “That’s My Dog!” video series, endorses Dogtra collars.  You can buy those collars and videos directly from her site as well as from Steve Snell at Gun Dog Supply. (Side note: Gun Dog Supply has the best, most cost effective biothane collars out there for LGDs.  I especially like the inclusion of the top “O” ring and the free engraved ID plate, as well as the wide range of colors.  On my dogs, I like the high visibility colors so that there can be no confusion as to the fact that they are owned dogs.  Not everyone collars their LGDs, but if you do, check them out.)  Linda Kaim, of Lionheart K9 in Westminster, Maryland, who also uses e collars as an integral part of her dog training programs, recommends both Dogtra and E Collar Technologies.  She has a preference for Dogtra collars for their “latitude and craftmanship”, but says that she recommends E Collar Technologies to clients who are more budget conscious.  It is of course important to remember that a good e collar is an investment that will pay dividends for years to come.  It is much better to pay for a reliable collar up front rather than to pay for multiple box store cheaper ones over the course of time or risk having your dog “shocked” randomly.  If you buy a used set from someone, approach the company that manufactured the collar to see if they will test and/or refurbish it for you to ensure that it is still in good working order.  Replacement parts are also typically easy to find through a dealer or manufacturer.

Whichever collar you choose, there are some important safety considerations to consider before it ever makes it on to your dog(s).  Most e collar trainers encourage their clients to try the collar on their forearms first in order to get a good picture of what the stim feels like.  I have done so myself, getting to level 16 of 100 levels before finding it aversive.  The levels below 16 were, for me, surprisingly pleasant.  It is really important to remember, however, that the reaction to the stimulation is extremely subjective.  Your dog(s) may not find certain stim levels bearable even though you did.  Conversely, your dog(s) may find moderate or mid ranging levels imperceptible or unimportant, and even higher levels insufficient to deter highly arousing behavior.  High levels of stimulation can imprint random information on the brains of dogs as well (the tree the dog was looking at when you hit the button now becomes the source of the pain in the dog’s mind), and should only be used with good timing in emergencies or a last resort.

Another thing to remember is that an e collar was not designed to wear for long periods of time.  Do not leave the collar on overnight, or all day.  The collar requires a snug fit for the nickel points to contact the skin around the neck, and can result in not only  what is called “pressure necrosis” but also allergic reactions in a portion of dogs.  Both of these are what typically show up in anti-e collar campaigns and other related propaganda in the form of pictures of extensive wounds that have been debrided by veterinarians.  There is no doubt that the claims these organizations make that this type of injury is commonplace are ludicrous, but it is crucial to understand that it does occur at times.   An allergy to the contact points can be hard to predict, but the dog will soon show a high level of discomfort with the collar, and frequent skin checks should be sufficient to identify it easily.  If an allergy is suspected, replacement hypoallergenic contact points are readily available from the same place where the collar was purchased.  Pressure necrosis is similar in terms of how it affects the skin, but  it develops due to prolonged contact with the skin and/or moisture in the environment and on the dog.  It can be avoided by moving the position of the collar each time it is used, frequent skin checks and reducing the amount of time the collar is in use, especially in wet weather.  The appropriate coat for a LGD should keep moisture away from the skin, but it is always wise to err on the side of caution.  The vast majority of pressure necrosis cases are superficial and heal well on their own, but it is crucial to access veterinary care if healing is delayed and to suspend use of the collar on affected areas.

Use the correct length of contact points for the dog you are working with.  Short points are appropriate for short coated dogs, long ones for long coated dogs.  Place the stim box with the contact points to the side of the dog’s trachea as shown in the picture below.  This ensures that the contact points are sitting over one of the major muscles; away from extremely sensitive parts of the dog’s neck and well away from the spinal cord.

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

Used properly, an electronic collar allows the handler to extend the reach of their control and allows the dog to move freely, untethered.  This makes it especially useful for training dogs who have learned to employ a certain set of behaviors while under direct supervision, on a leash or long line and another when out of reach.  It also allows the handler to convey information to the dog effectively in the moment.  In my opinion, and in the opinion of other trainers who use e collars humanely, it also allows the handler to train more thoughtfully in distracting environments.   The concern that control will be lost or that information won’t communicated well at a distance is greatly reduced.

In the next post, I’m going to go over a training session with a LGD pup I am training.  Before I wrap up this post, though, I’m just going to take a moment to reiterate this crucially important point:

An e collar is not a replacement for training, instead it is a helpful adjunct for some dogs in a training program.  

The training program we’re talking about here is the one that results in a mature, confident, effective Livestock Guardian Dog.

*** Important note:  Most high quality e collars come with a vibrate function.  This function is a vital part of my training approach.  I use it in different ways, depending on the dog’s response to it.  Some dogs find it more aversive and some find it less aversive than the stim function.


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Texas AgriLife Extension’s Livestock Guardian Dog release: A Review

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.

 


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“Caucasian Sheep-Dog vs. Wolf”, Georgian National Film Center

This is one of the best videos I have seen on the subject of LGDs versus predators.  There is a lot of information packed into this hour, but the most interesting parts for me lie in the immersive experience of Georgian shepherd life.

We in North America can stand to be students much more often than we claim to be experts.  In that vein, the interactions between dogs in this video and between them and their shepherds is well worth paying attention to.

 

 


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Life stages, expectations, and the most precious time in an LGD’s life.

Just like their human counterparts, dogs go through life stages.  Their progression through these stages is more accelerated than humans’, however.  Misunderstanding the nature of their life stages or refusing to acknowledge these stages whatsoever is a root cause of a high number of Livestock Guardian Dog failures.  Unfortunately, we don’t have solid numbers on just how many fail due to this, given that many owners and producers deal with “failed” dogs by euthanizing them or passing them on to shelters or companion homes.

It’s true that no producer can afford to house and feed dogs who cannot fulfill their intended role.  However, contrary to some common folk wisdom, LGDs are not born knowing how to become mature, reliable guardians without any training whatsoever.  Unfortunately, the same people who understand that a herding dog needs to mature and have training before being adept at his role don’t always recognize that LGDs have similar needs.

In their countries of origin, much of this training was done traditionally by older LGDs, often multiple ones and often of a familial group.  Enforcement and refuge were provided by the shepherds.  Supervision was not an issue, as pups were either with the shepherd or under the view of the more experienced dogs, who didn’t hesitate to correct as they saw fit and daily set an example of desired behavior.  In some countries, this is still the case.  Pups are raised under influence from more experienced working dogs and humans.  They are selected to be quick visual learners, able to understand the parameters of their role by watching the older dogs and the shepherds.  They are also selected to be tough, yet sensitive – able to handle rough terrain, weather and life while still offering and receiving care well.

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Bakharwal with shepherd and flock.

Learning on the job is a time honored tradition that has been difficult to replicate in North America and other parts of the world where the majority of stock are kept in one area all their lives and the shepherd visits infrequently.  Without human oversight and often lacking crucial input from more experienced dogs, the LGDs in these areas are often put under selection pressure that may make them more apt to make it to maturity without making serious mistakes but also may make for a dog who is less likely to think for themselves and to be effective in conflicts with predators.  With the more recent return of large predators to many parts of the world, it is more important than ever to ensure a peaceful coexistence between them and our stock.  It’s time again to become “hands on” shepherds and to help guide our LGDs through the stages of their lives.

Dogs essentially go through 4 life stages.  Puppyhood runs from birth to approximately 6 months of age, adolescence from 6 to 18/24 months (sometimes beyond), and adulthood from 2-3 years of age and up.  When a dog moves from being an adult into his senior years is dependent greatly on his health and size.  Large dogs, in general, mature more slowly than smaller dogs and live a shorter life span.  Where a small dog may be considered a senior at 13 or 14 years, a large dog can be the equivalent at 6 or 8.

Let’s take a look at the stages individually.

Bolt, a Kuvasz/Great Pyrenees as a young pup

Bolt, a Kuvasz/Great Pyrenees as a young pup

Puppyhood is easily recognizable by most people.  From the time a pup is born, they are learning and growing at a rapid pace, moving from a tiny slick, squiggly and blind creature with no teeth to a fully functioning animal who is most concerned with exploration.  By the time pups are weaned and leave their mothers, most of their frank openness to the world is over, leaving them to balance fear and curiosity for the rest of their lives.   Thankfully, apart from some brief periods known as “fear periods” (read more about them here), this balance is typically weighted in favor of curiosity through puppyhood and much of adolescence.

Puppyhood is the stage we are most enamoured with as humans; puppy breath and puppy cuddles are some of the sweetest things we can think of.  Nature designed the babies of a species to have this endearing quality, encouraging the adults to care for them and excuse some of their obnoxious behaviors.  This is the time when dogs have what we call a “puppy pass”, wherein the adults give them leeway to be silly and eschew the rules, when corrections are minor – laced with care and reserved for the most serious of infractions.

Babies of all kinds of species have a deep seated need to play, and puppies are no exception.  Some people unfortunately feel that LGD pups shouldn’t be allowed to play past weaning; however, that view is short sighted.  Play is an efficient way for pups to learn the rules of social behavior in context as well as about their environment and how to behave within it.  Play teaches them to utilize and increase inhibition, a crucial part of LGD work.  Play allows them to practice the motor patterns that will one day allow them to be successful in warding off and eliminating predators.  Play also releases endorphins in the brain, keeping puppies buoyant and happy in a difficult and strange world.

Puppies are the babies of the dog world; before long they are free falling into adolescence.  It’s the best time to teach LGDs basic obedience, manners and to socialize them well.  While puppyhood remains one of the most precious and important stages of a dog’s life, it is also the shortest stage of their lives.

Adolescent working Mioritics in Romania

Adolescent working Mioritics in Romania

Adolescence is the equivalent to the pre teen and teenage stages in human children.  The onset and length of this period is variable, both between breeds/types, but also individually.  Some dogs simply mature faster than others.  Some take more work to encourage on to the path of maturity, preferring to hang on to the fun and freedom of puppyhood.  One sure indication that a LGD has moved past the puppy stage and into adolescence is the revocation of his “puppy pass”.  His once tolerant older companions no longer turn a blind eye to his behavior.  Some owners over react to this development, certain that something is wrong with the older dogs or that their cherished pup is no longer safe in his environment –  but nothing could be further from the truth.  Much like the increased expectations in the classroom for older students, puppies benefit from learning that their place in this world.  The role they are intended to fulfill requires a heightened level of maturity, something that takes time and practice to master.

This is also the time when the expectations of the owner or producer often run right up against the abilities of the dog.  Early on, adolescence can be readily identifiable, with gangly bodies and goofy behavior, but as it progresses and the dogs look more and more like adults, it can be difficult for an owner or producer to accept that they will still make mistakes.  Even early on, the once mild mannered pup who suddenly grows an attitude and wants to rough house with stock can be difficult to understand.  It seems like over night, what was simply a silly puppy has become a large, out of control dog driven by his hormones.  He can push the boundaries and try some things on for size, like resource guarding.   It looks sometimes like he’s forgotten everything he was taught as a pup and as though he doesn’t care much how his humans feel about that.   Alternately, if he wasn’t well socialized, he can be difficult to catch and discipline or impossible to keep contained.  Frustration and confusion abound on both sides.

This is far and away the most common stage when dogs are either euthanized, given up, or the owner otherwise looks for help.  Unfortunately, if the stage wasn’t set in puppyhood, it can be difficult to teach all the desired behaviors during adolescence.   Maintaining previously taught behaviors while increasing expectations is the name of the game for this period –  encouraging maturity and self control while expecting periodic regressions in behavior.  An owner or producer can never have enough patience or tools in their tool box to keep an adolescent dog between the lines until more maturity kicks in. This is, however, not the time to put the dog away and forget about him, as it is vital that he stays in the job, keeps learning what is expected and continues to be exposed to different aspects of working life.

This is also the period when the picture of the true dog emerges.  Much like the butterfly developing in the chrysalis, adolescence is a time to wait, watch and hold steady.  The adult dog is there, the owner just can’t see him clearly yet.

NOTE: Some concerning behaviors during adolescence shouldn’t be dismissed or otherwise ignored.  A sudden onset of aggression/threat towards those he is meant to care for, or towards his owners is one such behavior.  Sound sensitivity, often seen in the form of thunder phobia is another.  Chasing and gripping stock, guarding the stock’s resources from them or fence breaching should never, ever be ignored, regardless of life stage.

Ceaser, adult Great Pyrenees, watches over chickens.

Ceaser, adult Great Pyrenees, watches over chickens.

Adulthood is the time when all the hard work by dog and human pay off.  This is the stage where the LGD is fully dependable with stock of all sizes and abilities, where the partnership between he and his owner hits its stride and where the more fully informed choice can be made to pass on his genes to the next generation.  This is the time where growth finishes; the dog is fully in control of his faculties and is truly able and expected to show a maximum level of appropriate decision making and self control.  He starts on the path to becoming the mentor he once needed.

This is the stage where working behaviors are proofed and a dog is able to gain valuable life experiences. He becomes trustworthy enough to attend births unsupervised.  All of his deduction, self control and differentiation skills become the strongest they will ever be in his life.  He no longer over or under reacts, but instead operates from a place of self-assuredness.   While it still remains important to keep him under control in stressful situations with new people and strange canids, his judgement can be trusted for the vast majority of things.

To me, adulthood is the real precious time of a dog’s life.  It’s a stage when the trust in the relationship shifts to a more equal plane and it is no longer necessary to maximize the learning process.  It’s a beautiful time of enjoyment and relaxation on both sides.  A well rounded, well trained LGD with good working instincts is worth their weight in gold for any farming/ranching operation.

It is also a time when it’s important for the owner or producer to continue to check in with the working LGD, to ensure that his behavior remains steady, that he is being fed enough, that he continues in good physical and mental shape.  Ongoing full time work keeping predators at bay and caring for his charges can take a toll on the best of working dogs.

Capture

Senior dogs enter into the last life stage far too quickly for our comfort.  It seems as though we’ve just gotten used to their adulthood, just begun taking it for granted that they’ll always be there, when they begin displaying the effects of old age.

As I previously mentioned, the age at which a dog will enter this life phase depends on several factors, including size and health.  Transitioning from adulthood into old age can be a slow or sudden.  Whether it’s watching him have difficulty rising in the morning or cleaning a wound he never would have gotten a few years ago, it is can be very difficult to adjust to the new reality.

Some dogs are able to ease into retirement and others are under attack from younger dogs once they show any weakness.  Some dogs go strong up until the end, and others slide into dementia,  suffer from debilitating illnesses that require surgeries and treatments or render them largely immobile.

Old age is, just like for humans, an individual journey that is full of familiar comfort pricked with the pangs of heartbreak.  It’s a time when the wisdom and confidence created through a lifetime of experiences creates the best mentorship for those who are up and coming guardians.  Ideally, it’s a stage when LGDs who want to continue living with stock can keep doing so, supported and with a few more comforts provided.   For other LGDs, it’s a time when they retire to the comforts of the house or yard and are rewarded for a lifetime of service.

Either way, the senior years are in some respects a celebration of the fact that they lived, loved and went to battle every day for many years, as they were intended to from the start.  Whatever stage your working dogs are in now, one thing is for certain: their lives will pass too quickly yet impact us greatly.