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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Your methods suck.

I’m going to take a moment away from working on the puppy series to address an burgeoning problem in the world of LGDs. I predicted this was coming a while ago, and just like most predictions I’ve made in the dog world, I’m sad to see it come true. Truth be told, I’m not only sad, but I’m also incredibly angry. I’m tired of watching egotistical asshats causing such distress in dogs, causing them to wash out, causing neuroses, fueling the fires of frustration in owners and ultimately causing the dogs to have to break bonds with their families or worse, lose their lives.

Let me attempt to explain.

There is a strong faction of LGD fanciers who are currently on the bandwagon of raising pups utilizing what I call the “contain, hover, avoid and praise” method. I don’t know where this method came from, but I suspect it was from someone who could not trust their dogs for whatever reason. It involves a combination of high levels of containment (typically in a pen), leash work, avoidance and positive reinforcement. These people, most widely popular on Facebook for their firm beliefs in themselves and their abilities, perpetuate the idea that this is the ONLY way to raise a LGD pup to successful working status. They employ this advice when addressing dogs who live alone, but also with pups being introduced to other LGDs. They continue to push this agenda regardless of the feedback that it isn’t working for a lot of dogs. They continue to push, regardless of how much unfeasible work this causes for people and how inappropriate it is to be so unclear with dogs about the nature of their jobs. They continue on, throwing people out of the conversation who dare to say that keeping the social LGD isolated like this causes them harm. They keep saying this, over and over, on some of the largest LGD advice groups out there. They can, because they run them.

I’m so angry about this that it’s hard for me to think straight and say these things in a professional way. All I want to do is swear uncontrollably and yell at the top of my lungs until these people listen.

STOP IT!!! STOP OVER CONTAINING THESE DOGS! STOP TELLING PEOPLE THAT CORRECTING DOGS EFFECTIVELY IS WRONG! STOP TELLING THEM THAT KEEPING LGDs ALONE AND ISOLATED IS JUST FINE! STOP SAYING THAT IF A PUP IS ANYTHING MORE THAN A LUMP ON THE GROUND, THEY DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT INSTINCTS!

STOP SAYING THINGS YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF BEING ACCOUNTABLE FOR.

STOP MISLEADING PEOPLE TO BELIEVE THAT IF THEY DON’T DO THE THINGS YOU SAY, THEY ARE ABUSIVE AND UNCARING OWNERS.

Guess what happens when you follow this contain, leash, avoid, over-react cycle? Sometimes the dogs do just fine. It’s a trait of dogs the world over that they manage to do well despite our fumbling attempts at guidance and the inappropriate ways in which we keep them. The brilliance of the human/canine coexistence, proven historically over and over, is that the canine is able to forgive our shortcomings and still grow into themselves, becoming what we need. We are far less able or willing to bridge that gap for them, resulting in a species that has been selected to adjust their behavior for us, anticipating what we need and ensuring their basic needs are met. In the case of working LGDs, their inherent needs (apart from food, water and shelter) are to be in partnership, to learn from a leader, to bond socially and to protect.

How much do we care about these dogs? So much so that we stick them away at the first sign of inappropriate behavior? So much so that we refuse to help them learn self control on the job, in with their beloved charges, in the company of other LGDs? So much so that we show them a working routine day in and day out that we do not intend for them to stick to eventually? So much that we tell them they need to behave when we show up but not on their own until they are fully mature?  Not only is that pedantic, it’s incredibly infantilizing – offensive.

In canine behavioral rehabilitation, there are two vital pieces we focus most on. One is the forward and backward motion of the dog, and the other is instilling self control and resilience. The first half of the latter is what is being undermined by the aforementioned LGD “experts”. Self control is THE most important piece that determines whether a dog will behave appropriately and be able to be in partnership with humans. Secondary to that is discrimination, but that is for another day.

Instilling self control starts early in a dog’s life. Pups learn to wait their turn, to not bite hard when playing (or the play stops), to inhibit reactions/actions so they are not disciplined by mom and to wean when they don’t want to. A good mother instills begins the installation of self control in a pup by the judicious use of tough love. A recent study found that the success of guide dog pups revolved around the willingness of the mother dog to discipline and test her pups. This teaches them their innate ability to delay gratification, handle new situations, to problem solve and to withstand adversity. Just as in humans, these lessons are invaluable to the process of developing resiliency and self control into adulthood. All lessons must be tailored to the developmental stage of the youngster, but mothers instinctively understand this. It’s us humans who struggle to keep pace through the various stages. It’s much easier to contain and isolate – but these  dogs are not inanimate objects that will sit unchanged on the shelf until we have time for them.

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Sitting behind a fence alone, watching stock, is not going to provide the developing LGD with the teaching and life skills they need. No one does this in their countries of origin – it would be unconscionable. Keeping pups isolated in this way would be tantamount to abuse. Pups need each other, their canine pack and their people. That is not to say that we can’t use containment judiciously here, given that we don’t have the same communal way of living with our dogs that they have historically experienced. Every dog will respond to this in individual ways, however.  They must be watched for signs of discomfort, psychological distress and neuroses. They must be given adequate free time to romp and play and just generally be goofy pups. They need to time to play with us and with others of their kind. Much valuable information is given to them during these times.  They need time to just be, apart from being contained. They need to be able to screw up and learn from their mistakes. Learning on the job and within a social order are both vital pieces of the success of a content LGD.

Quite often, isolation will bring about the very behaviors people claim it will address! A bored, lonely pup will need an outlet for their frustrated energies. They will attempt to engage the stock, their only social group, to meet their needs. Back to confinement they go! They will attempt to escape the confinement to satisfy their need to explore and gather information about their environment. They will work hard to get away from the intense boredom of the pen. LGDs need to freely interact with their environment to learn, and confinement with alternating periods of uber control by a human with a leash will not allow them that learning experience. Frustration and hyperactivity, even aggression will follow as natural consequences of the continued denial of their needs.

How is it appropriate to show a pup a certain routine for their lives that consists of being in a pen, walked on a leash, hovered over, unable to make mistakes and get clear binary (what’s good, what’s bad) direction, and then tell them months or years later that oh, this isn’t actually what we wanted you to do!?! If the pup decides on their own that their job is actually to be with the stock or in the field and not in the pen when unsupervised, then the pen is reinforced and they are treated like they’ve done something wrong. If they do do something inappropriate like chase or mouth stock, or heaven forbid STARE at them, the pups are put in a “time out” after perhaps being tackled to the ground or dragged around on the leash. If there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand outside of an emergency, it’s dragging a dog around on a leash/line. What is a “time out” meant to teach a dog? Are these children we can talk to about their behavior afterwards? Outside of very short periods of time meant to prove that I was highly offended by behavior from a dog, I never use a pen for such a thing. The pen should be a safe place they enjoy being in; the same applies to a tether, which is much more commonly used in their countries of origin. This requires judicious use, not routine use. In fact, I go out of my way to ensure that I don’t do the same thing in this respect day after day. Adult LGDs need to be able to deal with changing circumstances and should never get the idea that their lives consist only of an outdoor version of “crate and rotate”. (Link to a video of Titus in his pen/kennel – look at his lovely self control!; below are pictures of Titus in various situations and learning different things in the past 3.5 months here)

Years ago, I bought my first kennel club registered LGD. She happened to be a Maremma, and she was a fuzzy little teddy bear with a tornado of a personality. She was cute beyond reason and pushy beyond belief and I adored her more than I could have thought possible. I spoke with the breeder several times before I went to pick her up and even though I missed a number of red flags that this woman didn’t know what she was doing, I was still in the mindset that everyone else knew better about these dogs than I could (thank you, LGD mythology). I asked to see the little fluff ball’s mother, upon which I was led to a 4 ft tall small pen in the breeder’s barn. There were heavy things piled on the top of the lid of the pen. Inside there was a young, wiggly, lanky insanely white Maremma bitch. She looked at me with pleading eyes. She could hardly contain herself, moving her body around in frantic ways. The breeder explained that she had serious doubts about the ability of this dog to be a LGD given how busy she was, how she high needs for interaction. She didn’t know what else to do with her, this woman said, other than to put her in the pen and keep her there. She hoped this dog would outgrow her “bad” behavior. God, do I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I’d been able to help and not had to leave the farm saddened beyond belief for that lost, misunderstood girl. The pup I held in my arms that day went on to have similar challenges, and unfortunately since I followed a similar (the containment routine wasn’t such popular advice then) set of largely ineffective training methods, the process to get her where she needed to be took a long time and was full of heartache for both of us.

I will never be quiet on this front or any other that is setting people and dogs for failure. I never want to have to leave a farm again or raise a pup without having the necessary tools to help or fix what is happening. Further, I don’t want to have to hold the hand of someone who has been led down the garden path by shitty advice only to find that they’ve not been given all of the information they needed – and what’s more, they’ve been pressured not to seek it. I never want to hear from someone that they believe their LGD is part herding dog (yes, this is what people are being told!) because it’s busy and has significant exercise needs. I don’t want to have to cry late at night any more because I’ve had to hold a dog while they are euthanized because they’re out of control and no one can safely reach them any more.

I’m angry. I’m sad. I want it to stop, or at the very least, I want more people to wake up and listen to their guts before things get bad. If all else fails, share this. Maybe it will give someone what they need in time to save just one dog, keep them working, keep them with their families. Thank you.

 

P.S. The only thing that comes out of the horrible advice these people are giving about raising LGDs is that we continue to select for dogs of only one temperament/character profile. This is becoming a serious issue as the dogs who accept such treatment without rebelling and/or becoming neurotic are very passive, yard-statue types. The rest are washed out as LGDs, killed or otherwise do not go on to work and, perhaps more importantly, contribute to our waning gene pool. These are not the dogs we need to help us with the heightened number of apex predators we are dealing with more and more. LGDs are varied: they range in approach, bonding preferences, need for human interaction, hyperactivity, predilection for independence, ability to deal with different predators. If anyone tells you differently, run, don’t walk away.

 

 

 

 


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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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For the birds.

Please stop saying that LGDs were never meant to protect poultry and therefore inappropriate behavior with poultry should be tolerated.
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Ceaser patiently watches over his chicken friends.

STOP IT!
 
While LGDs may not have been bred to specifically guard and bond with poultry (although flocks of geese were tended to in some European countries just like sheep/goats), poultry are a long standing pastoral staple in the countries where these dogs were developed. They were meant to guard them by default, and definitely NOT meant to help themselves to a snack of bird flesh whenever they felt the urge. Meat/eggs are valuable things in developing countries, and prized possessions in countries with historical agriculture bases. Even more interesting is the fact that chickens were sacred creatures for some ancient cultures, and even rode into battle with Roman armies.
 
Some LGDs, like the Great Pyrenees leaning BWD (Big White Dog) of North America, is capable of bonding well with poultry of all stripes. ASDs (Anatolian Shepherd Dogs) are also more prone to being natural poultry guardians. Others, like the more traditional Gampr , Akbash, and Kuvasz are more likely to want to protect them by default. The poultry is in the space they protect, and therefore are protected. At the very least, they are not harassed nor assaulted. For many producers, this would be enough. No requirement would be made for the dog to take care of the poultry in a maternal fashion.
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Sammy guards her flock. She even killed an owl that tried to make off with some of her chickens.

Remember, most of these dogs were born in, spent a great deal of their lives around and ended up living in pastoral settings. Their active working lives were only a portion of the sum total of their lives. They doubled as guard dogs for the home front, for the producer’s families, as family dogs (which is why they are so innately good with children, the infirm and the elderly) and as village dogs. Many are still used for these purposes today. These dogs were and are required to get along well with the people, to appropriately distinguish between benign and threatening activity in amongst the busyness of village/home life. Occupying themselves with chasing or killing people’s poultry would not be acceptable behavior by any stretch of the imagination.
The more I hear online and from producers directly about the advice being given for handling and training these dogs to work, the more concerned I become about our future. Slow, inappropriate maturity is being held up as the expected standard for our working dogs. Effective, efficient training is being actively discouraged in favor of what I call the “killing with kindness” methods. Dogs are being confined more and more without the appropriate guidance and real working time experience needed to become confident guardians. Dogs are being micromanaged to the point where they are confused and unable to meet expectations, a serious blow to their self esteem.
Over and over, I see a lack of understanding about how the canine mind and life stages work from those in positions of influence. I’m seeing the fruits of what has been sewn by people who are more interested in self promotion and specific breed promotion than in caring for the working dog as a whole. This is never more evident than when I have to step in to a situation with an adolescent or young adult LGD who has not received what they cried out for from day one.
LGDs should NOT chase/mouth/attack/kill your poultry. If you can’t manage to convince them not to (or to find someone who can), keep them separated. Full stop. These inclinations should be identifiable from early on, and most easily addressed at early ages. Any focused staring, stalking, pouncing and chasing should be actively discouraged. Proper behavior should be modeled and praised. Ideal modeling is by an older LGD. Placing a young pup with larger, more aggressive poultry such as geese is a good way to keep the connection with winged stock whilst ensuring a rambunctious pup cannot push them around. As a bonus, geese tend to be slower moving and don’t trigger the chase instinct as easily in young pups. If you don’t have access to larger poultry, early supervision with timely corrections is the best way to start. These corrections include redirecting (physically moving or distracting) the pup away, verbally discouraging the behavior, using spatial pressure (moving into their space in order to block or move them away) and physically correcting.  Avoid allowing the pup to have long periods of time to watch flighty birds from behind a barrier. This encourages arousal and frustration over the inability to chase. Instead, tethering for limited periods in an area where the poultry can escape from the dog or judicious use of the dangle stick can be good options. Whatever you do, don’t inadvertently encourage the inappropriate behavior by allowing the dog to practice it unchecked or by using “nagging” (ineffective) corrections.
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Photo of pup and poultry from gampr.org

Yes, it’s true that we do often see in an otherwise reliable pup incidents where they are inappropriate with poultry as they mature. Those funny birds can be very tempting toys for a bored adolescent pup. That said, those dogs respond quickly and very well to correction and limited periods of separation, going on to return to their stable roots. Stay the course, give clear information/expectations in your training, enforce those expectations effectively while taking into account the life stage of your dog(s). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can change all in a slow and sweet way. Equally, don’t believe that you can spend little time with your dog and still properly affect their behavior. This is especially true if you lack an older mentor dog or a familial group to help train.
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LGDs can be and should be just fine with poultry. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are many less than reported.  Let’s keep that in our manual of expectations. Let’s keep our expectations high. Let’s not let down future generations of working dogs and the people who need them by unnecessarily affecting breeding selection in negative ways. Most importantly, let’s stay the course with our dogs so that they can protect to their full potential.
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Bakarwals and the rise of the global LGD preservation movement

I have a group on FB called “Livestock Guardian Dogs and Conservation: The Way of the Future“.  As FB groups go, it’s a calmer, more fact-focused, resourceful group. The main goal of the group is to raise awareness of the importance of Livestock Guardian Dogs in the rewilding we are seeing globally. It may sometimes feel like too little, too late, but we are finally realizing how significant it is for our planet to once again support a richer, more diverse ecosystem.

Alongside this, we have a record number of people on this planet, a need to feed them and house them. Both of these things run straight up against the work we are doing in nature, and how nature is changing all on its own. How can we support the diversification of the ecosystem and still meet the growing needs of a burgeoning human population? The answers are multi-faceted and not simple by any means, but the fact that we’ve been systematically getting away from transhumance and the rural lifestyle is not doing us any favors as we seek them. Old wisdom has been lost or is harder to find. Younger people are having to pick up the discarded torches and try to find their way, literally, through the wilderness.

The fact that rewiliding initiatives are targeting abandoned farmland as a way to jumpstart their programs is a pertinent symbol of how urban focused our current policies are. On the face of it, leaving the rural land to the wildlife and moving people to cities might seem like a good way forward, but underneath, there is much more we need to recognize. Ironically, the very thing we think will reconnect us to the planet is actually isolating us from it.  I believe that we must continue to coexist with wildlife in physical space, if only to bear witness and continue to stand in the gap between what animals want and need from us and what humans want and think they need out of life. If no one stays, we will be unable to resist becoming a hive-like mind that has forgotten what we are made of. We will exist in a vacuum that encourages us to be takers only, not managers, not guardians. It’s true that we may well be fighting a losing battle, where all animals will be raised in robotic-run barns and we will buy their souls packaged in little foam trays at the nearest box store, but I – and many like me – believe that it’s a fight worth stepping up for. If we lose the ecological benefits of controlled grazing and farming on a small scale, if we lose the ability to choose how and where our meat is raised – if we lose the resiliency, co-existence and breeding selection pressures that small farming and transhumance offer us, we lose what makes us uniquely human. The ability to negotiate with an environment we cannot control and to meet our needs alongside those of predator and prey is a skill set we cannot lose. We will lose touch with our planet. When I think about the current trends in policy making around this subject, I tear up a bit. Urban life does not naturally lend itself to the comprehension of what is sacrificed in order to be a consumer-directed world. We see that more and more every day.

One of the greatest things about what I do is that I get to meet some brave and phenomenal people who are working hard to stand there in the gap and say over and over again how much we need to preserve the “old” ways. For some, this means advocating for continued acknowledgement of the rural life. For others, it’s living the lifestyle themselves. For still others, it’s running formal programs that target the retention of the ways of transhumance and small farming – further, retention of the stock and LGD genetics that make it all possible. One such person is Hamza Habib, an engineering student, small farmer and Bakarwal LGD preservation specialist in Pakistan. We have had some very interesting conversations about his experiences there, conversations that highlight the passion Hamza has for the Bakarwal people and dogs of his region.

Hamza, who recently thoughtfully bred a litter of working Bakarwal Dogs, is one of a few vocal people online strongly focused on retaining appropriate LGD instincts in the Bakarwal Dog landrace. The trouble with raising the profile (and this has been true historically) of LGD breeds/landraces, especially obscure ones, is that certain people immediately want to exploit their aggressive traits for profit. The Russian government did this most famously with the Ovtcharkas of the Caucus mid 20th century, and it’s been a ‘thing’ ever since. It’s not surprising that the proponents of the Bakarwal Dogs Preservation Project have to actively combat this online and on the ground. Breed preservation initiatives are always a double edged sword, but oh so necessary.

Check out these beauties:

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These are siblings from the litter Hamza produced. He retained these two to work on his family’s farm. Most of the pups are working, given back to farmers who need them to protect against the encroaching wolves in the area. As they haven’t seen wolves in Pakistan for decades, specific genetics need to be cultivated to produce effective guardians. Hamza has found these genetics in the dwindling Bakarwal Dog population. He reports that the pups he’s bred are loyal, nurturing and fierce. They are designed to exist on minimal foodstuffs. They naturally want to partner with him and to be in his favor.

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If you’re not familiar, the Bakarwal are a nomadic people. They live a life most of us love to romanticize, but could never possibly sustain. They carry on the centuries-old traditions of transhumance, even if more within borders than ever before. More about their history and lifestyle (and beautiful pictures!) can be found here , here and here. Just like in many countries now, their lifestyle and wisdom is less and less valued by both their fellow citizens and the government. It is the work of people like Hamza that I personally hope will stem that tide of change. To that end, I will be making a point of highlighting these initiatives in an ongoing way on this blog, so that the information can be found in an effective and easy-to-share format.

The people working their fingers to the bone to buck the thoughtless urbanizing trend deserve at least that.  Our planet deserves at least that.

 


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A small question of obedience…

Recently, in conversation with a well-regarded trainer in the US about one of his client dogs, I stopped his description of intending to train “Place” (asking the dog to stay on an object or in an area until invited off/out) with this question:

“But what do you do when you can’t use obedience training as a short cut to building relationship?”

There was a silence and then he replied that he wasn’t sure.

I continued with:

“How do you get what you need from a dog in terms of self control when you cannot use food/play/force or repetition to get there?”

He was a wonderful sport and played along, responding by asking me what I thought should be done instead.

These questions are, in my opinion, at the crux of all of the problems we run into when working with dogs who have an innately independent mindset. Ask anyone who has spent any time with a working bred aboriginal type dog, be it LGD, hound, spitz or the less common herding breeds and they’ll tell you that these dogs embody the very definition of the independent mindset. For many of them, food can be a simple way to encourage them to bond with us, but others, like LGDs and sighthounds quite often won’t be manipulated in that way. In fact, the more we insist on ‘making’ them do things, the less they respect us. This is what people are actually dealing with when they claim that certain dogs are too “stubborn” or “dumb” to train. They claim that these dogs don’t have a brain in their heads, when it’s actually the handlers who don’t know how to speak their language.

People who don’t know how to handle certain animals resorting to allegations that it’s the animal’s fault? Say it ain’t so. This is has been going on since the beginning of domestication.

You’d think it’d be obvious that the human in the equation should try a little harder and work a little smarter. If the arguments I’ve seen on social media and the conversations I’ve had with other dog people are any indication, it’s not so obvious as it should be. It’s never acceptable to ignore an entire subsection of the canine population like this. Shame on the industry for encouraging that to happen.

So what do you do with an independent dog like our LGDs? Well, for some people, their answer has been to try to breed that out of them. Their dogs and their progeny become hollow shells of what they were intended to be. While it’s true that our LGD breeds/types are all found along the spectrum of biddability (biddable: easily led, taught, or controlled :docile), they should always retain what I call a ‘split brain’. This means that a significant portion of their brain should be dedicated to autonomous, independent thought processes. We should never be able to, nor should we even want to, hijack this portion for our own ends. The retention of this precious quality is VITAL for their ability to work effectively. We have no need of a LGD who needs to look to us for every decision, for every move. How could we leave them with our precious stock then?

At the same time, we need to be able to shape their instincts and help them learn how to control themselves. This part of their brain is dedicated to relationship and is where we need to take our influence very seriously. We need to be able to step in when they get it wrong (think over-guarding with newborn babies for instance or if they decide to take matters into their own hands with a human stranger); this is especially true when we raise them outside of a familial grouping as we do so often in developed, westernized countries.

So what is the answer to this particular issue of retaining fierce independence while impacting behavior and motivation? It’s pretty simple, really. Learn. Listen to them. Up your observation skills. Increase the methods in your repertoire. Acknowledge that there is more than one kind of dog out there. Stop approaching this work from an idealized ethical standpoint or with all kinds of force. These dogs don’t care what you learned in a book or from Koehler. They care about doing what they were meant to do, and if you aren’t relevant to that, you won’t be relevant to anything. If you don’t want to get hurt, if you don’t want the dog to check out on you and you still want to get from A to B, put your ego aside. Put away any piece of you that thinks you know what these dogs are about because you’ve had x number or x other kinds of dogs all your life. Approach this as a novel experience, a learning opportunity to expand your horizons and your toolbox. Resist the temptation to extrapolate endlessly from the few experiences with LGDs you’ve had or the stories/advice you’ve heard on Facebook and in poorly written literature. Those are nothing more than interesting fairy tales. Anything you follow should be able to withstand scrutiny and be able to prove results, period.

Utilize critical thinking. If you’re not getting the results you need quickly, if you’re relying more and more on management as a way of getting where you need to go, if you can’t handle or control these dogs without all kinds of equipment/set ups, you’re on the wrong track.

Yesterday, I fed Titus and Ivy from my hand in various spots on my property. They took each piece of kibble from my hand with respect for me and for each other. Titus put himself into a “Sit” and waited patiently while I fed one first to Ivy and then to him. When a piece landed on the ground, he refrained from jumping on it. We walked from place to place without leashes, without manipulation or force. We repeated the feeding exercise. I shared with them how wonderful I thought they were for offering deference and staying engaged with me. At the end, we played together and had a few cuddles. When I fed him the rest of his meal in a dish later, he ran ahead of me and put himself in a sit, waiting patiently until the bowl hit the ground and he heard me release him to eat. When he was done, he didn’t even attempt to touch Ivy’s dish.

Last week, Titus picked a fight with Ivy because food was present. He had his ass handed to him since she is still able to do so. This was not the first time he’d picked a fight like that. He’s had trouble with self control since the get go. He’d knocked food out of people’s hands, he’d jump up and down like a pogo stick, he’d walk in front of people and throw himself at their feet to get what he wanted (whether affection or food), he’d put his face in whatever and wherever he thought appropriate without so much as a thought process. Ivy’d dealt with his obnoxiousness more than once. He wasn’t learning.

Now he is.

This is literally a dog who has outstanding LGD instincts, who has simply lacked self control. I’m not going to just manage that until he matures. That’s not sustainable and doesn’t teach him anything. The lack of self control bleeds into all kinds of areas of his life. I don’t have an older male to teach him and keep him in line, so it’s been down to me. He didn’t have that enough where he was bred either (this is quite a common thing especially with small litters and not at all criticism), so I’ve been dealing with counteracting a lifetime of reinforcement for inappropriate behavior. My life was chaotic when he first arrived and for a while afterwards, due to the move, kids, school…so I didn’t get on it quickly enough either.

The point is that it’s fixable. It’s trainable. I’m doing that, and not with rote obedience regimes. Titus is responding and we’re all getting to that place of mutualistic symbiosis we need for this farm to run smoothly. Will he get to a place where he’s the boss of all things LGD here? It’s quite possible and I fully anticipate that that will happen. Right now is not the time as he’s not mentally or physically ready for that. So he has had to learn his place, outside of the strong family pack he would have had to help teach him in his country of origin.

To his credit, he’s getting it. To mine, I know how to speak to him so he listens.

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Titus offering a “Sit” to my daughter

 

 

 

 


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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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Returning

I didn’t think it would be possible. I’m back.

Ivy’s back too. That’s a story and a half – one I’ll have to share sometime when I have a bit more time. For now, suffice it to say that the stars came together in a way I didn’t believe in and Ivy’s wonderful new owner gave her back to me. I missed my girl terribly; I didn’t realize how much at all until I saw her.

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So after a year in suburban hell, I am back on land. It’s not the same farm and it’s not even in the same province as before, but it’s a beautifully treed 15 acres on a hill. My view is phenomenal. At this point, you couldn’t pay me to leave.

There isn’t much infrastructure on the particular plot, unlike the old farm. It’s both good and bad: lots of work and expense, but we can make it how we like. All of my kids are here with me and I have a wonderful partner who is learning the ropes of the farm when she’s up visiting from the city. I’m a very lucky woman indeed.

With little in the way of buildings or pens, I’m building the livestock piece bit by bit. Winter is fast approaching so it’s vital I have enough feed and sufficient space for the few animals I have already. I picked up a couple of goats and lambs in the spring who have largely been yard animals, venturing into the 4-strand barbed wire pastures from time to time. The land is lush with clover and too many grass varieties to count. There were horses on the land, but only a couple on all these acres means that there is a lot of vegetation that’s been growing unhindered.

 

The two lambs are slated for the freezer for winter, although the kids are lobbying to keep the sweetest one. He didn’t get banded for various reasons and I’m loathe to spend the money at the vet to fix him since we already have a pet goat, so we will have to see how it plays out. Both lambs are wool sheep and honestly I’m so glad I didn’t get more of those. The burrs, bushes and trees on the property translate into a nasty, dirty fleece. With that in mind, I’ve decided to go with hair sheep. Now there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever make.

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One thing I learned quickly after settling in is how fierce and bold the local coyotes are. The two horses that were here on the property for a month after I moved in kept most of them off the yard, but of course when they left we lost that protection. The horses were quite stressed at the effort they had to put in to keep the ‘yotes at bay. The ones we had in Manitoba never missed an opportunity to see if they could find an unprotected opening to an easy meal, but their flight bubbles were still pretty large. This Northern Albertan variety has a bit more moxie. Even with two LGDs on the property (behind fences) we still found one on the yard close up by the house. He didn’t want to move off either. This should be an interesting adventure.  There are a lot of raptors and foxes here that will be of more concern too once we have smaller stock like chickens to worry about.

Did I say that I have TWO LGDs? Well I do! In a twist of fate, Inghams Farms in Ontario had a litter of registered Armenian Gamprs out of the fabulous RM Karine. Karine is a brilliant working Gampr bitch I was able to meet when the Inghams lived not too far from us in Manitoba. I was so happy to find out that the male in the litter became available, and flew him out at 4 months of age. Meet Titus, named after the character of the same name in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  I’ll be blogging about our adventures in training Titus, keeping up with Ivy and growing the ruminant flock as we go along. We’ll need a lot more of them to clear the land, that’s for sure.

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