Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Give to get.

It’s New Year’s Eve today. It’s a natural time in the year to reflect, and I find myself doing just that as I sit at my table in the early morning silence. Ivy is finally resting after a restless night indoors; I made her come inside due to the extreme cold we experienced last night. She’s getting to (hopefully!) just past middle age and the Lyme and Anaplasmosis she contracted during her year away aged her prematurely. Maybe some day she will forgive me for leaving Titus on his own with the stock for a night, but right now I’ll settle for her begrudging acceptance – which, quite frankly, is all I’m likely to ever get.

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Isn’t she the cutest? It does my heart good to see her get some rest. It’s been a big year for all of us: the kids, dogs and I moving out of suburbia and back to land in a new province, my partner, J, learning about small farm life after a long while in the city, Ivy leaving Manitoba after a year away from us, Titus flying from Ontario to us at Rolling Spruce Farm to begin training as Ivy’s backup. Settling in and getting our bearings has been the name of the game for most of the latter half of 2017.

Living away from the land for a year before this was brutally hard on my heart and my soul. I spent every waking moment that I could hiking in the forests or walking on the beaches – anywhere, really, where I could get some space and breathe fresh air. I missed my big dogs terribly. Thankfully, it just so happened that the sister of my Saluki boy, Sami, needed some rehab and a new home, so I ended up with two yearling (sibling!) dogs who required a great deal of exercise. It was a perfect match for my restless self. If you’ve ever been owned by serious sighthounds (the parents of these two came from families in Saudi Arabia), you’ll know that it’s not easy to give them appropriate mental and physical stimulation on leash. You’ll also know that it’s not easy to gain their focus or have them listen to you when there are a lot of other competing interests around, not to mention when they can do exactly what they were bred to do – run. Running and chasing are to Salukis what guarding and nurturing are to LGDs, so you get a good idea of how important this is to them.

Salukis sleeping, Salukis running, Salukis playing, Salukis posing… I couldn’t decide which pictures to leave out, so you get inundated with them here (click on the thumbnails to see them in bigger format if you’d like). Ara (the brindle) and Sam (the tri-color) taught me so much about dog handling and dog training during this year of suburban purgatory. They are polar opposites in personality: Ara, stranger friendly but shy and aloof in most new situations, independent and sassy with her family and Sam, stranger wary and forward with other dogs, lovey, playful and devoted with his family. Both are Salukis through and through however: picky and particular, always looking to hunt, run, chase – alert and ready to go at a moment’s notice, but calm and relaxed for the most part at home. Sighthounds embody what dog people call the “off switch”, the ability for a dog to turn off their internal drive when it’s not called for. It’s this innate ability that makes them wonderful to live with, but also a challenge out of doors.

While I still lived on the old farm, I learned a training skill from a wise young trainer friend of mine. This skill came in handy for many different dogs, but none more so than the sighthounds and the LGDs. I call it simply “Give to get”, but I’m sure there is a better technical trainer term for it that I can’t recall. In essence, the skill requires the dog handler to give the dog what they want most in exchange for a short, easily displayed behavior. In time, the dog’s behavior requirement is extended and the criteria increased, so that the handler gets more and more of what they are looking for (within the dog’s ability, of course), but what is given to the dog afterwards remains the same. Most of what we call “positive” or “reward based” training operates on this principle of giving in order to receive, most notably where the dog will comply to a request in order to receive a food or play reward.

The difference between this approach and say, giving the dog a treat or a toy after they give the handler a certain behavior is that the reward in this case requires giving the dog freedom. For instance, if I am walking a dog, I will ask them to walk beside me with a loose leash (a leash with a good amount of slack in it, not tight/taught) and then ask for a short behavior such as eye contact, short sit or down (lie down). As a “reward” for the offered behavior (I put reward in quotations because in my opinion freedom should be a given, not a special thing),  I’ll allow the dog the full extent of the leash/rope/long line to sniff or romp or do whatever their heart desires. I can then resume the more structured walk after a while and then rinse and repeat. If I am going for a walk with a dog off leash, I will ask for a similar such behavior before allowing them off the leash, or before releasing them after I’ve called them back to me. For independent minded dogs whose ultimate happiness lies in being left to their own devices, this is typically good trade-off in their minds. They rarely resent being asked for it as long as we don’t pester them too much after the routine is established. This is also a good option for dogs who don’t like to take food or engage with toys outside of the house, although I will also train dogs to take the food from me as one of the behaviors that results in achieving freedom.

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Walking Laima, a Gampr, on a loose leash along with Piper and Sami off leash

In a world where freedom for dogs is no longer a given and trainers teach highly structured walks as a matter of course, independent, unrestricted movement is hard for many dogs to come by. For many dog handlers, it can initially seem counter-intuitive to offer freedom as a reward; after all, isn’t it highly desired to keep the dog as engaged and obedient as possible? Isn’t freedom time when nothing happens for the dog? I argue exactly the opposite, that the time when we are not directly affecting every movement of our dogs is when the most growth and the most learning happens. It requires as well as fosters a great deal of trust in the dog/human relationship as well. We trust them enough to let them go, to learn from their free interactions and behaviors, to let settle what we’ve taught them, to make mistakes. They trust us enough to happily return, even out of roaring play or wild chase, safe in the knowledge that we won’t rob them of what they desire the most: independence.

For some dogs, autonomy is like breathing – it’s something they must have. For others, it’s less comfortable a notion. Regardless, it’s essential to achieving a healthy state of mind, high levels of resilience and the ability to make appropriate decisions for any situation. “Give to get” is one way we can help even the most independently minded dog stay willingly connected to us during training and free time. If all that my time away from the farm did was to hone my understanding of how important this principle is, then it was absolutely worth it.

 


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LGD Puppy Skills/Manners Exercises

This post goes hand in hand with the series on Puppy Raising. These are exercises that can be executed in different ways, but I cannot overemphasize how important it is to train young pups using a positive and rewarding approach. There is enough adversity in the exercises themselves to be challenging for pups without adding any extra. We also always want to preserve the positive association with people and handling whenever possible.

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Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru and Mitch

These skills are non negotiable in my opinion. They set the basis for a positive relationship between dog and owner as well as the development of self control. When dogs learn early that there are fair rules to follow and that by following those rules, they can get what they want/need, it forms the foundation for the development of a confident, stable dog who trusts their owner. Just like children, dogs do best within a structure, with fair rules. Also just like children, they do best when they understand those rules well and the rules are tailored to their cognitive abilities. Remember that some puppies, just like some children, will push the boundaries harder and more often than others. Setting the rules requires being willing and able to enforce them when necessary, again with a good understanding of cognitive ability. A young pup won’t be able to meet high standards for behavior like an older pup will.

For information purposes, “backward motion” is what we see when a dog/pup is about to sit. All of their energy is moving them backward, away from you. “Forward motion” is the opposite, what we see when a dog is about to run after something or go through a door.

The training exercises should be done away from stock unless otherwise indicated. Rewarding with food should be done with the pup’s regular ration of kibble (use freeze dried meat for raw fed or bits of hot dog) if at all possible; for highly stressful situations consider using something very tasty like roast beef or chicken.

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Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel, CAS pup

LGD Puppy Raising Exercises

  • Make it a routine practice to handle feet, toes, ears, run your hands over all parts of their body, look in their mouths. Start slowly and gently for pups who seem disturbed by what you are doing. Do not overdo it and release the pup when they accept the handling. Praise calmly.
  • Introduce to strange children, adults, people with different clothing and hats, people of different skin color, shapes, sizes, abilities.
  • Introduce to different flooring, different obstacles (logs on the ground, gravel, rocks, tall grass, etc.). Encourage reluctant pups but allow for independent problem solving. Do not coddle.
  • Train or at the very least, expose to a crate. Crate training is easier if pups are given something very yummy to chew on such as a stuffed kong or flat rolled rawhide.
  • Place a flat (regular) collar on the pup. Wait until they are no longer bothered by the feeling of wearing a collar before going to the next step.
  • Attach and allow to drag a leash/light long line in an area of a building or on the property where they are comfortable.
  • Have pup drag a leash (or preferably a longer line/rope) and then pick it up, let it down.
  • Pick up leash and apply slight pressure, calling the pup by name or with a sound, when they turn to you, release the leash and praise.
  • Next time, pick it up, apply pressure (slight and steady, then increasing – do not yank), turn and call the pup, then take a few steps with them going in the direction of the pressure when they respond, drop leash and praise/play.
  • Follow by shortening the leash/line, but do not hold tight. Allow for slack in the line unless applying pressure to change direction or encourage a reticent pup to move forward. Do several changes in direction before releasing. Rewarding with food is appropriate if helpful, but do not do around stock.
  • Tie the pup for a brief period of time. Do not untie until relaxed.
  • Restrain the pup by hand briefly and take note of reaction. This gives you information about what kind of pup they are. Pups can be afraid of restraint, so do not assume struggling or getting upset is an indicator of issues with dominance.
  • Take note of who is bossy in the litter and who is not, and whether mom will correct the pups for pushy behavior. Make a plan to encourage timid pups and to teach bold pups to wait.
  • Practice getting in and out of a vehicle. Reward and praise heavily.
  • Take pups on a fun car ride (not to the vet), expose them to sights and sounds off the farm/homestead.
  • Take pups to the veterinary clinic. Ensure as much positivity as possible. This will be easier to do if pups are already used to being handled and restrained.
  • Feed in both separate and areas together out of individual dishes, ensuring fairness. Fairness means no stealing, no matter how “nicely” and submissively it’s done.
  • Ask pup to sit by raising food dish above their heads before feeding.
  • Do not give pups what they ask for when they ask for it – whether it’s food or attention, going through a gate (except if it is for the purposes of relieving themselves) – instead, give it to them when they show at first slight and then more patience/backward motion (settling).
  • Do not greet the pups with high amounts of enthusiasm around stock, children, people of different physical abilities or the elderly.
  • Show affection mainly after the pups have settled and have “four on the floor”. This means that all paws are in contact with the ground. This does not mean that you cannot interact with pups when they are excited and/or playing (see bullet point directly above for exceptions to this), but share affection most often when pups are displaying “four on the floor”. This means making a point of seeking out pups who aren’t naturally pestering for your attention. Remove attention and/or help to settle if the pup becomes too excited to remain in contact with the floor/ground. This will mean split seconds of patience/backward motion for enthusiastic pups. Build from the split second to longer periods in subsequent sessions.
  • Show stock affection and focus first, then pups. Do not give a pup attention who puts themselves between you and the stock when you are paying attention to stock. Place them to the side and when they relax, calmly praise. Physically block if necessary, and only show affection when you are done interacting with the stock and only if the pup is also being calm with backward motion. The same rules apply to interacting with children. All enthusiastic play/interaction should take place away from the stock/children.
  • Feed each pup some kibble in sequence by hand. Ask for some sign of engagement (looking you in the eye, responding to a sound) before giving the pup their piece. Physically block other pups or dogs from trying to take food out of turn.
  • Place pup in stall or pen and shut door briefly. When they are quiet, open the door and praise, allow them to exit. See comment above (regarding affection) about rewarding split second patience for pups who struggle with self control.
  • Once the pup is sitting reliably for their food dish (they should be able to sit until the food is on the ground), use the raising hand motion to ask them to sit before allowing them over thresholds (gates, doors). As they mature, they should wait for you to indicate whether to go in front of you or wait for you to enter/exit. Treats can be used to encourage this behavior but should only be delivered outside of the stock enclosures or at the very least, away from the stock.
  • Give pup(s) a bath. This may not be appropriate in the coldest of weather, but combined with a bit of crate training or confinement work (can be done together in a room) it can be a good exercise even then. Ensure they are well dried before returning outdoors in cold weather. Reward heavily with food/treats during this time.
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Photo credit: Michelle Marie – GP litter

The only deviation from reward based methods I suggest is to begin to form the basis for appropriate corrections. Those will follow in an upcoming post.


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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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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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Interview with Rohana Mayer – Trip to Armenia 2015

For a week in the summer of 2015, Rohana Mayer traveled to Armenia, the homeland of her beloved Armenian Gamprs.  Recently, I interviewed her about gamprs and her trip.  I have quite enjoyed getting to know Rohana over the last while since she traveled abroad, and I thank her for her candor and thoughtfulness in the following conversation.  If you’d like to read more about Armenia and Rohana, refer to my previous post here.  Direct contact information follows the interview.

  1. What precipitated your interest in being involved with the preservation of the Armenian Gampr?

 

A person I knew dropped off a male gampr imported from Armenia with his pedigree at my house, when his wife was angry that he had brought the dog home and told him to get rid of it. So he left Lao of Etchmiadzin with me. I was taking a semester of courses at the time, and had to write a paper, so I chose to investigate the gampr and write about their history. I received a letter from the teacher telling me it was excellent and ought to be published. So I posted it to a website.

I began receiving hate emails, including death threats from Turkish people. I also received an abundance of thank yous from Armenians. I found it inspiring, and have continued as I am today.

Further back, I grew up  in the mountains of Big Sur with an eccentric father. He taught us to disdain anything that was weak and soft, such as city pets.  When we did, rarely, see city-slickers with their soft pudgy co-dependent dogs, or heavy graceless cattle, it was a sharp contrast to the wild animals we were used to.

Once, a stray dog, likely off the highway as the rest was all wilderness, happened to stop at our house for a few weeks. He was lean and fast, very fit and alert. I felt that he was much closer to how dogs SHOULD be. Growing up on stories by Jack London reinforced the concept of the ideal dog as something closer to a wild animal, but still a companion.

Of course as an adult who has long since left Big Sur, I do not have the same attitude toward domesticated animals. When I learned about the gampr, though, they fit the childhood ideal of what a dog should be: partly a companion, not so clearly emotionally dependant, very fit for survival with instinct intact, partly wild. The fact that this has remained a part of them for thousands of years of domestication fascinates me.

  1. Can you tell me a bit about the gampr and what makes them unique?

 

The gampr is the product of over 10,000 years of domestication, but still close to it’s proto-dog and a little Caspian wolf ancestry. It has not changed a whole lot, although the republic of Armenia has gone through intense changes. Their temperament and behaviour is quite similar to other landrace LGDs of the Caucasus and Central Asia, but because of the length of time that the Armenians managed their dogs, the highly evolved nature of their culture, and the variations of kingdoms and social needs, the gampr has several varieties within the landrace that have been bred for special skills. The various strains all contribute to the current cluster of dogs found in Armenia; however, the Hovashoon, or Chobani shoon, appears the most untouched by modern breeding practices.

  1. You run the Armenian Gampr Club of America, whose website states that the Armenian Gampr is still very much a landrace, with all the benefits of genetic diversity that implies. Can you tell me a bit more about what this means and why it’s important?

 

Landraces are not defined within a narrow scope, such as a standardized breed like the Doberman Pinscher, which has a specific use and type. Because of its genetic diversity, a landrace has an inherent adaptability to its culture of use and physical environment. If the gampr could not adapt and retain usefulness throughout the changes imposed upon its human counterpart, it would not exist today.  In order to preserve adaptability, it is necessary to also preserve heterozygosis.

Natural health also relies on genetic heterozygosis. The more inbred a dog is, the less likely the immune system will have the variability needed for response to a wide range of diseases. Some standardized breeds are so encumbered by illness that they are dependent on ready access to medical care. A dog whose primary job includes working in remote mountains in an impoverished society would soon become useless if it could not thrive long without vet services.

In the gampr we have the raw material that created so many other breeds. Refined, it can become many things. But as it is, it can produce great variation that can be selected and specialized. To me, that is very interesting.

  1. One of the goals of your club is to help place Armenian Gamprs with farmers and ranchers here in North America. What is some of the feedback that you’ve gotten about the dogs that you’ve placed here?

 

One of the most common responses is that the owners are very happy the dogs can begin work at a young age, and take their job seriously. When alone, they have an adult demeanour and take on responsibility fairly young, although it does help to have an older dog support their learning process. Most American farm owners are fairly happy, although we have had a few dogs who didn’t work out – as in any breed of livestock guardian.

For example, two young females are in Nevada on a large farm. They are now breeding age, and the locals who have Great Pyrs are so impressed they regularly ask when there will be pups available. Predator pressure has apparently increased there. The owner has orders for 20 pups already. This is due to the wide range these dogs cover, working as a team, and how well they monitor and care for all the local stock, including witnessed accounts of physical attacks on coyotes.

Not all gamprs have been that successful. There have been a few who have eaten chickens relentlessly, a couple who wander too far, but mostly we are doing well. In the past I had much more limited access to quality breeding dogs, but now we have more to choose from.

I have not placed them in situations where they’d be isolated with livestock, I prefer them to interact as the farm person’s partner, and they do well in these situations. The methods that originated in Coppinger’s work are inappropriate, and once people see the complexities of the relationships that are developed, they understand how much more these dogs can be.

  1. What is one of the biggest challenges you face in getting these dogs to the people who want them?

 

I am on the west coast, as are most imports, and we are not along most of the available transportation routes. So, when it comes to puppies, it usually takes a month longer than we expect to actually get them to their new homes.

If it’s an adult that needs rehoming, I’ll usually take the dog to my house for an adjustment period. Most rehomes are out of Los Angeles, where there are a half million Armenians. Sometimes the dogs are not socialized, are over-sensitized and over-reactive after living in small spaces where they cannot express their instincts. These dogs are bred to intensely follow their instincts over training. In Los Angeles, there is actually a lot of nighttime activity and the dogs get very frustrated without the ability to patrol and secure their area. So, I basically just acclimate them to a larger space, pack life, and evaluate their ability to be with livestock. Then we work to match them with the right home.

  1. Recently you took a trip to Armenia with the goal of collecting DNA samples of as many gamprs as possible. Why did you do this?

 

There were several reasons for taking the trip.  Personally, I am hoping to show any relationship to proto-dog DNA and that of local wolves, as well as to show in which portion of the gampr gene pool it is the highest.

I’d also like to have some sort of breed profile created, if possible.

One of my original goals was to start collecting paternity DNA, but currently it’s difficult to predict which will have offspring sent to USA. I hope that any genetic anomalies we find in the future can then be traced back.

I am also curious as to what the level of heterozygosis for the breed is, in general and within certain types.

Children in a small village with gampr pups.

Children in a small village with gampr pups

7. You traveled over a great deal of western Armenia, meeting many people and their dogs. Can you tell me                        about the ones who stick out in your mind?

 

I covered most of the western third of the country, although I missed one of the most significant breeders. I think I have a long list of those who made an impression, in just one short week.

Vahan Mkhitarian, Armen Simonyan and Vagarsh Gasparyan were the three main breeders I spoke with, who were actually serious breeders. I would love to spend a full week with each of them, just to see how they evaluate dogs, why they choose what they do etc. They were all charming and enjoyable company as well as very sincere and kind people.

I met Tigran Nazaryan, which I have wanted to do since I began this project. He published gampr.net , the first website to ever specifically focus on the gampr. He was one of a small group of students selected for their brilliance for a full degree at UC Berkeley when Armenia gained its independence in 1992. He returned to Armenia and among other things, began the gampr project that I now continue, in my own way. He is a fascinating and unique person. It took a couple of hours to get him warmed up on the subject, which has been muddied by conflicts over which type is better or more correct, and fighting about dog-fighting. Many of the original people involved are no longer interested for those reasons. Once we had talked for a few hours, avoiding the subject directly, Tigran became more animated and excited. It is the subject of the mind of the gampr, not the physique or history, that interests him. We talked until almost 2 am, during which time he introduced me to his neighbour who specifically breeds just huge mixed fighting dogs. A sweet man who loves all of his 40+ dogs, the neighbour Mushegh also had some interesting anecdotes about all of the breeders I had met, and their dogs. Everyone is connected, as it is a small country.

I also met a member of a Yazidi chief’s family, and he was impressively noble, charming, firm and kind all at once. He was kind enough to give me a puppy.

The food was delicious, the people very charming and exceptionally hospitable. I felt very welcomed wherever I went.

The night we left Tigran’s house, I arrived to my apartment and realized I had left my phone charging cord at Tigran’s. I walked around Yerevan hoping to find an open store that sold the cord I needed. Armenians are somewhat nocturnal and many stores were still open. I gave up after an hour, and asked a nearby cab driver where there was a cell phone store that I could go to in the morning. He motioned me into his car and dropped me at an open cell phone boutique store  – still open at almost 3am. He refused a fare, walked me inside and said something to the woman at the counter. She smiled, walked to a back room and brought out a phone charger that worked for my phone. She plugged it into a wall outlet and motioned for me to sit at the couch and charge my phone. I did for a little while, and noticed a unit for sale that had about ten plug options, one of which would work for my phone. So I bought it and walked home, although they seemed happy to have me just sit and use their charger temporarily without a purchase. Very accommodating and kind!

 

  1. While you were overseas, you posted pictures of some places where the dogs were being inbred in an attempt to preserve purity. Why do you think this happens?  What are some of the consequences of this type of breeding that you saw?

 

I think it is partly a fear of their own dogs being crossed to something that will not work well, as happens frequently during winter stays in villages, and also likely an extreme interpretation of ‘purity’ by linebreeding left over from Soviet cynologist training.

Some of the effects we saw were dwarfism, loose/hanging eyelids, generally more petite structure, and liver coloring.

  1. The Armenian Gampr needs the continued support of dedicated and knowledgeable breeders and advocates to keep it from disappearing into other breed populations that are not being kept up as efficient working dogs. If there is one thing that the clubs trying to help this happen need right now, what would it be?

 

Generally, we need people to understand population genetics with the intent to conserve working ability, which includes correct physique (not overdone), correct mentality, and reliable health. So maybe that is three or four things. But it’s not simple.

We also need monetary support, as most clubs do.  Some of the projects we have undertaken are costly and won’t be able go ahead as much as we’d like without direct support.  One thing we would really like to do is upgrade our pedigree software, which will cost about $200 US.  We are working on some fundraising ideas to help make this happen.

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Rohana shows the envelope for the DNA sample.

  1. In our conversations, you’ve mentioned several times that this trip would not have been successful if it weren’t for the help you received from breeders and farmers in Armenia. Can you tell me a bit more about these people and how invaluable they were to you?  Is there anything you would like to say to them?

 

The breeders I mentioned above, and their associates who had fewer dogs (they all have people with just a couple dogs who are semi-co breeders.) all took at least a day, mostly took several days to tour with me, answer questions, help collect DNA, and they listened with an intent to understand. Violetta Gabrielyan, president of Kinologia (www.kinologia.am)  arranged four days of meetings and tours. She took time off work, which I think cost her, and arranged for us to be videotaped. In between, she made an appearance on one of the news channels.

The entire trip was paid for by Father Avedis Abovian – my airfare, apartment, our fuel, food. I raised a litter for him and helped care for his dogs while he was away, and he definitely more than compensated me.

Overall, it seemed that everyone sincerely wanted to share as much accurate information with me as possible, in order that I find whatever I needed; I think they were all unsure exactly what was on my mind. Violetta told them I was there to ‘prove’ gampr DNA, as if it was a service to her program. I think she told them that I needed to see as many unrelated dogs as possible, and of course I was shown the more impressive ones.

The breeders could tell by the translated conversations that I was not entirely sure about Violetta’s procedures but wanted more information than I was presented with, about their dogs. They were curious but skirted the issue directly when she was present. When she was not with me, one of them let me know he only sells a few puppies through her, and that he basically does as he wants, as they all do – she is just another option available to them.

There is definitely a lot more to do in order to create a better information exchange, and the language is just one of the barriers. Armenian dog culture has been evolving for literally over 4000 years; I was at an archaelogical site where dog breeding had consistently been embedded in the culture from 2000 BC to CE, so the situation is full of entangled history, varieties, and practices that are not what an American would expect.  This doesn’t even touch on the wealth of shepherd’s dogs that are spread across the mountains, related to the dogs in each kennel through exchanges of puppies.  It would be a grave mistake to assess the entirety of the breed based on what is in each breeder’s group of dogs; the backbone of the Armenian Gampr are the working dogs in the mountains.

Overall, I was happier with the quality of the dogs than I had expected to be.  The kindness and hospitality of the Armenians were delightful.  Of course I still have a lot of questions, and I expect I’ll return next March, if not sooner.

clockwise from left - Vahan Mkhitarian, Rohana, Violetta, Father Avedis Abovian, Armen Simonyan

clockwise from left – Vahan Mkhitarian, Rohana Mayer, Violetta Gabrielyan, Father Avedis Abovian, Armen Simonyan

 

***To contact Rohana directly, use the contact information on the front page of the Armenian Gampr Club of America’s website.

 

 


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The Armenian Gampr

A few weeks ago, a friend by the name of Rohana Mayer took a trip to Armenia to gather DNA samples of the working LGDs native to there, also known as gamprs.  Rohana is the head of the Armenian Gampr Club of America, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Armenian Gampr landrace.  We were in contact through some of her trip,  and I greatly enjoyed the updates she provided on the Armenian Gampr group on Facebook.  Rohana has graciously agreed to allow me to post some of the pictures she took as well as to sit for an interview, which I will post soon.

First, some context.

Armenia is a small (approximately 30,000 square km, or roughly the size of Maryland in the US) landlocked country in Southwestern Asia, between Turkey and Azerbaijan to the west and east respectively and Georgia and Iran to the north and south.

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Like other small countries in Europe, Armenia has struggled with retaining its autonomy over the centuries.  External control and the effort of resisting that control left Armenia in never ending turmoil and culminated in a genocide of at least 1 million citizens between 1915 and 1922 by neighboring Turkey during the tail end of Ottoman rule.   Between political unrest and set backs from natural disasters like the earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 and left hundreds of thousands more homeless, Armenia naturally became a nation of extreme resilience and creativity.  Now independent, Armenians battle against internal corruption and a difficult economy that has left them with a high rate of poverty.  Despite this, Armenia continues its’ long history of reinvention, ever striving to thrive out from under the shadow of the much larger and more influential countries nearby.

Nearly 60% of Armenia’s land base is devoted to agriculture, divided as 15.8% arable land, 1.9% permanent crops and 42% permanent pasture.  The largest section of the Armenian labor force,  at 39%,  is in agriculture.  This high level of permanent pasture land and weighted importance of agriculture in the economy translates into a very long history of pastoralism for Armenians.  Forests make up a further 9% of the land, adding to the available area for grazing livestock.  Transhumance, the ancient method of moving stock from low lands to higher pastures seasonally, is still practiced there today.  Whether in more contained systems closer to urban centers, or found in more remote areas of this beautiful country, Armenian shepherds have long relied on the gampr dog to protect them and their livelihood.

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

The Armenian Gampr, like many dogs used for personal and livestock guardian work in different countries, are required to be defensively confrontational with intruders and predators while remaining soft and affectionate with their family.  They must be large enough to be imposing and tough enough to follow through on their threats if need be, but not so big as to impede athleticism or be unthrifty.  Being a true landrace even in modern times means that the gampr is an extremely rich well of genetic diversity.  Furthermore, it means that the phenotypic expression of this diversity resists the development of a show-type or Kennel Club standard.  There are still parameters to judge by, however, and some of the macro points are as follows (from the AGCA website):

“The breed evolved for a rigorous lifestyle requiring independent intelligence, strong survival instincts, reliable livestock guardianship, and a dependable, efficient physique.”

Gamprs have been bred for function more than appearance.  Any color is permissible, except merle, liver or blue, and blue eyes or eyes lacking dark eyeliner, and pink noses.”

and

“The thick coat of the gampr is excellent protection in all weather extremes.  Typically, longer-haired dogs were from the snowy highlands, and shorter-haired dogs were from the lowlands. The outer hairs tend to be darker than the dense, downy undercoat. They shed their coat once or twice a year, in great amounts. Puppies often are born slightly darker than they grow to be as an adult.


Gamprs have strong, muscular bodies with large bone structure. It is often surprising how large their heads are when compared other modern ‘pet’ dogs.”
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An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

 

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

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

As the Armenian people have struggled for so long, so too have their beloved dogs.  At various points in its’ history, the Armenian Gampr has been used to bolster non-working breeds outside their borders, as a part of fighting dog breeding, exported at high rates along with livestock, taken as the spoils of war, lost to inappropriate external expectations and wounded by inappropriate breeding practices both within and outside of the country’s bounds.   True gamprs, those who structurally and temperamentally qualify as guardians, are worth a great deal to breeders and buyers alike.

This sets the backdrop for Rohana Mayer’s recent trip to western Armenia.  Armed with buccal swabs and aided by a team of dedicated indigenous shepherds and breeders, she traveled through a third of the unpretentious country looking for examples of the gampr for DNA testing.  Some dogs had inappropriate temperaments or were overly mixed, and still others showed the ravages of long term inbreeding (done in a misapplied effort to ensure purity).  Perseverance of a high standard of behavior and morphology paid off, though, and Rohana managed to find some beautiful examples of working gamprs.  I’ll leave you with some pictures of these dogs, as well as some links for further reading about the Armenian Gampr.  Look for my interview with Rohana in an upcoming post.  If you have any interest in aiding Rohana and the Armenian Gampr  Club of America’s preservation project, please contact Rohana at rohana@gampr.org or me through this site.

 

*****More reading:

Timeline of the last century in Armenia: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1108274.stm

“A Brief History of the Armenian Gampr” (AGCA): http://www.gampr.org/History.html

Overview of the history of the Armenian Gampr, with a slant towards registering a standard: http://www.tacentral.com/nature/fauna_story.asp?story_no=2