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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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What’s in the works

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Rules to live by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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“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


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Companion living.

I’m working on a post about life stages and expectations for LGDs, but it’s a bit slow going as farm life is in full swing here, leaving free time in short supply.  In the meantime, I want to take a moment to remind LGD breed owners of one undeniable fact.

Whether you think your dog is a working LGD or not doesn’t matter.  If he has working ability, HE thinks he’s a working dog and will act accordingly.  This is what he was bred to do.

 

More often than not, when a LGD breed is kept as a companion or in an urban setting and they have significant working ability, their owners run into trouble leaving them on their home turf unsupervised with strangers, unfamiliar animals, etc., as they mature.  This is especially true of the harder or less stranger tolerant breeds such as the Caucasian Ovtcharka, Central Asian Shepherd, Kuvasz, etc..  These dogs are hard wired to assess risk, to identify threat and then to drive it off or eliminate it.  This can bleed over into their life off property, especially if they are regularly taken to certain places or walked on certain routes, since this can encourage them to believe that these things and places are also “theirs” and meant to be protected.

Unlike many other breeds, where the maturing process is difficult, but maturity brings with it a dog who is MORE biddable with their owners and steady with strangers, LGDs become hardened with time and tend to listen less and be less tolerant of threat behavior by others.   Unfortunately, many people who acquire LGD breeds expect that their dog(s) will see extended family, visiting family, close friends and playmates of their children as completely safe… just like the owners do.  They expect that the loving and sweet dog(s) who allow their children to sit on them and who cuddle with them on the couch will extend that behavior to others who don’t live with them.  This is not at all what these dogs were bred for, and it is unfair to expect that of them.  Thousands of years of selection pressure has brought us dogs who act independently to address threat, swiftly and unforgivingly (in varying degree) and who don’t understand that Aunt Martha or Uncle Bob aren’t stealing from you, or that Sammy’s little friend from school was only play fighting.

Both breeders and owners share responsibility for this issue.  Breeders should know their dogs well, and sell only to suitable homes that are prepared to deal with any issues that may arise.  Owners should think hard about their expectations for any dog they plan to bring into their home, and ask themselves if they would be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak, or if they are truly willing to do what it would take to keep a large, powerful and ever-suspicious dog happy and safe in that setting.

With proper management and understanding, LGDs can make good companions – in fact, they can be absolutely wonderful in that role.  Setting them up for success is the kindest and most appropriate thing that we can do for them, which sometimes means passing them over for a more suitable dog.  You can take the dog out of the working environment, but you will NEVER take the working ability out of the dog.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs,  enjoys some inside time.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs, enjoys some inside time.

 


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Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, Part I

In 2014, I wrote and published a document that has been shared the world over regarding some of the misinformation out there regarding Livestock Guardian Dogs.  I’m currently updating it and thought it would be good to share it on here to kickoff the new change in the blog.  Since it’s a long document, I’m going to divide it into parts for easier digestion.

 

Myths and Misinformation about Working LGDs – Carolee Penner

1) Livestock Guardian Dogs should be raised hands off.

This is a common assumption that is wide spread in North America. We can trace this advice back to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger who, between 1977 and 1990, bred and placed more than 1400 LGDs on sheep farms and ranches across the US and Canada through their government funded Livestock Guarding Dog Project . Ray Coppinger is a biologist whose passion was studying dogs around the world and running sled dogs. The original dogs bred for the project were imported by the Coppingers from a variety of countries overseas where these dogs were traditionally used. Even though Ray Coppinger observed the dogs in their native lands and handpicked the ones for import, he failed to recognize how much the pastoral environment and group/family dynamic that the LGDs were raised in contributed to their success. As a consequence of this failure, he recommended that all LGDs should be raised hands off and kept solely with their charges from a very early age, with minimal human handling. The impact of this advice is still felt today in that raising with little human intervention is still seen among many farmers and ranchers as the ideal way to care for these dogs.

We know now that this approach has caused many dogs to lose their lives or to live in such a way that they are overly fearful or aggressive towards their owners. Good working dogs have had to be shot or are unsafe for rehoming when the operation they work on is sold or downsized. Dogs have to be lassoed or trapped for the most basic of health care or vetting and as a consequence wounds and injuries often go untreated. Dogs are unable to discern between a viable threat or the approach of someone to care for them and behave aggressively, resulting in being shot or put to sleep. Young pups can easily become overwhelmed by aggressive stock and resort to defending themselves aggressively. Adolescent dogs may try chasing stock and are deemed unsuitable for the job instead of being open to correction from their owners. In short, raising LGDs hand off is a very bad idea and results in wasted time, money and ultimately in the loss of what could be or are very valuable working dogs.

 

2) A Livestock Guardian Dog should automatically know what to do and not to do with the stock.

As in most misinformation, there is a kernel of truth to this. LGDs have been selected and/or bred for a long time in various countries to enhance desired traits around livestock. Since the animals they protect are naturally easily frightened by predators like dogs, LGDs have developed nearly the polar opposite body structure of the prick eared, lithe wolf or coyote. LGD ears are wide set and drooping. Their eyes have a mournful, soft or relaxed expression to avoid triggering fear in the stock. Their bodies are larger than most dogs in order to be an effective threat to predators and their heads and muzzles are round and soft, mostly lacking in chiseled angles. Their movements are naturally slow and fluid, except in the presence of a threat. When mature, they are not triggered off by the prey movements of their charges – indeed, their reduced prey drive is often evident when they are young pups and find little interest in chasing balls or playing tug. Everything about their structure and nature avoids triggering prey response in their charges and at the same time inspires confidence and security.

Raising a successful LGD is quite often dependent on guidance and input from older, more experienced dogs willing to correct inappropriate behavior and model appropriate behavior as well as input from the shepherd/owner. LGDs learn the ropes as they grow and mature – by watching, trying things out and responding to appropriate correction.  In the absence of canid role models, their owners need to step up to the plate and train them appropriately.  Given the widespread nature of #1 above, many LGD pups do not get what they need to be set up for success.

Historically, dogs with the completely wrong instinct would be culled, but it is also true that as the litters were heavily culled initially, the remaining pups would often be set up for success due to the higher amount of personal attention they received by the more experienced dogs and the shepherd. Even in our modern western approach to farming and ranching, inexperienced LGDs  and pups need to be set up for success at every turn initially in order to understand what is expected of them and so that they don’t end up in a situation they are not prepared to handle on their own.

 

3) Livestock Guardian Dogs need to be rehomed or killed if they hurt the livestock.

Each situation needs to be examined on its own merits, but it is true that many successful LGDs make mistakes with the stock when they are inexperienced or not yet mature. The reasons for this can range from being placed with stock that bully them when they are young to being bored as adolescents and discovering that chasing flighty stock is a fun game. Since every behavior that is practiced becomes stronger, it is very important that any unwanted behavior be caught early and appropriate changes made in the environment in order for the dog to be successful. Alternately, the dog should be corrected and/or put away when they display the behavior, but the correction must be just enough in the dog’s mind to convince them to abandon the behavior. LGDs are typically very sensitive to correction from their owners, especially when they have a good respectful relationship.  Corrections must also occur in the act, just before or just after.

In order to effect these changes, supervision is necessary to catch the dog before they mess up or in the act. When the dog cannot be directly supervised, they should be retired to a pen in or directly adjacent to the stock.  Alternately, owners can put their misbehaving pup/adolescent in with less vulnerable stock who won’t put up with the behavior.  Care must be taken to ensure for the safety of the dog if that approach is taken. If the behavior proves hard to eliminate, it may be that the correction is not sufficient or done with inappropriate timing.  It also might be that the dog is unable to comply at that time due to immaturity or health problems.  If in doubt, consult a more experienced farmer and/or trainer.

Another scenario where LGDs can be susceptible to unintentional harming of the stock is during birthing time. All LGDs should be strictly supervised or separated from birthing stock unless they have proven themselves previously and are mature. Maturity does not occur with most LGDs until closer to 3 years of age. Since there is a lot of blood and bodily fluids in the birthing process and the new babies are covered in the same, it can prove to be too tempting for immature or inexperenced dogs.  Their predatory instincts can be triggered even when trying to help the mother clean the babies, and many instances of owners coming across partially eaten newborn babies have been reported.  Some dogs naturally clean up stillborn babies, so it is important to understand that not all dogs who have been found with partially eaten newborns are doing the wrong thing.  If the owner is unsure, however, supervision is the only way to ensure that the dog is behaving appropriately.

Since both mothers and babies are the most vulnerable at birthing time, it is imperative that proper supervision or separation is enacted until the LGD has proven themselves and is fully mature. If a dog takes up going after newborn stock when they were previously reliable, they should be removed and the possibility of a dietary imbalance or other health issue should be explored.

Finally, LGDs are very orderly dogs. Much of their success as guardians relies on knowing the routine and what is normal and not normal in the environment. Therefore, introducing new stock or rehoming the dog to another operation can result in confusion about what is acceptable and not acceptable for them. Introduce new stock slowly and introduce the dog to his new environment slowly and carefully so that he has a chance to acclimate to what is expected and what is normal. Injuries may happen if this process is rushed without allowing the dog to accept and understand the new stock or environment.

 

4) Livestock Guardian dogs are just tools and don’t need the same care as pet dogs.

LGDs provide a much needed service on farming and ranching operations, but they ARE animals and not objects. They, like the stock on the farm/ranch, need good input (food, water, vaccinations, deworming) and regular care in order to produce good output for the farmer or rancher.  If farmers are not willing to put time, effort and money into their dogs, it is highly likely that the dogs’ ability to perform will be negatively impacted.  It is the wise producer who realizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping animals, and in this, LGDs are no exception.

Good physical structure is just as important for LGDs, since they are just as prone to having chronic pain due to badly formed bodies as any other animal. LGDs do have a naturally high tolerance for discomfort and pain, in other words, they are very stoic.  However, this does not mean that they don’t suffer, just that producers may have to look a little harder to find evidence of the suffering.  It often displays as aberrant behavior – being picky at mealtimes, sudden aggression, moving slower to get up and a reluctance to sit or lie down, being off by themselves, etc.

Rest is vital to the optimal performance of LGDs.  Many producers under stock their dogs, thinking that one dog can take care of a flock alone or that few can take care of large flocks on range.   While a producer’s individual predator pressure needs to be taken into account, in general, these dogs need a partner to trade off with and in the case of range work, need others to back them up in any battles they encounter.  It may look as though the dogs aren’t doing much when they are observed in the daytime, but it is important to note that most of their duties are performed between dusk and dawn, when predators are most active.  In order for the dogs to get appropriate rest, especially during seasons when predator pressure is high, they must be kept in pairs or groups.

 5) Anyone who has been running these dogs for a while on their operation will understand them well.

Due to their substantial independent natures, farmers and ranchers can have and work LGDs for years and still not understand them or care for them very well. A good indicator of a producer’s understanding of their LGD is the relationship the dog has with them. Evident fear of or aggression towards their owner are not signs of a good relationship. Another indicator is if the dog is in good shape and easily approachable. No one who respects or understands their LGDs well will keep them in poor condition or be unable to put their hands on them. Heavy chains or feral behavior are both warning signs to look for on a visit.

Up next: Part II


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A dog is a dog is a dog….

It’s the New Year (2014, time marches on!) and it’s feeling like high time for a little less philosipherizing and a little more down to earth dog talk.   In particular, I’d like to chat about breeds, and whether a dog can be reasonably said to be a dog like any other in our modern world.  Just for the purposes of this narrow conversation, we’ll forget about the 85% of all dogs on the planet (nearly a billion) who live beyond strict breeding control and concentrate on the other 15% that we most commonly encounter and work with.

Some of the former population spills into the latter category simply because some of the dogs that developed in a certain area through natural selection were found to be beneficial to the human population, and continued selection for those desired traits resulted in what was sometimes eventually considered a breed.  Part of the appeal and popularity of dogs to us human primates has come in the form of their usefulness to us; certainly it is not any great shock to the psyche that we seek out and care better for those who do something for us in return.  Truth be told, the continuation of dogs as a species can be directly linked to their amazing ability to mold into a form that does something, either directly or indirectly, for us.  A bit like the subservient individual who ingratiates himself to the all powerful overlord by doing something for him, dogs have made themselves a permanent part of our world.  John Bradshaw in his book, Dog Sense, argues that perhaps the time has come for us to look to our more modern needs rather than our historical ones when it comes to purposely breeding them, but the fact remains that our species mucked and mucked until we came up with dogs who look like and act like what we wanted for certain purposes… and that continues to this day.  Let’s, for the fun of it, take a look at some of the results of our mucking.

This,

Credit: Animal Planet

Credit: Animal Planet

this,

chepkadog.com-153

this,

Credit: Animal Planet

Credit: Animal Planet

this…

popular-small-dog-breeds

…and oh, yeah, this:

dailynewsdig.com

dailynewsdig.com

What an amazing job we have done over the years to make so many different breeds with such a wide range of sizes and abilities.  Perhaps the greater kudos go to the dogs themselves as they are the ones who have proven to be so amenable to what we wanted from them.  In short, it’s clear to see that the purpose of, say, a Siberian Husky is not the same as, say, a Pug – and yet they are both dogs.   (If you’re inclined to know more about how this is possible, here’s a bit on it – and for my geekier friends, here .)

So what’s my point?  Everyone knows that dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  A small child could tell you that some dogs are big, others are tiny, that some dogs have smooshed faces and others have long pointy noses.  Not great fodder for a blog post, is it – certainly I must be digging at the bottom of the barrel to come up with this one?

I’m not, and I truly wish I were.  One thing that I had hoped wasn’t happening, but clearly is in our pursuit of the “science” in everything, is the rise of the idea that a dog is a dog is a dog.  All dog are apparently the same.   In the conversations surrounding dog training, the fact that we are dealing with purpose bred breeds more often than not is a simple fact that is far too often overlooked and sometimes blatantly disregarded.   While I’m among the first to understand that we cannot attribute a whole set of characteristics to every individual in a breed, I believe there is a bigger reason for it than the one commonly given.  It only makes sense that if a certain breed is either a) not well established to type initially or b) becomes very popular and therefore is overbred by less than scrupulous breeders, then of course the resulting dogs will not mostly carry the same indepth qualities.  In fact, in practice, we see less larger differences in breed and more smaller differences in individuals, likely because in order to be considered of a certain breed and therefore useful to a market, the dogs will have to at least reasonably be identifiable as that breed.  Some traits are harder to retain than others, so there are certainly no hard and fast rules here… but overall, you can reasonably assume at least some common characteristics.   So, again, why is this important?  To answer that, I’m going to have to back up a bit, so bear with me.

I strongly believe in a holistic view of training, and a relationship approach to living with our dogs.  I’ve not been one who has owned only one breed or type of dog, so I have lived with and continue to live with many dogs of different sizes, types and temperaments.  Opening your home to any dog in need and subsequently caring for them while they are in bad places in their lives means that you quickly learn that not all dogs are motivated in the same way or by the same things.    Living this way and working this way becomes a crash course in doing what works, and doing it quickly and practically.   You learn to listen to the dog before you, not the dog that was or could be – just this one, right here, right now.  Some of my most challenging dogs have been ones who are of a specific breed, or who are crosses who have more prominent traits from one side or the other (or both), and the way I’ve learned to unlock the best for those dogs is to learn about their breed and act accordingly.  While I don’t argue that for the most part, teaching a dog to sit on cue is done the same way in a Golden Retriever as in a Bloodhound, the greater challenges in life don’t lie in teaching a sit.  They lie in the communication between us and the dog, the engagement as it were, in the day to day.  The traits of a Bloodhound can explain why I might have a harder time retaining his attention when he’s caught a scent, and the traits of a Golden Retriever can help me understand why Goldie tries to “hug” every person who comes in my door.  In the same way, breed can help me decide whether a dog is a good fit for my home – a small fact that seems to be lost on some rescuers.

The most concerning thing for me regarding the idea that all dogs are the same is that it’s costing some dogs their lives, and causing others to live in environments completely unsuited to them.  Some people seem completely baffled by the breed traits their dogs are displaying, and others seem to respond by setting out to prove that they can usurp the traits and make a dog behave contrarily to their natural predisposition.  “I have a such and such type dog and I don’t understand why all my efforts to modify their behavior have come to nothing!”, is a common refrain from dog owners.  Certainly they should be able to get help from those of us who say we help with such things, right?  Considering the fact that I have seen and heard far too many trainers themselves baffled  by what are clearly identifiable breed traits show, I am less than certain of our ability to help effectively.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the cases where dogs are behaving aggressively or destructively because they are so misunderstood by their humans.   We should never be compounding that issue by failing to understand them ourselves.

The breed of the dog I’m working with can tell me so much about their view on the world – both physically and psychologically.  The better I can understand them, the better I can meet their needs and the more effectively I can adjust my communication so it resonates with them and results in what we’re both looking for:  a mutually satisfying relationship.   Even from a purely cerebral standpoint, it makes no logical sense to conclude that all dogs are the same when we’ve made such efforts to make them so different from each other.

The larger and more appropriate question might be: why and how did this idea gain traction?  To answer that properly would take more time than you or I are willing to give in this one sitting, but suffice it to say that strict behaviorism is a very appealing concept to some people.  Behaviorism is defined as: “the theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.”  Addressing behavior in a cookie cutter way can be a useful strategy for some things, and is, but falls woefully short when you get into the complexities of life.  Before you bring it up, I’m aware that in some circles this opinion isn’t a popular one, but I have never been one to refrain from saying something that needed to be said out of concern regarding the reaction.  My greater concern is for the dogs and the things they are being subjected to because we’re refusing to see the bigger picture.

A final point.  There is a badly misconceived notion circulating that because we can use food to have wild animals comply with some of our requests, all beings on the planet learn the same and therefore are the same.  This is a larger, more confusing parallel to the “dog is a dog is a dog” hypothesis.  What fails to come to light in such conversations is the immense limitations of the successes.  Animals are still animals.  Feeding wild birds food by hand to make them “less aggressive” can backfire and make them more so when the feeding stops.  Clicking and treating a zoo resident to hold still for an injection is still always done with a barrier and at arms length because it doesn’t change who or what that animal is.  For more interesting reading on this topic, take the time to read this oldie but goodie from the Brelands, pioneers in operant conditioning and its applications.  Taken from the link:

Three of the most important of these tacit assumptions seem to us to be: that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli.

It is obvious, we feel, from the foregoing account, that these assumptions are no longer tenable. After 14 years of continuous conditioning and observation of thousands of animals, it is our reluctant conclusion that the behavior of any species cannot be adequately understood, predicted, or controlled without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche.

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Peace,

Carolee