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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Return of the Slovak Cuvac: a story of wildlife conservation and lost genetics.

I have succumbed to the strange dizziness of a flu that requires me to hold my head as straight as possible; any turns to the side or dips of my head bring on bouts of vertigo. As flus go, this one is quick to let go of the trademark nausea, achiness and gut troubles, but it stubbornly keeps me in the grip of slowly resolving dizzy spells. It’s tough for a busy person such as myself to have to sit still for lengths of time (and not be able to read much!), but I will say there is one silver lining in that I’ve had some time to catch up on my video watching.

I stumbled on this gem from a young British film maker, Robert Glowacky, who produced this film about the decline of the Slovak Cuvac (pronounced Chuvach), also known as the Slovensky Cuvac, the regional livestock guarding dog of Slovakia.

 

The tumultuous history of Slovakia is not unique among the countries of central Europe, nor is the history of their white guardian dog. In the University of Aberdeen’s 2002 report entitled “The use of livestock guarding dogs to protect sheep and goats from large carnivores in Slovakia”, author Robin Riggs explains the origins of the Cuvac:

“Livestock guarding dogs probably came to Slovakia from Romania and the Balkans via the Ukraine Carpathians along with other aspects of the transhumance system of intensive livestock grazing in mountainous areas during the gradual Wallachian colonisation from the 13th and 14th to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Tatranský čuvač, Lipták or valaské psi, of which until relatively recently every salaš (temporary sheep dairy farm/fold) had up to 10 for protecting livestock from predators and thieves, became the native breed of LGD. However, by the mid-1920s numbers had declined to such an extent – particularly during World War I – that systematic efforts were initiated to rescue the čuvač as a breed. With International Canine Federation (FCI) recognition in 1965/69 and the establishment of a club for the Slovenský čuvač (as dog breeders re-named the Tatranský čuvač), breeding focused on the production of show dogs, pets and property guardians…. Most salaše still have dogs (čuvač-type or other, usually the Caucasian sheepdog, Central Asian sheepdog, Polish Owczarek Podhalański and crosses thereof) for protecting livestock…”

He goes on to talk about the interesting way in which the shepherds kept their dogs, a way that is seen frequently in the film:

“…but they are almost always chained to stakes or trees around the fold and milking pen, though at some camps they are released at night. Chaining dogs alters their behaviour (I have found many at salaše to be abnormally aggressive or, when approached closer, rather timid, sometimes ecstatically playful or excessively solicitous of attention) and limits their ability to protect livestock to the length of the chain (Coppinger and Coppinger 1994) or barking to alert shepherds. Many of Slovakia’s chained dogs also suffer excessively as they are deprived of social interaction and some are left on open pastures without access to shade and water.”

Riggs goes on to explain that this was not, historically, how these dogs were kept, but that the war and changes to the number of predators in the area led to shepherds chaining the remaining Cuvac instead of allowing them freedom to patrol.

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Jan Hala, 1927

“In his illustrations accompanying the tale [Old Bodrik and the Wolf], Martin Benka (1888-1971) drew a čuvač, unchained and therefore able “to circle the sheepfold” and go out from the farm to challenge a wolf, bear and fox (Vulpes vulpes), as in the story. Jan Hála’s illustrations from the 1940s (e.g. in Hála 2001: 68, 78) and his description (p.94-97) of the čuvač guarding flocks by day and salaš by night also eloquently portray the continued traditional use of LGDs in Liptov. In 1953, however, Kováč (p.263) wrote that guarding (but not herding) dogs could be chained and some early 1960s photographs (e.g. in Podolák 1982) show LGDs chained up in the Nízke Tatry. At this time, hunting had decimated the wolf population (reviewed in Voskár 1993 and Hell et al 2001) and bears were half as numerous and more restricted in range than presently (reviewed in Janík 1997, Hell and Slamečka 1999), so it may be that there was no longer a pressing need to protect flocks effectively. Perhaps the total number of dogs was reduced to cut costs, or smaller ones favoured for the same reason (T. Krafčiková pers. comm. 2003). Remaining dogs may have been chained for convenience. Podolák (1967: 109) reported that tame LGDs were taken out to pasture but “dangerous” ones were chained near the koliba (shepherds’ hut) during the day and released at night.”

The subsequent paragraphs offer alternate explanations for the widespread use of chaining Cuvac, both gleaned from reviewing recorded 20th century history and in more recent conversation with Slovak shepherds. While I was reading it (and I greatly encourage you to as well!- page 18 and beyond), I was struck by the similarities to some of the advice encouraging people here in North America to chain their LGDs. Some of the pressures the Slovak people came under in the last century are also reminiscent of the mistrust and population increase that our dogs are currently subject to. Further, mention of the fear that the Slovak people feel when contemplating the Cuvac was evident even in the first half of the 20th century.

“Interestingly, illustrator and writer Jan Hála, who lived among rural people in the region below the Tatras from 1923 till his death in 1959, noted that “Boli to psi ani medvedina, celá dedina saich bála”, “The dogs were like bears, the whole village was afraid of them” (Hála 2001: 97).”

This fear informed some of the local laws and customs: for example, the one that allows any sheepdog more than 200 meters from a flock to be shot on sight.

Could it be that the attempt to create a more aggressive dog (by chaining) to defend against predators and strange people resulted in a dog whom no one could trust and therefore needed to be continuously chained? Riggs certainly points to this as a reasonable, albeit ironic, possibility. It would seem, too, that the handling skills of the shepherds and their employees often border on cruel, continuing the erosion of relationship between dog and man.

“I have seen several shepherds beat sheep with sticks and kick them unmercifully and suspect the same sometimes happens to their dogs; a shepherd in Horehronie needed 17 stitches after he rather unwisely hit a Caucasian sheepdog when drunk (S. Finďo pers. comm. 2001, Finďo 2001: 13) while some LGDs placed at farms in Liptov and Turiec are shy of or aggressive towards men carrying sticks. I have frequently been surprised by how little some shepherds know about dogs. Today’s shepherds also seem to be much less concerned about loss of sheep than their predecessors, who often slept by the flock to guard it (I. Zuskinová pers. comm. 2003). It may be, therefore, that a further factor in the decline of the LGD tradition has been the gradual loss of traditional skills and knowledge coupled with an increased desire to solve short term problems (e.g. a wandering dog) in the quickest and easiest way (i.e. by putting it on a chain).”

All is not lost, however, as is seen both in Glowacky’s film and in Rigg’s report. Shepherds and citizens of Slovakia alike still greatly value the Cuvac, their history, and their inborn ability to defend the defenseless. It is clear that careful breeding selection, appropriate training and working to change Slovak attitudes are all vital parts of bringing the Cuvac back to their former position of trusted, unfettered guardian – but it is also clear that they have found dedicated people to champion their cause. If the rewilding of Europe is to be successful, and harmony is to be restored to the ecosystem, the restoration of the Slovak Cuvac and others like them are the only hope for continued peace between the domestic and the wild.

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For the full text of the report, follow this link: Livestock Guarding Dogs to Protect Sheep and Goats from Large Carnivores in Slovakia (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237703700_Livestock_Guarding_Dogs_to_Protect_Sheep_and_Goats_from_Large_Carnivores_in_Slovakia 

For a brief overview of Slovakia, current and historical, follow this link: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Slovakia

If the video in this post does not load, follow this link its original home on Vimeo: Bringing Back Bodrik


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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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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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