Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Cleaning up your F’ing messes.

I am going through some major life changes right now that mean the farm is being sold off.  Believe it or not, selling the stock and leaving the property hurts miles less than having to part with the dogs.  I tried and tried to sort out a way to keep at least my best girl, Ivy, but in the end it became clear that I would need to do what always allows me to sleep at night: whatever is best for the dog.

At this time, all that’s left on my farm is a few sheep, the poultry and Ivy.

All I wanted to do with this blog was to come back and write a farewell and good wishes post and hope that somewhere along the way some of what I said got through to some people.  For all intents and purposes, I was done – that is, until I got a couple of desperate messages from people who were at their wits’ end with with their LGDs.   To be fair, this is nothing new and I’ve spoken about that at length before.  What makes the stress different for these people is that they are far from uncaring and stubborn; they have been working hard to do everything RIGHT.

Both personally and online, I’m seeing a huge, alarming rise in the number of people who are trying everything to do right by their LGDs and STILL ending up with messes on their hands.  It used to be that people didn’t want to hear the truth about themselves and their dogs (don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of those people around) but the new breed of LGD owner knows they don’t know much about these dogs and actively seeks knowledge.  They know how to use Google to their advantage, they know to order books and join social media groups for more than just posting cute pictures.  They are thirsty for information…. and guess what?  There are plenty of idiots willing to give it to them.

The LGD world is no different than any other dog world niche in that the information pipeline mainly consists of two types of people.  The first type is the ‘old timer’ who constantly points out how many years of experience they have.  They often reference the old Yahoo groups and talk endlessly about how people need to just shut up and LISTEN to those who have been in the game since the first color TVs came on the market.   That kind of experience is, honestly, hard to argue with.  Newcomers are dazzled (I know I was) by the claims these people make and the sheer numbers they spout continuously.  Unfortunately for them, some of us have other hard won dog knowledge – and know that a dog person can have two types of experience: the same year over and over again or an evolving kind.  You can spot the old timers who have the former by using one simple trick.  Do they say they know it all and have seen it all?  Then they haven’t.  The latter, aka anyone worth their salt, will always say that they are continuously learning and cannot possibly have seen it all in one lifetime.  They don’t want to preach, yell and wag their finger as much as they want to listen and help people sort out their dogs.  They are often too busy living their lives and actually working with dogs and stock to be constantly online waiting to pounce on the next newbie to come along.

The second type of information source is what I call the nouveau expert.  These are people who have other types of dog experience – training, showing, rescue, etc. –  and who have decided that they’ve listened enough to old timers to make up their own minds on things.  Truthfully, this is a very good starting point for building up a library of knowledge.  Unfortunately, this is where most of these people stop.  Many of them have very little experience to weight their “knowledge” against; further, they don’t actively seek out this experience.  They may have bred a litter they needed a lot of help with but haven’t had any working dogs (like the President of the Maremma Club when she took office), they may have been showing one type of LGD in the ring but haven’t successfully kept one in a pasture (like a certain Kuvasz breeder in BC, Canada), they may talk beyond their abilities, make things up and have an inflated sense of importance  because of their old timer friends and a ruthless dictatorship policy (like a certain young owner of a couple of large FB LGD groups), they may want all dogs to respond to positive methods only, despite any evidence to the contrary (like a certain FB troll), or they may have rescued a breed for years that has little working ability any longer and now claim to be a fount of knowledge which includes sending working dogs to pet trainers (like the head of the GP rescue in my province).  You get the idea.  These are people who are capitalizing on their tiny bit of experience with working dogs for profit and prestige.  You will never catch them saying that they don’t know something – they’ll either just make it up or ask someone who does behind the scenes.  If you press them on any point or provide evidence to counter their speeches, things do not go well for you.

Both of these types are infallible – one has little understanding that their limited bubble of experience isn’t the sum total of global reality and the other is peddling their preconceived point of view without earning their stripes in any way, shape or form.

After these years watching them and dealing with their messes, I have a message for these people:

 I AM SICK TO DEATH OF YOUR BULLSHIT.  The games you are playing out online are costing LGDs and their owners way, way too much.  Your agendas may look all neat and tidy as you’re pounding the keyboard and perusing your online empires, but they are NOT.  People like me have been cleaning up the fucking messes you’ve been making – and the hits just keep coming.  STOP.  Grow a conscience and stop.  These are lives you’re fucking with.

 You claim to want to stop the unnecessary destruction of LGDs, but guess what’s really happening?  You’re CAUSING IT.  Get a grip, get out there and learn a thing or two.  Actually look at these dogs you’re “helping”.  Look at pictures, look at video.  Go to see them.  Bring them to your farm – if you even have one.  Rehab a couple and be transparent about the successes and failures.  Do the heavy lifting once in a while.  Get experience with all kinds of LGDs, all sizes, all breeds, all temperaments – and stop slagging things you don’t understand.  

Shut your mouth and listen – learn something new as often as you can.  Give up the power trip and stop being such a fucking fake.  People like me see right through you.  

I have something else to tell you.  Owners keep telling me that I am the most knowledgeable and helpful person they’ve ever talked to.  This does not comfort me, especially not now that I have to leave the beautiful world of the working LGD.  This means that the other people they can reach out there don’t know what they are doing and haven’t been listening to what I and a few others are saying.  This means that even though I cannot always give owners hope for the problems they are facing, even though I am a straight shooter and I don’t always have the answers, they still find me the epitome of what they sought.  Unfortunately, by the time these people get to me, the problems they have are so compounded, so messed up from all the shitty advice they got from you that all we can do is try our best to fix them.

Don’t worry, I know full well that you are not listening to me.   You didn’t listen to me when I told you straight to your face that you were playing with fire.  You  kicked me out of your kingdoms, treated me like shit behind my back and carried on as before.  That’s why I’m writing it down on the internet where nothing truly ever disappears.  At some point the tide will turn and people will have had enough.  They will find this blog and hopefully they’ll find what they need.  I’ll have moved on, but you won’t have changed – you’ll still be digging yourself and all the dogs a big grave just like Coppinger did.  

I, for one, will not cry for you.

 

One last note.

I’d sure like to spend the last few months on my farm reminiscing and working through all my conflicted feelings; instead I’ll be trying to rehab a LGD who learned early on that he could intimidate his owners into giving him whatever he wanted.  His owner came to the experts ages ago to get help, and she could have fixed this problem easily then.  Instead, thanks to their crappy advice, the problem grew and grew to where this dog is looking at the business end of a rifle.  I may not be able to save him, but I will do my level best.  I know he will have the chance with me that he could never get anywhere else in this area.  Not only did his owner seek help when he was young, but she sought help all the way through his life; at every turn, online and in person, these self proclaimed experts let her down – sending her to pet trainers and giving her advice that was a complete 180 from what was needed.  I would much rather had these people said that they couldn’t help or didn’t know than to do this.

I’m giving this owner my best girl, my heart dog, my Ivy.  It’s all I can do as an apology for the painful situation she finds herself in because of my community’s failures.  Because of Ivy, this family will learn that an LGD can control themselves with humans and can be both an effective guardian and appropriate with their people.  Because of Ivy, they will see that the knowledgeable effort you put into a good dog comes back to you ten fold.  I am thankful to be able to give them this gift, no matter how painful it is for me.  I know they will give her the love she so richly deserves.  It’s a good ending to a very bad, very common story.

 


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Alduin: A Look at E Collar Training With LGD Pups

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

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

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My husband carrying Alduin after we picked him up.

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

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At the vet for puppy/rabies vax.

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

For scale, here he is with Ivy.

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Waiting for dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally he responded, and followed right through to compliance.

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He leaves the glove and returns to me.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Carolee


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Training Tools: The E Collar, An Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

Photo origin: E Collar Technologies

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

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

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

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

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


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

One would hope that with the now over 40 years of mainstream use of LGDs on this continent, we would see educational information releases that are becoming much more enlightened.  If the new release from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center out of San Angelo is anything to go by, however,  we are still very far off the mark.

First, the good news.

The explanation of how Livestock Guardian Dogs work is one of the better ones I have seen in agricultural publications.  It is very beneficial for a producer to have a basic understanding of why their dogs do what they do, so as to prevent misunderstandings, eliminate myths and to give them direction when training.  Understanding fosters empathy and connection, two things necessary for increasing welfare of LGDs.

Encouraging producers to inform their neighbors of the presence of LGDs as well as educating them on what to do if they find the LGDs on their property is a nice touch.  Setting out on the right foot with fellow residents is always a good idea and could lead directly to saving lives.  The use of proper signage to indicate the presence of LGDs is just as important.

The article also talks extensively about the proper care and feeding for LGDs,  making special note of the fact that longevity makes the monetary investment in LGDs easier to swallow.  The emphasis on care is one of the bright spots of the publication.  The aquisition costs in the associated chart seem to be somewhat inflated, given that Texas has one of the highest rates of homeless LGDs on the continent; however, the effort to convey the cost/benefit ratio over time is well placed.

A portion of the writing is set aside to talk about the effect of LGDs on surrounding non predatory wildlife.  This is an important topic that is too often not covered in other publications.

For the above reasons, I cannot discard Texas AgriLife’s publication entirely, as I have done with many others previously published.  It is refreshing to see no mention of the Coppingers here, which indicates to me that distance is finally being put between them and the new generation of LGD researchers – if in name only.  There are still a great deal of references to “research”; no citations are given apart from the one under the chart of mortality.  I can only assume that the research of the Coppingers is what is being referred to, although I cannot be certain.  In any case, if the authors of this publication intended themselves to be taken seriously, they should have include citations for any and all research referenced.

On to the not-so-good news.

Where we begin to run into to serious trouble aligns with where the information typically falls apart in North American publications: bonding and training.  Bonding is an especially muddy concept for us westerners, and the advice given reflects the fact that we have only had a few decades of experience at this.  Of special concern for me is the continued inability to glean important information about the care and training of these dogs in their homelands.

“Old world shepherd dogs typically spend their first sixteen weeks with one or two littermates, a few adult dogs including their mother, a few hundred sheep or goats, and a shepherd. After sixteen weeks, the dog has been behaviorally molded in such a way that it prefers to spend the rest of its life with the group. Since most sheep in Texas are not herded, a human is most often absent from the flock social structure. During the bonding phase, modifications must be made to allow the young guardian dogs to bond with small ruminants without constant human supervision.”

It is largely accepted here that LGDs would, despite being selected over centuries to thrive in highly social settings, adjust well to living alone with only stock for company.   Dogs themselves have evolved over time to desire significant human interaction as well as interaction from their own kind, which in itself contradicts the previously mentioned line of thinking.  This is again fodder for a future post where we can look at this subject in more detail, but in the meantime I wish to put a bug in your ear regarding the unfairness of how we most often expect LGDs to live.

Too much emphasis is put on imprinting, as usual, and a mention is made of research that indicates bonding is compromised if not done before 16 weeks.  It may be important to note that ‘exposure at a critical time’ is perhaps a better term than bonding for what happens between the puppy and the stock.  Ray Coppinger is famous for saying ridiculous things like “A LGD will not guard any animal it has not be exposed to when young.” (SPARCS, 2014), so I can only assume that the information in this section leans heavily on his “expertise”.

The portion that talks about reward vs. punishment is especially opaque.  The scientific definition of punishment (in terms of behavior modification or training) states that it is anything that reduces a behavior from occurring.  In other words, it is anything that causes an animal to no longer exhibit that target behavior; in equal measures, it can be the removal of something positive or the addition of something negative.  Unfortunately, this publication chooses to focus on the use of an air horn as a “training aid”, claiming that it is not punishing but does stop the behavior by interrupting it.   None of suggestions are clearly laid out using scientific terms – if they were, it would be well understood that what is punishing or rewarding is only determined by the individual dog.  An air horn can be punishing to one dog and yet be unable to stop the undesired behavior of another.   The reference to using reward vs. punishment is also far too simplistic and in my opinion lacks any kind of useful information for the producer.  LGDs are particularly good at learning from observation, experience and feedback (both negative and positive).  This is very likely due to the fact that historically, their lives depended on the ability to disseminate information quickly, and at a young age.  There are many ways to train them apart from simply giving reward and adding punishment.

I won’t go through the entire portion that addresses behavior and training, as there is far too much information to refute in one post.  The important things to note about this section are what I mentioned already:  the research relied on is most likely from the desk of the Coppingers and therefore quite inapplicable, and the very, very wrong presupposition that LGDs should have minimal influence from people (as well as thrive within a stunted social structure) bleed through all of it.  As such, I feel that this part could be thrown in the fireplace and we would all be better for it.

Two more things ought to be pointed out before I close.  The claim that “Females tend to stay with the flock/herd and males tend to roam more and protect the perimeter.” is patently false.  More than gender, individual temperament as well as breed type/lineage determine whether a dog cares to be a close flock guardian or perimeter guard.  It is fabricated information like this that cause people to care more about the sex of their prospective guardian than about any other relevant information.  Secondly, the idea that you should cull a pup if they try to escape the fence during the “bonding period” is reprehensible.  There can be many reasons that a pup would display such a behavior, and those need to be addressed before deciding to start over.  Culling a pup should be a thoughtful decision and only done after they have been set up for success at every turn.

All in all, this agricultural publication could be gutted thoroughly to make a useful piece focused on some unique points…. but as it stands, it fall far short of anything I could feel good about recommending.  I fear that the longer we continue to pass on the inappropriate information about our beloved guardians, the harder it will be to give them what they need to thrive.

 

** There is a chart included showing that nearly half of all LGDs here do not see their 6th birthday.  The two main causes of death are “Accident” (including lost, shot, run over, poisoned and other) at 57% and “Cull” at 33%. Granted, the study is nearly 30 years old and the percentages may have changed somewhat, but to me, the death rate of 1 in 2 is entirely unacceptable.  If anything should encourage us to open our eyes and expand how we think about LGDs, it’s this.

 


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Are we willing to change?

Livestock Guardian Dogs are formidable creatures.  It’s part and parcel of who they are – or more correctly stated, who they should be.

LGDs operate with heightened maternal and defensive instincts.   The maternal instinct facilitates the bonding and nurturing process with weak and vulnerable creatures (both human and otherwise) and fuels the protective instinct to heroic levels.  Both of these instincts go hand in hand and exist in varying degrees/proportions within the same regional landrace type or breed.  Some are more “stranger tolerant” and perhaps more maternal.  Some are less nurturing and more front line defenders.  In general, however, the more serious types trip into aggression sooner than those who are “softer” or more tolerant; they are not all the same in this respect.

Our cultural discomfort with handling an aggressive dog, no matter how justified, has led to some serious problems.  A dog who cannot be approached without displaying aggression is labelled dysfunctional, in need of “fixing”.  This mentality has led us to select dogs who handle “hands off” raising and training by giving in to us when pressured.  We rarely  follow the lead of the people who kept these dogs historically and handle them throughout their lives.   The end result of this is that we’ve bred a plethora of guardian dogs who tend towards timidity when pressed and who often have to be coaxed out of their shells.  Many of these dogs operate from a place of fear, as opposed to the confident, thoughtful aggression needed for efficient guardian work.

These are the dogs who are less than effective when faced with serious predator pressure that doesn’t yield to a simple threat display.  These are the dogs who refuse to guard again when they first tangle with large predators.  These are the ones who step back instead of forward while their charges are poached.  We can hardly blame them; they’ve been selected to be this way.  When the only tool we have to approach a feral or semi-feral dog is to intimidate them, we have to select away from dogs who meet our aggressive approaches with aggression of their own.

This is the legacy of the father of North American LGDs, Dr. Raymond Coppinger.  Dogs who don’t do well with the “hands off” method he espoused are cared for poorly and often ultimately shot, and those who are tolerant and afraid enough to respond with submission, aren’t.  These are largely the ones who live to pass on their genetic material to future generations, and the cycle continues unabated.  Since fear aggression is largely indistinguishable to confident aggression for the average person, the selection process has been a shot in the dark at best.

There is an argument made by some people that if these dogs do the job, what does it matter how they do it or how we got them there?  Up until recently, that may even have been a valid point, or at least one that required consideration.  With the increase in larger predator pressure here, however, the ineffectiveness of these dogs has even caught the attention of the US Wildlife Services, who commissioned a study to find out whether harder, foreign breeds of LGD are better at the job.  They became disturbed at the increasing ineffectiveness of the guardian dogs charged with protecting livestock against apex predators as well as the mounting body count of the same.  When the dogs aren’t efficient or effective and other non lethal methods are not known or also ineffective, producers are left with no choice but to take out the guns.

I plan to talk more about my personal thoughts on this study in a future post, but for the purposes of this post, let’s focus on the fact that the dogs we have currently in larger supply do not appear cut out for their changing landscape.  I believe that we backed ourselves into this corner by listening to the likes of Ray Coppinger and his “hands off” methods, leading to the hyper selection of dogs who operate from the standpoint of fear and timidity.  Certainly, they do not encompass the entire population of working LGDs here in North America, as those areas that historically had large predators would have developed appropriate coping techniques out of pure necessity.  Those techniques may or may not be enough as climate change and wildlife habitat destruction continue, however.   Dogs who do not have-to-do do not typically produce dogs who are capable.  We have largely forgotten how important the breeding selection process is to the future of our working dogs.

If the US study returns results that are favorable (as I believe they will) to keeping more serious, confident dogs who do not have a problem engaging apex predators, what then?  These are the dogs we cannot handle with Coppinger’s methods.  These are the dogs who have met the business end of a gun for not falling in line.  These are the dogs who will challenge us if we don’t care to spend the time earning their trust and making them our partners.  After all, they are happy to meet a threat head on to save their charges, and if we are indistinguishable from any other threat, how are they to know the difference?

I believe strongly that we NEED a massive overhaul of how we want to work with these dogs we depend on so much.  We need to adopt a more empathetic and understanding way of raising them; putting effort into respect for them and a partnership with them as opposed to viewing them as tools or pre-programmed robots.  We need to see our LGDs as long term investments, and not as disposable gap fillers.  We need to socialize them when they are very young, so they can make good decisions as they grow.   We need to see that they are animals with a language of their own; we must do our best to learn that language and help them learn ours.

Every year, I hear increasing reports of serious predation pressure.  What will our answer be? Will we be courageous enough to learn a new way of interacting with our dogs, a new way of breeding, raising and training them?  What are we willing to do to help our livestock survive?  I hope that we are willing to learn a new old way of keeping these dogs, for all our sakes.

Handling your dogs will not make them less effective guardians – quite the opposite, actually.  If there is one thing we can learn from the people who created these dogs for us, it’s that.

 

 


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Training tools for independent dogs

If there is one thing that unites our various hard working LGDs, it’s their ability and desire to work independently.  Upon maturity, they ought to be able to work without direct, constant supervision and still make appropriate decisions.  It is my firm belief that training ought to begin early, be consistent and fair, and utilize appropriate but heightening expectations throughout the maturation process.  Many producers will find that they need a little help in terms of training tools, especially during the fairly long adolescent period.  We’ll go over these tools more in depth in future posts, but here’s a quick overview for reference.  ALL of these tools are meant to be used in conjunction with training and under some supervision.

1. Dangle Stick

young kuv learning to herd sheep 3 of 3

Young Kuvaszok with the Nagyragadozók Természetvédelmi Program

Dangle sticks are used the world over to impede young LGDs from chasing stock.  They are a stick, metal or PVC tube that hang across the chest from a chain attached to the dog’s collar.  When the dog begins to run, the rod bangs against their chest and makes the movement uncomfortable.  Some producers have had success with graduating to a small dangling flap or hunting dog bell attached to the collar as a reminder to the LGD not to chase.  As the desire to chase their charges should be short lived in LGDs (especially if caught early enough), these tools should only need to be used for a limited time.

2. Yoke

Our own Anneke modelling a PVC version

Our own Anneke modelling a PVC version

An innovative yoke using smaller pipe

An innovative yoke using smaller pipe

A training yoke is a temporarily worn by LGDs who need to be prevented from escaping through fences and/or kept out of certain areas (a creep feeder, for example).  It can be made from sticks, pieces of wood, or PVC/rubber pipes.  The yoke should be inspected regularly for wear and tear and should allow for full expression by the wearer.  This means that they should be able to lie down, eat, drink and otherwise live their life comfortably.  It should be lightweight and is often attached to the regular, flat collar so that it cannot be easily removed.

3. Prong Collar

Herm Sprenger prong collar

Herm Sprenger prong collar

Plastic version

Plastic version

Prong with rubber tips on points

Prong with rubber tips on points

A prong collar is used strictly for correction and prevention training purposes and should only be worn under direct supervision.  It should never be left on the dog when in the pasture alone, and the dog should never be tethered by it.  Here is some good information on the prong collar from LGD.org.

Any prong used should be of good quality in order to prevent failure and to ensure that it releases quickly and consistently.  As this collar has a high risk of improper usage resulting in over correction and pain for the dog, it should only be used when the mechanics are well and properly understood.  This can mean under the supervision of a trainer.

4. Electronic Collar (E-Collar)

E Collar Technologies Mini Educator

E Collar Technologies Mini Educator

An E-Collar is a remote collar that delivers a stim or electronic “shock” to the wearer.  Many, such as the one pictured above, also have an option to use a vibrate.  Depending on the dog, the vibrate may be more useful as a signalling tool than the electronic stimulation.  Old school E-Collars had only a few settings and were often too harsh and inconsistent for successful training; the new generation of collars are much more flexible and reliable, often with 100 levels to choose from.  I recommend testing the collar on yourself first (the back of your hand is a good spot) with the lower levels to get a feeling for the stimulation.  As with the prong collar, always buy the best quality collar that you can afford.  Its longevity and reliability will more than pay for itself in time.

The mechanics of some forms of E-Collar training are complex and need more indepth discussion, but the collar can also be used in a simple way to correct serious unwanted behavior such as chasing, grabbing, rough play, stock food nabbing and fence breaching.  When your dog is doing little and in a space with few distractions, test the level at which your dog responds to the stimulation by starting very low and going up 2 or 3 levels at a time.  If you are getting no response for some time, go up at a higher rate of 5 or 10 levels.  When you find the level where there is a small response (ie. ear twitch, small movement), make a mental note of it.  This will be your working level or starting point.  Next, hang back and wait for the LGD to do something undesired.  Catch them early in the behavior, as waiting for the behavior to be in full swing will require a much higher level of stimulation to correct and may not be well understood in the dog’s mind.  Pair your verbal correction with the stimulation: say “No” or “Leave It” or whichever term you’ve previously chosen just before activating the stimulation.  Eventually, this will mean that the dog connects the memory of the correction with your verbal correction which means that you won’t need the collar anymore.  If the behavior doesn’t diminish, go up levels again until you get the desired response.  Call the dog to you, comfort them and praise them.  Never correct the dog on the collar after the behavior is completed and never when they come to you.  In this way you will also be encouraging the dog to see you as a safe place, and their previous behavior as the sole reason why the stimulation occurred.

5. Tether

Our Ivy on a tether; fences under snow

Our Ivy on a tether; fences under snow

 

A tether, or tie, can be useful for times when a LGD needs to be restrained, kept in one area, or prevented from following predators for a short period of time.  All LGDs should be trained to accept tethering as young pups. No dog or growing pup should be left on a tether for an extended period of time, and should be allowed off for free exercise daily.  Some LGDs much prefer a tether to a pen, given that they can access the stock and bond better with a tether, and it helps to prevent barrier frustration.  It also can allow for better free movement for the dog if the tether is of a sufficient length and kept away from areas where the dog could become entangled.  If stock is in the area where the dog is tethered, place it along the ground and use a swivel clip on both ends.  The dog should have easy access to shelter, shade and water in the area where they are tethered.  Tethering highly territorial LGDs can lead to guarding that area from the stock and their owners, so moving the tether to a different area periodically is highly recommended.

The tether should be lightweight, but strong.  If you choose a chain, use the “passing link” variety like this one. Ensure that it is only attached to a flat collar with a strong “O” or “D” ring.  An alternative to a full tether is a “drag”; a chain or cable attached to something heavy or cumbersome such as a small log.  The drag is a controversial training tool and if chosen, should only be used under supervision and for very short periods.

7. Horse Whip & Bucket

whip  I’ll spare you a picture of a bucket, as I’m sure you can conjure up one on your own.  The bucket is used to make a big, booming noise by holding it in one hand and banging on the bottom of it with the other.  It helps as a “back up” or as a primary corrector.  It makes a good seat in the pasture as well for prolonged times of supervision.

The whip is used as an extension of your hand and is especially useful when training young pups with stock.  It helps to guide them away or to tap them on the shoulder or bum and encourage them to leave something alone.  It should never be used to hit the dog, except perhaps in life or death situations.  A lunge whip, with the loose end wrapped around the stick or removed entirely can be used as well.

7. Long Line

Bevis_09_04 The long line or tracking line is one of the most useful training tools for LGDs.  You can purchase them already made, or make one easily yourself.  It allows for space for the dog to behave and move freely, while still allowing for control by the owner/producer.

Strength and length and the two important factors when buying or designing a long line.  In general, you want a longer one (20+ ft) rather than a shorter one; adding knots at various spots along the length of the line will allow you to hold on or stop movement short.  If the line is rope, wearing gloves will help prevent burns.

Hold the unused portion of the line in folds in your non dominant hand.  Do not wrap the line around your hand or loop over your hand.  Hold the rest of the line loosely in your dominant hand.  When the dog is very young, or behaving more reliably around the stock, you can drop the line and allow them to drag it.  Step on or pick up the line when you want more control of the dog.  If you attach the long line to anything other than a flat collar, be careful of stopping the dog short too quickly or harshly.

8.  Clicker

clicker Clickers are, as well, one of the more useful training tools for LGDs.  It allows for precise marking of desired behavior and can be followed by a chosen reinforcement such as food, affection, play or praise.  It is especially useful for training obedience behaviors (manners) such as “Sit”, “Off”, “Come”.  Try to stay away from long sessions or repetitive ones, as LGDs can lose interest quickly.

The chosen reinforcement must be rewarding to the dog, not just what the owner finds rewarding.  It is not advised to use food rewards in the pasture with the stock, except when the LGD is a very young pup.  It can lead to resource guarding and/or mobbing by the stock.

 

As in all list posts, this is not an exhaustive one.   What are some training tools that I haven’t thought of here?  Feel free to add them in the comments.