Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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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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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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The Big Question: What is a LGD?

In my work with LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dogs), I ran into this question more than any other.  It takes many different forms, but essentially what everyone wants to know is what a LGD is, what a LGD does, and conversely, what falls outside the parameters of the definition.  This is not only the most common topic of conversation, but also the one that many educators struggle to adequately define.

I’ll start by saying that I am very aware that my worldview is that of someone who has lived their whole life in western society.   I have, however, worked very hard to counteract this by exploring the cultures that still keep LGDs predominately as their ancestors did.  Cultures with deep and ongoing pastoral roots show a clearer picture of the Livestock Guardian Dog than those who have largely moved to closed registry systems with a heavy emphasis on conformation shows.  As these dogs traditionally were true landraces; the people who still promote assortative mating and strict culling practices hold the ancient wisdom of selection and training that made these dogs so solidly valuable as guardians.  These are the people who understand that a working dog is a partner, not simply a tool.

This is what I have learned, borne out by LGD champions here in North America and my own personal experience.

1. A LGD is a large, hearty dog.

LGDs were developed to protect domestic prey animals from wild predators.  This is the heart and soul of who they are.  They cannot protect if they are too small to pose a threat to predators.  They cannot follow through on their threats nor provide an comforting presence to their charges if they are anything but strong and stoic in the face of uncertainty.

2. A LGD is both nurturing and protective.

LGDs are equal parts submissive and dominant, affectionate and aggressive.  They care for their charges with a mother’s love: devoted, gentle and protective.  They defend their charges with a mother’s fervor: decisive, committed and with passion. It is not uncommon to observe a dog expose his belly to an inquisitive lamb and then in the next breath, leap to defend it against a threat.  Once trained and mature, LGDs are able to instinctively discern who is friend and who is foe and respond accordingly.

3. A LGD is thoughtfully aggressive.

Although aggressive and tenacious, LGDs never operate indiscriminately or without inhibition.  Affectionately nicknamed “thoughtful fighters”, LGDs are consistently in control of their emotions and use only as much force as necessary to prove their point.  This does not mean that they will not eliminate predators when necessary, but many LGDs will try to communicate their intent to protect for some time before going on the offensive.  LGDs instinctively view weakness as something to protect, never to harm.

4. A LGD thinks for himself.

  An emphasis on rote obedience, highly prized in the western world, was not part of the selection process for LGDs. As with most working dogs, an ability to think independently is part and parcel of their core definition.  This means that while you won’t find too many members who excel in obedience competitions, they are routinely superior at fulfilling their mission to nurture and protect.  Several senses are heightened in dogs when compared to humans; this must be taken into consideration and respected, especially upon maturity.  Many times, humans have been unable to identify the threat until much later, but their LGD(s) recognized it immediately.

5. A LGD listens to his shepherd.

At first glance, this point seems in direct opposition to the one above.  An independent dog is not at all the same as one who cannot be controlled or who doesn’t defer to any human, however.  A partnership wherein the LGD defers to his owner is earned through building trust and consistently fair handling.  A shepherd has no fear of managing and correcting his LGDs and expects to have the final say on all important matters.  A stable LGD who sees his owner as a partner has no problem listening to him.  In order to establish and maintain this partnership, the shepherd must know when to interfere (for example intrapack/interpack aggression ) and when not to.

6. A LGD is a dog.

Tales of the supernatural, mythical abilities of LGDs are fun to recount and fascinating to listen to, but they serve very little practical purpose in the real world.  While there is usually more than a grain of truth to these stories, it is vital to remember that LGDs are first and foremost dogs with a dog’s instincts and a dog’s view of life.  LGDs have been artificially selected over centuries to have a reduced prey drive and high amount of self control but that does not mean that they are not still dogs.  Care needs to be taken to manage and train LGDs so that they become successful guardians.  As in all working dog types, there are outliers who are unable to fulfill the job description.

7.  A LGD is a social dog.

LGDs develop strong bonds with other LGDs.  They employ a complex and nuanced social language with each other that relies heavily on body language and cooperation.  As with most canines, individual friendship preferences matter, and gender may matter to some.  Almost universally, however,  LGDs prefer to live in partnerships or groups.

8. A LGD can be a “hard” or “soft” dog or somewhere in between.

The disposition of a LGD depends on many factors including genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, health, stage of life, weather and how settled they are in their environment.  Much of the determining factor in whether an LGD will be “hard” (tough, stoic, resilient) or “soft” (unable to defend against larger apex predators) has to do with their genetics, although the other factors deserve equal consideration.  Assessing the individual dog is typically more important than applying broad breed expectations.  It is also vital to recognize that a dog who has recently moved to a new home will behave differently than after they settle in.  A LGD encountered off of their ‘home turf’ will also behave differently than when approached on their own territory.

9. A LGD bonds deeply.

Whether it is to another dog, their stock, their territory, their human(s) or all of the above, LGDs bond intensely and without reservation.   The loss of what or who they are bonded to leaves a LGD with uncertainty and confusion.  Many times, I have seen LGDs whose owners believe them to be defective recover and go on to be incredible working dogs when provided with an appropriate bond.  Much of working LGD rehab can be summed up in two words: providing direction.  It is impossible to compensate for a lack of instinct, however, most dogs with working genetics simply need their instinct channelled appropriately.

10. A LGD is the best friend a shepherd can have.

Shepherds the world over sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that their dogs are working hard to protect their livestock.  For many shepherds, their livestock remains their livelihood and subsequently only entrusted to LGDs due to their effectiveness.  There is no other guardian who is so equally affectionate and protective, nor one who is so incredibly adaptable.  The love and dedication of a LGD is unparalleled.  It is a lucky person whom a LGD considers family and a lucky flock with LGDs to defend them.  Even more, it is a fortunate LGD whose owner cares for and understands them.  12794589_10153959428925987_8528213169421724126_n

 

 

   


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Baby, It’s Cold Outside….

It occurred to me today, as I sipped my second cup of coffee and looked out on a winter wonderland, that there really is a dearth of information regarding the appropriate care of LGDs in very cold weather.

I live in a part of Canada where we often see the extremes of both ends of the thermometer.  We have high temperatures with higher humidity in the summer and very low temperatures with dry air that cracks your skin in the winter.  This type of exceptionally seasonal climate is one of the more challenging places to keep Livestock Guardian Dogs.

Even if you don’t experience winters where the mercury regularly dips to -40 or more, but you live where humidity is higher, if you’ve move recently or if your seasons are changing dramatically with global warming, you may wonder how to tell if your LGD is adequately provided for.  The advice provided by the pet sector, which is the most readily available information, often leads people to the wrong conclusions.  While perhaps well intentioned, most pet and shelter suggestions given out at this time of year focus on the dog that was never intended to handle cold climes: the small, slight, single or short coated dog.  They then extrapolate that information to all dogs in the hopes that people will err on the side of caution.  Sometimes, they get the information wrong for farm animals and dogs alike.   Memes like the ones below just make things worse.

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Information like this relies heavily on anthropomorphism which is the notion of ascribing human attributes to something non-human.  “If it’s too cold outside for you, it’s too cold for them.” is the ongoing mantra of this movement – no matter how illogical that sounds.  Dogs are not built like humans, don’t think like humans, and some really prefer to be outdoors rather than confined to a hot, stifling house.  For us producers, an acknowledgement that LGDs are not, in fact, pets, and that they have a job they’ve been equipped to do outside regardless of the weather would go a long way towards healing the rift between farmers and the pet sector.  The more responsible we are about recognizing what our dogs need in extreme weather, the more we will help to head off any Nosy Nellies who want to know how we could be so cruel as to keep dogs outside year round.

Let’s talk a bit about that responsibility.

From my point of view, the most important thing we can do for our LGDs is to choose dogs with a coat type that can handle the environment they are expected to live in.   No matter how much you like the look of a certain kind of dog, if they are not equipped to live outside all year where you are, it is unethical to require them to do so.  Very short coats are not appropriate for working in extreme weather.   Single coated dogs are very susceptible to weather changes and typically only do well in very hot climates without extensive care; therefore, all LGDs should have double coats.  Double coated dogs have exactly what you’d expect from the name: two coats.  The outer coat is comprised of longer guard hairs that are naturally water repellent.  They retain this coat throughout the year.  Underneath grows a slightly shorter plush and fleecy coat that traps warm air in the winter and retains it close to the dog’s skin.  In essence, the properly double coated dog wears a downy, weather repellent coat all of the time – a perfect accessory for living in the cold.  Contrary to what many people think, this coat serves equally well to keep the dogs cool in summer, shedding out when the warm weather comes to allow maximum air flow close to the skin.

The double coat comes in short, medium and long versions.  I personally feel that any dog who is meant to live and work in extreme conditions should have at least a medium length double coat.  Take your cues from the predators who live in your area – what length of coat do they have? This should be the minimum coat on your dogs.  The last thing you want is for your dogs to be handicapped by needing to be more concerned about keeping themselves warm than defending the flock.  Dogs with overly short coats for their environment will spend more time seeking warmth and will need to eat significantly more than dogs who are able to retain more of their body heat with longer coats.

It’s important to note that not all LGDs here in North America have been bred with proper weather resistant coats, even if they are double coated and of a good length.  A good example of this is the “cottony” coat that has been bred into many show Great Pyrenees and that finds its way into the working populace.  This coat requires extensive grooming, mats easily, absorbs moisture instead of shedding it and consequently does not serve to keep the dog warm in the winter or cool in the summer.  When freshly groomed, this coat resembles a cotton ball and consequently often has to be shaved in the summer to avoid matting completely.  A proper double coat, regardless of length, will shed out on its own twice a year, will be very self cleaning, and will require only minimal annual or bi-annual brushing.

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Ivy models her mid-length double coat in the winter. Her coat is ideal for this length, keeping her very warm through to -50 (along with access to insulated shelter) and shedding any dirt or debris on its own. Bolt’s winter coat as pictured in the blog header is another proper, mid length coat.

How do we know if a LGD’s double coat is doing its job in the cold?  The easiest time to check at a glance is when it’s snowing.  If the snow lands on the dog and remains intact, not melting, the coat is working well.  If the snow turns to water, this means that too much heat is escaping from the dog’s body and melting it.  Sometimes a puppy coat can do this but correct itself when the adult coat grows in; more often the coat is appropriate from the beginning.

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Ivy (back) and Anneke (front) show off their mid length winter coats. Anneke was approximately 7 months old in this photo.

 

Jojo's dogs Jo and Mo

A friend’s LGDs in a winter blizzard. If you look closely, you can see that the snow rests on them and would shed off easily with movement. In weather such as this, the dogs curl up with their feet and heads tucked into their bodies. The snow acts as another insulating layer. Many producers report that their dogs will choose to lie like this despite available shelter just feet away. We have certainly witnessed this here on our farm as well. (Used with Permission)

Even the most well coated dog can have trouble staying warm in the very extremely cold weather, especially if it is prolonged.  It is important to remember that even if the thermometer reads only a moderately cold temperature, the wind can drive that number much lower.  For this reason, a windbreak of some kind is crucial if a full shelter cannot be provided.  Since most LGDs prefer to stay with their stock (who also help to provide body heat), a windbreak for everyone will be more readily used than a stand alone dog house under these circumstances.

Extreme weather requires the dog to burn more calories to stay warm, just as it does for livestock.  Apart from changes to the environment, if your dog continues to have trouble keeping weight on in the winter or begins to shiver, consider increasing the amount of food they are fed daily.  Feeding twice a day instead of once, adding a bit more fat and/or carbs, and adding warm water to the food are all ways to tackle this problem.  Thirst increases in the winter as well, making free access to liquid water a necessity.  This helps ensure that the dogs remain healthy and that their digestive systems continue to operate properly.

Provide warm bedding, especially bedding that has insulating properties and doesn’t easily trap and hold moisture.  We use straw here, since it is plentiful and fits the criteria.  Only consider providing a coat for your dog as a last resort and only in the most extreme weather, as it can interfere with their ability to acclimate to the elements.  It may be tempting to bring your dogs inside to the comfort of your heated house.  In my opinion, it is better to allow them free access to a heated spot outside.  Our houses are kept at almost unbearable temperatures for properly coated dogs who have acclimated to living outside. A heated portion of an insulated building or a heating mat are much better options.  It is also very difficult for a devoted LGD to protect and nurture their charges from inside the house.

A pair or multiple dogs may well do much better in the winter than one.  They are much more likely to get moving, through play or patrolling, and keep their bodies more limber and warm than if they were to lay around all day.  They are much more likely to work together against predators and as a result be able to conserve as much energy as possible.  A well rested, well nourished dog who is not anxious about their ability to drive off predators will be a much more effective guardian year-round.

*** A few important notes: 

  •  Both age and health problems will compromise the ability of a dog to regulate their body temperature outside.  The responsible producer will keep these in mind when assessing the condition of their dogs in the winter and make changes accordingly.  Read about age, compromised health and complications here.
  • Humid cold weather will affect dogs with arthritis much in the way it affects humans with the same condition.  It is best to work with a vet to address this problem if at all possible.  For further reading, click here.
  • It is more important than ever to check LGDs over from head to toe frequently in the winter.  In this way, you are likely to find any problems early on and be able to address them before they get worse. 
  • Cold weather slows wound healing, as mentioned in Merck’s “Wound Management”.  Keep a close eye on any wounds and their healing process.  Be proactive in contacting your vet if you notice anything amiss.
  • If your dog’s feet gather a lot of snowballs during parts of the winter, trim the hair on the bottom of their feet.
  • Further reading on LGDs and cold weather can be found here.  A good post regarding cold weather and other types of dogs can be found here.

 


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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.

Dec 11

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.

Dec 17 10

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.