Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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What’s in the works

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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Interview with Rohana Mayer – Trip to Armenia 2015

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Children in a small village with gampr pups.

Children in a small village with gampr pups

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Rohana Armenia 1

Rohana shows the envelope for the DNA sample.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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