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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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.

Dec 17 1

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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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.

 

 


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“Caucasian Sheep-Dog vs. Wolf”, Georgian National Film Center

This is one of the best videos I have seen on the subject of LGDs versus predators.  There is a lot of information packed into this hour, but the most interesting parts for me lie in the immersive experience of Georgian shepherd life.

We in North America can stand to be students much more often than we claim to be experts.  In that vein, the interactions between dogs in this video and between them and their shepherds is well worth paying attention to.

 

 


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Are we willing to change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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