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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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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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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.

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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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Are we willing to change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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Life hits hard.

freeyourmind.tumblr.com

freeyourmind.tumblr.com

 

I don’t think this has ever been as clear to me as it has been over the last two weeks.   Having lost all manner of animals on the farm over the past 5 years (despite best efforts and education), I thought I was fairly innoculated to whatever could possibly happen when I finally became a dog breeder.  I was SO wrong.

I can’t remember exactly when I decided on my breeding philosophy, nor can I remember exactly the moment I decided that Ivy, my main LGD, needed to pass on her genetics, but suffice it to say that this litter was in the works for quite a while – years.  I worked my way past the “only registered dogs deserve to be bred” poppycock (yes, I believed that too, once upon a time), tested Ivy in all kinds of ways both medical and behavioral, measured her worth to the future gene pool as best I could, and agonized dramatically over every eventuality; lost sleep became a pretty common occurrence in my life.  Breeding dogs responsibly who only have a limited pedigree information in a world that wants to crucify those who don’t shelter in the kennel club system and often just breeders in general takes nerves of steel.  No exaggeration.  It’s always hilarious to me how it takes so much internal fortitude to carve a new path while consistently being accused of just not caring at all…. but that’s fodder for another post.  Back to Ivy and what happened in the last two weeks.

This is Ivy.

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You’ve seen pictures of her before on here, and if you’re FB friends with me or on the BWD group, you’ve seen more than a few – most notably the one where she is wrapped around the 2lb ewe lamb we had this spring.  She has been our stalwart guardian, the quintessential LGD: nurturing, protective, ever vigilant, ever willing to go to the mat with anyone or anything that is a threat to her charges. She has always been “as healthy as a horse” despite no veterinary care whatsoever for the first half of her life.  She overcame a puppyhood and early life of misunderstanding and neglect to become everything that a stock guardian should be.  At 5.5 years old, I believed that without a doubt she deserved to pass on her genes to future generations.

I picked a complimentary sire, a nice Great Pyrenees, for the litter – which was easier said than done given that I had no options with registered dogs (ew, who would mate a registered dog to one who isn’t????  Grrr.) and had to pay for testing of whichever working dog I chose.  I hoped that I would find an amenable owner as well (I did, incidentally – she far exceeded my expectations).   Getting two working dogs together was no easy task either.  Ivy and I managed it all, better than I could have hoped; then we sat back and waited.  Well, I sat back.  Ivy just went back to doing what she always did, guarding her wooly children.

Since this was the first time for both of us, after it was clear that she was in milk and getting bigger all the time, I decided to take her in for an x ray.   Ivy thought that was a pretty stupid idea and her normally tolerant self nearly bit the vet as we were removing her from the table.  Still, we had this:

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PUPPIES!  Many, many more puppies than I’d expected for a maiden litter at her age.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t over the moon, but still worried.  If anything, this post should be a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks that being worried and vigilant will keep disaster at bay.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details leading up to labor, but since I was determined to whelp in situ, I will set the stage in the barn, late Sunday morning.   The first pup was born, a fairly colorful, wormy-squirmy little girl.  She was joined in short order by a little boy who looked just like his dad.  We were on a roll and Ivy was doing fabulously.  Then we had the first stillborn.

When all was said and done, 24 hours later, we had 4 stillborn pups in various stages of development.  The vet felt at that time that it was likely to be coincidental and wouldn’t affect the remaining pups – 7 in total.  I moved everyone up to the house before whelping was done – I was taking no chances. When we had one who seemed lethargic from the get-go, I wondered if the stillborns weren’t more of a red flag than we’d both thought.  When one died in his sleep the next morning, my daughter and I packed everyone up for a trip to the vet.  When two seemingly vigorous pups died on the way home from the vet, the icy cold fingers of dread traveled down my spine and touched my toes.  We were in deep trouble.  Both pups were packed off to the vet to be sent for necropsy.

Ivy was frantic.  She’d had a hard labor – a lot of pups – and now only 4 remained.  One was hanging on by a thread by the time we got into the house.  My daughter revived her; I revived her 3 times after that.  I dribbled electrolytes onto her tongue with a tiny syringe. She was dying and there was nothing I could do.  The urge to weep was overwhelming, but no tears would come.  Screaming seemed easier, but I couldn’t.   I whispered to her to hang on as my mind flailed desperately, trying to sort out what to do.  As she took her last breath, I decided to post on a FB reproduction group.  Typically I try to stay away from such postings as the advice can be so random and conflicting on larger groups… but I needed something, anything.  Ivy looked at me with her pleading eyes as two more pups flopped more than they should.

Fortuitously, one of the first commenters advised me to get antibiotics into the survivors.  Finally, something I could do!  Within a short time, I had the antibiotics (a big thank you to my vet!) and we started on our journey to health.  There was still around the clock care, temperature management and managing a first time, traumatized mom who wasn’t used to being in the house… but we’d pulled those two pups back from the brink of death and nothing else mattered.

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l-r Augustus (Gus), Bogs, Frank the Tank

It turns out that Ivy, the ever healthy, ever vigilant, ever working girl that she is, had an overgrowth of bacteria; three types, all three common, run-of-the-mill strains.  They infiltrated the pups’ placentas, and since Ivy didn’t show any signs of infection herself, we were none the wiser.  Nature kicked our collective asses, and none of us had a clue.

Breeding in general is not for the feint of heart, I knew this going in.  What I didn’t know is that breeding my beloved working dog would impact me far and away more than any other kind of breeding ever has.  I also didn’t know how polarizing this experience would be for me, and as a result how it’s informed my choice of who to trust as a friend in this crazy dog-eat-dog world.  Those who professed support but were nowhere to be found when the proverbial shit hit the fan and those who made themselves available to support me through this both surprised and reinforced for me that I’m on the right track in what I’m doing.

I’ll leave you with pictures of these future stock defenders I’m sharing my life with at the moment.  They’re just 2 weeks old in these.  As sheep breeding starts up here on the farm, grazing winds down and winter preparations kick into high gear, I am left with thoughts of what to do for Ivy’s second and final litter.  I do know that I am a much wiser and empathetic dog breeder for having gone through this experience, and that if I can manage to produce as tough and fiesty pups as Gus, Bogs and Frank the second time around, I’ll be doing something right.

Augustus (Gus)

Augustus/Gus (boy)

 

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Bogs (girl)

 

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Frank (girl)

 

P.S. –  Gus is going up north to join two working LGD with their sheep flock, one on the verge of retirement.  Bogs doesn’t have a placement yet.  Frank the Tank will be staying with us here on the farm.

– Carolee


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July 2015 Update

A short update of what I’ve been up to online lately….

 

I took a long awaited leap and joined the great wide world of Twitter.  Follow me and the blog at @guarddogblog – I’ll look for you!

 

I’ve also been wanting to have a Facebook group that focused on the conservation aspect of using LGDs and was more inclusive than the Big White Dog Working LGD Forum can be.  After watching Bruce Elfstrom’s TEDtalk (below) detailing the last three years of his Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project , I was inspired to form the Livestock Guardian Dogs and Conservation: The Way Of The Future group.  It’s a bit of a mouthful, but I hope that it will serve as a place to meet and discuss the various projects already in place all over the world, as well as consider our way forward.  I’d love for you to join us on this journey.

 

Here is Bruce Elfstrom’s talk.  His Facebook group for this project can be found here.

 

 


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Life stages, expectations, and the most precious time in an LGD’s life.

Just like their human counterparts, dogs go through life stages.  Their progression through these stages is more accelerated than humans’, however.  Misunderstanding the nature of their life stages or refusing to acknowledge these stages whatsoever is a root cause of a high number of Livestock Guardian Dog failures.  Unfortunately, we don’t have solid numbers on just how many fail due to this, given that many owners and producers deal with “failed” dogs by euthanizing them or passing them on to shelters or companion homes.

It’s true that no producer can afford to house and feed dogs who cannot fulfill their intended role.  However, contrary to some common folk wisdom, LGDs are not born knowing how to become mature, reliable guardians without any training whatsoever.  Unfortunately, the same people who understand that a herding dog needs to mature and have training before being adept at his role don’t always recognize that LGDs have similar needs.

In their countries of origin, much of this training was done traditionally by older LGDs, often multiple ones and often of a familial group.  Enforcement and refuge were provided by the shepherds.  Supervision was not an issue, as pups were either with the shepherd or under the view of the more experienced dogs, who didn’t hesitate to correct as they saw fit and daily set an example of desired behavior.  In some countries, this is still the case.  Pups are raised under influence from more experienced working dogs and humans.  They are selected to be quick visual learners, able to understand the parameters of their role by watching the older dogs and the shepherds.  They are also selected to be tough, yet sensitive – able to handle rough terrain, weather and life while still offering and receiving care well.

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Bakharwal with shepherd and flock.

Learning on the job is a time honored tradition that has been difficult to replicate in North America and other parts of the world where the majority of stock are kept in one area all their lives and the shepherd visits infrequently.  Without human oversight and often lacking crucial input from more experienced dogs, the LGDs in these areas are often put under selection pressure that may make them more apt to make it to maturity without making serious mistakes but also may make for a dog who is less likely to think for themselves and to be effective in conflicts with predators.  With the more recent return of large predators to many parts of the world, it is more important than ever to ensure a peaceful coexistence between them and our stock.  It’s time again to become “hands on” shepherds and to help guide our LGDs through the stages of their lives.

Dogs essentially go through 4 life stages.  Puppyhood runs from birth to approximately 6 months of age, adolescence from 6 to 18/24 months (sometimes beyond), and adulthood from 2-3 years of age and up.  When a dog moves from being an adult into his senior years is dependent greatly on his health and size.  Large dogs, in general, mature more slowly than smaller dogs and live a shorter life span.  Where a small dog may be considered a senior at 13 or 14 years, a large dog can be the equivalent at 6 or 8.

Let’s take a look at the stages individually.

Bolt, a Kuvasz/Great Pyrenees as a young pup

Bolt, a Kuvasz/Great Pyrenees as a young pup

Puppyhood is easily recognizable by most people.  From the time a pup is born, they are learning and growing at a rapid pace, moving from a tiny slick, squiggly and blind creature with no teeth to a fully functioning animal who is most concerned with exploration.  By the time pups are weaned and leave their mothers, most of their frank openness to the world is over, leaving them to balance fear and curiosity for the rest of their lives.   Thankfully, apart from some brief periods known as “fear periods” (read more about them here), this balance is typically weighted in favor of curiosity through puppyhood and much of adolescence.

Puppyhood is the stage we are most enamoured with as humans; puppy breath and puppy cuddles are some of the sweetest things we can think of.  Nature designed the babies of a species to have this endearing quality, encouraging the adults to care for them and excuse some of their obnoxious behaviors.  This is the time when dogs have what we call a “puppy pass”, wherein the adults give them leeway to be silly and eschew the rules, when corrections are minor – laced with care and reserved for the most serious of infractions.

Babies of all kinds of species have a deep seated need to play, and puppies are no exception.  Some people unfortunately feel that LGD pups shouldn’t be allowed to play past weaning; however, that view is short sighted.  Play is an efficient way for pups to learn the rules of social behavior in context as well as about their environment and how to behave within it.  Play teaches them to utilize and increase inhibition, a crucial part of LGD work.  Play allows them to practice the motor patterns that will one day allow them to be successful in warding off and eliminating predators.  Play also releases endorphins in the brain, keeping puppies buoyant and happy in a difficult and strange world.

Puppies are the babies of the dog world; before long they are free falling into adolescence.  It’s the best time to teach LGDs basic obedience, manners and to socialize them well.  While puppyhood remains one of the most precious and important stages of a dog’s life, it is also the shortest stage of their lives.

Adolescent working Mioritics in Romania

Adolescent working Mioritics in Romania

Adolescence is the equivalent to the pre teen and teenage stages in human children.  The onset and length of this period is variable, both between breeds/types, but also individually.  Some dogs simply mature faster than others.  Some take more work to encourage on to the path of maturity, preferring to hang on to the fun and freedom of puppyhood.  One sure indication that a LGD has moved past the puppy stage and into adolescence is the revocation of his “puppy pass”.  His once tolerant older companions no longer turn a blind eye to his behavior.  Some owners over react to this development, certain that something is wrong with the older dogs or that their cherished pup is no longer safe in his environment –  but nothing could be further from the truth.  Much like the increased expectations in the classroom for older students, puppies benefit from learning that their place in this world.  The role they are intended to fulfill requires a heightened level of maturity, something that takes time and practice to master.

This is also the time when the expectations of the owner or producer often run right up against the abilities of the dog.  Early on, adolescence can be readily identifiable, with gangly bodies and goofy behavior, but as it progresses and the dogs look more and more like adults, it can be difficult for an owner or producer to accept that they will still make mistakes.  Even early on, the once mild mannered pup who suddenly grows an attitude and wants to rough house with stock can be difficult to understand.  It seems like over night, what was simply a silly puppy has become a large, out of control dog driven by his hormones.  He can push the boundaries and try some things on for size, like resource guarding.   It looks sometimes like he’s forgotten everything he was taught as a pup and as though he doesn’t care much how his humans feel about that.   Alternately, if he wasn’t well socialized, he can be difficult to catch and discipline or impossible to keep contained.  Frustration and confusion abound on both sides.

This is far and away the most common stage when dogs are either euthanized, given up, or the owner otherwise looks for help.  Unfortunately, if the stage wasn’t set in puppyhood, it can be difficult to teach all the desired behaviors during adolescence.   Maintaining previously taught behaviors while increasing expectations is the name of the game for this period –  encouraging maturity and self control while expecting periodic regressions in behavior.  An owner or producer can never have enough patience or tools in their tool box to keep an adolescent dog between the lines until more maturity kicks in. This is, however, not the time to put the dog away and forget about him, as it is vital that he stays in the job, keeps learning what is expected and continues to be exposed to different aspects of working life.

This is also the period when the picture of the true dog emerges.  Much like the butterfly developing in the chrysalis, adolescence is a time to wait, watch and hold steady.  The adult dog is there, the owner just can’t see him clearly yet.

NOTE: Some concerning behaviors during adolescence shouldn’t be dismissed or otherwise ignored.  A sudden onset of aggression/threat towards those he is meant to care for, or towards his owners is one such behavior.  Sound sensitivity, often seen in the form of thunder phobia is another.  Chasing and gripping stock, guarding the stock’s resources from them or fence breaching should never, ever be ignored, regardless of life stage.

Ceaser, adult Great Pyrenees, watches over chickens.

Ceaser, adult Great Pyrenees, watches over chickens.

Adulthood is the time when all the hard work by dog and human pay off.  This is the stage where the LGD is fully dependable with stock of all sizes and abilities, where the partnership between he and his owner hits its stride and where the more fully informed choice can be made to pass on his genes to the next generation.  This is the time where growth finishes; the dog is fully in control of his faculties and is truly able and expected to show a maximum level of appropriate decision making and self control.  He starts on the path to becoming the mentor he once needed.

This is the stage where working behaviors are proofed and a dog is able to gain valuable life experiences. He becomes trustworthy enough to attend births unsupervised.  All of his deduction, self control and differentiation skills become the strongest they will ever be in his life.  He no longer over or under reacts, but instead operates from a place of self-assuredness.   While it still remains important to keep him under control in stressful situations with new people and strange canids, his judgement can be trusted for the vast majority of things.

To me, adulthood is the real precious time of a dog’s life.  It’s a stage when the trust in the relationship shifts to a more equal plane and it is no longer necessary to maximize the learning process.  It’s a beautiful time of enjoyment and relaxation on both sides.  A well rounded, well trained LGD with good working instincts is worth their weight in gold for any farming/ranching operation.

It is also a time when it’s important for the owner or producer to continue to check in with the working LGD, to ensure that his behavior remains steady, that he is being fed enough, that he continues in good physical and mental shape.  Ongoing full time work keeping predators at bay and caring for his charges can take a toll on the best of working dogs.

Capture

Senior dogs enter into the last life stage far too quickly for our comfort.  It seems as though we’ve just gotten used to their adulthood, just begun taking it for granted that they’ll always be there, when they begin displaying the effects of old age.

As I previously mentioned, the age at which a dog will enter this life phase depends on several factors, including size and health.  Transitioning from adulthood into old age can be a slow or sudden.  Whether it’s watching him have difficulty rising in the morning or cleaning a wound he never would have gotten a few years ago, it is can be very difficult to adjust to the new reality.

Some dogs are able to ease into retirement and others are under attack from younger dogs once they show any weakness.  Some dogs go strong up until the end, and others slide into dementia,  suffer from debilitating illnesses that require surgeries and treatments or render them largely immobile.

Old age is, just like for humans, an individual journey that is full of familiar comfort pricked with the pangs of heartbreak.  It’s a time when the wisdom and confidence created through a lifetime of experiences creates the best mentorship for those who are up and coming guardians.  Ideally, it’s a stage when LGDs who want to continue living with stock can keep doing so, supported and with a few more comforts provided.   For other LGDs, it’s a time when they retire to the comforts of the house or yard and are rewarded for a lifetime of service.

Either way, the senior years are in some respects a celebration of the fact that they lived, loved and went to battle every day for many years, as they were intended to from the start.  Whatever stage your working dogs are in now, one thing is for certain: their lives will pass too quickly yet impact us greatly.