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

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

First, the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

On to the not-so-good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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Llamas, Donkeys and Other Strange Things in the Pasture.

There are few subjects that get me going quite as much as when people deign to tell others what they should and shouldn’t be using for protection of their stock.  This is especially true if what they are using has been proven to work.  I’m not referring to a choice of this dog vs. that dog, but instead to the popularity of making blanket statements about the appropriateness of using donkeys, llamas or even other inanimate predator deterrents.

I’m about to say something that is WAY out there, so brace yourselves.

Livestock Guardian Dogs are not the only right choice for producers, nor are they even always THE right choice.  

I find that many threads on social media start with a post that is rather inflammatory; let’s use for example a recent one that shows a donkey who was mauled.   Given that I am seriously opposed to pain porn, I’ll spare you the pictures.  Suffice it to say that this poor creature, likely a miniature donkey, went through a horrible ordeal.  Someone thought it would be brilliant to take pictures of him in his ripped up state and post them with a broad warning against using donkeys as livestock protection animals.  Since many people in dogs really love a post that allows them to display their confirmation bias, commenter after commenter leapt to their keyboards to add their supportive opinions.  The possibility that the donkey in question may have been mismatched to the situation he was in didn’t enter the conversation for some time and then was summarily dismissed.

Since I know producers who use donkeys successfully, I was a little disturbed about the rabid direction the thread took.  I’m even more concerned now that I’ve commented rationally and been tossed up for not holding to the “LGD always and only” rule.  The fact that I was completely unaware of this unwritten pact between Livestock Guardian Dog owners is irrelevant.  No matter, as I would not have signed on had I known.

Photo credit: Steve Hipps

Photo credit: Steve Hipps

The fact remains that producers in North America use donkeys and llamas for protection.  They don’t do so at the same rate of LGD use; however, since only  45% of producers use any kind of Livestock Protection Animal, their usage is significant.   What does it serve us to ignore this or, worse, to minimize and degrade their contributions?

I say again:

Livestock Guardian Dogs are not the only right choice for producers, nor are they even always THE right choice.  

The simple fact of the matter is that we have livestock in extremely variable environments.  We have them in small pens in highly populated areas, and we have them on ranges far from civilization.  We have them in desert climates and on lush mountains.  We keep them in large numbers of their own kind and in small numbers with others.  We keep them locked up in the same area all their lives and we move them around during that same time span.  It makes no sense that we would need the same protection in all of those scenarios.

sfvfoundation.org

sfvfoundation.org

I’m afraid that once someone is not willing to look at their preferred method of predator protection objectively, their advice becomes biased and consequently, not as valuable for research purposes.  It’s natural that we all become slightly slanted towards what we prefer; if we cannot see why that bias occurs and acknowledge its presence, we have become dictators and not effective advocates.  I personally cannot see a scenario where I would choose to use a llama or donkey over a dog as a guardian for my sheep, but indeed that says more about my love for my dogs than it does about the effectiveness of other protection animals.

In that spirit, here are some points about LGDs that may preclude them as a viable choice.

  • They bark –  a LOT.  This is their primary method of defense.
  • They are comparatively expensive to feed.
  • They often require extensive fencing.
  • They need to be dewormed routinely or risk infecting the stock with C. Ovis (tapeworms).
  • They can be more aggressive to human visitors than desired.
  • They have heightened exercise requirements when young and cannot be kept in small pens all their lives.
  • They require training.
  • They can have a desire to roam. (see point about fencing)

Those points aside, I believe that dogs are at least a part of the right choice for most producers.   They can be used in combination with flandry, electric fencing, lights, patrolling, night penning/confinement, rotational grazing, strategic hunting and yes, even llamas and donkeys.   If any of these are enough on their own or in combination apart from the LGDs, then that is appropriate as well.  The objects of protection work are to keep the predators at bay and to keep the livestock alive, not to ensure that a pack of dogs resides in every pasture.

 

***For additional reading on utilizing donkeys and llamas in the role of guardian animals, follow the the links below.

  1. Protecting Livestock with Guard Donkeys 
  2. Using Llamas and Donkeys as Predator Control
  3. Guidelines for Using Donkeys as Guard Animals with Sheep
  4. Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe From Coyotes
  5. Ranchers turn to guard donkeys to fend off predators

 


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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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It shouldn’t BE this hard.

Shortly after we got our first registered Maremma pup, I remember thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard.  She was a singleton, from an unplanned litter where the other pups died due to neglect, born to a mother who was under a year.  She’d not been socialized off the farm and showed up as a little spitfire wrapped in a coating of uncertainty.

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When we picked up our pup, her mother was confined in a small pen with wire over it.  She presented as a bundle of busy energy, wriggling in submission, looking for a release from her prison. She washed out as a guardian after more litters and before she was 3.   Her mate was the complete opposite at less than a year – trustworthy, confident, imposing, wary.  He sniffed my hand and looked me over as if to say “I’ll let you stay, for now”.  I loved him and hoped that his pup would take after her father.

The breeder had spent the money to bring one parent from the US and the other from a couple of provinces over.  She had a contract, centered mainly around breeding rights.  She looked surprised when I mentioned the importance of health testing.  Her sheep operation was well set up, clean and carefully run.  This was no puppy mill, but neither was it a place that had what it needed to choose the right dogs or do what was right for them in the end.

I sold her at near maturity to someone I trusted who promised to stay the course with her, but instead dumped her in rescue after a couple of months.  That’s a whole other story for another time – how this rescue stayed hidden and refused to return her, how her new owner had gone against our agreement… and the reason why I’ll never again sell an adult LGD who needs special handling.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t whisper an apology to her for letting her down again  Before I rehomed her, I’d cried a river of tears over her heightened prey drive, her willingness to body check anyone to get what she wanted, her unwillingness to listen when it didn’t suit her.  As a young pup, she ate – ATE – stuffed animals, toys; if it was fluffy, she’d gulp it down.  At least three times we were ready to head to the vet to open her up, one foot out the door, when she threw up the item in question.  Once, she was off food for 2 days.  When she finally threw it up, a long rag she’d found and shredded, she gobbled it down again.  I was a wreck.

She was a busy, busy dog.  I’d been led to believe that LGDs were meant to be placid and thoughtful a fair bit of the time, and that had been our experience up until then.  I was on a forum that was run in part by people who purported to have seen all and done all; they recommended I put her away when she was badly behaved and to only reward the behavior I was looking for.  She would have been put away ALL OF THE TIME.  I attached a tire to her on their advice, after trying a dangle stick that did nothing at all to stop her chasing or even slow her down.  The tire only made her more determined and she developed a bowl legged walk to compensate.  I was told not to exercise her out of the pasture, to only train her in there, to have “everything good happen in with the stock”.  Well, she was so squirrelly after a few months that the stock wanted nothing to do with her.  We didn’t have a hundred acre pastures for her to get her wiggles out.  Prolonged confinement made things worse, as it will do with a needy, active pup.  Even though she responded well to positive reinforcement training techniques, rewarding her with food in the pasture only served to make her possessive.

One day, when she was just over a year old, she launched herself at my older teenaged daughter, knocking her over to get the food bowl in her hand.  I was no slouch with this dog, we’d followed a strict protocol of waiting for meals to ensure building self control.   Clearly I was on the wrong track.  I was definitely not breeding this dog, and I was more than done with taking certain advice.

This was a registered dog.  This was what I’d been told to look for. I was finished listening to others – it was far past time that I listened to myself and what I knew to be true.

1.  No serious producer has time to hold the hand of a working guardian dog every step of the way for years.  Breeding decisions need to keep this in mind.  These are dogs with a purpose, and that purpose needs to be protected in the genetic material being used.

2.  Fair corrections ARE appropriate for working LGDs.   For some dogs this may only need to be a verbal sound and a sharp look, while others need more.  Some dogs will hardly make a mistake, while others will go through periods where they make one with every breath.   Setting out on the right foot, being crystal clear with these dogs is worth far more to them than the fallout that comes from over isolating, tethering for long periods or ignoring their clumsy attempts to interact.  Tell them what you want and tell them what you don’t want.  They’re not mind readers, after all.   Set them up for success and then expect great things of them.

3.  Don’t buy into this idea that only registered dogs are worth anything.  Papers mean nothing when it comes time to work.   Both of my full time working dogs aren’t registered and I wouldn’t trade either of them for truckloads of gold.  Take working dogs on their merits, not on their pedigreed status.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is only trying to make money from you.  Registered doesn’t mean health tested, registered doesn’t mean that the dog is more likely to work well for you – but registered always means you’ll pay more and be more financially invested in that product of untested parents who won’t guard for you.  You’re much more likely to make the decision to breed to recoup some of that investment.  This is not to say that registered dogs don’t work – but it doesn’t ensure that they will. If you go that route, read your contract carefully.  Promote health testing, temperament assessment and maturity before breeding regardless of registration – be a part of the solution for all working dogs.

By the time our Maremma girl left our place, she was well in hand and only getting better every day.  I stopped outsourcing my decisions and started giving her the feedback she needed.  It would have been a thousand times better and more fair to give it to her as a young pup, but this is all a part of the learning curve – especially in a world where we are encouraged to listen to all the “experts”.  She was spending more and more time in with the stock and behaving well.  I can only hope that wherever she’s ended up, she ends up as happy as she was before she left us.

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