Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


9 Comments

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.

 


7 Comments

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

 

 

   


1 Comment

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.

 


2 Comments

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

 


2 Comments

“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.

 

 


16 Comments

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.

 

 


6 Comments

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.

10366177_729682563721691_6402122385003271451_n

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:

11903856_10153567824890987_7247476693669921062_n

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.

11998982_10153604302600987_8445602742276903007_n

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)

 

10435843_10153607890995987_8209782918951221914_n

Bogs (girl)

 

12032080_10153607756155987_4824165345765685874_n

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