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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The Big Question: What is a LGD?

In my work with LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dogs), I ran into this question more than any other.  It takes many different forms, but essentially what everyone wants to know is what a LGD is, what a LGD does, and conversely, what falls outside the parameters of the definition.  This is not only the most common topic of conversation, but also the one that many educators struggle to adequately define.

I’ll start by saying that I am very aware that my worldview is that of someone who has lived their whole life in western society.   I have, however, worked very hard to counteract this by exploring the cultures that still keep LGDs predominately as their ancestors did.  Cultures with deep and ongoing pastoral roots show a clearer picture of the Livestock Guardian Dog than those who have largely moved to closed registry systems with a heavy emphasis on conformation shows.  As these dogs traditionally were true landraces; the people who still promote assortative mating and strict culling practices hold the ancient wisdom of selection and training that made these dogs so solidly valuable as guardians.  These are the people who understand that a working dog is a partner, not simply a tool.

This is what I have learned, borne out by LGD champions here in North America and my own personal experience.

1. A LGD is a large, hearty dog.

LGDs were developed to protect domestic prey animals from wild predators.  This is the heart and soul of who they are.  They cannot protect if they are too small to pose a threat to predators.  They cannot follow through on their threats nor provide an comforting presence to their charges if they are anything but strong and stoic in the face of uncertainty.

2. A LGD is both nurturing and protective.

LGDs are equal parts submissive and dominant, affectionate and aggressive.  They care for their charges with a mother’s love: devoted, gentle and protective.  They defend their charges with a mother’s fervor: decisive, committed and with passion. It is not uncommon to observe a dog expose his belly to an inquisitive lamb and then in the next breath, leap to defend it against a threat.  Once trained and mature, LGDs are able to instinctively discern who is friend and who is foe and respond accordingly.

3. A LGD is thoughtfully aggressive.

Although aggressive and tenacious, LGDs never operate indiscriminately or without inhibition.  Affectionately nicknamed “thoughtful fighters”, LGDs are consistently in control of their emotions and use only as much force as necessary to prove their point.  This does not mean that they will not eliminate predators when necessary, but many LGDs will try to communicate their intent to protect for some time before going on the offensive.  LGDs instinctively view weakness as something to protect, never to harm.

4. A LGD thinks for himself.

  An emphasis on rote obedience, highly prized in the western world, was not part of the selection process for LGDs. As with most working dogs, an ability to think independently is part and parcel of their core definition.  This means that while you won’t find too many members who excel in obedience competitions, they are routinely superior at fulfilling their mission to nurture and protect.  Several senses are heightened in dogs when compared to humans; this must be taken into consideration and respected, especially upon maturity.  Many times, humans have been unable to identify the threat until much later, but their LGD(s) recognized it immediately.

5. A LGD listens to his shepherd.

At first glance, this point seems in direct opposition to the one above.  An independent dog is not at all the same as one who cannot be controlled or who doesn’t defer to any human, however.  A partnership wherein the LGD defers to his owner is earned through building trust and consistently fair handling.  A shepherd has no fear of managing and correcting his LGDs and expects to have the final say on all important matters.  A stable LGD who sees his owner as a partner has no problem listening to him.  In order to establish and maintain this partnership, the shepherd must know when to interfere (for example intrapack/interpack aggression ) and when not to.

6. A LGD is a dog.

Tales of the supernatural, mythical abilities of LGDs are fun to recount and fascinating to listen to, but they serve very little practical purpose in the real world.  While there is usually more than a grain of truth to these stories, it is vital to remember that LGDs are first and foremost dogs with a dog’s instincts and a dog’s view of life.  LGDs have been artificially selected over centuries to have a reduced prey drive and high amount of self control but that does not mean that they are not still dogs.  Care needs to be taken to manage and train LGDs so that they become successful guardians.  As in all working dog types, there are outliers who are unable to fulfill the job description.

7.  A LGD is a social dog.

LGDs develop strong bonds with other LGDs.  They employ a complex and nuanced social language with each other that relies heavily on body language and cooperation.  As with most canines, individual friendship preferences matter, and gender may matter to some.  Almost universally, however,  LGDs prefer to live in partnerships or groups.

8. A LGD can be a “hard” or “soft” dog or somewhere in between.

The disposition of a LGD depends on many factors including genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, health, stage of life, weather and how settled they are in their environment.  Much of the determining factor in whether an LGD will be “hard” (tough, stoic, resilient) or “soft” (unable to defend against larger apex predators) has to do with their genetics, although the other factors deserve equal consideration.  Assessing the individual dog is typically more important than applying broad breed expectations.  It is also vital to recognize that a dog who has recently moved to a new home will behave differently than after they settle in.  A LGD encountered off of their ‘home turf’ will also behave differently than when approached on their own territory.

9. A LGD bonds deeply.

Whether it is to another dog, their stock, their territory, their human(s) or all of the above, LGDs bond intensely and without reservation.   The loss of what or who they are bonded to leaves a LGD with uncertainty and confusion.  Many times, I have seen LGDs whose owners believe them to be defective recover and go on to be incredible working dogs when provided with an appropriate bond.  Much of working LGD rehab can be summed up in two words: providing direction.  It is impossible to compensate for a lack of instinct, however, most dogs with working genetics simply need their instinct channelled appropriately.

10. A LGD is the best friend a shepherd can have.

Shepherds the world over sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that their dogs are working hard to protect their livestock.  For many shepherds, their livestock remains their livelihood and subsequently only entrusted to LGDs due to their effectiveness.  There is no other guardian who is so equally affectionate and protective, nor one who is so incredibly adaptable.  The love and dedication of a LGD is unparalleled.  It is a lucky person whom a LGD considers family and a lucky flock with LGDs to defend them.  Even more, it is a fortunate LGD whose owner cares for and understands them.  12794589_10153959428925987_8528213169421724126_n

 

 

   


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The Armenian Gampr

A few weeks ago, a friend by the name of Rohana Mayer took a trip to Armenia to gather DNA samples of the working LGDs native to there, also known as gamprs.  Rohana is the head of the Armenian Gampr Club of America, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Armenian Gampr landrace.  We were in contact through some of her trip,  and I greatly enjoyed the updates she provided on the Armenian Gampr group on Facebook.  Rohana has graciously agreed to allow me to post some of the pictures she took as well as to sit for an interview, which I will post soon.

First, some context.

Armenia is a small (approximately 30,000 square km, or roughly the size of Maryland in the US) landlocked country in Southwestern Asia, between Turkey and Azerbaijan to the west and east respectively and Georgia and Iran to the north and south.

Map_of_Armenia

armenia_map

Like other small countries in Europe, Armenia has struggled with retaining its autonomy over the centuries.  External control and the effort of resisting that control left Armenia in never ending turmoil and culminated in a genocide of at least 1 million citizens between 1915 and 1922 by neighboring Turkey during the tail end of Ottoman rule.   Between political unrest and set backs from natural disasters like the earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 and left hundreds of thousands more homeless, Armenia naturally became a nation of extreme resilience and creativity.  Now independent, Armenians battle against internal corruption and a difficult economy that has left them with a high rate of poverty.  Despite this, Armenia continues its’ long history of reinvention, ever striving to thrive out from under the shadow of the much larger and more influential countries nearby.

Nearly 60% of Armenia’s land base is devoted to agriculture, divided as 15.8% arable land, 1.9% permanent crops and 42% permanent pasture.  The largest section of the Armenian labor force,  at 39%,  is in agriculture.  This high level of permanent pasture land and weighted importance of agriculture in the economy translates into a very long history of pastoralism for Armenians.  Forests make up a further 9% of the land, adding to the available area for grazing livestock.  Transhumance, the ancient method of moving stock from low lands to higher pastures seasonally, is still practiced there today.  Whether in more contained systems closer to urban centers, or found in more remote areas of this beautiful country, Armenian shepherds have long relied on the gampr dog to protect them and their livelihood.

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

The Armenian Gampr, like many dogs used for personal and livestock guardian work in different countries, are required to be defensively confrontational with intruders and predators while remaining soft and affectionate with their family.  They must be large enough to be imposing and tough enough to follow through on their threats if need be, but not so big as to impede athleticism or be unthrifty.  Being a true landrace even in modern times means that the gampr is an extremely rich well of genetic diversity.  Furthermore, it means that the phenotypic expression of this diversity resists the development of a show-type or Kennel Club standard.  There are still parameters to judge by, however, and some of the macro points are as follows (from the AGCA website):

“The breed evolved for a rigorous lifestyle requiring independent intelligence, strong survival instincts, reliable livestock guardianship, and a dependable, efficient physique.”

Gamprs have been bred for function more than appearance.  Any color is permissible, except merle, liver or blue, and blue eyes or eyes lacking dark eyeliner, and pink noses.”

and

“The thick coat of the gampr is excellent protection in all weather extremes.  Typically, longer-haired dogs were from the snowy highlands, and shorter-haired dogs were from the lowlands. The outer hairs tend to be darker than the dense, downy undercoat. They shed their coat once or twice a year, in great amounts. Puppies often are born slightly darker than they grow to be as an adult.


Gamprs have strong, muscular bodies with large bone structure. It is often surprising how large their heads are when compared other modern ‘pet’ dogs.”
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An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

 

Two Armenian Gampr pups share the proceeds of a recent lamb slaughter by their shepherd. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer 2015

Two Armenian Gampr pups share the proceeds of a lamb slaughtered by their shepherd. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer 2015

As the Armenian people have struggled for so long, so too have their beloved dogs.  At various points in its’ history, the Armenian Gampr has been used to bolster non-working breeds outside their borders, as a part of fighting dog breeding, exported at high rates along with livestock, taken as the spoils of war, lost to inappropriate external expectations and wounded by inappropriate breeding practices both within and outside of the country’s bounds.   True gamprs, those who structurally and temperamentally qualify as guardians, are worth a great deal to breeders and buyers alike.

This sets the backdrop for Rohana Mayer’s recent trip to western Armenia.  Armed with buccal swabs and aided by a team of dedicated indigenous shepherds and breeders, she traveled through a third of the unpretentious country looking for examples of the gampr for DNA testing.  Some dogs had inappropriate temperaments or were overly mixed, and still others showed the ravages of long term inbreeding (done in a misapplied effort to ensure purity).  Perseverance of a high standard of behavior and morphology paid off, though, and Rohana managed to find some beautiful examples of working gamprs.  I’ll leave you with some pictures of these dogs, as well as some links for further reading about the Armenian Gampr.  Look for my interview with Rohana in an upcoming post.  If you have any interest in aiding Rohana and the Armenian Gampr  Club of America’s preservation project, please contact Rohana at rohana@gampr.org or me through this site.

 

*****More reading:

Timeline of the last century in Armenia: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1108274.stm

“A Brief History of the Armenian Gampr” (AGCA): http://www.gampr.org/History.html

Overview of the history of the Armenian Gampr, with a slant towards registering a standard: http://www.tacentral.com/nature/fauna_story.asp?story_no=2


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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Is Dominance a 4 letter word?

I had occasion today to think about how we working LGD owners view dominance in our dogs.  Before we get into any further conversations about training, I think we should take a closer look at what dominance is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.

While it is seldom advisable to get all of your handling and training advice from social media threads, they can be very helpful to see the different ways that people operate with their dogs.  The other side of that, of course, is that it can be difficult for people who are truly struggling to gain the perspective they need, due to the extreme distance of the advice being given.  If there is one thing I’ve learned solidly, it’s that reports of behavior are not reliable enough to make firm decisions about the motivations behind said behavior.  It’s also true that some people will always see a nail because all they have is a hammer and that some are looking through a lens of ethical or moral views on dogs, no matter how impractical or inappropriate that lens may be for the situation at hand.

What I want to talk about in this post specifically is how much a consideration of dominance should factor into the decisions we make regarding our working LGDs, not to debate whether dominance exists (yes, it does) or whether we should acknowledge it (yes, we should, as it can be exacerbated or misinterpreted leading to serious complications) .

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

What is dominance?  Many people throw out the word “Alpha” or refer to Cesar Milan’s techniques when asked this question.  They talk about “alpha rolling” or “body rolling”, using physical intimidation routinely and never allowing your dog to be above you in stature, never allowing him to put his mouth on you- essentially encouraging a laundry list of forceful methods done routinely with every dog to ensure that they never gain the “upper hand” in the relationship.  I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine that type of approach garnering anything other than mistrust in both humans or dogs, given how complex and nuanced our collective social behavior is.  Approaching dogs in this way is akin to over emphasis on one conversation, on one subject in relationship.  Imagine if you wanted to tell someone that you love them, or that you’re hungry – or even that you have to go to the bathroom and all they ever said in return was “Get in line, don’t be dominant with me!”.  Imagine if you wanted to play or communicate that you are insecure about a situation, but all you were continually told was “Stop trying to control me!!!”.  Not only would it be confusing and frustrating for you, but you’d quickly learn that no one was listening to you in this particular relationship and most likely tune out.  Further, if they continually insisted that you grovel before them, or tolerate harsh manhandling, you may even lash out.  Security and safety in this relationship would feel almost non existent, and it could be argued that the relationship was abusive or at least neglectful.  If we don’t have a working understanding of the role that dominance plays in our relationships, of how it can be used properly and fairly (as we seem to understand instinctively with our fellow humans, for instance), we will continue to misapply and misinterpret it… or just refuse to have the conversation at all.

Living socially demands a passable skill with appropriate social language.  This is why, most often, you see like animals living with like.  They understand how to communicate with each other and it allows them to live peacefully enough together to ensure their survival.  It’s how we came to live with canids in the first place – we were able to communicate well enough to come together for mutual benefit.  Had we had dominance as an overriding concern, or they had that as their only concern, we would not currently have hundreds of years of beneficial relationship behind us now.  It’s that simple.  The animals most concerned about dominance live mainly alone (apart from offspring at times); they lead much more isolated lives.

Dogs are, for the most part, very socially flexible.  We humans generally are as well.  We, dogs and humans, adapt well to varying groupings, despite our personal proclivities.  Animals with strict dominance hierarchies do this less well – birds are often put up as good examples of beings who live best with such a rigid construct.  They have been the focus of a lot of the research on the subject of dominance for this reason.  Their social default is to have the conversation to determine who is in charge first and often.  They do not tolerate weakness, nor do they tolerate usurpers.  There are those who are submissive and stick to that, and there are others who constantly challenge for control, or who are quick to sense an opportunity and take it.  Birds generally live in a “cut throat” world with a solid ladder of control.  This is not to say that they can’t live peaceably, but they are generally less adaptable to change.  The level of aggression displayed and the ability to be “tough” are more informative of eventual status than the body mass or size of the bird.  In other words, it’s the size of the fight in the bird as opposed to the size of the bird in the fight that determines which rung on the ladder they will occupy.

Dogs, in general, are much more willing to give and take than birds – many dogs routinely offer submission to any human they meet.  We have selected for this trait in many of our companion dogs, and indeed in many of the dogs we work with as well.  Selection for routine submission with at least their handlers is commonplace.  The much maligned pitbull is a good example of this – historically selected to be aggressive with other dogs but never with their people.  Simply put, this was for a practical reason: in order to pull an aggressive dog out of a fight or to train a dog selected for willingness to trip into aggression, you’d have to ensure they felt that hurting humans was forbidden.  Other dog breeds have been selected similarly, such as the herding types or even more dramatically, the gun dogs.

Essentially, over the course of our history living and working with most dogs, we’ve purposefully or otherwise selected against a willingness or desire to challenge our status as leader.  We found that since we as humans have the longer view and hold the construct of what we want to accomplish, it makes much more sense to have dogs who easily agree to work with us, no matter what we ask.  While this has been done with LGDs to varying extent (the more stranger friendly types to more extent than the others), I do not believe that LGDs operate in the same way that most dogs do.  They are not complete outliers, (sharing this niche with the most serious protection and spitz dogs, for instance) but as we’ve discussed before, they do fill a unique working role and have had their maternal and aggressive tendencies exaggerated in order to be successful at it.  This lends them to behave more like a primitive social canid, thriving in familial groupings, as well as with a more rigid social hierarchy than most.  It is often noted that the working LGD learns best by watching and doing, is sensitive to subtle nuanced body communication and is quite often ahead of other dogs or even humans in terms of knowing what is going to happen next in interaction.  All of this lends itself to a highly sensitive dog who needs a solid foundation to operate from.

It is my firm belief that not only are LGDs concrete thinkers in general (like many herding dogs for instance), but they also appreciate knowing where they stand in relationship at all times.  Uncertainty does not lend itself to security.   You’ll seldom see two working LGDs meet without establishing right away who is the leader and the follower.   This doesn’t always play out in the same way with humans, but the conversation is very similar.  Knowing who is in charge doesn’t need to be, and often isn’t the result of a physical altercation, but it needs to be established just the same.  It may have to be revisited as dynamics of the relationship change (a maturing pup, for instance), but once established it remains static and doesn’t need to be proven over and over in every interaction.  Our LGDs are less interested in challenging the leadership position with us humans than they are with their canine counterparts, but they are hard wired to step into the gap if they find that we aren’t willing or able to lead.  If we are unconfident, unreliable, distant or otherwise irrelevant and untrustworthy, they will step into the void.  They will also do so if we are under threat or incapacitated, something we generally find a positive trait.

coloradomountaindogs.com

LGD familial group, from coloradomountaindogs.com

Working LGDs are warriors.  They go forward into battle when other dogs would run and hide.  They do the opposite of what comes naturally to most animals; they give up self preservation to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others.  There is little time for ongoing negotiation when you’re in protection mode 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  This is one of the reasons why working LGDs always need to know where they stand, who they can trust and who will have their back… or equally who they are expected to provide back up for.  Regardless of which training methods are chosen, earning the trust of your working LGD(s) and ensuring that they are comfortable in their social interactions with both humans and each other ought to  be highest on your list of priorities.   A confident and secure dog does the best work, and in the end, we can agree that we all need dogs who work to the best of their abilities.   The lives of their charges depend on it.

 


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Companion living.

I’m working on a post about life stages and expectations for LGDs, but it’s a bit slow going as farm life is in full swing here, leaving free time in short supply.  In the meantime, I want to take a moment to remind LGD breed owners of one undeniable fact.

Whether you think your dog is a working LGD or not doesn’t matter.  If he has working ability, HE thinks he’s a working dog and will act accordingly.  This is what he was bred to do.

 

More often than not, when a LGD breed is kept as a companion or in an urban setting and they have significant working ability, their owners run into trouble leaving them on their home turf unsupervised with strangers, unfamiliar animals, etc., as they mature.  This is especially true of the harder or less stranger tolerant breeds such as the Caucasian Ovtcharka, Central Asian Shepherd, Kuvasz, etc..  These dogs are hard wired to assess risk, to identify threat and then to drive it off or eliminate it.  This can bleed over into their life off property, especially if they are regularly taken to certain places or walked on certain routes, since this can encourage them to believe that these things and places are also “theirs” and meant to be protected.

Unlike many other breeds, where the maturing process is difficult, but maturity brings with it a dog who is MORE biddable with their owners and steady with strangers, LGDs become hardened with time and tend to listen less and be less tolerant of threat behavior by others.   Unfortunately, many people who acquire LGD breeds expect that their dog(s) will see extended family, visiting family, close friends and playmates of their children as completely safe… just like the owners do.  They expect that the loving and sweet dog(s) who allow their children to sit on them and who cuddle with them on the couch will extend that behavior to others who don’t live with them.  This is not at all what these dogs were bred for, and it is unfair to expect that of them.  Thousands of years of selection pressure has brought us dogs who act independently to address threat, swiftly and unforgivingly (in varying degree) and who don’t understand that Aunt Martha or Uncle Bob aren’t stealing from you, or that Sammy’s little friend from school was only play fighting.

Both breeders and owners share responsibility for this issue.  Breeders should know their dogs well, and sell only to suitable homes that are prepared to deal with any issues that may arise.  Owners should think hard about their expectations for any dog they plan to bring into their home, and ask themselves if they would be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak, or if they are truly willing to do what it would take to keep a large, powerful and ever-suspicious dog happy and safe in that setting.

With proper management and understanding, LGDs can make good companions – in fact, they can be absolutely wonderful in that role.  Setting them up for success is the kindest and most appropriate thing that we can do for them, which sometimes means passing them over for a more suitable dog.  You can take the dog out of the working environment, but you will NEVER take the working ability out of the dog.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs,  enjoys some inside time.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs, enjoys some inside time.

 


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LGD communication.

While we are talking about canine communication, it would be a good time to go over some of what we’re looking for in terms of body language in the Livestock Guardian Dog.

As we’ve talked about before, LGDs are one of the only types of dogs developed to live with prey animals, namely livestock.  Livestock generally live in groups and are very sensitive to threatening behavior.  They respond to bodies (people and animals) that are carried with a lot of forward motion or threatening intent by running away or less commonly and/or if trapped, by threatening them back.  This is, of course, a survival mechanism common to all kinds of prey species, domestic or otherwise.  LGDs have to fit a dual job description in terms of body language requirements.  They must be threatening enough to would-be predators to drive them off (at the least) and they have to display body language that makes the livestock feel safe and secure enough to stay close to them.

As a part of fulfilling the job of driving predators away from their charges, LGDs are bred to be large or extra large in size, with deep, booming voices.  This signals to predators that they can not only be a match for any predator contemplating a meal of lamb or veal, but also that they are constantly on alert and won’t miss any such attempt.  They are, however, selected to have drop ears, “rounder” edges to their body, soft expressions and to move in a calming, slow manner around vulnerable beings.  It is not uncommon to see a LGD trot away from the stock a ways to assess and warn off a threat, head high, tail up and carrying themselves with extreme forward motion; only to return and reverse the process: slow in pace, lowering their tail and body profile as they approach the stock.  It takes a highly intelligent, thinking dog to constantly evaluate the environment/context and respond appropriately.

What follows is a series of photographs that illustrate the appropriate body language around stock.  I’ve included a picture of our 8 month old (at the time) Maremma/Great Pyr girl greeting my daughter, who came to visit in the barn in her wheelchair.  It’s important to note that since our LGD pup had not been taught not to jump up at her previous home, she was still struggling with it here these three months later.  She automatically adjusted her behavior to suit the situation with my daughter, however – a good sign of a properly maturing LGD.

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Big Mama

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