Wednesday, 14 June 2017

What makes a LGD a LGD?

 Written for the Shepherds Magazine
©2017 Louise Liebenberg

For people who rely on LGDs to keep their flocks safe from large predators, it is obvious what makes a LGD, a LGD. It is a unique blend of both physical, temperamental, and inherent traits. However, for many new people in the sheep industry, it may not seem that obvious. Many people looking for their first LGD often end up with crosses between LGD and other breeds, believing that a lab cross or heeler x with a Great Pyrenees will make a great LGD. I have even had someone try to convince me that their coyote x Pitbull was a great LGD.  These crosses can seriously place your livestock in jeopardy, either from the dog itself, or from predators.  It is unfair to place a dog in a situation he is not equipped to deal with, be that mentally, physically or because he has conflicting instincts.

In this article, I will discuss certain physical traits that are common in most LGD breeds. I will briefly explore some of the temperamental characteristics found in LGDs, and finally, I will look at inherent traits/instincts that are essential for these dogs to be able to fulfill their role as livestock guardian dogs. These characteristics have been selected for over thousands of years, by shepherds, to ensure the dogs are physically and mentally capable of doing this job. Shepherds have culled unwanted qualities out, creating a dog “breed” that can do the job of protecting the livestock against large predators over various geographical and climatic regions.

The term “livestock guardian dogs” refers to a very specific job these dogs must do. It is a collective term, it is not a single  breed but, refers to a group of breeds (from various countries) who share the same job. The sheepdog category can be divided into two groups; herding dogs, and protection dogs.   Almost all the European Countries have their own breed/s of LGD, for example: in France the Great Pyrenees dog, in Poland the Tatra, in Macedonia the Sarplaninac, in Hungary the Komondor, The Turkish have a few breeds, such as the Akbash and Kangal, Central Asia has it Ovcharkas and Spain has its Spanish Mastiffs. There are more than 40 breeds that fall under the category of Livestock Guardian Dogs, some are extremely rare, others are more common.

Despite the large geographical area where these breeds are found, all share some physical similarities. 
Size and weight: all LGD breeds are regarded as large dogs, most weigh between 80 and 160 lbs. Size is of importance when dealing with large predators. These dogs need to be large, but not overly heavy, they need to be physically fit, agile, fast and have enough body mass to have a chance of survival should they get into a physical confrontation with a predator. 
Coat: colour does not matter. You have both white and coloured sheep guardian dogs. What does matter, is that these dogs have a weather resistant coat suitable for the climate where they work. Most have a double coat which is comprised of a thick dense woolly undercoat, covered by a weather resistant outer layer. Many short-coated dogs, such as the Kangal, are double coated, the outside guard hairs are just shorter.  A rough or long coated dog, should not be too “fluffy “and soft, it will otherwise lose its water-resistant qualities, and the coat will become matted and hard to maintain. Some LGD have single coats, due to the very warm climates they live in, another exception is the  Komondor, who have a corded coat.  The coat must provide protection from the elements as these dogs live outside in all types of weather.

Skin: LGD have thick, loose skin. This has the function of protecting the dogs in a skirmish, as the loose skin may get bitten, but as it is loose, it moves over the muscles protecting the muscles and organs from deep bite wounds.  Ears: all LGD have ears that hang down, no LGDs have erect wolf-like ears. It has been suggested that the floppy ears have a calming effect on the stock. In some cultures, it is tradition to crop the ears. Teeth: LGD have big, strong teeth, that are correctly aligned in strong jaws.  Strong teeth are essential in any situation where a confrontation might occur. 

A shepherd in Macedonia showing the strong and large teeth of his dog.

Angulation, most LGD are built to be free moving, and agile relative to their size. Too large, too small, too heavy, and too cumbersome reduces the efficiency of these dogs.

These are some of the physical traits found in LGD. They do not vary very much with some other large breeds such as the Saint Bernard or the Newfoundland dog, this is where the temperament separates LGDs from other similar large breed dogs. Where both the Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland share large size, double coats, and hanging ears, the LGDs have very different temperaments.  When you speak with shepherds you will hear them describing their dogs as; independent, formidable, protective, wary, powerful, alert, fearless, brave, bold, dominant, intelligent, aggressive, and loyal.  If LGD did not posses these characteristics, they would easily be intimidated by predators.  LGD are independent thinkers, notorious for their poor obedience skills. The independent thinking is vitally important as LGDs need to make their own judgement calls when predators come calling at 2 am and the rancher is tucked away in his bed. These dogs need a bold and brave temperament for this job, and must have a gentle and loyal nature towards their livestock. Most Newfoundland Dogs or Saint Bernard’s are soft in nature, who have low aggression, making them unsuitable as LGD.

This leads us onto the next part of what makes LGD unique. This set of instinctual or inherent traits is perhaps harder to define, as it is a combination of drives, that are seemingly contradictory. The mandate for a LGD is simple; first, it must protect the flock from predators and secondly, it must not eat the sheep. The inherent traits that guides this behaviour are really on two opposite ends of a continuum, one being that the dogs need to be highly protective and willing to be aggressive to predators.   On the other end of the scale, it needs to be calm, nurturing, gentle and display a guardian type role towards its flock.  Bearing in mind, that most dogs perceive sheep as prey, one can clearly see that LGDs have traits that are very different to drives found in other breeds. Most herding dogs have a high prey drive, but no protective drive, this high prey drive makes them unsuitable as LGD. It is this combination of traits, the high protective drive combined with the low prey drive, that truly make a LGD unique.
The physical traits, their strong character and this unique combination of drives makes up the whole package. Understanding these elements, highlights why certain breeds and crosses with non LGD  are simply not equipped to do this job.  An owner who expects their non-LGD breed (Golden retriever, Pitbull, husky, or heeler etc.)   even if it is crossed with a LGD breed, to be a working LGD, is placing the dog at an unfair disadvantage, and endangering both the dog and the livestock. 

Thousands of years of selection have established these traits and physical features to be the most suited, desirable, and efficient for dogs to be able to protect their flocks. History has shown that it is easy and relatively quick to breed out traits and lose working instincts in dogs, rendering some breeds incapable of perform their original job.   It is only through real work, testing in the field, living among the livestock and meeting predators that will ensure the correct genetic traits are passed on to future generations.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

The new babe on the ranch

Jess has this old roping mare that she adores, it has been her go to horse for parades, barrels, chasing cows, trail rides, 4-H, rodeo queen and whatever else one can do with a horse.
This mare is her "heart" horse.
She has wanted to breed a foal from this mare for years now, and last year it was time.
She took her to a lovely stud, and today, her new baby arrived.
We were delighted to be able to watch his birth.
He is a bay colt, no markings, as for now he has no name.

And, so it begins...

Crackers is wondering what is coming out the back end of Loretta

Jess, felt like she needed to help.

and, out he slides

The bonding begins

Very sweet

Jess is so happy


Handsome dude

Legs are a little long and kind of in the way

Plenty of onlookers..

Even, all the drafts got into the baby action

Mommy and me

Jess, is the over protective, helicopter mom

Finding the milky way

Baby had no shortage of hugs today

Welcome little fellow!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Cows/Calves and of course the sarplaninac dogs

 There are a number of points that need to be considered before you place a LGD in with the herd:

  • Most cattle ranchers have no history or experience in integrating LGD into their herds, many do not even try, dismissing it as “impossible”.
  • On very large herds that graze thousands of acres of public land the challenges are vastly different than the smaller herds that remain on the home farm. 
  •  The management system used to raise cattle can influence how well a dog will work.
  • The type of fencing used for cattle, is traditionally 4 strand barb wire, and that, is not really a fence that can contain a LGD. 
  •  Are the cattle grazed on your own land or public lands?
  • Are different herds of cattle integrated together during the grazing season?
  • Can public access the areas that the cattle graze?
  • What other strategies are incorporated in predator management practices?

Livestock guardian dogs work the best where the livestock are contained/grouped/bunched in some manner. Containment does not only mean behind a fence, but in many areas will include flocks or herds that are shepherded /gathered together.
They work best in a well established pack and are highly socialized with the animals that are to be guarded.
Supervision and guidance of the dogs is a key element for the success of utilization LGD.  

The most vulnerable time for cattle is during calving time and the period that the calves stay with their mothers until weaning. The majority of mature cattle can fend pretty well for themselves. The group of cattle that suffer the most depredation, are calves to yearlings. With heifers losing their first calves easier to predators than mature cows. 

There are so many different ways to raising cattle that there really is not simply one system or way to integrate a LGD. What we have found to be successful is due in part  the way we raise our livestock guardian dogs and how we manage our cattle during the calving season.

Our system of raising cattle lends itself very well for the use of LGD. 
Our ranch is in the Northern part of Alberta, Canada and we have all the large predators; bear, cougar, wolf and coyote. We regularly see these predators on and around our ranch. Our ranch is partly open and has a lot of bush and forest. We are close to a National park and are surrounded by forest. We have a herd of 80 black and red Angus cattle in combination with a breeding flock of ewes, and raising feeder lambs.

We calve the cows in April and May, in June we take the cows and their calves to pasture. This is to land we rent and is away from our home ranch.
 The cows graze from June to end of October on these pastures and then before the snow starts in winter. Our cattle return home after the grazing season in fall, and are fed on large wooded pastures around our ranch. The calves are weaned and sold in fall, only the replacement breeding heifers stay on the ranch. They are usually kept closer to the barn area and are fed and supplemented extra grain over the winter. The bulls are removed from the main herd and are pastured together with the breeding rams. The cow herd, are kept on fields we want to reseed in spring and by feeding them on this area over the winter we can ensure more manure and organic matter on that field.
The cattle are in three different management groups over the winter. 
As soon as the cows return home after the grazing season, we will normally place 2 to 3 adult LGD in with the main herd. These cows live with these dogs the entire winter.
Most of our cattle, have grown up with LGD and are comfortable with them. 

When the cows start to calve, the mother cows become super vigilant and can be very aggressive to the dogs, which is why we only have adult and experienced dogs in with the cattle during calving. These dogs need to know to how to avoid a very aggressive cow, how to check up on the calves without being too intrusive and not become intimidated by the cows.

The dogs will often check up on a newborn calf without getting too close and upsetting the cow. They will do a slow walk past any newborn and remain at a respectful distance. After a few weeks the mother cows relax more, and we often find the dog babysitting a group of calves while the mothers go off and graze, drink or eat grain. These dogs stay with the cow herd until all calving is done.

So, how do we get the LGD to this stage?
I believe that the dogs do not form as tight a bond with the herd as they do with the sheep. . I have found our dogs  really enjoy being with the cattle. The dogs do form  individual relationships with specific cows. The dogs  are perhaps a little more territorial  rather than being herd protective.
The dogs ensure that predators stay out of this area.

This is how we raise our pups to ensure they become reliable adults with both the cattle and the sheep.
The pups are born in the barn, are raised with sheep and are never ever away from any livestock. The pups can see some cattle through a fence, but are protected from them. We are really careful to ensure that no pup gets hurt by the livestock, pain and fear are not good for the bonding process. A pup that is fearful of the stock will not make a good LGD. They grow up seeing cows, sheep and horses.

 Up until about 4-5 months old, the pups live with the sheep. Once the young dogs is around 4-5 months old he is placed in the bull and ram group. The bulls are steady and calm, they will generally not mess with a young dog. The rams are in this same area so the dog has both cattle and sheep to bond with. We also keep some horses in this area.

This “bonding” period is the period that the young LGD learns to “read” and understand the behavior of the livestock. It is the time when it learns to get out of the way, to understand a head toss, or the butting behavior of the sheep. They learn to be attentive of the livestock and their behavior. It is also the time we teach the young LGD to respect fences, to tie, walk on a lead, and other basic handling. We never remove the young LGD from the stock but we do pay attention that the LGD does not show any undesirable behavior. Supervision is key. We do not micromanage the young dog as it really does need the time to be with the livestock. We will often place the young LGD together with a good, steady adult dog so that good behavior is modelled. This older dog will bark at threats, patrol and generally show the young dog what is expected of him.  In this pasture we will set up a few cattle panels in the corner of the field. This is the safe place for the young dog. The dog can go through the panels, and the cattle cannot get into this area. This “safe place” is a place for the young dog to be able to rest, eat and sleep. The dog can chose to go and sleep in this area or it can chose to sleep out with the cattle and sheep. The safe place is primarily for the young dog to have a place where he can eat and sleep unhindered. I have found that a pup only uses this area for the first few days until it is comfortable with the stock, and then only for feeding time.

The young dog will remain with this group for a number of months, after which we will often move the young dog and the older dog, to the heifer group. The heifers behave totally different to the bulls. They are more curious, run and buck, are more energetic and will often seek out the dogs for some interactions. 

Our goal here, is just for the young dog to learn to deal with all types of livestock, not to get excited when the heifer's are playful. The dog is physically stronger and quicker and can generally get out of the way of these young cattle. It is also an ideal time for the heifers to grow accustomed to the dogs, and be comfortable with them. This is also the time for the heifers to have a reminder that the dogs are not to be feared. Our cattle graze away from our ranch for the whole summer, so once they leave the ranch, they do not see any of the LGD for 3-4 months. The last time these heifers saw a LGD was when they were baby calves. The heifers and the young dogs often form quite strong bonds.

The heifers are later integrated back into the cow herd, once the herd heads off to pasture. We will usually only allow a 2 year old dog in with the calving cows, this is when the dog has mentally matured, physically matured and knows the routine. It is also old enough, to handle any possible predators it may encounter. The young dog always has back up of a few older adults in this time. If the dog is too young, or mentally not ready to deal with the mother cows being super aggressive towards them, this can really intimidate the dog. The older dogs can better deal with a wild, aggressive cow than a younger dog. Our older dogs understand the need to give the cow with a newborn calf space, not interfere and not to rush in to sniff or lick the calf.

The initial bonding period to all the different livestock, and horses ensures that the pups grow up well rounded, they understand the different behavior patterns of the different livestock.  We will often find the dog laying with a weak calf, or watching over one that is sleeping in the bush. Some of our dogs do try and break up any bull fights. The cows soon learn to trust the dogs babysitting the calves.

I believe the important part of integrating a livestock guardian dog with cattle is to have initially quiet, non-aggressive cattle for the young dog to bond with and learn to “read” the behavior of the stock. As the dog matures, he is then introduced to cattle who are more playful, and curious. The dog needs to be calm enough not to chase any of the cattle through fences or upset them. The dogs must remain calm and steady. Only when the dogs is mentally and physically mature do we allow them to go in with the cows who are calving.

Introducing new bulls is usually a stressful situation as these bulls fight and push and shove. It is good for the young dogs to learn this behavior and as our dogs they will often intervene and try to separate bulls who are fighting.



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