Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Fence training for your LGD

This field of 160 acres has been subdivided with electric sheep nets, the sheep are grazed in about 120 acres of bush. In the evening, the ewes are brought back to a night corral. The sheep and dogs wait patiently for us to bring them to the night corral at the end of a day grazing.

Fence training

©Louise Liebenberg 2018

Written for the The Shepherds Magazine

In the last article, I discussed some reasons why livestock guardian dogs roam. In this article I would like to share some of the things we do on our ranch to teach pups to respect fences. 

We graze our sheep mostly on land that does not belong to us during our short grazing season, this can be bush pastures, cleaning up stubble on grain lands, controlling grass and weed growth, cleaning up around equipment yards and a multitude of other situations. Our grazing is very seasonal due to our harsh winters in northern Canada. As our sheep are often not home, and we graze areas that have a high predator load, it is imperative that our guardian dogs stay where we put them and respect the fences. The fences during the grazing season are electric sheep nets. When the sheep are “home” we have permanent field fence, but we will sometimes subdivide certain pastures with the electric nets to either manage the grazing, or ensure the areas are smaller in times when predators are active and so giving the LGD the best advantage. 

Once the snow comes, the nets are packed away and the sheep stay behind the permanent fence and are fed through the winter.  Even though we live out in the bush, it is still important for the guardian dogs to stay where we put them, the breed we have are ҆arplaninac, and these dogs are coloured like typical gray wolves and coyotes, if our dogs are out roaming, chances are high that someone would mistake them for a predator and shoot them. Around here, roaming dogs are shot, killed by predators, or simply disappear. With the predator density, our sheep would stand little chance, it is imperative that the LGD stay with the sheep. As we value our dogs and understand the importance of always having enough adult dogs with the livestock we need to ensure our dogs stay within the boundaries we place them in.

Learning to respect fences is part of the work we do with the LGD. We want our dogs to respect the barrier even if it is easy for them to jump over or get out of.
The training starts young, our pups are born in the barn with the sheep and depending on the time of the year will move into the pasture. We have a few different size pastures set up close to the barn. The smallest is about 2.5 acres and the largest is 10 acres. These are field fence with a hotwire on the top. These smaller pastures are usually places we keep odd groups of animals in, such as breeding rams, stud horses, bulls, weaker lambs, or sometimes we simply place a few sheep here for the LGD pups to bond to. It is in these fields where we start the pups in, the pups are safe, are close by and we can easily supervise them in this area.

The pups and the mother are placed in the smallest pasture. Initially the pups will stay close to the mother and they do not look to escape. The hotwire over top is primarily to ensure that the larger livestock like bulls and horses do not lean on the fence but is also teaches the young LGD not to jump up against the fence. Most learn within 2 tries that over is not an option. We never teach the dogs to jump and will always open a gate to allow a dog in or out of the pasture. With the electric nets it is sometimes easier to just hold the net down and allow the dog to hop over, but this is the start to them learning that the fence is not a barrier. We simply never allow them to jump over a fence. We will also never pet a dog over a fence as this encourages the dog to stand up on the fence. We generally never give the dog any attention until we are in the field with the dog. 

As gate-ways are often the “weak spot”, where the young dogs can crawl through or dig under, we will often fortify this area with hog panels attached to the fence. If a dog still tries to dig out, we will generally not close the hole, but will instead run a hotwire over this hole on the outside of the fence so if the pup tries to crawl under the fence he will get zapped on the far side. One of the big issues we have is that we have bears that constantly dig under the fences to come onto the ranch. We have miles and miles of field fence that are in some areas very difficult to access. We simply cannot be out patrolling the entire fence line daily to ensure every hole is closed in. It is better for us to teach the dogs that the fence, even with holes dug under, should still be respected. 

As the cattle gates do not contain the sheep, we usually attach some field fence to the gates. At times we need to fortify the gates with a few layers of fence, particularly when dealing with pups who can shape-shift through any size hole.

If a dog is super persistent in trying to dig under or crawl through the fence, we will on occasion place a yoke on the dog, this yoke makes it impossible for the dog to get under the fence. After a few weeks, the dog generally does not even try to challenge the fence.

We will introduce a pup to the electric sheep nets when they are about 4 to 5 months old. These dogs are smart and soon learn that these fences should also be left alone. We are fussy that there is always sufficient power on the nets, if not then lambs tend to get themselves hung up in the nets, coyotes chew gaping holes in them and the dogs learn that it is an easy barrier to escape from. We maintain tension and power on the nets, or we break them down when not in use.

The sheep are grazing a roadside ditch here being contained by the electric sheep nets. Our guardian dogs have learnt not to jump over or crawl under these nets and in this way, we can graze areas further from the ranch, knowing our dogs and sheep will stay where they need to be.

Usually, once the dogs are about 6 months old, they accept that fencing is a part of their environment and they rarely see the need to challenge it. On occasion a naughtier, yearling dog might decide to challenge it again and it important to stay one step ahead of the dog. It must never be allowed to learn to escape, it is better to kennel or tether the dog and fix the fence, than allow the dog to continue to escape. Every single time the dog escapes, it is rewarded for this behaviour (adventure is a reward) and it will keep doing this, becoming increasingly fanatical in finding ways out. We have a policy that if a young dog escapes, we will directly send it packing back to the sheep. We do not pet or talk nicely to it, it gets sent back by chasing it back, telling it in a stern tone of voice to go back to the sheep and maybe even tossing the odd object (do not throw the phone) that happens to be in our hand at the dog. The dog needs to understand that this behaviour is unacceptable and that we will no reward bad behaviour. 

It is rare that any of our dogs look to escape after the first year. If we leave a gate open, the may come to the barn or visit the collies but usually within 15 minutes they will head back to the sheep or the pasture they came from. Our dogs always work in pairs or more, they have companionship and back up. The dog needs to feel safe, happy, and comfortable with the livestock. If the dog has all its attention, feed, shelter, other dogs and a job to do, then there should be no reason for it to leave. On the larger pastures, our dogs will actively patrol and push predators back, but they always return to check up on the sheep or lay on a lookout overseeing the sheep. Given the space on larger pastures, our dogs will utilise this space to patrol, but always return to the vicinity where the livestock are grazing.

Another advantage of having our dogs learn to respect fences is during the winter. We live in a high snowfall area, and with snow drifts, our fences will drift under or sometimes just have the top wire exposed. The advantage is that even though the dogs cannot always see the fence, they do remember where it is and will still stay behind the fence. At times is funny to see these big dogs standing behind a foot of fence, something they easily can hop over, and yet they do not.
With the advancements made with technology, invisible fence is another tool one can use to teach respect for fences. The invisible fence alone is not (in my opinion) sufficient to stop a LGD, however hung along a solid fence it certainly help teach the dog that the barrier should be respected.

In our set-up we also have several sturdy kennels with coyote rollers on the top. These kennels are primarily used when we have a female in heat. If the female is not going to be bred, we will remove her entirely from the pasture to ensure no males learn to breach the fence, the sex drive is perhaps higher than the desire to stay behind the fence. By removing the female from the work area, she will also not encourage predators to the area. This way, we can keep the other dogs focussed on their work and keep the female safe and unavailable for breeding. If the decision is made to not breed her at all, we always spay or neuter our non-breeding dogs, this makes managing the dogs a lot easier.

As with most things, prevention is always better than the cure. Some early work initially, does pay off overall, and knowing our dogs respect the fences allows us more flexibility in grazing and managing our sheep.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018


We live in an area that is heavily populated with wolves, despite their being a bounty in our County on them. With the bounty, we have mostly had transient (dispersers) wolves passing through the area.  We have noticed that since the wolf bounty was implemented, the deer and elk populations have become more stationary in our area, causing problems for many of the grain farmers, and there has been an increase in hay predation, with the elk feeding, jumping on, and urinating on hay bales meant for cattle.  We have also heard of a dramatic increase in the number of cougar sightings in our area, possibly due to the abundance of prey. The wolf bounty or as it is euphemistically called “wolf hunting incentive” was implemented in our area to help cattle ranchers to reduce wolf predation on cattle.  Despite the ongoing bounty (about 8 years now, and well over 500 dead wolves), cattle ranchers still lose livestock to the wolves, it is like this revolving door, you shoot some and the next wave moves in. Wolf problems are not solved with the bounty, if livestock management does not change, the cycle continues. 

At times I feel very conflicted because the two passions in my life are the ranch and wildlife, and for many this seems almost counterintuitive. It appears that if one supports ranching, that you are expected to be anti-wolf. To me, it is unimaginable not to have the full array of wildlife here, including all the predators. I do understand that wolves do and can wreck havoc among livestock keepers, but I also see many ranchers not taking any measures at all to ensure that their livestock remain safe. In our operation we strive to co-exist, we do no lethal control of predators on our ranch (we run cattle and sheep), and we focus our attention on the livestock, something we can control and manage. We cannot control bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes but we can control where, when, and how our livestock are managed.

This past spring our good intentions were put to the test, when a pack of wolves decided to move in and den on our ranch.  Smack bang in the middle, about 300m from our sheep, and sharing a fence-line with the cows. The wolf den was located centrally on our ranch and about half a mile from our barn and home.

This photograph shows the proximity that these wolf pups were to our barn and corrals.

 I had remarked to my husband that the coyotes were very quiet, and for us, when the coyotes are quiet, that normally signals that wolves are in the area. Nothing unusual for us, as wolves come and go, we see scat, we hear them, we see tracks and we catch an occasional glance of them.  Some forestry land surrounds our ranch, and we are close to a provincial park. We are accustomed to seeing predators and other wildlife. What we did not realize at that time, that the wolves were not transients, but had decided to move in, live, den, and raise pups on the ranch.

On a nice sunny day in the early part of July, my husband set out to go and make the first cut of hay. As he started to cut the grass, he could see some animals scattering and running into the bush. At a distance, it looked like coyotes. The following day, the same scenario but this time he caught a better glimpse of them and realized that these were not coyote pups but wolf pups, as they were much larger and moved differently. As we continued to hay in the area, the pups would come out of the bush, play in the open field, and bed down together. Occasionally, we would see an adult, who would be the first to bolt for the bush.  We soon realized that the wolves had denned on our land, and the field we were haying was being used as a rendezvous site by the wolves and pups. In total, there were 7 pups. 

 We were feeling a little concerned about this situation as these were not “regular transients”, with the expectation that they would move on. This pack was established and were not going to move anywhere due to the young age of these wolf pups. It was highly concerning due to the proximity the wolves had to our livestock and our barn. Our grazing season was in full swing, sheep and lambs out grazing, cows and calves spread over 3 different pastures. We understood that raising 7 wolf pups would be hard on the female, and the risk to the livestock would be extremely high. Part of the concern was simply not knowing what to expect or being able to predict what would be the best way for us to manage this situation.

We decided to inform ourselves on wolf behaviour, den sites, rendezvous sites, and discussed this with a few wolf experts. After these discussions, we certainly felt some panic, as they too stressed that this situation was very concerning. At times the panic felt a little overwhelming, but by making a concrete plan and knowing what we were going to do certainly helped. We planned what we would do with the livestock, and how we were going to graze them under these circumstances. We concluded that these pups were probably around 10-12 weeks old before we saw them, which meant this pack must have been here at least 3 months already (denning and whelping). In this time, these wolves had not harassed the livestock or given us any indication that they were problematic. So, with this added knowledge, a concrete plan and the realization that the wolves had up to this point not been problematic, we decided to take things one day at a time.

 That they were not being problematic at that point, did of course, not mean that they would not become problematic over time. With higher food needs for the growing pups, the wolves could easily switch from wild game to domestic livestock. We knew we had to encourage these wolves to move off the ranch and back into the bush before fall came around, as one normally see’s an increase in depredation of livestock in fall.

The adult members of this pack were very human shy and we could only catch a glimpse of them occasionally. We never caught any adults on the game cameras and from tracks it appeared that there were only two adults with the pups. It appeared to be the mother of the pups and possibly another sub adult. The pups however, were not very shy and would often run to the edge of the bush while we were working and then slowly come out and watch us. They would lay in the field and only move away if they felt really threatened. We certainly did not want them to habituate to our presence and felt that it would be best to ensure they remind fearful and wary around people. 

Our plan to manage the livestock included night corralling the sheep and subdivide the grazing area with electric sheep nets to ensure the sheep were tighter contained, this would make it easier for the dogs to patrol. We decided to forego grazing in the wooded pastures and kept the sheep grazing open fields. We did multiple checks daily and, in the evening, brought the sheep closer to the barnyard area. We decided to add in more of our LGD to the main sheep flock to ensure we had more dog power in that area, removed any sick or weaker animals to the barn and kept the rams close to the barn, as one of the wolf experts suggested that wolves were more attracted to rams.

We certainly did consider letting the livestock guardian dogs into the area where the wolves were denning, however after some careful consideration we decided it would be better to increase the number of dogs in with the livestock. With pups, the wolves would be highly defensive and territorial of this area. Letting the LGD into that area would likely result in confrontations, which could mean seriously injured or even dead dogs. Having several dogs injured or lost would then mean that the livestock would be less protected and therefore more open to predation.  

With the cows, we did not have too many options for grazing other pastures, so we decided to have the cows with the oldest, biggest, and fittest calves in one group, grazing the pasture closest to were they wolves were, and closer for us to monitor them. The cows with the youngest calves were moved to a pasture about 15 miles away, where the people were living close by. This pasture, is surrounded by grain farms and we felt the risk to these newborns would be less in that area. The rest of the cows went to a pasture about 10 miles away. 

Besides keeping the livestock safe, we also wanted to encourage these wolves to move off our ranch and go back into the bush. We also understood that with pups this age, the female was not likely to move them very soon and that we might have to wait a few more weeks before they would be mobile enough to move. We certainly did not want to have them habituate to us or to people, so we decided we would put pressure on them when we saw them.  If the pups did not run off as soon as they saw people, we would fire bear bangers in their direction.


We decided to increase the amount of “human presence” in that area, hoping that this activity would make the female wolf uncomfortable and that she would lead these pups away. We would go quading, horse riding, working the land and we even decided to take our backhoe out and clear a fence line in that area, this fence line was in the planning, but we decided to prioritize it now.  This increase in human presence and a few well-timed bear bangers, certainly had an effect as we noticed that within a few days of this increased activity the wolves had moved further away. After a few weeks, we saw that the pups had again moved closer to the perimeter of the ranch and they were becoming more elusive.

We started to plan that if the wolves did not move away, we would have a “range rider” camp out in the pasture to ensure a constant human presence in that area. This was ultimately not necessary, as a few weeks later we saw that the wolves had left the ranch. We placed more game cameras around the ranch to see if we could figure out where they had moved to. Ironically, they moved off our ranch and moved to where the cows and calves were pastured. As the cows are contained by 4 strand barb wire fences, we added in some hotwire between the barb wire strands. We contemplated hanging up fladry in the pasture where the cows were grazing but decided to hold off on the fladry until we either saw an escalation in wolf activity or harassment of the cattle.  We did regular checks and counts to keep track of all the animals.  In the evening, I would usually go to the cattle, feed them a bit of grain, and try and get them to bed down together. The wolves would occasionally be moving through the pasture with the cows, but they never seemed to actively bother them. We lost no calves and had no bite injuries either. 

The last time I saw the wolves was at the start of fall, there was one adult with two of the pups left.

In hindsight, I can certainly see how management choices we made the previous winter had probably led to these wolves moving in. Understanding these factors certainly highlighted to us the need to adjust certain aspects of our winter ranch management. We had, the winter before the wolves moved in, lost some cows in an accident. As the ground was frozen solidly, we decided to dump the carcasses in the back bush, this is a “legal” disposal method in Alberta, we felt this would be the easiest method to dispose of these dead animals.  We did know this would be an attractant for predators but felt that the carcasses were far enough away to not be a problem.  The next management mistake we made, was towards the end of winter we had moved the cattle to the calving pasture which is closer to the barn area. With the cows and sheep closer, we shut the gate to the back half section. This kept all the guardian dogs close to home, and for the rest of winter and early part of spring no dogs, or people, went to the back section. This created an ideal opportunity for the wolves, as there was a ready and easy food source, no humans, no big dogs, thick bush cover, water, and plenty of wild game. This really highlighted to us, the need to allow our guardian dogs to have access to the entire ranch,  we now leave the gates open to this area, compost all the deadstock we have, and we make regular trips to the back section.

This whole situation was very stressful, and I am thankful to the wolf experts ( Sadie Parr) and friends for their help and advice. Their willingness to discuss options and even organise help if needed, was fantastic. We collected scat from the wolf pups to learn what they were eating, and it was very educational to learn so much about wolf behaviour. It highlighted to me the importance of helping others in such situations, and the crucial role all ranch management plays in avoiding wolf/livestock conflicts. I do want to stress that there is no perfect solution and every situation is fluid. What works in one situation might not work for another, there really is no magic bullet.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Some reasons for Roaming

LGD that roam are a liability and nuisance for others, unless you are on a large range operation, teaching LGD to respect fences is part of the raising process.

Some reasons for Roaming
Louise Liebenberg (2018) for The Shepherds Magazine

Roaming and livestock guardian dogs seem to go hand in hand, it is a regular topic of discussion on many forums. It is a big frustration and liability for many owners, and very often the start to neighbor problems.  Roaming LGDs, results in livestock being left alone and vulnerable to predation, it is stressful and time consuming to deal with.  This article will take a closer look at some of the factors that influence roaming.

Is roaming simply a matter of poor fencing, or do other factors play a role in why LGD roam?  It is important to make a slight differentiation here, some dogs roam, and others temporarily leave their flock.  Roaming is a problem while temporarily leaving the flock to patrol or push predators back, is part of their work. Although the “symptom” is the same, the reasons behind them leaving can be very different. One thing is clear, roaming is a complex issue, with multiple “motivators” for dogs to leave, including; poor genetics, lack of bonding, type of livestock, predator pressure, loneliness, sexual wonder-lust, fun elsewhere, getting lost or even pack (own LGD) pressure. Sometimes, roaming is simply because the dog has no affinity with the livestock, does not care for them and has no desire to be with them. Not every LGD is “cut out” for the job, in fact, a study in Europe suggests that about 14% of all livestock guardian dogs simply are not suitable for this work.

Roaming has often, (in my opinion incorrectly) been associated with the Great Pyrenees (GP) breed.  Many fail to remember is that there are more Great Pyrenees and crosses with GP dogs, in the USA and Canada than any other LGD breed. Statistically, that does means one will see more of them displaying unwanted behaviour, such as roaming, than less well-known breeds. Unfortunately, LGD are being crossbred with so many other non-LGD breeds, that this could certainly play a role in why a lot of GP are perceived to roam more. In some cases, people almost expect GP to roam, accepting that this is par for the course when working with Great Pyrenees dogs. 
Certain breeders select for “close bonding” type dogs, looking to select for a genetic trait that the LGDs will stay close and tight to the flock.

Traditionally, LGD would accompany the shepherds into the grazing areas, these areas are often large unfenced mountains or plains, where various flocks graze these public lands. The sheep are often corralled or come home to the village at night and leave again the next day to graze. The dogs travel with the sheep and the shepherd into the grazing areas. They will often forge ahead of the flock “clearing” the area where the flock is moving to, they will patrol the area, scent mark, and generally find a place to watch over the flock. It is rarely a requirement that the dog must stay right in with the sheep continuously.  Patrolling is a normal LGD activity, they check out predator trails, scent mark and push predators further away from the flock. In a pack of LGD working together, the roles are divided, it is not always the same dogs going patrolling or the same staying with the flock, it varies daily. On the big range operations where fencing does not contain the dogs, it is the flock and the shepherd that “binds” the dog to that area.  When the dogs range further away on large operations, it is not problematic, unless the dogs do not return to the livestock. In fact, this type of working behaviour on large outfits is highly beneficial, as the unpredictability of where the dogs are, will certainly keep predators on their toes.
Some dogs may have more desire to go and patrol while others are more homebodies. Some people tend to frown upon LGD that like to patrol, believing that if the dog is patrolling it is not working, however this patrolling (provided it is not a few counties over) is all part of the way LGD work.

Roaming becomes problematic when your dogs are a hinderance to other people, property, or animals.  The liability issues one faces are immense if your dog causes a motor vehicle accident or attacks a person/animal. As most livestock keepers are smaller, pasture-based operations, it is safe to say, that roaming LGDs are simply unacceptable. This is where fencing and containment become important. There are few fences that can keep predators out, therefore fencing is to contain the livestock and the guardian dogs. 

Every time the dog disappears, the livestock are left vulnerable to predators. A side effect to this roaming is that once it becomes an established behaviour pattern, any future pups will often be “lead astray” by the dog who roams. There are several factors that need to be considered when dealing with a roaming dog, understanding why the dog wants to leave will often clarify the steps needed to stop this behaviour.

Sexual wonder-lust is a common reason for dogs to leave the flock. Procreating is a very strong drive in all species and looking for a willing breeding partner is often a reason LGD leave their flock. Many people believe it is only the males who will go in search of bitches, but this is not true, females have the same strong drive, and when in standing heat, pretty much any male dog is an acceptable partner. De-sexing working dogs will often stop this reason for roaming, the dogs will remain more focussed on their job at hand and will be less distracted by hormones. Not only is that a big advantage but they will also not be encouraging other dogs to come looking for a breeding partner in your flock. De-sexing should occur before roaming becomes an established behaviour pattern.

Learning to respect boundaries is important, this lesson starts when the dogs are young.
Boredom, I have issues with using this word as I do not really believe that boredom is a factor in working dogs. I do however, think that loneliness is a factor. Dogs are social animals and having another dog as a companion or partner is important. Many single LGD will seek out this companionship with either the house pets or herding dogs and this is another common reason LGD leave their flock. The young LGD learns to breach the fencing to seek canine companionship. Having another working LGD provides the dos with social interaction and it adds extra security to the flock.  

A single LGD can be overwhelmed with work and predator pressure. Dogs who are over-worked in high predator areas will sometimes simply stop working and leave. They know if they are outnumbered. A young, tired, and stressed dog will sometimes leave the livestock, and quite frankly, I do not really blame him.  One LGD in a high predator area is predator bait, at the bare minimum two dogs are needed to provide some much needed back up and protection to the other dog. It is not fair to expect dogs to work alone under these conditions.

Livestock that are super aggressive towards young LGDs are another factor to consider when LGDs do not want to stay with the flock. If the livestock continually butt or hurt the dog, the dog can become fearful or simply uninterested in bonding to the animals and so, no relationship develops between the dog and the livestock. There is no reason for the young dog to stay with the sheep or goats. Aggressive livestock can be highly detrimental in the raising process of the young LGD.  In a previous article in this magazine, bonding was discussed in depth, for a dog to bond to the livestock, it needs to be with the livestock. A pup cannot form this bond with the livestock when it is sleeping in the house. The pup needs to have exposure to the livestock, it needs time to build a relationship, it needs kind stock and it needs to feel that the livestock is part of his world. A dog not bonded, will feel no need to stay with the stock or even protect it. This lack of bonding is often the fault of the owner, for not providing the pup with the opportunity to bond with the stock. 

Fun and games elsewhere is very attractive to the young LGD. Fun is a self rewarding behaviour. If the young dog can get played with, petted, and loved on away from the livestock, then it will often seek out this activity. It will find ways to escape the sheep pasture to have this fun. If the pup gets to play with the neighbor kids, it will seek out this activity. If it is fed and rewarded for being away from the livestock, then that is what it will do. There is no harm done to a young LGD that is petted and played with, provided it always takes place in the sheep pasture. Being strict on these parameters will help the young dog understand the boundaries.

LGD need to work as a pack, this not only provides companionship but also much needed back up in areas where the predator pressure is high.
Another factor that plays a role in roaming is own pack pressure. In wild canid packs, certain members are ultimately forced out of the pack to disperse to new areas. On larger operations, this can be a reason some LGD roam, having been forced away from the main pack. These dogs will often head home and hang out with other livestock or join a neighbouring band. If they cannot find another “pack” or livestock, they do roam further and further. Pressure from mature females can force other females away, males will often leave due to in-pack fighting. This is normal canine behaviour. In smaller acreages, too many dogs can result in several unwanted issues.

The final point regarding roaming in this article is that poor fences are probably the main reason LGD start to roam. These dogs do not respect a barrier, they have opportunity and are often rewarded (attention, fun, breeding, excitement, adventure etc.) for escaping. Some dogs become experts at finding weaknesses in the fences and become fanatical at escaping. Teaching young dogs to respect boundaries and ensuring they have no opportunity to escape, requires good fences and an alert owner.  Unless you run a large range operation, then fencing is the number one tool to prevent roaming. Young dogs who are taught to respect fences, will often not challenge fences when older.  

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