Wednesday, 16 October 2019

When things are not as they appear.

Wolf collar, protects the dog, but looks unwieldy and the perception for some people is that it is a cruel device.

When things are not as they appear.

©Louise Liebenberg (2019)

I some times feel that we are conforming to this image that dogs are helpless fur babies, that only live a good life when they are obese, live inside a house and sleep in bed with the owner. Anything less, is regarded as abusive, neglectful or even cruel. Where is the respect and admiration for healthy working dogs, who are fit, strong and capable?

This “fur-baby” rhetoric is propagated by “rescue organizations” who refuse to place working dogs on ranch’s, or place pet dogs if there is not at least one “stay at home pet parent”, or the vigilante do-gooders who go around smashing car windows in order to feel good about rescuing an animal. Animal activist organizations play on people’s emotions to suck out as much money as they can to use to pay for advertisements to make even more money. Some, of these organizations go as far as to lobby for new legislation, persuade lawmakers and fund lawsuits all with the goal to stop animal ownership. Owners, who need working animals, are not organised into large (financial) lobbying groups and tend to lightheartedly dismiss the activist’s rhetoric as nonsense. When campaigns such as “bring them inside during the winter” morph into laws, and owners of working dogs are suddenly hit with the reality of this, it is often too late.

Animal abuse includes both deliberate harm done to an animal (overt or intentional acts of violence) as well as, failure to provide adequate care for the animal (neglect).  The term “animal abuse” gets used in a variety of situations and the definition is very subjective; an activist’s definition for animal abuse will vary from that of a hunter, a rancher or even that of a pet owner. 
The accusation of abuse is easily tossed around by anyone, and often is used to help turn others against an industry (Peta and their anti-wool campaign, carriage horses in New York, greyhound racing in Florida). The word abuse and the reporting of abuse can be used in cases of personal vendetta’s, angry neighbors, do-gooders, rescuers and some activist groups as a form of retaliation. In many cases laws are changed to ensure that welfare standards are upheld, and new laws are often legislated without consideration for working dogs, the “bring them inside in winter” campaigns have resulted in certain States making it illegal to have dogs outside in certain winter temperatures. These laws are often blanket laws, covering all dogs from the fat, couch potato pug to our working livestock guardian dogs (LGD) living with their livestock. It is a very fine line to negotiate and many people fear the vigilante actions of animal activist groups, the neighbor with a grudge and the 
do-gooder crusader. No one wants to be labelled an animal abuser, which often results in owners who are fearful of allowing their working dogs to work or even correcting an unruly pup. We often build elaborate shelters for the benefit of the neighbors, as we all know that most LGD will not use these structures preferring to sleep with the livestock, under a big shady tree or even nestled into a large round straw bale. We do this, so that others feel appeased, and that we are not labelled an abuser.

People driving by on a wintery day may see our LGD sitting out in the pasture watching over his sheep. The passer-by see’s a dog sitting alone out in the cold and immediately feels that this dog is neglected. We see a dog choosing to be in that spot at that given moment, watching over his sheep, doing his job, revelling in the wintery weather which he is well equipped to deal with. We see a dog fulfilling his purpose in life. The passer-by does not see a shelter, or that the dog has a choice where it wants to sit, sleep or go. The passerby calls animal control and the problems start.

Not everything that is perceived as abuse is abuse, and often, all that is needed is education to understand the situation or the reason why things are done a certain way. Regarding the anti wool campaign (Peta), the onus is on sheep keepers to educate the public that shearing is beneficial for the sheep, that it is done in a humane manner and certainly does not constitute abuse. We need to campaign as hard as Peta does, to educate the public, show videos of our newly shorn sheep and even explain that sometimes nicks and cuts do happen. We need to be active in disputing what is being told to the pubic by organizations that want to discredit our industry with misleading information. The same applies to our LGD. We need to educate people, explain what LGD do, the importance of their job and we must counter bad information. In all aspects of farming there will always be the “bad apples” who do abuse and neglect animals, and we need to distance ourselves from those folks. We need to be active in countering misinformation, share the truth and good stories on social media and campaign for the preservation and the right to work and own working dogs.

Some people seeing a large LGD wearing a spiked collar,  will immediately think that something cruel is happening to that dog, as many wolf collars are scary weapons. There was recently a case in Canada, where folks had placed a spiked collar on their LGD after it had been previously injured by a wolf. The people felt they were doing the right thing for their dog by giving it some added protection in the form of a spiked collar. They were reported to the SPCA, and had charges laid against them for animal cruelty. Fortunately, the case was dropped after the people’s veterinarian intervened and wrote the SPCA how the collar was not cruel, and it was a tool to help keep the dog safe.  If people do not understand the role of a wolf collar, they will immediately think the worst. People need to understand that wolf collars are designed to help protect the dog and are often life savers for the dog. We need to inform, educate and explain.

For many people tethering a dog is synonymous with a neglected dog living its life at the end of a heavy chain in some back yard. Images of fighting pit bulls come to mind, tethered out on heavy duty chains, a far cry to temporarily tethering of an LGD.
What many do not realise that tethering is not only a temporary constraint, but is also a training tool. Most LGD cannot work while being tethered so it is in the best interests of the owner to not have the dog tethered for a long time. Times that tethering may be used are when a new adult dog is brought to a new flock, tethering will ensure that the dog does not escape and run off, he may need to be introduced to new family members and other livestock and having the dog temporarily tethered can help with this transition. If a female comes into heat, she may be tethered in the barn or in another pasture to ensure she does not get bred, a dog who is injured may require to be tethered or kennelled while recuperating. Tethering keeps the dog and the livestock safe in times of need. If a fence is down due to a tree or other reason, an LGD might be tethered to ensure it does not get on the road and be killed by a vehicle. Not all tethering is bad.

Yokes are another lightweight training tool. The yoke in no way injures the dog, it may look uncomfortable, but it is not inconvenient nor harmful for the dog. He can run, play, move, sleep, scratch his ears, and eat.  The only thing he cannot do is squeeze his head through a hole under the fence. This training tool is temporary and designed to help teach the dog to stay within its fences in order to prevent roaming and possible death due to collisions.  Made from pvc pipes, it is light weight and flexible and can rotate so that he can lay with his head flat on the ground. It can be a life saver for the dog. The dog that cannot be contained in the fence is a liability for the owner. If a yoke can be used to help teach an LGD not to dig under the fences, and in doing so saves its life, then that little inconvenience of having to watch a dog with a pvc pipe triangle on his neck for a few weeks may be worth it.
The choice for this LGD is to sleep away from the livestock in a hard-bottomed shelter filled with straw or bury herself in a haybale close to her animals. Abuse or not?
In many areas it is mandatory to provide a shelter for the dog, and I do agree that on some very small acreages that it is a must. If the dog is only living in a confined yard, or small area, then he does not have the ability to choose the spot where he wants to sleep. Our dogs work on hundreds of acres, and they have bush, trees, natural shelters, they have ponds and open land, they have lookout areas, they have multiple places they can chose as a shelter.  In some cases, our dogs dig their own dens to sleep in. They have options and choices and are more than capable to choose where they want to sleep.  Invariably, the shelter we provide is not their preferred spot to sleep. Our dogs prefer sleeping in a thick pile of straw by a large round bale close to their stock.  Is it abusive to allow them to chose to sleep where they want? 

I think there is a role within the sheep industry to not only protect and regulate the sheep industry, but I feel they have a secondary responsibility to help ensure that our LGD remain working dogs and that they are not legislated out of a job through laws that make the use of them impossible. In Alberta, our sheep organizations have created animal welfare rules and regulations pertaining to all aspects of the sheep industry, including welfare rules for tagging, tail docking, transportation and care. What is missing, is a chapter on welfare and care of LGD and herding dogs. Having the backing of a Statewide sheep organization, with clearly laid out protocols on the work and welfare of our LGD, will provide a good educational tool for lawmakers and welfare organizations, as to what is good practices when it comes to using LGD to protect our livestock.

Thursday, 15 August 2019


A pup learning submissive behaviour from an ewe.

©Louise Liebenberg (June 2019)
Many people struggle with corrections, reprimands and punishments when it comes to working with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD).  Unfortunately, I have never yet managed to only use positive reinforcement when working with a naughty LGD. As much as I aspire to set up situations and create teachable moments, sometimes a dog does need a correction. In an ideal world it would be the livestock that hands out swift and an impactful correction to the naughty dog. Some people like to believe that the mentor dog will step in and correct the young dog, however, this rarely happens and ultimately the onus lies with you to guide and at times, correct the dog when things are not going as smoothly as you would like.

In today's world of vigilante actions groups, activists and well-intentioned do-gooders, it is increasingly hard to find the line between a correction and animal abuse. For some folks, anything, but positive reinforcement constitutes abuse.  In some cases, people conveniently forget that if the LGD is harming the livestock and is not corrected for this behavior, it often ends up with a farm animal dying and a dog being euthanized. A well-timed correction could be the difference between life and death.

I think, a good starting point when it comes to raising LGD is to try and ensure the dog has every chance to succeed. If you ensure the young dog has all the opportunities to bond to the livestock, spends the largest portion of his time in with the animals, you have secure fencing, supervise him, age appropriate livestock for the pup to be with, then you have created a good opportunity for the pup to learn. If you spend a few minutes everyday with the pup teaching it some basic manners such as come, sit, walk nicely on a lead, back off, not jump up against you then it will soon associate our words, to have meaning.

“No”, is a word that a dog can learn quickly, it has a meaning, and possibly a consequence. I believe that this form of verbal correction is the starting point, the dog needs to understand that his actions are unwanted and needs to stop. The word “no” is not up for debate. The “no” is communicating the following to the dog; stop what you are doing, change your behavior, back away and should always convey your disapproval.
A well timed “no” is probably the best form of correction, and in some cases the only correction needed! This verbal correction can be very impactful when the dog understands what the word means and that it is correlated to his actions. Timing, tone, intensity and intention can all be conveyed to the dog with that verbal correction. My dogs understand very clearly when I am really upset about their behavior, they can read it in my tone, body language, my expression and I am sure they recognize enough cuss words to really gauge how mad I am!

If the dog does not respond to the verbal correction, then it either, does not associate the word with the meaning to stop its behavior or it is overly focused on what it is doing that it ignores you. A dog chasing the sheep, might hear you, but its excitement is so high it just continues to do what it is doing. The excitement overrides the command. At this point just yelling “no” over and over will probably have no effect except to reinforce to the dog that what is happening is making you excited too and reinforces he can ignore you. In such a situation the verbal correction might have to be followed up with a consequence. The consequence could be, you run into the field and catch the dog while admonishing him, it could be that you toss a well aimed bucket at him to break his attention,  a load noise or in some cases perhaps he will get a shock from a E-collar.  The verbal command now has a consequence, and that consequence should jolt the dog out of his current mindset, stop the bad behavior and make him  aware that you are disapproving of his actions.

Remember, you goal with administering a correction is that you are not punishing the dog, you are punishing the behavior. The punishment should also “fit the crime”. If the dog jumps up against you, turning away or pushing the dog away is usually enough. If the dog is mauling a sheep, then an E-Collar might be a more likely to stop the behavior.

I am not a believer in alpha rolls, I do not believe that the dog thinks our alpha roll has anything to do with what other dogs would do. Dogs understand that we are a different species and have different ways of communicating. I am not sure if a human trying to mimic an adult bitch when she rolls her own pups, is as effective as some like to think it is. In some cases, it can dangerous.

When it comes to punishments and rewards, each can be used to get a desired behavior from a dog. A positive reinforcement can be praise, a treat, a pat or sometimes just left alone. Using a treat to encourage a shy dog to come to you will be more effective than yelling at it. A positive punishment can be when a wily old range ewe butts a pup that is too interested in her newborn lamb. The dog learns quickly that that should be avoided. Negative punishment can be something like taking away a bone that the is causing a dog to be food aggressive. By removing the bone, the dog has no reason to be food aggressive.  The best reinforcements are those that are consistent. If the dog touches the electric fence, it will 100% of the time get a shock. This is consistent and most dogs learn very quickly that electric fences are not to be touched.

I have found LGD respond very well to pressure and release,  the idea is that when the dog does something wrong you place pressure on him, this can be verbally or physically ( a lead), when he does good, you allow him the freedom to hang out with the stock and do his thing. I know my dogs like to be in my good books, they are mindful and respectful of me and really do not want to be “ousted” by me. When a young dog does something I disapprove of, he is not in “my good books”, I make sure he knows it. I find this to be an effective way to correct a dog.

In many cases punishments can be avoided by avoiding situations that can lead a young dog to make mistakes. Placing an adolescent dog without supervision, with weaker lambs could result in some problem behavior. If you can supervise this dog in that situation, you have created a teachable moment. If you ignore the dog and it makes a mistake, you have potentially created a bad situation. Putting a young dog in an area with poor fencing, could encourage the dog to roam, simply because he can easily get out and does not learn to respect fencing.    
My motto is find those teachable moments, avoid potential problems and trust the dog until it gives you a reason not to trust him.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Responsible LGD Ownership

Two LGD alerting to some thing in the bush. This alerting can be in the form of loud barking and chasing away predators. Not every neighbor appreciates big dogs barking.

Responsible LGD Ownership
©Louise Liebenberg
May 2019

I was recently contacted by law enforcement officers to help them better understand how Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) work, what their roles are and what responsible LGD ownership looks like. This came about because of a situation that they have in their county with a sheep producer and his LGD and angry neighbors. 
Complaints from the neighbors, roaming LGD, and livestock harassment, the result; two shot dogs and conflict in the neighborhood. 

I have decided to write a little about what I think responsible LGD ownership looks like. It is an important topic, that needs to be considered by each individual rancher and perhaps even various sheep industry groups. With activists on the ready to report anything, Peta and the Human Society trying to stop the use of working animals, uninformed but well-intentioned individuals, and perhaps a lack of knowledge from Animal Control or local law enforcement it is important to regularly address these topics. 
I welcomed the chance to speak to the law enforcement officers to help them better understand the roles and issues around LGD.
In this case of the sheep rancher and his neighbor; one of these dogs roamed away from the owner’s livestock and was caught harassing the neighbor’s cattle. The neighbor shot the dog, which he can legally do here in Alberta.  The owner claimed the dog was protecting the livestock, but the neighbor did not ask for this, nor did he appreciate the dog being among his cattle. Of course, we never know if the dog was truly harassing them, or if this is simply a conflict between neighbors and the dog paid the price for this conflict. We know that the dog was not on the owner’s land at the time, no sheep were around, and the dog was found between the cattle on the neighbor’s land. 
It is ultimately the responsibility of the owner of the LGDs to ensure they stay with their own livestock and on their own land.

A dog that works on the range or on forestry land  has vast acres to work on, usually relies on being bonded to the stock and the shepherd to keep him relatively close by, and in these situations fencing is not  do-able.  There are no neighbor’s that complain and there is little opportunity for the dog to be nuisance. In some areas, dogs will roam between bands of sheep and that is usually okay between band owners in such situations.  Unless you have a very large acreage and no neighbors, the owner cannot rely solely on the dog being “bonded” to the sheep to keep it home. A good LGD will chase off a coyote and will not stop at a property line that is not a physical barrier. Dogs do not understand our concept of property lines, for those who advocate always walking the boundary of the property line to “teach” the dog where these lines are, cannot rely on this method to stop the dog from leaving this area. For the dog, these boundary walks is nothing more than a walk with the owner, the dog will not respect this imaginary line unless other training techniques are employed, and even then, hot on a chase after a coyote, those lessons are soon forgotten.

If your dog can leave your land and get onto someone else’s land, then there is an issue. The owner of that land has every right to complain and be unhappy. In some cases, roaming dogs will fight with neighbors’ dogs, poop in their yard and bark at them. The roaming dog is also a liability as it could cause a vehicle accident, injure someone or something. There really is no excuse for your dog to not be in your pasture with your stock. Your dog does not have to be the local neighborhood watch.

For those anti-fencer folks that think that bonding alone should be enough, then you have never met a determined LGD that is serious about pushing predators back.  In Europe, where these breeds originate, there is more tolerance among neighbors and shepherds. Sheep are rarely grazed without a shepherd close by, the shepherd will ensure the dog stays close to the sheep and does become a nuisance. When the LGD are not working, they are most often chained and contained in this manner.

I understand that in some cases, dogs do escape, but this should be a rare event and you should be doing everything in your power to ensure that it does not happen again. You need to apologize to your neighbors, make amends, be polite and respectful when this does happen. On a range situation if dogs roam and go missing, you should be doing everything in your power to find them and return them to their sheep band. Having good relationships with your neighbors or neighboring sheep band, makes life a lot easier, when a simple call that your dog is missing is met with “I will keep and eye out for him”, rather than a gun and law enforcement.

Some people question why would one need a LGD if one has to have such secure fencing? This is an appropriate question to ask.  In many cases, good fencing is good enough to keep predators at bay. Not every situation warrants the use of an LGD, and in many situations I do not even think LGD are the appropriate tool for the job.  We have good fencing, but we also have times when trees fall on the fence, or a bear digs a huge hole under the fencing. Predators can still get onto our land, so our fencing is not built to keep predators out but is built to keep the livestock in and the dogs contained.

Responsible ownership also means being realistic about the use and function of an LGD. One seriously needs to examine if the 20 hens truly need a dog or would a good chicken coop suffice? The very small livestock keeper can probably get away with deterrents such as fox lights, good fencing, penning in a barn and other forms of protection for their stock. 
If you have neighbors close by, then the use of an LGD needs to be very seriously considered. One needs to seriously weigh the advantages and disadvantages of owning an LGD.  LGD do bark, they are intimidating when they bark at someone, if your neighbors are active outside, then an LGD is likely to react to this by barking.  In many instances LGD and neighbors close by, often end up in a conflict situation.

A responsible owner is considerate to the fact that having a big barking dog might cause issues with the neighbors and perhaps in a conversation with the neighbors, livestock protection can be discussed and see what the best solution is. Informing neighbors, about LGDs goes a long way to ensure that if a dog is introduced, that the neighbors would be more positive towards it and possibly more tolerant of the dogs doing their job. 

Identifying your dogs is another part of good LGD management. In range situations possibly a sheep paint marker on each dog would identify which band it belongs to. In pastured systems, a collar with a phone number, a microchip or tattoo are good ways to help identify the dogs. In some areas, where more people have LGD, dogs can often be mistaken for yours, and then issues can arise due to this. Identify your dogs, so that if they do escape, people can readily find you as an owner.

Having a conversations with your neighbors, animal control and your local law enforcement goes a long way to foster good relations and better understanding of how these dogs work.  When the law enforcement officers contacted me, they were open to learn what is normal LGD behavior, what can be expected of the dogs and the owner, to help prevent an escalation of the conflict. The questions they asked included things such as is it normal for a LGD to be more than 50 feet away from the sheep, is it normal for the dog to want to chase away “strange” cattle, how would the dog’s life be impacted if it was contained in the barn for long periods of time, what do they actually do when it comes to predators, why do they roam and many more questions of this nature. I am happy that they took the time and effort to learn more about these dogs and their behavior so that they could try and resolve the sticky situation between the sheep and the cattle rancher neighbors.

The old adage, good fences, make good neighbors certainly does apply to LGD use in areas with more people close by.

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