Monday, 14 September 2020

Intact or Altered?


Intact or Altered?
©Louise Liebenberg
Written for The Shepherds Magazine 

An intact breeding pair of LGD. The male will only be focused on “guarding” this female while she is in heat. It certainly detracts from his guarding of the livestock during this time.

As veterinary knowledge expands many “standard” procedures are getting a new look. One of the areas that has come under greater scrutiny is what long term affects (health and behavioural) does spaying and neutering have on dogs.  For many years, the standard approach has been to recommend spaying a female prior to her first heat cycle and neutering a male under one year of age. In some areas and particularly with shelter dogs, many of these dogs are altered as juveniles, around 8-12 weeks old. With new research and looking into long term studies it has been found that early spay and neuter does carry increased health risks for the adult dog. This article will explore some of the options for livestock guardian dogs (LGD) and how to manage intact and altered dogs.

I could not find any direct studies that determined if an altered or intact LGD had a significant effect or their working ability to deter predators from the sheep flocks.  The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication states; “Either sex can be an effective LGD and spaying or neutering does not seem to decrease a guardian dog’s protectiveness.”
In the more traditional cultures in Europe, altering is not a standard procedure and many pastoralists do not have access to this type of medical intervention. In some regions it is frowned upon and many shepherds believe that neutering or spaying will render the dogs less effective.  Personally, I do believe that intact LGD might have a slight advantage when it comes to behaviours such as sent marking, displays of dominance, aggression and claiming of territories.  The degree of difference in effectiveness has not been measured (to my knowledge) and the question arises if that difference overrides the advantages of sexually altering a LGD?

The primary reasons for altering LGD is to prevent unwanted litters of pups, crosses between LGD and non LGD breeds, to keep the dogs focussed on their job rather than finding breeding partners and in some cases to reduce some behavioural problems such as aggression and roaming.

The advantages of intact dogs in regards to working ability is that a lot of information is transmitted through scent, intact dogs could have an advantage over altered dogs in this regard, intact dogs can be more dominant and show more aggression when it comes to pack dealings and the message it can portray to wild canids.  Of course, the option of breeding a good working dog is gone once a dog is altered.
Working with intact LGD adds another level of management that many ranchers do not want to deal with. Requires monitoring for in heat animals, avoiding breeding with non LGD males, kenneling for at least 3 weeks twice a year to avoid unwanted litters. Altering working dogs is a sound management decision for most ranchers.

In the vast majority of cases, I think altered LGD do make the best working dogs for most livestock operations and I personally do recommend spaying or neutering them. The next question however is when to do that? In most cases it is convenient for the rancher to do this when the pup is young, close to the ranch and before they become sexually mature. This is usually before 6 months for a female and under a year for a male. However, some recent research does suggest a correlation with long term health affects associated with early spaying and neutering which includes things such as joint diseases (including hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear or rupture, and elbow dysplasia) and cancers (such as lymphoma, mast cell tumor, hemangiosarcoma, and osteosarcoma). Both which can seriously affect the working life of our LGD.  

In this July 2020 published research paper titled:  Assisting Decision-Making on Age of Neutering for 35 Breeds of Dogs: Associated Joint Disorders, Cancers, and Urinary Incontinence.  By Benjamin L. Hart, Lynette A. Hart, Abigail P. Thigpen and Neil H. Willits. (
 It found: “In previous studies on the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd Dog, neutering before a year of age was associated with increased risks of one or more joint disorders, 2–4 times that of intact dogs. The increase was particularly seen with dogs neutered by 6 months of age. In female Golden Retrievers, there was an increase in one or more of the cancers followed, to about 2–4 times that of intact females with neutering at any age.” 

The breeds studied did not include any of the LGD breeds, but it is generally accepted that size and sex certainly does impact the affects of early spay and neutering. Looking at all the larger breeds in this study it can be concluded that for large breeds the recommendations for neutering varies from 11 months to over 2 years, and for spaying a female from 6 months to over 2 years. I think if your breed is prone to joint issues and cancers, it is prudent to allow them to mature before considering spaying or neutering. I think it is always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to pick the best age that suits your management and is most appropriate for your dog. I recommend to my pup buyers usually to alter their dogs after 18 months old. Allowing them sufficient time to mature, grow and develop.

So, this leads into the next issue on how to deal with intact dogs who could potentially breed, before they are altered. Both males and females can breed from about 6 months old and considering that most LGD breeds come into heat 2 x a year for 3 weeks at a time, it will require additional dog management to deal with an intact animal.

LGD are notorious for their ability and ingenuity to escape any enclosure, so this means when a female is in heat and needs to be locked away,  the encloser will need to be very substantial; jump, climb, crawl and dig proof. Dogs have been known to breed through diamond mesh fencing.  As most of my females tend to trigger each other and they tend to cycle together, it is often easier for me to lock away the male than lock away all the females. My advantage is that we live remotely and have no other neighbor dogs that could come in and potentially breed our LGD. My border collies are kenneled and do not just free roam, so that is usually not a problem.  

I have built a designated kennel for my LGD that needs to be in lock down, it is away from the sheep pastures, it is high, with coyote rollers over top. The bottom is fortified. If I have an incredibly determined dog, I am also able to tether the dog inside this pen if I am worried about it escaping. My next favorite place to contain my LGD is a stock trailer, providing the air openings are not spaced too far apart that the dog can slither through.   I think every working ranch should have at least one super good containment pen, this can be used for when males or females need to be kept separate during heat cycles but can also double as sick bay or even a time out place when the need arises.  This pen really does provide some peace of mind. If sheep are grazed out on the range, sometime taking the dog back to the home ranch might be an option, as many of the intact males might spend all their time hanging around the pen where the female is, as opposed to protecting the flock.

This is my lockdown kennel, complete with coyote rollers to dissuade any jumpers. This kennel is used for containing either an intact male or female when I do not want them to breed or at times when a dog is needing veterinary care.

Just a reminder, most female LGD pups have the first heat cycle between 6 and 8 months. Some can start as early as 4 months. Most females will cycle every 6 months.  I like to track who is in heat and when and this is noted down on a calendar. I will usually place a reminder to check a certain female in 6 months time for signs of being in heat. Some females show little signs of a heat, so this does require hypervigilance. Finally, I am a huge advocate that all LGD should be handled. Appropriate handling does not break the bond with sheep, it makes for easier management of the dogs. All LGD should be able to be leashed, caught, handled, vet inspected, de-wormed and be accustomed to tethering. The dogs should be comfortable with you handling their legs, head, ears, touching all over their body so that you can inspect them for signs of being in heat.  If you are unable to handle your LGD at all, then I would certainly recommend early spay and neutering, I believe dealing with unwanted litters is a greater issue.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Do they have "it" or not?


This dog has it all, attentive, protective, and trustworthy. He did require some corrections while in his adolescent years, and never missed an opportunity to make go and visit some of the other ranch dogs. Except for those minor flaws, and his intense dislike for strange cats, this dog had “it” all.

Do they have "it" or not?
©Louise Liebenberg  June 2020
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

My friend Jill, from Northern California, asked me if I thought that livestock guardian dogs either have “it” or not. It is of course an interesting question to ponder. Before, I can delve into this, I think “it” needs to be defined. I am assuming Jill means the traits, character, and ability to be successful Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) without much involvement of the shepherd (beyond the normal facilitation in raising and bonding). The “it” refers to the part that the dog brings to the “table”, both in traits and character.

I do believe that some dogs do just have it. These dogs are solid, reliable, and trustworthy with the livestock right off the bat, with little to no additional guidance from the shepherd.  I also know that other dogs can be reliable and trustworthy but may require some more time and input from the shepherd. Finally, there are other LGD who are never trustworthy and no matter how much time and effort the shepherd puts into them, they just do not have what it takes to do the job. Some dogs can even be partially good, reliable in some circumstances and not in others, or effective some of the time. Even just the presence of the dogs, whether they are actively guarding or not, still has some deterring effects on predators. 

 Most of the researchers still use the three pillars laid out by the Coppinger’s to assess the effectiveness of LGD, namely are they trustworthy, attentive, and protective of the livestock? In a study of LGD in Georgia by Robin Riggs, he interviewed shepherds and documented 525 dogs (adults and juveniles). Some interesting numbers roll out from these studies. Respondents rated their dogs as good (61%) and partially good (22%). To fully understand the partially good one needs to understand that a dog can be attentive to the livestock and highly trustworthy, but can lack protectiveness, therefore “partially good”. Or, it might be trustworthy and protective, but because they are inattentive; for example, the dog is not always around the livestock when predators attack, this dog might be rated as partially good. Shepherds rated their dogs as good when they were attentive to livestock (51%), aggressive to predators (12%) and unafraid of wolves (7%).  Partially good dogs were considered; not attentive enough (38%), insufficiently protective (33%), or attentive but afraid of predators (19%). 
Respondents were asked about their training regime, 40% claimed their dogs learnt to do their job by themselves, 31% were raised with the flock and 25% claimed the dogs learnt what to do from the other dogs. Only 2 respondents claimed to  engage in specific actions to encourage attentiveness in their dogs by encouraging the dogs to accompany the flock or by feeding the dogs close to the livestock.
Five farms claimed their dogs were not good citing lack of attentiveness, fear of wolves, poor breeding, or failure to train properly. (Rigg Robin; Goldthorpe Garth; Popiashvilli Teimuraz and Sillero-Zubiri Claudio, 2017)
It is interesting to note that some respondents specifically noted that their failure to correctly train the dogs was a reason for them being “not good”. This certainly implies that some effort and work on behalf of the shepherd is required, and that it is not just a matter of the dog having it or not. 

In the Georgian study no actual figures were laid out for what percentage of shepherds felt that the dogs failed in their job, if respondents claimed 61% were good and 22% partially good, can one assume that  17% were not good? (Rigg Robin; Goldthorpe Garth; Popiashvilli Teimuraz and Sillero-Zubiri Claudio, 2017)

In a study in Portugal the numbers are a lot more optimistic. In a personal communication with Silvia Ribeiro, who works with Grupo Lobo in helping to place LGD with shepherds. The dogs are monitored and scored based on their effectiveness, trustworthiness, and protectiveness. Data is kept on all the dogs in their program.  It was found that about 6.9 % of the dogs evaluated were found to be unsuited for LGD work by their (initial) owners, however some of these dogs were transferred to other farms and were successfully integrated back to work. Ultimately, only about 2.5% of the dog evaluated were excluded completely as LGD.  The reasons cited for this were mostly behavioral problems, and in 80% of the cases related with lack of attentiveness (44.4%), trustworthiness (44.4%), or protectiveness (11.1%).  In the other 20% the motives mentioned by owners were related with damages to neighbor's gardens, killing of chickens, chasing cars, aggressiveness to other dogs, and fear of aggressiveness to people.
(Ribeiro Silvia; Guerra Ana and Petrucci-Fonseca Francisco, 2017)

Statistics on failure rates in LGD seems to vary, and seems directly tied to how invested the shepherds are in working with their dogs. A certain number of dogs do fail, despite being given every opportunity to be successful. “Not all pups are capable of becoming good livestock guardians, regardless of how they are raised”. (Coppinger R, 2001)

“Almost all pups in the present study showed some obnoxious behaviour towards sheep. Even the best dogs vigorously chased sheep when they first accompanied flocks to pasture at five months old. How shepherds responded to such behaviour was of great importance. Most disruptive behaviour can be corrected, given sufficient patience and a degree of tolerance (Sims and Dawydiak 1990:45-80, Coppinger 1992a). According to these authors, LGD behaviour can change substantially as dogs mature and a seemingly unsuccessful adolescent may still prove to be a good guardian.” (Rigg, 2004)

So, it is clear that some troubling behaviour is to be expected, however what happens with this troubling behaviour and how it is dealt with is perhaps more determining for the successful outcome for the LGD.
As Ribeiro states “I believe in most cases, in the right context and with the right owner (experienced/patient), dogs can be recovered. It seems sometimes it is just a question of lack of maturity, and with time they can outgrow those undesirable behaviors, especially if not reinforced.” (Personal Communication, 2020)
Rigg also reported that during the study in Georgia they often found the dogs away from the flocks, and the dogs were often absent during a predatory attack.   This indicates a lack of attentiveness in the adult dogs.  He recommends better rearing practices and starting this with younger pups to help improve attentiveness in the LGD.

When the sheep are well protected, the shepherd certainly can rest a whole lot better.

So, coming full circle back to the question Jill asked about whether LGD simply have it or not, the numbers and research suggests it is always a combination of nature and nature. For the dogs to be successful it does appear that a certain amount of work and facilitation is required by the shepherd. The shepherds and owners need to be invested in their dogs to achieve good success rates.  The Grupo Lobo dogs are monitored, shepherds are taught how to work with their dogs. In other regions manuals on the most successful way to raise and bond LGD have been written to help improve the  (perceived) success rate of LGD. There does seem to be a common thread in how to manage these “failures”, and that will be a great topic for a future article.

I do think some dogs are simply not cut out to be LGD, they just do not possess the right combination of traits needed for the job, either due to poor breeding, lack of selection, poor character or lack of guidance by the owner.   This is of course not unique to LGD, not every border collie can work a full day or have the innate abilities to work well. Even some border collies are only “partially good” and some have no desire to work livestock. 
Some dogs who show poor behaviour can be worked with or perhaps as they hit maturity they can settle down and become effective. I think a lot also depends on circumstances, someone on a few acres and low predator threat might be sooner content with how the dog is working than someone dealing with heavy predation. I think owner perception of the job a dog needs to do, is also determining in an assessment of how successful they are. Some folks are content when a dog just hangs out at the feeder with the sheep and other people want to see active guarding and preferably killed predators. I believe a dog who is inattentive or lacks protectiveness can still be somewhat useful. I think the hardest trait to deal with are dogs who not trustworthy with the livestock, in some instances direct work,  supervision and maturity can resolve that issue, but when dogs have the opportunity to  continue bad behaviour, I believe it changes something in their brain. It ignites the predatory response and once that is triggered, it is hard to change that behaviour. It is such a fine line for a canine to live and interact with a prey species, it is easy to understand that some are simply not cut out for that job. 

I believe those shepherds who have dealt with many LGD, do see sooner which dogs might not make the grade, it could be a feeling, or how the livestock respond to the dog  or early recognition of troubling behaviour. I know, I have had dogs who I have always felt were just not attentive to the livestock and later, this changed into more troubling behaviour resulting in untrustworthiness.  The key is recognizing troubling behaviour or even the circumstances that can lead to troubling behaviour sooner, will increase the success rate of “problem” LGD.


Ribeiro,Silvia; Guerra,Ana and Petrucci-Fonseca,Francisco. (2017). The Use of Livestock Guardian Dogs in North-Eastern Portugal: The Importance of Keeping the Tradition. Carnivore Damage Prevention News(15), 9-18.

Coppinger R, a. C. (2001). Dogs; a stratling new understanding of canine origin, behaviour and evolution. New York, USA: Scribner.

Rigg, R. (2004). The extent of predation on livestock by large carnivores in Slowakia and mitigating carnivore- human conflict using livestock guardian dogs. UK: University of Aberdeen.

Rigg, Robin; Goldthorpe, Garth; Popiashvilli, Teimuraz and Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio. (2017). Livestock Guardian Dogs in Georgia: A tradition in need of saving? Canivore Damage Prevention News(15), 19-27.

Silvia Ribeiro, personal communication. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wool pulling

Wool pulling by a LGD.
The ewe was fine.

Wool Pulling
©Louise Liebenberg (2020)
Written for the Shepherds Magazine 

“Hi,  Do you think a dog would pull the wool on a sheep to try and help it?
This morning I got up to one of my ewes, heavy with lambs, over on her side/back unable to get up with one of my dogs laying beside it and a bunch of its wool pulled out. We were wondering if the dog could have been trying to help it get up by pulling on the wool? When I approached them, the dog got up calmly walked away about 10 feet and laid down again. We got the ewe up and she staggered a bit and then slowly headed back to the flock. He walked beside her, about 15-20 feet away.  So, I am not sure if dog was exceptionally good or bad?  He is 18 months old he has been with these sheep since he was 9 months old. I do not know that it was him, as was he was laying beside her not touching her and I never saw him touch her, is it possible something else did this?”

Wool pulling by a young Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) occurs more frequently than what many people care to admit.  The reasons why a dog pulls wool are multiple, most often it occurs in younger, adolescent dogs who are playing and getting a bit rough with the sheep. It is a game of chase and grab, often, wool pulling is also combined with the dog nipping the legs of the sheep and some ear chewing.

In some instances, wool pulling also occurs under specific circumstances such as if a sheep is weaker, down, cast or caught with its head in a fence or feeder. The fact that the sheep is compromised, triggers a predatory type response in the dog where it will start to pull the wool of this animal. It is important to note that play behaviour in carnivores is often based on predatory learning behaviours. So, what might be play in a young dog can soon escalate to being predatory. Even though LGD are bred to have a low prey drive towards the livestock and combined with a lot of socialisation to the livestock, they are and remain dogs who can be triggered to react in a predacious way.

The answer to the question at the beginning of this article is no, the dog was not attempting to help the sheep into an upright position.  The dog found the sheep in a prone and compromised position and this triggered an inappropriate response in the dog.  I have seen older, exceptionally reliable dogs also pulling wool in sheep who have been caught with their heads in the fence or a feeder.  Once the sheep was freed, the dog was completely uninterested in that sheep. It was the specific situation that gave rise to a poor response from the dog.  Some LGD will pick out a weak, compromised, sickly animals (thin, old, high worm load) to “play with”, separate out, chew ears, pull wool etc.  In many cases the dog will continue to pick on the same animal unless it is removed. It is in the world of carnivores, a normal survival behaviour. Although undesirable in our LGD, we must remember that they are still dogs and predators.
The key to raising LGD is select for genetics with a low predatory drive and to socialise them sufficiently (bond) then to the livestock. The last part of this is to ensure that any unwanted and undesirable behaviour is immediately corrected and that the dog is not placed in situations where he can repeat his mistakes.

When a dog is pulling wool, the dog is sending the owner a clear message that he is not reliable to be left with smaller and potentially weaker animals, and that he needs supervision. A dog pulling wool should be monitored and corrected for this behaviour. The dog should not be put into a situation that it can continue to hurt the sheep or escalate its behaviour. In many cases the owners are often surprised at this behaviour and similarly to the lady who sent me the original message, she was questioning if the dog could do this. She was willing to give the dog the benefit of the doubt. This is a pivotal moment, as owners who have never seen an LGD display this type of behaviour might inadvertently “forgive” the dog, and the dog has no idea it has done something wrong. The owner might believe the dog was trying to help the sheep, so the dog was not corrected for this behaviour, possibly rewarded for the perceived good intentions of the young LGD and most times it is left alone with the sheep providing more opportunity to repeat its behaviour.
Although not a very clear photograph it does illustrate what sometimes happens when a LGD pulls wool. A young dog sitting next to an ewe whose wool was plucked. Although unwanted behaviour this does occur very often in LGD. This ewe survived and rejoined the flock.
Thank you to Laurie Mclaren for allowing me to use this photograph.

In some instances, wool pulling is a collective behaviour, two pups together might engage in this and yet, when separated from each other do not. It is clear to see that some pack mentality takes over at that point.

That a young dog might pull some wool does not mean that the dog is ruined for life  it does depend on the severity and frequency, the more the dog does this, the lower his chances are of becoming a successful LGD. Most first-time offenders can be corrected and still become very solid and reliable LGD. Most young dogs do not have to be “got rid of” but they do need more supervision and be placed in  a situation where they do not have the opportunity to repeat this behaviour. A young dog who is maybe a little too rough, might be better in with some big old rams or placed on a zipline when he cannot be monitored.   The key thing to remember is that wool pulling for a dog is fun, and when something is fun, the dog likes to repeat that behaviour, it becomes a self rewarding behaviour, he will keep doing it and escalate his behaviour each time. Self rewarding behaviours are hard to stop, the correction needs to override the reward and the opportunity to repeat that behaviour must be controlled.

I think the golden rule, no matter what the age of the dog is that the dog should simply never put his mouth or paws on a sheep. He should not be pulling wool, chewing ears, eating placentas out of ewes, dragging the sheep around, sitting on them, carrying lambs, nipping legs etc.  He may gently sniff them, some butt licking, or some face licking of the sheep is acceptable provided he is quiet, gentle, and not intrusive in doing so. Butt and face sniffing are generally a form of greeting, and that is permissible.

If an ewe is down or stuck, he may watch it, guard it, but not touch it.  If I see a young dog standing on a sheep, or over a sheep, or one using its teeth, it will receive an immediate verbal reprimand, it may also include me chasing the dog off a little way simply to emphasize that I am unhappy with him.   Being consistent with the dog provides a constant reminder of how he is expected to behave with the sheep. If I am aware that a young adolescent dog is maybe a little too excitable or is showing some naughty behaviour (chase or controlling behaviour) he will be removed from any flock or herd where he has access to smaller or weaker animals.  I can place the dog in with mature rams or bulls so that the opportunity to be naughty is removed. They are still in with the livestock, just with livestock that are not so vulnerable. It is also generally good livestock management to remove very weak or compromised animals from the flock.

Trustworthiness is one of the three cornerstones of good LGD behaviour, however few LGD are born that never make a mistake or do something naughty. It is the job of the shepherd to correct unwanted behaviour in most instances a timely correction, switching the dog to less vulnerable livestock or even a change of environment can be all the dog needs. Some of the more protective dogs who are harder in nature, might need more supervision than softer breeds. Bolder, more aggressive dogs towards predators are also often bolder and sometimes a bit more challenging to raise. 
Here are a few tips:
No touching livestock with teeth or paws.
Correct any signs of bad behaviour.
Remove an adolescent or naughty dog from weak, sickly or compromised animals.
Supervise, supervise but do not micromanage.
If the dog is doing naughty things, do not give him the benefit of the doubt until you are 100% sure he is reliable. Better to be cautious than allow bad behaviour to continue.
Watch for tell tale signs that the dog might be roughhousing the livestock (panting livestock,  individual animals separated, livestock huddled in a corner, nervous livestock around the dog, tufts of wool pulled out.

It is easy to think that a good LGD should never harm the livestock, but the reality is that they can and do. Not every LGD bred, becomes a successful LGD. No dog is faultless and a lot of the problem-solving lies with a diligent shepherd who will correct a dog showing poor behaviour!

A typical sign of an ewe where the wool has been pulled by an adolescent LGD.  The ewe was fine.
Photo by Laurie Mclaren.

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