Thursday, 17 January 2019

Good advice

©Louise Liebenberg Nov 2018

Within the livestock guardian dog (LGD) community, I am seeing a lot of advice regarding the raising of LGD pups that I feel is erroneous and counteractive. It undermines the very fundament of raising livestock guardians. The advice being propagated is that puppies should be raised adjacent too or kenneled within the livestock pasture for at least 2 years before they are remotely reliable with livestock. That the young LGD cannot be left alone with the livestock, unless supervised and or contained.

 It is something I simply cannot wrap my head around. In fact, it makes my toes curl and I am growing more and more frustrated when I see this advice being handed out as though it is the gold standard of raising livestock guardian dogs, when in fact it is the exactly the opposite. We are inhibiting the learning and bonding process for the young LGD pup.  We all know that if we want to learn a second language the easiest time to learn is when we are a child. It is much harder to learn a new language when we are older.  We want our LGDs to learn the language of sheep, we want our dogs to understand sheep behaviour, and to understand their body language and mannerisms. The easiest and best time to learn this is when a pup is young and open to learning, ideally between the ages of 7 and 16 weeks, and often, extending far beyond 16 weeks of age. Learning about livestock at this age is the foundation from which the pup can grow and learn from. Of course, it is possible to learn when older and some dogs do, but why miss this opportunity and squander this time until a dog is two years old? Surely successful raising means; maximizing on the ability for a pup to learn, for the livestock to interact and integrate the new guardian into the flock at a time when it is most natural for the pup? Bonding is not a magical event, it is a long, slow process where the dog and the sheep learn about each other, this process involves the pup and livestock living together. Bonds with the livestock are not formed when the pup is kenneled, or only allowed to interact on a leash, or supervised perimeter walks.

12-week-old pup completely relaxed and casual with the sheep. She knows no better than sheep belong in her world

Somehow, this idea has formed that raising LGD from puppies with livestock is not possible, without keeping them segregated, kenneled or leash walked until at least 2 years old, that they cannot be reliable with livestock until this magic age or even alone with the animals unless under constant supervision. Perhaps, because this advise has become so mainstream, is why many people are having issues such as roaming, excessive excitement, chasing and unreliability with their dogs. Just maybe, this advise is contributing to the problems rather than helping to solve them? 
Raising pups with livestock from a young age makes the whole process of bonding to sheep more natural. The pups learn many valuable lessons at this age.

Here are some statements that I read on many LGD groups and forums, and each time I wonder why this advise is being handed out and propagated? I question whether the people who are saying this, are livestock keepers who truly know the importance of having LGD protecting their flocks or if it just some hobbyists parroting information without are fully understanding the implications of what they are saying?

1. The idea that “no LGD should be left alone with livestock until it is at least two years old”.
2. That the pups should be raised in a kennel adjacent to or kenneled within the livestock pasture.
3. The implication that no LGD can be reliable before the age of 2 years old.
4. That the pup needs equal family time and livestock time, to be an all-round farm dog, or trustworthy with the kids.

6. That supervision requires 24/7 surveillance and containment.

I am not sure where the idea evolved from that no LGD should be left alone with livestock until at least 2 years old.  But, these 2 years of the young LGD life will shape his future behaviour, his learning and bonding ability to the livestock. To waste this time, waiting for a dog to mature is nonsensical to me. It goes against what shepherds have been doing for thousands of years, what researches suggest and what sheep ranchers already know.
Similarly, the advice to keep pups separated from the livestock by a kennel or in a pen adjacent to the livestock is questionable. Raising the dogs next to the livestock means nothing to the dog, in fact they can become territorial of the area "next to the livestock", meaning they could behave aggressively towards the stock if they approach the area. Having a pup born and raised among the livestock instead of being separated means that the pup will become casual about having the animals around him, there is not that super excitable stage of being released from his pen into the livestock pen. The pup will grow up not knowing any better that the sheep belong in his space and there is nothing to get all hyper excited about. The pup will get the occasional head butt that will remind him to be mindful of the animals. The whole idea of bonding to the livestock is that the pup develops a relationship with the animals, that he regards them as a part of his world, that he learns the finer points of livestock behaviour, and that there is a routine and calmness to this whole process.  There are very few times when containment is necessary, but it is not normally required with a pup under 16 weeks of age with hoofed livestock.
4-month-old pups on double look-out duty.
This advice that no LGD should be alone with livestock also contains the implicit suggestion that the LGD cannot be trustworthy before two. By two years old these dogs should be fully functional within its job, they should be building on their experiences and maturing into their role on the guardian team. If we treat them like babies and have no expectations that the should be working then yes, they will remain unreliable adolescents. In some countries the life span of these dogs is very short due to poisoning, disease and other causes of death, if they must wait until the dog is at least 2, then they would have no dogs left to do the work.

 Of course, some go through naughty phases, there is a moment where a pup may require tethering or removal from a group of livestock, but that should only be when the pup shows behaviour that requires him to be separated.  We have had dogs that have never gone through a naughty stage and have lived all their lives with the livestock with no issues.  Most pups are as good as gold until at least 4 -5 months old, after that age some naughtiness can creep in. Supervision is the key, not segregation. Supervision does not mean 24/7/365 constant “eyes on” the pup, it means paying attention to the pup’s behaviour, how the livestock behaves, a timely correction and a reprimand. I sometimes only see my pups 2 x a day, and in those short moments, I need to access how they are doing, if there are any concerns or any behaviour that needs to be corrected. I will watch the stock, as they are the first to indicate if a pup is being naughty or unreliable. It is only when I have an inkling that the pup may need a little more attention/supervision that I will focus on that. If the behaviour of the pups and the livestock gives me no reason to be concerned, then they continue living together.
A pup of 14 weeks old is looking, learning and watching what the sheep do all day.

I do not believe that a pup needs equal family time and livestock time to be an all-round farm dog or even trustworthy with other family members.  The owner needs to decide before acquiring the pup what they want and expect from their LGD. If they want a full-time family dog, then absolutely let it sleep on the couch. If, however, you have predator concerns and you need an LGD to protect the livestock, then the dog needs to be where the livestock is.  He cannot do his job from inside the house. It is so easy for a pup to bond and socialize with humans that this is rarely an issue that the LGD won’t be social to family members. The primary bond should first be with the livestock, then the family and by doing it in this order, you will have a dog that is happy to be with the animals and happy to visit and be with you when you are in the pasture.

It is easy to be called out for being cruel and abusive these days when one has working dogs. The fact that we use our dogs for the task they have been bred for and selected for is admirable, we tend to forget that these dogs are happiest doing what they have been bred for. It is not cruel to have a puppy live with the livestock, the animals provide companionship and there are often other working LGD around to guide the new pup. The pup needs primary care such as good food, shelter, health care, safety and of course some attention.  The pup may whimper and howl when removed from the litter, this is a normal reaction. Allowing him to snuggle up with some sweet ewes or a few lambs will quickly help the pup realize that sheep are his companions. A pup being raised with livestock is not a neglected animal, and that mindset needs to be changed!

I am sure that this advice originates from well meaning dog folks who have little experience with livestock and working dogs. Many do not understand the nuances of terminology such as bonding, supervision and or even reliability. The idea that one can leave a young LGD for hours alone with the livestock is for many, a foreign concept. 

How can you leave a 12-week-old pup in a pen with some ewes?  Surely, it is better to have him in the house and then later transition him into the livestock pen? However, when that pup is 10 months old, he becomes a habitual escaper, will not stay with the sheep, is super excitable when he is allowed free with the sheep, races around and chases them, he is not trustworthy without someone micromanaging his every move. Many of these issues can be prevented by raising the pup in with the sheep directly. When a pup is born and raised with livestock, he regards them as part of his world, he becomes so accustomed to having sheep around him that it does not elevate his excitement or energy level. A timely butt from an ewe reminds the pup to be mindful and respectful.  The owner knows that supervision means watching this process unfold at a distance without the need to micromanage his every move.  
A young pup rolls belly up to the ewe, it is a submissive behaviour towards the ewe.

This is not about hands-off raising, the pup can be very much hands on, provided all the attention happens out in the livestock pasture. This is not hands-off raising, this is attentive raising.
When 50 people on Facebook say sure, bring the pup inside the house, he should not be alone with the livestock until at least 2 years, he cannot be reliable before then, always kennel or keep him next to the livestock, only leashed visits to the livestock  then, it is hard for new people to know what is the right thing to do, particularly when the advice given, is contradictory of what they should be doing.

I suppose this generation of helicopter parents, flows over onto our dogs. The need to micromanage everything our dogs do has crippled us in our ability to raise them in a manner that is most appropriate for their future work. It should be logical that a pup needs to live with the livestock from the moment he arrives and that the owner tries to facilitate this learning from a young age. The idea that we can trust their instincts, and trust in our own ability to observe and supervise without needing to micromanage, is the biggest challenge of all.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Smart LGD

All LGD understand the advantage of a lookout and having an overview of their terrain.

Smart LGD
©Louise Liebenberg 2018

I have decided to write an article on intelligence, but I did not want to delve too deeply into this topic but rather share some of our own experiences of our dogs. I am sure everyone who uses Livestock Guardian dogs (LGD) will have a story to share about their smart dogs who have done things that have surprised us. If you have any great stories you want to share with me, please feel free to email me, I might compile them in another article some time soon.
When talking about intelligence in dogs, the border collie probably stands out as the most intelligent. They can learn a vast number of words and actions and are willing to carry out each request of “fetch porcupine” or “find blue ball” repeatedly. Those of use who work with border collies appreciate their willingness to please, their strong work ethic and of course we admire their ability to herd sheep above everything else. Border Collies rank number one in intelligence, along with other very smart breeds such as the poodle and German Shepherd. I do question if these breeds have the kind of raw intelligence that our LGD have? Are they capable of being practical, have strong survival instincts, smart and be self resilient?  We all know that the border collie is a slave to its instincts, to such a degree, they are often incapable of self control or even self preservation, which is of course not very smart.

Our LGD on the other hand are a slave to no one, and they use their intelligence to further their own agenda. They know how to be self resilient, catch a mouse to snack on and escape any fenced Alcatraz type set up we can dream up. Their ability to look after themselves, and their charges is amazing.

I would like to share a few stories of some of the things our dogs have done that have both surprised and amazed me with their ability to plot and plan.

Our hay yard is in an area adjoining one of the winter pastures. The pasture is fenced, and the hay yard is on the other side of that fence, which means our LGD do not have access to this area.  A few years ago, a fox family decided to move into the hay yard, a smart move as there are always plenty of mice in a hay yard, and due to the proximity to the barn and house, relatively safe with little predator pressure for them. The vixen raised 5 kits in this hay yard. This was a little close for our liking as we also have about 60 free ranging chickens that like to venture to the hay yard too. My husband mentioned a few times that I should let an LGD out into that area, to persuade the foxes to move away. I differed in opinion, feeling that if these foxes were leaving the chickens alone, I was fine with them eating the mice. Remarkably, the foxes never did kill a chicken.
At that time, we had this Sarplaninac female called Alaska, who absolutely hated any predators or intruders. She would put on quite an impressive display of barking, snarling and growling that would terrify any predator, human or animal. The foxes learnt fast to stay out of the pasture and avoid the dog. This frustrated Alaska enormously. One day I noticed that she had quit barking at the foxes and would just stand close to the fence. She would gently wag her tail, soften her eyes and slightly drop her ears, she looked friendly, it seemed like she had accepted their presence.  The foxes were not deceived and still refused to risk going close to the fence. It seemed like she was trying to entice these foxes into believing that she would not harm them if they came close.
Sometimes, Alaska would sleep behind a panel or bale close to the shared fence line and if a fox got closer, she would try to ambush it, but the foxes got wise to this tactic.  After a few days, I noticed that Alaska started to leave some of her meat and bones close to the fence, she would them amble off and watch what was happening, ignoring the foxes. I was following this fox vs dog closely, as I was rather amazed that this dog seemingly accepted these predators so close by.
If a fox came closer to the meat she would leave it be, allowing them to get more comfortable with her, it appeared like she was baiting them to get them to come into the field.  As soon as a fox even stuck its head through the wire she was roaring mad again and trying to kill them. The foxes and Alaska continued this cat and mouse game for several weeks. The foxes would only enter the field if they knew she was not in the vicinity, they would pop up onto a bale to look out over the field scanning to see where the dog was before venturing in. It amazed me to see the ability to plan and attempt to bait the foxes, also realising her aggressive tactic was not working and needed a new approach. Her end game was to try and get the foxes in the field so that she could catch them.
They are masters of disguise and stealth.

Here is another story that illustrates the LGD ability to observe and figure things out.  Most ranchers I know, the entire operation is held together with baling twine and rope. Ours is no different. In some of our gateways we use large hog panels to close the entrance, this allows us to move large combines and other equipment through 40-foot openings. To make things easy for us we usually tie them with rope so that we can cut the rope and remove easily, especially when they get snowed in.  Lucy, one of our LGD figured out that if she wanted to go to another field or the barn area, all she needed to do was chew through the rope that forms the hinge of the gate. This has happened time and again. She does not chew other ropes anywhere, just those used to hold the panel up, when she feels she needs to go elsewhere. She does not chew through the rope tying two panels together or any other ropes, just the one that will open the panel.

Another story of smartness involves a dog we had back in the early nineties. This dog was an amazing LGD and was one of those dogs you wished you could clone. She was a very alert and aware dog. She had a memory that amazed me. If a rabbit ever crossed in front of her, she would remember that spot where that rabbit was for years. Every time we walked close to that area, she would get excited and start focusing on the exact area where that rabbit once was. At that time, we were shepherding all over the place, and it would sometimes be months or even a year later before we returned to that spot, and immediately she would perk up and remember that that spot was a place for a potential meal. Researches have found that bears sometimes return to a spot they had previously found food for as long as eight years later. This kind of “street wise” intelligence appeals to me, I know this dog would easily survive if a zombie apocalypse happened, domestication did not ruin their survival instincts.

Working co-ordinated as a team, shows a level of understanding and intelligence our LGD possess.
My final anecdote is how our LGD understand the need to work together and use team work to achieve a certain goal.  I am convinced that they can understand the concept of division of labor. We had ewes grazing a few miles from home. They were in pastures surrounded by bush.  The sheep are grazed in electric nets and these nets are moved every few days. The LGD are permanently with the ewes in these nets and we do daily checks on the ewes and dogs in this area. We know that bears frequent these fields for the berries in the bush and due to the proximity of bee hives. That night, we had 3 dogs working with the sheep, something must have spooked the sheep and they pushed through the electric nets and broke out. The flock split into 3 groups, one group stayed behind in the nets, one group ended up on one of our hay-fields about a half mile away and the third group came home. It was quite uncanny that the LGD split up and one dog stayed with every group, even though all the dogs knew the way home. Every group of sheep was accompanied by a dog.
I must admire their bravery, loyalty and that fundamental form of intelligence. They may not do party tricks, or listen when you call, they certainly will not fetch a ball or jump through crazy hoops on command, but when it comes down to the line, these dogs are smart, resilient and have some great primitive survival skills!
Working with multiple species, figuring our various behaviors is all part of a LGD job, it requires insight, perception and of course intelligence.

Monday, 5 November 2018

LGD Puppy Selection

Bonding to the livestock has always been high on the priority list for sheep ranchers, but can predictions be made on how the pup will turn out based on selection at a young age?

LGD Puppy Selection
©Louise Liebenberg, Sept 2018
Written for the Shepherds Magazine

I was asked to write an article on selection of a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) puppy. I chuckled and responded that it would be a pretty short article as my idea of puppy selection boils down to picking the puppy I like. I have no science or theories about which puppy to pick or, who will turn out the best from a litter. I do know that if I chose a pup I like, I am generally more willing and excited to work with that pup. I believe that every pup born from true working parents, should work out, why would they not? Why would one pup be “the best” or the most suited to LGD work while others in the litter are not? What would disqualify a healthy, well bred pup from possibly becoming a future guardian at 7 or 8 weeks old? How do we even know if what we see at 7 weeks of age, carries on through to adulthood?

In the companion and service dog world, puppy testing is a normal and accepted form of puppy selection. It is used as a guideline and a (somewhat) objective way of scoring pups. Puppy Aptitude Testing (PAT) is primarily focussed on highlighting the differences in each puppy’s personality, using this to match the pup to a new owner or to find those pups who would be best suited for a specific task, such as guide dogs or hearing dogs. In fact, many years ago, we raised a few border collies for hearing dogs, the organization would come and do puppy tests on a litter to see which pups they felt were most suited to that work. Most failed as hearing dogs, being too high drive for the average hearing-impaired owner. Despite the puppy testing and selection, ultimately the breed traits overpowered the aptitude testing. The decision was made that working border collies were perhaps not the best breed for that job and during that process, we got first-hand experience of what puppy testing involved.

Orysia Dawydiak and David Sims wrote a chapter on Puppy Testing and Selection in their book Livestock Protection Dogs, where they took a deeper look at Puppy Aptitude Tests. Dawydiak and Sims found they could better assess which pups to send to a large range operation or a small homestead based on certain personality types.  In a way, their test scores correlate with common sense; a more active, independent, less human orientated pup might fare well on a larger outfit, while the quieter, more reserved type might suit the homestead situation better. They found that their test scores confirmed their own observations of the puppy’s personalities. They did include a livestock portion to their PAT test to help determine which pups would be more suited as LGD and who might be better placed in a family home.  The authors are clear to mention that the PAT is not decisive in assessing pups and should be viewed as an additional tool to evaluate a litter.  They emphasised that the criteria remains the same for selecting a future guardian dog; get a pup from working parents, select the best pup for the situation and get as much good training advice and support from the breeder as needed.
It is interesting to note that recent research has shown that PAT tests in general, have little predictive ability regarding the adult behaviour of the dog. As Stanley Coren concludes “The only thing that comes out of this is the observation that the puppies that engage in a lot of exploratory behavior turned into the adults who explored their environment a lot. Sociability, fearfulness, irritability and all of the other tests were virtually a washout when it came to predicting adult behavior from tests administered when a puppy is 40 to 50 days of age.” (
This litter of pups are getting evaluated by the ewes.

In my own observations I agree that it is impossible to predict how the adult dog will be. Many years ago, I was selecting a pup from a litter, I decided to choose the softest, most timid pup from the litter, one who did not really engage people, who was fairly introvert in nature and who did not like to explore her environment. I was looking for the dog who would be the “close bonding” type, one who would prefer to be with the sheep than people.  As this dog matured she certainly did not remain timid. She was lethal to any coyote, was brave and wise in her interactions with predators, she would stay with the flock, but did not hesitate to confront predators or patrol the larger pastures. She was super vigilant in her behaviour, could spot a coyote a mile away and was fearless, in a calm manner. She was not that overbearing, dominant dog one would expect to be the one confronting and battling predators. She was fantastic with people, enjoyed being around us and very sociable, despite being very loyal to her sheep. Her behaviour at 7-weeks old, did not reflect her adult behaviour. She grew into her role, matured into a confident guardian and become one of my most valued dogs on our guardian team. I believe many ranchers would have dismissed this dog based on her 7-week-old behaviour.

Pups raised with livestock become relaxed and comfortable with them

So, how does one go about selecting the right pup for the job when things like puppy testing do not seem to be a reliable way to assess pups? Is it enough to pick a pup you like, from a litter born out of good working parents and then raising that pup correctly?  My short answer is yes, I do believe that genetics and correct raising goes a long way to ensuring that a pup becomes a great LGD. Puppy testing may give a glimpse into how a pup may be at that moment, but it does not predict the pup’s adult behaviour. What shapes the adult behaviour are things such as experiences, other dogs, the livestock, terrain and how it is raised.

Not every dog in an LGD pack needs to be dominant and aggressive. A timid pup maybe the one that sticks close to the flock and sounds the alarm when danger approaches. Another pup could be bolder and could make a great dog for patrolling and pushing predators back while another with a strong character might be one that goes out and engages a predator.  Despite the differences in personalities, each pup will grow up and fill an important role within an LGD pack. I believe any pup, from a well-bred litter should be “good enough” to be an asset to any guardian team.

It is hard to accurately describe the actual work that an LGD does, or even define “what is needed” within a pack of LGD. Most sheep ranchers have this image that the dog must always stick tight with the livestock, never leave them and be a formidable opponent if predators come calling. Those that ranged further, are often regarded as inferior or even as failures. Early research focused mostly on ensuring that a pup is encouraged to bond tightly to the livestock. Pups who are more exploratory or people orientated were often disregarded as potential LGD.

Is this puppy displaying a bold or dominant behaviour, does this behaviour at 7 weeks of age, reflect how this pup will mature?
With an increase of large predators on the landscape, ranchers are turning more towards the tougher, perhaps stronger natured dogs. Researchers have been evaluating “tougher” breeds who would be more eager to defend a flock of sheep from bears, cougars and wolves, not just coyotes. 
Over the years, I have seen a shift from the use of a single or, perhaps a pair of LGD per flock, to using multiple dogs. Dogs that are patrolling or perimeter type dogs, are becoming more accepted within the context of a working pack of LGD, where various duties are performed by multiple dogs. Some dogs move ahead of the flock and push predators further back, others stay close to the flock, some dogs are the fighters, some are the alarm system. All work cohesively to provide protection for the flock. All these roles are fluid, sometimes the more inexperienced dogs stay close to the flock while the more experienced dogs confront the predators, other times it is the energetic yearlings who are out making large sweeping circles. No longer is it expected that just one or two dogs are on duty to protect the sheep, it is more common to see 6-8 dogs with a large band of sheep.  Some ranchers prefer to integrate various breeds to provide a spread of various traits and personalities to the LGD pack. The idea is that various breeds and personalities bring a wider variety of working styles and traits to the flock, ensuring a more effective form of protection for the livestock.

Within this context of using multiple dogs, I see that there is a role for all personality’s types in a litter of guardian dog pups and one type is not better than another. If they keep the sheep safe and predators at bay, it is good enough for me. I am not convinced there is a way to test pups on their aptitude to becoming great LGDs, beyond evaluating the parent’s ability and manner of working. When a breeder raises the pups in a working environment, ensures they have a great start, are healthy and well fed, then every pup has a good foundation to becoming a well rounded LGD. My suggestion would be to place more effort into selecting a good breeder, and then raising them correctly, instead of trying to find the perfect puppy within a litter.

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