Written for The Shepherd Magazine
Some points to consider when introducing a new adult LGD into your flock.
For many people buying a “ready to go” dog, who knows his job is the ideal situation as it means instant protection, no adolescent hassle, and little to no time investment required for the owner. This is absolutely a positive way to start with LGDs, but the reality is often very different. It is hard to find those good dogs. Most sheep keepers simply will not part with their best dogs. Only on rare occasions will great dogs come up for sale. The dogs that are often for sale are mostly young, adolescent dogs who are being sold for a variety of reasons such as; the person having too many dogs, in pack fighting, roaming, downsizing, or retiring. Buyers do need to be very alert that they are not buying the problems from other people.
Young, immature dogs may be good prospects, however the buyer really needs to be prepared for a readjustment time for the new dog, where plenty of supervision is provided.
Introducing a new adolescent or adult LGD into your herd of flock requires time and guidance on your part. Most LGD hate change. They are comfortable with routines, and quickly notice things that are out of place. They know individual animals in the flock and can be very bonded to some. A change for an adult dog is quite hard as he must adapt to a new area, new owners, new flock and in some cases even different predators. This transition needs some thought and facilitation on the part of the new owner to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible.
Before you bring the dog home, make sure that you have spoken in depth with the seller. Do ask the following questions, the more you know about the dog, the easier the transition will be. The more you know about the dog the better prepared you will be.
The most important question to ask the seller is why he is rehoming/selling the dog. Listen carefully for red flags; listen for clues about his behaviour, roaming, rough play with the stock, in pack fighting or health issues. Ask what type of livestock he is bonded to and how he works. Find out his age, breed, vaccination schedules, if he is neutered/spayed, or intact. If a female, ask when she was last in heat and if there is a possibility if she could be bred. Ask questions about how the dog is around newborn lambs, cats, different stock, and other dogs. Ask directly what issues the dog might have or any behaviour you should be aware of.
Ensure the dog you are considering is from the various LGD breeds and from a working ranch, as a cross of unknown breeds can certainly be risky for your livestock. Where possible go, and see the dog and the situation he is working in. Watch how the dog behaves around new people, the stock and if he is in with the stock or sleeping on the deck. Ask the owner if he will mentor you.
Introducing the new dog is not just an adjustment for you and the dog, but is also a big change for your livestock. Be aware, if this is your first LGD, that your stock will probably be very fearful of the new dog, this can lead to the stock crowding in a corner, panicking, running, hitting fences, jumping over fences and in some cases the stock can become quite belligerent towards the dog. Some dogs know how to calm a situation such as this, but don’t just assume that your new dog will.
So, here are some tips on the introduction of an older dog to your flock.
Try to collect the new dog during the day, so you can do some initial introductions, this will make the dog feel more comfortable as he should be happy to see some livestock. Ensure you have a place ready for him that is very secure and safe for the night. LGD can become shape shifters if they feel they need to get out or away, no hole is too small. Consider placing the new dog in the stock trailer for the night, or if you have a good kennel with a roof then that is a good place to start. Personally, I like to tether (with a good chain) the new dog in the sheep barn, ensuring that his collar is snug so that he cannot slip his head out. I will check all hardware on the chain to ensure it is functioning well and not showing any signs of wear. I will tether the dog close to some sheep, so that he can see and smell them. Make sure that he cannot jump over a panel and get hung up.
Take time for introductions, let the dog get to know you, the pasture, and the stock. Just sit with the dog if the stock want to come over and sniff him. If the stock are used to LGD, then the introductions will go quicker and smoothly. If you have very flighty stock, take extra time for the introductions. Always keep the new dog for at least 4 to 6 weeks under close supervision. Some perfect dogs can go rogue with a big change, so make sure he is supervised with young animals, and does not display any chase, play or rough behaviour towards the stock. Expect some naughty behaviour, and be prepared to deal with it directly. Until you get to know the dog, don’t just place him in with newborns, weak or sick animals, or stock species he does not know.
I like to “re-bond” a new dog. Get a few nice, kind calm ewes or rams into a smaller safe place and allow the dog to bond to this group, just as you would a puppy. Let him settle with this group before being allowed out into the bigger pasture. Make sure that your new dog will respect your fences and boundaries, before you allow him access to all the pastures. Some LGD will roam as they are not bonded to your flock nor the area initially. Make sure your dog has your contact info on his collar just in case he does slip out and escape. We microchip all our dogs, but having a phone number on his collar might make it easier to find him. Take a few photos of the new dog, you never know if you might need to be able to identify him.
Another good way to introduce your new dog to the stock and pasture is by placing him on a zip line in the pasture. The zip line allows the dog plenty of movement and interaction with the stock without the risk of the dog running away, or getting rough with the stock. The stock can get to know the new dog at a distance, and in this way the dog cannot get into trouble during these initial introductions. Make sure he has a shelter and can access to his food and water.
Some dogs are very food aggressive, so be aware when you feed the new dog, that he can eat his food alone, and without the stock trying to bully him away from his food. Feed the new dog in a quite place, away from kids, other animals and the stock until you know how this dog is around food.
Be aware when introducing a new dog into an existing pack of LGD, fighting can really set the tone for a very bad experience, and can lead to injuries and big veterinary bills. Give the new dog a friendly, opposite sex companion initially. Supervise. Do not leave a new dog on the zip line or tethered if there is any chance the other dogs might fight with him.
When preparing for the new dog, you must be willing to facilitate him, to ensure he will be a positive addition to your farm. By facilitation I mean having a smaller, pasture available, some nice kind stock to bond to, good fences, zip line, kennel or tether ready, and most importantly some time to ensure that his integration into your farm is smooth.
Have your contact info engraved on a plate you can rivet to his collar. Lambing time is often when you need a new dog the most, but with the added workload of lambing, this might not be the best time for you to introduce a new dog.
We like to have a new dog updated on vaccinations as you do not want either your own dogs or the new one to introduce diseases such as parvovirus or distemper into your group of dogs. Make sure the dog is free of ticks and fleas and certainly deworm the dog, to ensure he will not pass parasites on to your dogs and in some cases, the sheep.
Integrating a new dog can be stressful to you, the livestock, and the dog. Some dogs acclimatise in a day, while others can take months to settle in. Some dogs re-bond to the stock directly and others may have more difficulty in this process. For the new dog to be successful take your time, ensure you have the facilities in place to ensure his and the livestock’s safety.