©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 Šarplaninac, 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.
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.