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.

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