Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Innovative Uses for LGD

Innovative Uses for LGD
©Louise Liebenberg, 2020

Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

With the world-wide shutdown and stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 virus, many people are faced with isolation in their homes, I hear plenty of rants, complaining and general feelings of frustration. This is somewhat unfamiliar to me and I am sure the effects of the stay-at-home order is not something many ranchers are struggling with; our way of life is one of self imposed isolation, alone time and we are accustomed to having our freezers full and general supplies (in bulk) at home. We are accustomed to life without too many restaurants, nail salons and shopping malls.  Life as we know it, might not changed much, ewes are lambing, cows are calving, and we are preparing for the upcoming growing season. We do, however feel the economic repercussions of this shut down, lamb and cattle prices here in Canada have dropped, as has demand. People are nervous and do not want to spend money on anything they feel is a luxury. We cannot simply shut our doors and stay on the couch, ranchers and farmers are deemed an essential service, we need to keep moving forward as lambs are coming, crops will need to be seeded and fences repaired.
In this article I am going to focus on some interesting developments in the use of livestock guardian dogs (LGD) around the globe. The use of LGD is constantly evolving and becoming more expansive. Traditionally their use was limited to shepherds in remote areas solely for the protection of their flocks. The dog’s roles were to primarily be a guard dog to the flocks from predators and sometimes as guard dogs to protect the villages, camps or caravans of the more nomadic people. The use of LGD was pretty much a “forgotten” tool due to the change in how sheep were being raised and to the extirpation of large predators from many regions of the world.  During the late 1970’s and early 80’s an interest for the use of these dogs in North America began to emerge. Researchers wanted to find better ways to manage coyote predation and started to explore how effective LGD could be in North America. 

In Western Europe, traditional shepherding made way for stationary, fenced in pasture systems and as the wolf had been extirpated from many of these countries, the need for LGD dwindled. In the past decade,  interest for these dogs has resurged as the wolf has made a comeback (due to the protected status of the wolf) and it is now moving/expanding back into countries that have not seen wolves in hundreds of years.  Obstacles livestock keepers face include, learning how to work effectively with these dogs,  how to integrate LGD into an urbanised, highly populated  agricultural landscape, keeping the public safe in places where the  LGD and the general public interact, shared land use, how to educate the public about these dogs, dealing with dog and human aggressiveness, traffic, fencing issues, nuisance complaints, litigation and welfare matters are all issues that need examination. These obstacles are generally non-issues in traditional shepherding countries.
With this resurgence in interest, it is not just the large sheep ranchers using LGD, interest from smaller homestead type operations has increased as well as demand for protecting non-traditional type of livestock such as poultry, horses and pigs, exotic animals such as llamas, alpacas and semi domesticated species such as reindeer. 

We sleep more peacefully knowing the dogs are on guard, and enjoy the companionship they provide during daily chores, flock moves and adventures in the woods.

It is interesting to watch this evolution of LGD use taking place, the next big shift has been utilizing LGD in conservation projects. From protecting farm animals to now protecting endangered wildlife!  One of the first, and best-known projects  is the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. The thought process is, if the ranchers would lose less livestock to cheetah, then the farmers would be less inclined to kill the cheetah, thus helping to save this endangered species. The positive part is that farmers are satisfied with the job these LGD are doing in reducing predation (including predation from other predators such as the jackal) and this results in fewer cheetahs being killed. A win-win situation. 

Another well known project where LGD are used for wildlife conservation is the Little Penguin project in Australia. In 2005 a project was started to bond Maremma sheepdogs to poultry with the goal of being placed on an island to protect Little Penguins from fox predation.   This small island was home to a colony of Little Penguins, the colony numbers were collapsing due to fox predation (at low tide the foxes could access the island and would damage the nests, eat eggs and kill the chicks) and human disturbance. This resulted in the decline of the colony almost to the point of no return, despite alternate measures to protect them.  Dave Williams was key to pioneering the project to use LGD on this island to help prevent fox predation. Although this project has had its fair share of challenges to overcome, the Little Penguins have increased in numbers and no birds were lost to foxes while the dogs were on duty. The obstacles the project faced with the LGD included things like the dogs leaving the island at low tide and some pups roughhousing/killing the Little Penguins. Each problem was perceived as a challenge and solutions were sought. E-fencing was used to keep the dogs on the island and more attention was given to the bonding and habituating process. Dogs were replaced or removed as needed.  Dave Williams reflects; “No one had done anything vaguely like it before. It’s an evolving project. We were constantly having discussions about how we could do things better.” This project garnered so much media attention, that in 2015 a film was made about this project, it was named after one of the Maremma dogs used in this project, his name was Oddball.
Dave Williams has since moved on from the Little Penguins and is now involved in a similar project where he supervises another LGD program for guarding Australasian Gannets, a large seabird. The Little Penguin project continues.
Other research projects that are being undertaken in Australia include investigating the effects of LGDs on foxes, and consequent survival of reintroduced eastern barred bandicoots. For those who do not know an eastern barred bandicoot is a small rabbit sized marsupial. It almost became extinct due to predation by foxes, cats, and land clearing practices. The conservation of this little animal depends solely on captive breeding and reintroductions back into the wild. LGD could play an important role in keeping foxes and cats out of the environment where these bandicoots are reintroduced, thus fostering the survival chances of the eastern barred bandicoot.

Another evolving use is investigating if LGD could play an integral role is in the restoration of habitats that are over pressured by herbivore grazing.  The researches in this new project intend to study things such as movement, browsing and foraging behaviour of deer and Eastern grey kangaroos, with the goal of restoration of grasslands, riparian areas, woodlands and wetlands.  The researches want to monitor what effects the LGD will have on these herbivore species, and how vegetation responds to changes in herbivore abundance and behaviour. The research will include exploring the effect that LGDs have on the distribution and numbers of grey kangaroos within an agricultural landscape. If LGD can keep fragile areas from being overgrazed by herbivores it could allow for more natural restoration of these habitats.
We know from research that LGD can also play a role in disease mitigation, studies have shown that LGD are effective at keeping deer away from cattle. Bovine tuberculosis (TB) occurs in wild white-tailed deer and have been implicated in transmitting the disease to cattle. With LGD keeping deer away from cattle and, indirectly away from cattle feed, the potential transmission of the disease is reduced as the deer and the cattle did not have direct contact. LGD could also provide a viable biosecurity tool for smaller cattle operations within this context.

Not only do LGD protect livestock, they are also exhibit strong territorial behaviour, LGD have been very effective on our own operation in keeping elk away from our winter feed. The Alberta government has programs and subsidies in place to help ranchers build fences to protect their hay from elk and deer predation. Our LGD have been effective in chasing elk away from our hay bales and ensuring that the elk and deer are kept away from our plastic covered silage pits. Deer and elk walking over the plastic, causing damage results in spoilage to the feed. This is serious economic loss for our operation.  Having the dogs out in the pastures and around the feed yards, has meant we have not had to invest in 8-foot-high elk fences to protect our winter feed. I have heard of programs where bee keepers are  using LGD in bee yards to deter bears and a friend of mine uses LGD to protect her chained up racing sled dogs from predators and other large wildlife.

The primary work our LGD do is protect the sheep, but a great added perk is they also keep the elk and deer off our pastures and away from our winter stock piled feed.

Finally, as the use of LGD evolves  and becomes redefined in some areas,  the biggest, singular positive advantage to using LGD is the mental peace of mind we have. We can sleep a bit easier knowing our livestock are safe. We feel personally protected having our dogs on the ranch, they accompany us when we head into the bush where wolves, bears and cougars live. We feel safer knowing they are an early warning system and help reduce the chance of us bumping into a bear or moose.  Having the LGDs on the ranch provides us with a sense of security from 2 and 4 legged intruders.  The gentle nudge of their head in my hand and companionship during the daily rounds is perhaps the greatest perk of them all!
 LGD are increasingly being tested and utilised in wildlife conservation and (potentially) in the restoration of habitats.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Lambing time and Livestock Guardian Dogs

This is IMO the best LGD behaviour for a LGD around lambing. The dog is not intruding, allows the ewe to do her job, is fully aware that the ewe is lambing. 
Lambing time and Livestock Guardian Dogs
©Louise Liebenberg, March 2020

As we slowly roll into spring, most sheep operations are preparing for the upcoming lambing season. For most ranches, this once a year event is a big one, as it marks the start of the new cycle. It is often met with excitement to see what new rams throw, watching lots of lambs running together in a mob and the joy of all this new life. It is also a time of concern, worries about weather, health and predators weigh on the sheep ranchers’ mind. With sleepless nights and long days, it is not a good time to have to worry about the livestock guardian dog (LGD).

Even though lambing time is when most producers need a trusted LGD, introducing a new adult at this point, might be a little too late. A new adult dog requires a settling in time, if sheep are not used to LGD then they may become quite stressed about the dog, if the shepherd does not know this dog, it will need supervision and guidance during the first few weeks to months, this all takes time and generally lambing time is not conducive to this. It is better to be prepared and have your new LGD in place a long time before lambing starts, so that you know the dog is trustworthy and your stock accepting of this dog.

Lambing time is, however, a great time to have pups aged 8 to 16-week-old around. Very few LGD pups cause trouble at this age, they are still too young and easily impressed by a protective ewe. The pup can really learn from this experience, build bonds and understand that ewes need to be respected. Lambs are not fearful and will happily go and lay with a young LGD pup. This is an ideal time for a pup to learn about sheep without the shepherd needing to fear that the pup might harm a lamb. This is what people call bonding, it is the time when the pup is impressionable and can come to see the sheep and lambs as part of his world. 
Having young pups around the lambs is a great way to help them learn that lambs and sheep are a part of their world. This is an ideal age for pups to bond with the ewes and lambs, as the pups get older more supervision will be needed.
After about 4 to 5 months of age, is when some issues can creep in. A 5month old pup is much stronger than the lambs, the pup wants to play all day and playing for a pup is wrestling, playfighting, mouthing and chasing.  The pup is in a stage of its development where it wants to push some boundaries and one can expect some naughty chase and nipping behaviour. Lambs can not discipline a rowdy pre-teen and it will require the owner to guide these interactions and ensure that the pup does not get into some bad habits or hurt the lambs.

The bonding process for this litter is so natural, the pups are raised in the barn with the sheep and lambs.  We spend time with the pups to ensure they are socialised with people, but this all happens in the barn  and with the sheep.

A pup in adolescence (between 8 and 18 months) can be a handful, as it can show a whole range of “bad” behaviors towards lambing ewes, these can include; stealing lambs, chasing the ewes away from her lambs, carrying lambs around in its mouth, running down/chasing lambs, attacking the ewe when she tries to protect her lambs, ear and face biting, holding lambs down with their paws, pulling afterbirths out of the ewe before she is done lambing, killing and eating the lambs and wool pulling. All highly undesirable behaviors if allowed to continue, escalate very quickly to killing and seriously maiming the livestock. When any of these behaviors are seen or even suspected, it is essential that the dog is contained and only allowed to be with the ewes while under human supervision. Just removing the dog temporarily does not teach it anything, this dog needs to be told in very clear terms that none of this behavior is acceptable. The good thing is, if you see these behaviors, the dog is telling you very clearly that it is not ready to be trusted around young and birthing stock. If it can escalate, then you have failed to take note of this behavior and have not taken the appropriate steps to stop it.  If you do not see the dog displaying this behavior but you find “evidence” of bad behavior ( sheep in a corner, panting livestock, tufts of wool, bloodied ears, a dead lamb  or half chewed lamb) then always suspect the LGD first, if you give it the "benefit of the doubt”, you might be allowing it to reinforce its own (bad) behavior. It is better to act immediately and supervise the dog, than let bad behavior escalate.  It is better to err on the side of caution than allow bad behavior to continue.  There is nothing wrong with a bit more supervision and guidance, and it is always preferable to trying to correct a dog that has got into a habit of chasing ewes away from their lambs, or killing newborns.

It is also good to remember that not every dog is equally good in all aspects of livestock guardian work. Some dogs might never be 100% reliable with newborns and yet they can still be very functional and excellent guardians with older stock. I think it is  good to remember that on a small operation, an LGD might only ever experience a handful of births. This is not enough for an LGD to become super reliable with birthing if it only experiences a few births, once a year. A dog on a large operation might experience a few thousand births per year and by the time it is 10 years old might have experienced tens of thousands of births. In behavioral language this is called “flooding”, where the dog is exposed to so much stimuli that it does not really react to it anymore.  A young LGD on a large operation will eat so many afterbirths that it truly will not find this a novel or  an exciting experience anymore. It will have met up with so many belligerent ewes that it will know to make a nice wide berth around these ewes.

The experiences for an LGD on a small versus large operation are just not comparable. Similarly, an operation that lambs indoors, will also not give the LGD the opportunity to experience lambing ewes and newborn lambs. One day the LGD  might be surprised when his ewes who are suddenly accompanied by small little bouncy things. This can certainly excite a young LGD enough that it might do some naughty things like chase those new creatures around. Watching the dog when lambs and ewes are first turned out, is always a good policy.

Some people promote this idea that two is the magic age when suddenly, LGDs become reliable and before then, they are not trustworthy. I am going to suggest, all LGD who shows any signs of not being trustworthy, at any age, requires supervision, whether they are 9 months old or 10 years old. If the dog only experiences a few births ever, he might need supervision all his life. Some dogs are trustworthy right from the start, but many do make mistakes and it is the job of the shepherds to teach them what is acceptable behavior and what is not. There are no hard and fast rules to this, and the key is “reading your stock” and paying attention to the dog.

I know a lot of people have a nice, warm fuzzy feeling when they see their LGD licking off a newborn and certainly in the case of an experienced and trustworthy adult  LGD this might be okay. I prefer my LGD to watch at a distance and do not want them to interfere with the birth process. The ewe has her job, and that is to care for her lamb, lick it dry, feed it and bond with it. The dog’s job is to watch for predators and be ready to spring into action if one appears. Some dogs can be very intrusive and push the ewe away from her lamb, or the dog wants to lick the lamb clean and the ewe might reject that lamb. Some skittish yearlings will drop the lamb and if the dog comes too close, she will run away and never think of her lamb again. I want my dog to do his job, and my ewes to do theirs.

So, what does good lambing behavior look like for an LGD? I like my dogs to be watchful, at a comfortable distance from a lambing ewe. The dog must not intrude on her space or disrupt her in anyway. I want them to walk very calmly past and through the ewes and lambs, I want them to walk with their head low, avoid hard eye contact and to move around the ewes without disturbing them. If an ewe feels uncomfortable, then I want the dog to give her more space and quietly walk away or further around. I want the dog to be tolerant of the lambs without getting excited when they run and play. If the dog is not comfortable with the lambs, then it is the dog who should get up and move away. If an ewe charges the dog he does not need to retaliate, but just move away so that the ewe does not feel the need to charge the dog.  He may eat the afterbirths once the ewe has finished lambing. He needs to alert, vigilant and protective to predators, watchful and calm around the sheep.  I like my dogs to do a regular walk by an ewe who as lambed or lay calmly at a distance close to the ewe and her newborns.
The LGD watching a ewe giving birth at a nice respectable distance, the ewe is unconcerned about the dog.

The same dog does a walk by, just checking it out, eyes are averted, head low and her demeanor is calm. You can see the ewe is completely relaxed.
The dog has her back to the ewe; she is calm watchful and not intrusive. She is not trying to lick the lamb or grab an afterbirth and she is certainly not pushing the ewe away from her lamb.

A dog who is disruptive or excitable needs to spend more time with the sheep, it must be supervised or possibly tethered on a zipline. Removing the dog entirely will not help calm the dog down. I have a young female that was getting excited when the sheep ran, or the yearling ewes would jump and play. She spent the winter in our barn with the ewes who were lambing. She got to watch lambs run around all day and she is now not “triggered” by their movements.
Lambing time is a wonderful time for young pups to learn, it is also an important time for the adolescent dog but requires more supervision and guidance from the shepherd to ensure he does not get too excited or learns bad habits.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Fighting LGD

This is clear language. It is a warning that need to be respected. The head lower, the “hard” stare, the bared teeth is signing to another dog to back off.  The dogs will escalate his body language if the other dog persists before any fighting will take place. If the other dog turns his head away or moves off, then no fight will ensue. 

The Fighting LGD 
©Louise Liebenberg Feb 2020

Dogs live in social groups, as do wolves and most other canids. Living in a group or pack provides stability and protection to each member, it spreads the workload in looking after offspring, hunting together and of course protecting their territory.  These social groups are often family groups comprising of parents, older siblings, younger siblings and some aunts and uncles. To work as a cohesive group these animals need to be able to communicate with each other and this communication is often in the form of subtle body language and sometimes overt displays of physical communication.

The subtlety in this body language and the ability for both dogs to know what is happening reduced the risk of fighting. The older female eating tells the younger male to back off, he is the process of leaving. He is mindful and respectful, and this ensures that no fighting will take place.

It is not in the best interest of a social group living animals to fight with one another causing injuries, disruption and sometimes death to a (pack) member. Livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are most effective if they work and live as a cohesive pack. Against apex predators it is pretty much the only way to ensure the safety of individual dogs and to provide a formidable front to the predators. Unfortunately, pack fighting does occur and the reasons why LGD fight are numerous. Some of the more common reasons for in pack fighting include; resources (resources can be food, toys, attention, space, the livestock, newborn lamb, water bowl etc.), or there could be rivalry (sibling or strange dogs), breeding rights, territory, redirected aggression, disruptions in social structures ( new dog brought into existing pack), in some instances because some dogs display inappropriate social behaviours/neurotic or extreme anxiety, aggressiveness due to pain or injury and underdeveloped or insufficient social communication skills in some dogs. 

In stable packs most disputes can be solved with body language without the need to engage in fighting.  Behaviours such as posturing, submissiveness, lip licking, ear carriage, positioning, tail set, wider eyes, raised hackles, stiff legged walking, growling, displaying the teeth as in growls or “smiles” and numerous other subtle signs are the language of dogs. Understanding this language can ensure that disputes can be settled without injury. In free living dog societies such as our LGD, or stray village dogs, dogs who are involved in aggressive confrontations, generally remove themselves from these situations and leave that group. In wolves these individuals that leave or are ousted from the pack are called dispersers.  This removal from an aggressive situation is sometimes a reason why some LGD roam. They are avoiding being involved in pack fighting and are either evicted or choose to leave the pack.
This is play behaviour, the dogs are play fighting, the paws on each other, mouthing. No escalation as they are playing.

Not all dogs are equally skilled at communication (just like some people),  single dog homes are often a prime example of this, where the singularly raised dog simply  does not read social ques and body language of other dogs. They are often rude and do not respect boundaries of other dogs, this often leads to some harsh disciplining. People often ask how to introduce a puppy to their existing LGD group. If the pup was raised appropriately with its mother and litter mates to an adequate age, it will have learnt enough about dog language to be able to meet new dogs without being injured. Older dogs who are raised with other dogs, will also read and understand a new puppy’s body language and should not harm it. It is unnatural for older dogs to kill or seriously injure pups. Pups may be corrected for being overzealous or not respecting the space or warnings of an older dog, but these corrections are rarely physically injurious. The pup might sound as though he is being killed, but generally only his ego is hurt. Stable tempered dogs will not harm pups and so introductions should not be an issue.
One of our LGD was serious injured during an inpack fight, it nearly cost this dog his life and cost many thousands of dollars in vet care. Today, despite some scarring and a half ear, he is still working.

When pack fighting occurs with LGD it can be serious and highly disruptive to the working ability of the pack. The dogs are so busy fighting each other, that they have no attention for what is going on beyond these pack dynamics.  In a study done by Robin Rigg’s in Georgia he noted that 4 dogs was the ideal number of dogs to have in a pack, larger numbers tended to be more focused ion trying to control and maintain their own pack dynamics rather than being attentive to their job. Similarly, I have found 3 to 4 mature dogs and a younger pup work well as a group. If the group is much bigger, the tensions do rise. This does not mean that it will always end in fighting, but I tend to see more signs of tension, particularly in posturing behaviour. If the dogs have a large area to work, then the tensions are diminished as there is enough space to get away and avoid conflict situations. Controlling things such as feeding time and attention will also reduce tensions among the dogs. 

Although all fighting looks the same, the reasons for the fight are often very different.
When bitches are coming into heat, the tensions escalate with more posturing between the females and claiming behaviour from the males. These fights are related to the changes in hormones and potential status of the bitch. 
The tensions are running a little high in this interchange. The female on the right is in heat, the male is “guarding her”, the younger female on the left is being deferential to the breeding pair.

Fighting over resources can often be easily managed by a shepherd, fighting over food can be resolved by tethering all the dogs separately until they have all eaten, or removal of a bone or toy. Whenever a resource fight occurs, removing the object or changing the management can help to avoid these fights. 

It is important to prevent fights from escalating, a fight over a resource, if not contained or corrected, could become fights over nothing. Dogs are not averse to a good brawl, so once fighting starts, the dogs do not mind keeping it going and continuously looking for a fight.  The reason why they start fighting initially, is not always the reason why they continue to fight. Dogs hold a grudge, so once fighting starts it is usually very hard to prevent future fighting. They do not need “a reason” to fight other than they hold a grudge. It is therefore vital to try and stop fighting before it begins and escalates to the point where the dogs have zero tolerance for each other.

Other fighting that can occur is because an older dog dies and this creates instability within the pack, this chaos within the pack can lead to fighting with new roles needing to be established.  The older dog could have been the “peacekeeper”, maintaining a stable relationship between the other dogs in the group.  Another scenario, a younger, bolder, sexually mature dog might want to challenge the older, dog over breeding rights, or resources. Sometimes, the older dog will acquiesce, and things will settle down. In a situation where the older dog does not defer, serious injury can result. In many shepherds camps it is these old warrior dogs that are  (who are well regarded by the shepherds) that get some added protection in the form of a wolf/spike collar to help prevent serious injuries due to in pack fighting.

This old Macedonian sheepdog wears a spiked collar to protect this dog from in-pack fighting.

In well structured packs, it is also prudent that we do not attempt to micromanage every interaction or disagreement between the dogs. They should be allowed to resolve their own differences through body language and dog communication, provided they are not fighting.  There is a big difference between allowing them to resolve their issues through displays of body language and fighting.

The common advice given out is “let them fight it out, they will sort it out”.   This is poor advice as most dogs do not actually “sort it out” or certainly, do not sort it out long enough to have stability in the pack. It usually ends with one dog being seriously injured or killed. In a good scenario this dog just leaves away pack to avoid been killed.  Once dogs start to fight, it rarely stops.  If nothing is resolved, these fights will escalate in intensity and frequency. It will come to a point where the two dogs can simply not even be in the same proximity to each other. This type of fighting does not resolve itself and ultimately, these dogs need to be permanently separated to avoid serious harm. Most often these types of fights occur when the dogs are similar in age, equivalent in strength, same sex and where the status within the pack is unclear. 

In many regions in Europe, a traditional form of dog fighting (wrestling) takes place with the guardian dogs. It is not the fighting we know of pit bulls in dog fighting rings.  For the shepherds it is to see which dogs display the most dominance (power and influence), bravery and courage. Many “fights” are lost or won by the displays of posturing. It is for many of the shepherds a way to “test” their dogs and breeding selection is based on the outcome of these fights. 

Pasture breeding is another form of selection, where the female is free to choose her mate, and the males fight it out for breeding rights. This is regarded by many shepherds as “natural selection”, the strongest, toughest dog will get breeding rights to the female, therefore producing strong and tough pups for the future. Although this type of breeding is often frowned upon in the modern world, it is how our guardian dogs have been bred and selected for hundreds of generations. 

In many cases, human intervention exacerbates the conflict between two dogs. The things we do could inadvertently cause more fighting.  Having too many dogs in a small area, not enough work for the dogs, or we encourage resource guarding by providing toys and bones or we intervene during a “communication event” (stiff legged walking hackles raised etc.). Sometimes we do nothing, when we need to intervene or intervene in an inappropriate manner thereby escalating tensions or causing redirected aggression. When tensions are high between dogs, we need to be very mindful of our own actions so that we do not trigger the dogs to fight.

There are things we can do to help manage in-pack fighting which includes staggering of ages in the dogs, making opposite sex teams,  spaying or neutering, having the appropriate number of dogs for the operation and livestock, feeding rituals (which can include tethering each dog while they eat or feeding far apart, or even self feeding systems), separation before escalation between dogs that are showing tension towards each other and selecting dogs that work well together. Sometimes, a dog simply does not fit in and is very disruptive to the pack, we have found rehoming such a dog helps keep the pack more stable. We focus on reducing stress and tension and in this keeps fighting to the minimum. 
Calmness and stability in a pack of dogs improves the ability of the dogs to protect the flock.

I think the golden rule is to prevention is better than curing. Stopping all fighting (attacking each other) is easier than managing dogs who are willing and wanting to fight with each other. With each fight, the chances for escalation increases and the ferocity intensifies. Teenage squabbling will often escalate into fighting, so we are quick to separate teenagers and place them in a field with mature adults. Fighting is bad for the stability of the pack; it is bad for your wallet as vets are not cheap and bad for the dogs as they can be seriously hurt or even killed. 

Friday, 27 March 2020

Why do Livestock Guardian Dogs need Fencing?

Regular woven wire fence that can contain the livestock should be good enough to contain the LGD.

Why do Livestock Guardian Dogs need Fencing?

©Louise Liebenberg 2020

Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) seem to have this reputation for being known to roam. It is true that LGD like to expand their territory and push predators further back. They have no qualms about claiming the neighbors land to guard, as well as your land and all the adjacent land too. On large expansive range operations, what keeps the LGD close to the band of sheep is his bond to the livestock, the shepherd and the other dogs working on that range. In Europe, the shepherds always accompany the sheep while grazing and rarely are the dogs left alone to guard the livestock, as they are here in North America. At night the sheep return to the village or the yard of the shepherd, and the dogs spend the nights at the sheep fold or tethered close by. The dogs travel with the shepherds and their flocks, and are always under the watchful eyes of the shepherds who will call a dog back if it goes to far.

As the shepherds live in the village, and the goats and sheep are housed in barns within the village, the neighbours are more tolerant of the working dogs. Everyday the shepherd leaves the village, collects the goats from the various houses and heads out to the mountains to graze. The village people are tolerant of the dogs and traffic is mindful of the shepherd, his goats and the dogs.
In North America, we have a system that is primarily based on a pastured system, the sheep are contained within some fencing and grazing is rotated through pastures or on large tracts of fenced land, in this way, the sheep control their own grazing and a shepherd does not have to be present to tend to the sheep. To ensure the sheep are safe, even when no one is present, the LGDs are left alone with the sheep within the fenced pastures. It is not the original way shepherds worked with LGD but has become the North American way.  This system of pasturing livestock creates some issues that are often not seen in the more traditional husbandry systems. Although some guardian dogs do roam, even with a shepherd in attendance, it is less common, and these dogs often find their way back to their own band or join up with another band.  Due to the vast areas these sheep graze, the lack of neighbours and roads, if the LGDs do head out and go further away chasing predators, it is not usually a big problem. 

The biggest issues for LGD are those living on smaller pasture-based systems, where roaming or chasing predators away could mean these dogs end up on neighbour’s land, in their yards and on public roads. Neighbors are generally intolerant of having strange dogs on their properties. Dogs that roam  are a nuisance, they poop, urinate against vehicles, cause the neighbors dogs to bark, they could potentially breed the neighbors dogs, kill cats, frighten children, eat the neighbors dog food, rip garbage bags open, bark at the landowners and a multitude of other problems. The roaming LGD is not only a cause of frustration for other people but is also a liability for the owner. A roaming LGD could cause a vehicle accident, could cause stock (not familiar with dogs) to panic and get injured, they can bite or injure someone. Not only is this bad for the LGD as it could end up run over, shot, picked up by animal control or injured, but it reflects poorly on the sheep industry. It gives “ammo” to the animal rights groups on how badly we care for our dogs. A big difference here, in comparison to remote villages in Europe, is that we live in a litigious society, who are generally less tolerant about other people’s animals coming onto their property and causing problems such as barking and roaming. Fellow shepherds in Europe are less like likely to cause you legal issues, the biggest problem could be that your dog gets killed by their own LGDs.

The question often arises, surely if LGDs are properly bonded to the livestock it will not roam?  This is true to a degree, in those vast open ranges, the bonding works well, however, no matter how tight the bond is between dog and livestock, it will generally not prevent a LGD chasing a coyote a fair distance away. It is their job to ward off predators, not just hang out with the livestock. It is part of their duties to “claim” the territory where the sheep graze by patrolling, barking, chasing predators and scent marking. Staying in the vicinity of the flock is part of their job, but it is not the whole job.  Bonding alone, will not prevent an LGD from leaving the property or the sheep flock. Nothing is more fun for an LGD than to actively chase away yipping and howling critters and expanding their own territory. Dogs do not have the same sense of space as we do, our boundaries and fences are  not necessarily boundaries a LGD would respect.

The solution to this roaming issue is simple; you either go and shepherd the sheep during the hours they graze and tether or kennel the LGD at night when the sheep are back in the fold, or you can move and run a range operation where roaming LGD are not a big problem  or you might have to fence your property to prevent the LGD from leaving your land. 

This Shepherd in Portugal keeps an eye on the dog and goats while grazing. It is the bond between the shepherd, the goats and the dog that keeps the dog from roaming away.

Many LGDs are (unfortunately) not simply contained, what drives them to want to leave are primal instincts and those are powerful. We also know that LGDs seem to have an uncanny ability to find and utilize every weakness in your fence. If you think you have a well contained area, wait until you add an LGD to show you every low spot, crawl space and gap in the fence. LGDs have Houdini like qualities, can shape shift and can clear just about any obstacle. Some people build veritable prisons to contain their LGDs,  others employ the “fence in front of a fence” system, and others throw everything they have to keep their dog contained, woven wire fences, hotwires, buried in the ground anti-dig fences, coyote rollers on gates and to finish it off an invisible fence.

The doubters will point out if you need fencing this good to contain the dog, then surely it will keep the predators out and one would not even need a dog. Yes, that might be true, but if I look at enclosures in zoos to keep wolves in, then I do not doubt that most fences found on ranches, are simply not predator proof enough. The fence on most ranchers are to keep the livestock in, they are not built to keep predators out.

We have good fences, (bison woven wire fence with hot-wires over top) and, we have bears, wolves, coyotes, lynx, cougars and all the ungulates and moose all within our fenced areas. The fences do not keep the wildlife out but are good enough to keep our livestock and LGD in.

I think the biggest “trick” to keeping the livestock guardian dog contained is to ensure it is happy to want to live with the livestock (bonded and content), that its social needs are met either with contact from humans or other pack members, possibly spay and neutering to reduce any hormonal desires to find  a mate and some fence training. Teaching the pup to respect boundaries and fences is easier done than trying to break the habit of roaming. Roaming is a self rewarding behaviour, and those behaviours are generally very hard to stop. Every time the dog gets to leave, reinforces his own desire to go.

I do not think that fences have to be excessive, if it is good enough (except for barb wire strands) to contain the livestock, the fence should be sufficient to contain the dog. I do like to have a starter pasture that is very well fenced that I can use as my teaching pasture. I use this area to bond the pups to the livestock, and the pup learns early on that fences and boundaries need to be respected. If a pup does find its way out of the pasture, we make the experience outside the pasture quite unpleasant and the pup is returned to the pasture directly. We always make time to ensure that the training field fences are excellent. If we notice a pup has a desire to leave, we will rig up a learning situation. If the pup likes to dig, we will run a strand of hot-wire of on the outside of the fence so if he is trying to crawl under, he will get zapped. If he is a climber an offset hot-wire over top will help with that. We make sure we never talk to the pup over the fence, as this encourages the pup to stand up against the fence. We teach them about electric sheep nets as much of our summer grazing for the sheep are in nets. Most importantly, we spend time to ensure the pup is happy and content being where he is. We will have a mature companion dog in this area, the pup is in with kind livestock, he has a nice place to sleep and eat without the livestock bullying the pup, and we spend a fair amount of time with the pup in that area. In this way his needs are met, food, shelter and companionship (livestock, another dog and human).

Macedonia, when the sheep are back in the village, after a day of grazing, the LGDs are tethered for the night. A few pups or an older dog, may be a laying in the yard loose.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

What matters more breed or breeder?

This young guardian dog is being raised with and bonded to some heifers, his job in the future will involve working with cattle.

What matters more breed or breeder?
©Louise Liebenberg 2019
Written for: The Shepherds Magazine

By the time you receive this issue of The Shepherds Magazine the new year will be underway. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a healthy and prosperous new year! 

The USDA, under the guidance of Julie Young and Daniel Kinka recently did a study to compare livestock guardian dog (LGD) breeds, they found that all the LGD breeds were more similar, than different in how they respond to threats. This is a logical conclusion, bearing in mind that all livestock guardian dogs have the same job, and that is to protect the livestock from predators. This job description remains the same throughout all the different countries and all the different breeds. With well over 30 different livestock guardian dog breeds who are all bred to protect livestock from large predators, the expectation would be, that these breeds should exhibit similar traits despite differences in looks and type.

 Livestock guardian dogs do not only share similar working traits (high nurturing qualities that allows them to bond to the livestock, high protectiveness, vigilant, independent, discerning, loyal, canine aggressive) but also many phenotypical traits which are directly related to their effectiveness to do their job. LGD are large dogs, most are double coated (a few exceptions), many have thick loose skin, all have hanging ears, most have “normal” proportions and angulation, strong, large teeth in a correct configuration even head proportions are similar. Coat types (corded, rough and shorter coated) and colours do vary among the breeds.  

These traits are what you can generally expect when looking for a livestock guardian dog breed. When bred for this job, these traits become hardwired into the DNA of the dogs. You can count on a certain amount of predictability of these traits. Predictability is what differentiates a mutt from a purebred (not, a registered dog) dog. Careful breeding and selection (culling) is what the shepherds did to have a breed suitable and capable of doing its job. Predictability in traits reduces the risk, and the time required for a dog to learn to do a specific job.  An example would be that a greyhound, they have been bred and selected for speed, when you breed a greyhound to another greyhound, you know how it will look and it will have speed. That is predictability in traits. It is similar for all the various groups of dogs, herding dogs’ herd, hounds have good noses and scenting abilities. If you need a herding dog, your success will greatly improve if you select a herding breed to start with. 

Therefore, the advice is given to new people looking for an LGD pup to stay within the LGD breeds or crosses only between LGD breeds. Once you add in breeds such as border collie or Labrador, the genetic waters get muddied, certain traits can conflict with others resulting in unpredictable behaviour. Imagine buying a Border Collie x Great Pyrenees, you hope to have a livestock guardian dog, but instead you get a very large, stubborn, white herding dog that could not care at all about the coyotes but wants to spend its entire life herding the livestock around. 
Alternatively, you could win the lottery and maybe that cross will be what you want, but we all know that the chance of winning the lottery is slim! Having a cross like this is like playing Russian Roulette with your livestock, you could be lucky, but most of the time you are not.

So, this brings me to the most common question asked regarding LGD: “What breed of LGD should I get?” (This question is often followed with parameters such as no roaming, little barking, preferably really friendly with other dogs, good with strangers).
Personally,  I do not think that the breed itself is what will determine the most success on your operation, I think it has more to do with the breeder and their ability to help and guide you.

A good breeder will be able to tell you about their operation and help you decide if what they breed and select for, will be suited for your operation. They will guide you in your decision making and be willing to answer your questions. The right breeder will be able to tell you about the working ability of their dogs, will share the challenges of raising their dogs and can outline what you can expect from a dog bred by them. They will have information on possible genetic health issues and the health status of their dogs and can explain what they value in their breeding dogs. The breeder should be willing to offer mentor-ship and support to you, to ensure the pup they bred will be successful on your operation. The breeder should be your first go to for questions regarding raising and training your LGD. The breeder will inform you about vaccinations and de-worming your pup will have, as well as advise you what future veterinary care may be needed.  The breeder should be able to give you important information regarding the temperament of the parents and perhaps other siblings and family members, which could make your decision easier.

It really amazes me when people contact me to ask some basic questions regarding their pup, questions I feel, should be answered by their breeder. In many cases these people do not even know the name of their breeder. When you are willing to pay good money for dog that is supposed to protect your livelihood, you should invest that money into a breeder who will provide you with support. 
I regard using LGDs as an investment in your ranch and security for your livestock, it is in your own best interests to get the best you can.

Even though each breed is unique, their basic traits are similar, finding the right breed for your operation should certainly include finding the right breeder too. Personal preferences and some parameters will narrow down the options. 
Some ranchers do not like dealing with long coated breeds, so breed selection might be narrowed down to the shorter coated breeds such as the Kangal, Akbash, Anatolian or Central Asian Ovcharka. Some, people prefer the white dogs, this will also narrow down your breed choice.  People who are dealing with larger predators might want breeds who are perhaps a little higher on the protectiveness/aggressive side, so breeds such as the Sarplaninac, Kangals or Ovcharkas might be what you need. If you run a large range operation, then dogs who are more athletic in their conformation might be a good criterion to select for. 
All LGD bark, all LGD like to expand their territory so those might not be reliable parameters to select an LGD on.

For many people, availability is an issue, you might decide the perfect breed for you is Koochi, but finding a reliable breeder, who has working dogs that fit your operation might be a bigger challenge than anticipated. Importing brings its own risks; breeder support becomes more complicated, costs generally skyrocket, and then of course you have scammers, peddlers and false advertising to navigate in a foreign language. Plenty of breeders in foreign countries who advertise “working” LGD, but working can be relative, for some it may be dog fighting, or shows, or the fact that the breed itself is classified as a LGD breed, but over the past 5 generations none of the breeding dogs have actually seen a sheep.

My advice would be for finding the right LGD for your operation is to review some of these questions:
What do I need? An LGD in with stock to protect from predators or a general farm dog?
How big is the threat of predators and what predators am I dealing with?
What breeds am I attracted to and why?  (read about the breeds, do some research, ask people their opinions, speak to breed clubs, speak to producers who have these breeds)
Are their neighbors who have similar operations to mine and how are their dogs? Go for a visit and talk dogs and livestock.
Speak to breeders and ask questions that are important to your operation and what you want in a dog.
Is health testing important to you, then ask about that.
Ask about temperament, problems, good things, predator losses, how they would describe their dogs working abilities?

Pay attention to “red flags”; if a breeder cannot spell the breed name correctly, beware. No livestock, but a good story, probably not what you want. More dogs than livestock? Accidental litter, are you sure the daddy is who they say it is? When the breed standard says a breed can only be a certain colour and you see a litter with odd colours or markings, or a questionable size, or erect ears then take a deep breath and think hard if this is what you think it is. It is amazing how many “throwback” or rare pups are out there,  when breeders start spinning the throwback story to a long lost line and colours that normally are not found in a certain breed, then it is time to pause.

My advise would be look for the breeder who operates a livestock operation similar to yours, see the dogs working, ask about mentorship and chose the breeder who has your best interests at heart. I think the breeder is perhaps more important than the breed, in being successful in raising your LGD.

A good breeder will be able to give you information on the parents of a pup and also assist a new LGD owner with raising and training the pup.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Seasonality Issues

An early snow fall means the sheep need to come into the winter feeding areas, the LGD need some time to adjust to the new routine, smaller pastures and the breeding season for the sheep.

Seasonality Issues
©Louise Liebenberg 2019

This article was written for the The Shepherds Magazine

I hear this  question more often than what one would believe; how can I prevent my dog from “humping the sheep”? Recently, the question was asked how can I prevent my goat buck from “humping” the livestock guardian dog (LGD)? As comical as it sounds, these questions arise regularly and I see a pattern in the time of the year that certain issues seem to be more prominent than other times.
Although no statistical claims can be made regarding this, I do see a seasonal pattern with some of the issues we see with LGDs. Understanding the triggers to bad behaviour, could make finding the solution to the problem a little easier.

Seasonality issues are often related to changes in livestock husbandry. Fall time is usually a big change in livestock management. After the long warm days of summer pasturing, fall comes with cooler temperatures. In colder climates the sheep come off pasture, lambs are weaned, rams or bucks are introduced for breeding and routines change. The ewes start to cycle as the days become shorter and colder.  Livestock guardian dogs generally like calm and order, big changes often require an adjustment period for the dog, and some dogs tend to show some disruptive and odd behaviours when things change. 

Our dogs spend all winter and spring with our cattle, during the summer the cattle go onto summer pasture. The dogs only see the cows again when the first snow starts to fly, and we bring the cows and calves home for the winter. It will usually take a few weeks for them to quit barking at the cows and the dogs will even attempt to chase them away from the sheep. I will correct the dogs for doing this, but also know that it is a temporary adjustment and soon the dogs will settle down. With a younger dog, he could become a little more fanatic in chasing and barking at the cows, unless dealt with, it could escalate to seriously problematic behaviour. A younger dog might be placed in a smaller pasture so I can better monitor what he is doing and can correct his behaviour or will be in an adjoining pasture until he settles down. A little dog management goes along way to prevent an escalation of bad behaviour.

This young LGD was getting a little too enthusiastic with chasing the cows after they returned off summer pasture. Some time in a smaller pen to get reacquainted with each other solved that issue.

Dogs are not immune to the hormonal changes in the livestock, they smell the testosterone coursing through the veins of the rams, and everyone can smell a Billy goat in the rut!  The ewes are highly hormonal, and some male dogs can be triggered by this smell. They will attempt to mount the ewe; some might lick the ewe’s vulva excessively, some will attempt to “hold” an ewe in place by holding it down with its paws or teeth, some wool plucking can occur too. All these behaviours need correcting and monitoring. In some instances, neutering the male will have a positive effect on reducing this behaviour however, the most important point is to make the LGD know it is unacceptable behaviour. Timely corrections go a long way to putting an end to bad behaviour, many dogs do mature out of this behaviour once they are more accustomed the cycle of the sheep.

For some dogs, the introduction of a new buck or ram can lead to him chasing it away aggressively, attacking the new ram or constantly keeping it away from the ewes. A younger dog might perceive the new ram as a threat and these new sheep do not belong here. Some bucks can be quite aggressive or obstinate towards the dogs and this can cause some problems with the LGD.  A belligerent ram and a playful dog might start a game of headbutting, play bowing, nipping and running off, this pattern can eventually become quite aggressive where the dog and ram attack each other. Initially, it looks like fun and games but, it can become a serious problem. 
A young dog could benefit from time in the buck or ram pen before the introduction of the rams into the flock, this way the dog can get to know the “new” animals and become accustomed to the smell and behaviour of the rams before they are mixed into the flock. These introductions are important when new breeding animals are introduced to the herd.  It might make the transitions a little easier for the rams and LGD.

The young male LGD spends time in with the rams to ensure that when the rams join the ewes at breeding time he knows them and will not be too concerned about their introduction into the flock.

Roaming can be another issue in the fall, some dogs might want to head back out to the summer grazing pastures, other might feel “bored” coming into a smaller winter feeding pen, the confinement and perhaps less active work can lead to some dogs to start roaming.

Going back to my initial example, if a goat buck is humping the dog, you could see an escalation in aggressive behaviour on the part of the dog, he might retaliate with a bite to the goat, growling and generally trying to protect his space and body. Some bucks can be relentless, and the dog certainly does not have to be abused by the buck. I am one of those LGD people that feels that a dog does not have to tolerate being jumped on, pushed away from its food and certainly not being mounted by a randy goat. My dogs can protect their space, food and body. However, this protection of their space and body does have restrictions, it may protect itself within reason and it certainly may not escalate its protective behaviour. A growl, a snap and a nip are acceptable but biting and ripping is not. He can snap at the goats and chase them away from his food but may not pursue the animal over an extended distance.  As many young dogs do not know what I regard as “reasonable”, I will often just watch the dog, if he chases or bites a sheep too harshly while protecting himself,  I will correct him or will give him a place to retreat to where the sheep or goats cannot get in. I sometimes will feed the dogs in a corner of the pasture that I have closed off with cattle panels where the dog can crawl under to go and eat and sleep in peace.

 Similarly, a dog that is humping the livestock also needs to be corrected, of course the sheep or goat can butt or stomp, but often the dog is too powerful and the animal cannot protect itself, this is where we need to step in and correct the behaviour. I am a firm believer in each species living together and yet having respect for personal space. The dog should not be “hugging” (holding the livestock between its paws), holding it with its teeth or chewing the livestock. Sexual mounting falls into the unacceptable behaviour patterns!

Although no excuse for bad behaviour, it is always good to consider what could be the reason for a change in the LGD’s behaviour. Particularly, when the dog has been good all summer and suddenly, his behaviour becomes concerning. Question what changed, what could have instigated the change in behaviour, what factors need to be considered? When you consider these questions, solutions are often easily found.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Thoughts and Concerns

I have been wanting to write this post for a long time, but it is always hard to gather my thoughts on this topic. Generally, I do not write much about people, I like to keep my stuff focused on the dogs and their behavior. However, lately some things have started to concern me, and I felt more and more the need to write some of this down. In part, as a cautionary tale, in part to share some of my concerns with you and of course to reflect on all things Sarplaninac.

As a breeder and a long time lover of the Sarplaninac breed, I have seen a trend over time that rather concerns me. When we moved to Alberta from Europe 11 years ago, we brought our Sarplaninac dogs with us. We raised sheep in Europe and used our dogs for livestock guardian dog work. It was back then, in 1992 very hard to find registered, working Sarplaninac dogs. Even then, despite breeders claims that they would work out because it is “in their blood”, in their line and simply because the breed standard says they are an LGD breed.  It was very hit and miss, we had some great dogs and others who were totally unreliable.

It became very apparent to me that not all Sarplaninac are created equally regarding LGD work. Looking at the history of the breed one can see how the breed evolved from a mountain working dog, tending to the flocks to the modern urban dog.  It did not have the fancy name “Sarplaninac” back then and was simply called a "sheepdog". The breed underwent multiple name changes and splits after recognition in the FCI.   The breed, and breeding, diverged and this split divided the breed (informally) into different jobs; the livestock guardian dog, the military dog and the urban/show/pet dog.

The Serbian army and their Sarplaninac dogs became quite famous. Breeding was controlled in the military kennels. The selection criteria were stringent, the military wanted one and the same type of dog, specific weight, size and colour. All peas in a pod.  Rumor has it, that to create a more biddable dog some other breeds were added into the original mountain dogs, including German Shepherd and Caucasian Ovcharka. Looking through these military pedigrees it is clear to see that line breeding and inbreeding was rife. It is also apparent that accuracy in registration was not always a high priority. Sometimes a male with a certain number would later appear as a female (with the same number) in another pedigree. Breeding litter mates was common, and the genetic diversity was low (high COI). The selection for the ideal military dog was based primarily on its suitability to do its job as a patrol dog, protection of structures and installations and a willingness to be human aggressive. A far cry of what was needed as an LGD. Personally, I have no issues with this type of dog been bred, IMO it is a different dog/breed to the mountain working sheepdog, however they do share a common name, and that is part of the problem in finding the dogs that can do their original LGD job. 

After the FCI recognised the breed and it went through multiple name changes, dog showing was the next best thing. Here selection was focussed solely on phenotypical properties. The dog had to match the breed standard in order to win ribbons. The standard is of course open to interpretation and an ideal vision is not always shared. It is like fashion; it is ever changing. Where, many years ago the steel gray dogs were regarded as the ideal, any other colour (despite the breed standard being quite diverse regarding colour) was dismissed.   In some of the breed standards “bigger is better”, in others very specific size parameters are laid out. Sadly, what we are seeing is a shift from the moderate working dog to oversized, “soggy” type of dogs. When people are proud that their dogs are larger than a Caucasian Ovcharka or heavier than 160lbs, then that is a reason to be concerned for the well being of the breed.

Breed Standards are subject to change, misinterpretation and, sometimes silly ideals. Some points slip into these standards that have no bearing on functionality and can be detrimental to a working breed.  That Sarplaninac should be double coated is a given, but to then state; “At the withers the hair should measure between 10 and12 cm; it should not be shorter than 7 cm” gives show breeders a singular focal point. Instead of the coat being efficient, waterproof, matt proof, protective, breeders selected for length only, it became too long, soft and flowy. Totally impractical and certainly not ideal for a working dog.  Similarly, the small white marking on the chest and toes, becomes a focal point for many breeders. They are proud that their dog has no white on its toes, but these same breeders do not mind if that same dog is cow hocked or has an unstable temperament! Instead of looking for a functional build that would suit the original LGD job, extremes become the focus, particularly in the show world.
More recently, we see more variation in colour in the show ring, which is good to keep the diversity within the breed. The latest trend now seems to be the focus on the “almond shaped eyes” and the lack of stop (supposedly wolf like) in show dogs. To the point, where some dogs look like they have malformed heads.
In the show ring the men parade around, and hopefully their dog will try to attack the other dog in the ring, thus showing “character”. These aggressive stand offs, the agitating of the dogs and sometimes even the dog fighting is proudly displayed on Facebook pages!  Once again, the selection is based on non-working sheepdog traits. 

I understand why the shepherds do not even want to call their dogs “Sarplaninac”, it is an insult to their working dogs. In their opinion, Sarplaninac are the ribbon chasing dogs and not the original working dogs. The shepherds want no part of FCI registration as they know it will ruin their dogs.  

Breeding and importing

When I brought our original dogs with us to Canada, most people here had not even heard about the breed.  Those they did, took the time to learn about them and to understand their nature. Sadly, the same as what has happened to the good working great Pyrenees, is now happening to the Sarplaninac breed. Weekly, one can find crosses of “sarplanic” dogs (these breeders do not even know how to spell the breed they are selling puppies of) with German Shepherd, maremma, Great Pyrenees, Anatolian and a variety of other breeds. Of course, the owners of these dogs want to cash in on the rare breed, so the “sarplanic” are advertised and often the other part of the cross is rarely mentioned. Some are sold as purebred, despite them being crossed.  More and more they start popping up in shelters and with greater regularity I am called to ask if I can help rehome one. One breeder pumps out litter after litter and any pups not sold are headed to the shelter. Many are sold into inappropriate homes, in towns and apartments.  The breed is getting watered down with poor breeding, no selection and unscrupulous breeders wanting a cash cow. Sadly, buyers are fooled into believing they have something special, and many even think they are getting a purebred. They pay upwards of $800 for these crosses. Many of these breeders advertise them as LGD, but they themselves do not own livestock. It makes my toes curl. The same breeders will also happily refer their buyers to me to help them out when these dogs have issues.

It disheartens me to hear how many people want to buy a pup from a good breeder just to want to cross breed it again. I know I will simply not sell a pup into such a situation. I love the breed, it is perfect as it is, is does not need to be crossbred. It is bad for the breed and will ultimately be the demise of the breed.  I will decline to sell to people who intend to cross breed, I do this out of respect for my own breeding program, the careful selection I do and for the breed itself.

This of course leaves some people angry. So angry, that I am unwilling to sell them a pup that they then set out to try and ruin me. I have had people threaten to ruin my reputation, put me out of business( the dogs is not my business) and one person even went so far as to send me a handwritten letter threatening me and our ranch.  I am not sure why people feel the need to threaten me, it just highlights to me even more that it is a good thing I never sold them a pup. If they have this kind of mentality, then I am happy to have made the decision to not sell to them.

For some people, the next step they undertake is to then import. It is easy to find willing breeders who tout championship lineage and who will tell you exactly what you want to hear. These Balkan breeders can be easily found on the internet and post on all the Sarplaninac and livestock guardian dog pages. They have discovered that they can easily sell to “rich Americans”. They are adept at smooth talking and they will happily sell you an LGD pup, despite their lines not been selected for LGD work.
They will often show photos of their dog with a sheep just to pretend to you that they are working. The go on about their amazing Championship dogs, best in Macedonia, top quality and will make an easy sell this way. They will arrange shipping and you think you have hit the jackpot in breeders and dogs.

Sadly, these breeders are often nothing more than glorified puppy mills. The bitches are bred back to back, whelp on concrete and absolutely no care is given where these pups end up as long as a sale is made.  I have known multiple people who have imported dogs from these breeders who have ended up with dead and maimed stock, dogs who have unreliable temperaments and some with some glaring faults. These breeders are unable to provide any support for when things go wrong with the livestock as they live in the middle of a city and do not have any livestock. Quite frankly they do not even care, they have your money and now it is your problem.
The often lie about things such as health testing and do not guarantee anything, so when you your pup has a problem, there is no recourse. In some instances, these breeders will use the buyer to promote their dog dealing business. If you post a nice picture of your dog and someone comments, these breeders then go and stalk that person and try to sell them a dog. I have even had one, post his pups on a post of my pups. This is plain rude. 

Good breeders support and help other good breeders provided they share a similar vision on the dogs. I will happily refer people looking for a pup to a good breeder. If their buyers need help, I will try to assist them. These Balkan breeders do not do this, they will try and sell their pups through you.  They manipulate and use you for their advantage.

Sadly, many of the dogs imported come from the same few breeders so, when these new buyers are all excited about introducing new genetics into Northern America, often, there are plenty of dogs with these lines already. 
When people ask me my opinion on a certain breeder, and I gently recommend looking elsewhere for a pup, then I am labelled as being jealous, or angry that I did not make a sale. I am not sure why they ask my opinion because ultimately, they will still buy a pup from that breeder. I am however always very sad when I see someone importing a pup from such a breeder and then a few years later you hear of the dogs mauling the livestock or the person been taken advantage of. 
I am not the Sarplaninac police and people can do what ever they want. Ultimately, it is a transaction between that buyer and that breeder. However, it is very much a buyer beware situation.

 Another thing that totally rubs me the wrong way is the secretive, underhand dealings. A lady on the East side (New England Region) of the USA, advertises her purebred Sarplaninac pups (they are crosses, depending on which advertisement you see), she “steals” photos of other people to make her own adverts. She uses a false name and false Facebook page. All very shady. 

Then, you have the puppy dealers, the ones who wholesale import 3 or 4 pups from a litter, get a little “cut” on the side for their business. It is plain and simple dog dealing. This of course leaves the future buyer in no-mans land. When they have problems or issues, who is responsible, the dealer, the seller?

Another category of dog breeders are the covert mis-truth tellers and "embellishers", the ones that make up stories, create a almost “new name” for the breed, the stories are so believable that the mis-truths are hidden in plain sight.

And, then some days I am just gobsmacked at the Facebook responses I sometimes get:

Luckily for me, I can handle it, I am not concerned whether they think I know how to raise a LGD or not. But, what does concern me is when this person has had to re-home a Anatolian because they could not handle it and, that they intend to cross breed their Great Pyrenees and Anatolian females to a sarplaninac male,

I run a Canadian Sarplaninac page, to be able to join some questions need to be answered first. This page is specific for purebred and registered Sarplaninac dogs, so one of the questions is who is the breeder of your dog? The number of people who either do not reply or cannot remember is astounding. How can you not know the breeders name? Surely, the breeder gave you the registration certificate, a vet document, you paid them so there must be a name somewhere.  Once again, if you are paying good money for a pup ($800 for a cross to $1500) then surely it is in the buyers’ best interest to know the name of the breeder? How can you ask for advise, or get more information about that line, or if your dog has health issues how will you contact them? Why the secretiveness? Surely, you should be proud to know your breeder and have a pup from that line. 

It is all very disheartening and I often wonder where this will go?

 One thing I know for sure, is that I will do what I feel is right. I will look for working dogs, select my breeding dogs on multiple criteria, I will screen the owners as best I can and will provide support to those people. Most importantly, I will do my best to help protect this breed that is so dear to my heart.  I cannot control what others do, and I do not want to either, I can only control what I do. I am not the perfect breeder, I have had an accidental breeding, my dogs are not perfect either and I know some owners have had issues with their dogs, I do however offer as much help, support, guidance and mentor-ship for these people. 

What I do know, is that I will always support and focus on the LGD working sarplaninac. That is “my” thing. If ribbon chasing is yours, then great. If you love the military type dog, also great.  However, please do not delude the LGD folks whose livelihood, and their livestock’s lives depend on good working dogs that your show champion or military bred sarplaninac is an LGD.  I know my dogs might not conform to the ideal breed standard when it comes to non-working qualities; a bit more white, a brindle colour, hair that is shorter than 8 cm etc. What I do care about is; coat quality, correct conformation, correct weight, agility, strength in bone and muscle structure, movement and the properties that allow the dog to do the job it was bred to do. Working temperament is important, the Sarplaninac should not be described as a sweet, soft, gentle, docile dog. His job is to ward off bears and wolves, he should be strong, bold, stubborn, determined, fearless, loyal and to be good in his job he is alert, active and a go getter! They should be aloof to strangers and loyal to their owner. They need to have a strong ability to discern threat from something benign.  I care for dogs who can do their job, that their working abilities are not watered down with cross breeding. That have been selected for this one job. 

I sincerely hope that the Sarplaninac will not go the way many other breeds have, but I think it might have started down that slippery slope, and that breaks my heart.

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