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.

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