Wednesday, 30 August 2023

LGD Training Principles ( part 1 and 2)


Training principles Part 1 and 2
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This is a long read as I included both parts 1 and 2 into one post.

I know I am guilty of suggesting to people, when they are dealing with an unruly livestock guardian dog (LGD), to simply supervise them more without more clarification or explanation. For many people this is a somewhat vague term, and many do not really know what it all involves. This article will cover some training principles and how they can be used when dealing with a naughty LGD. There are many ways to skin a cat. Different approaches are like having a variety of tools in the toolbox, and depending on the problem, character of the dog and other influences, different approaches may be needed to achieve a certain result.

There are several concepts used in the dog training world, both pet and other working breeds,
some people will only use “positive”  or “force free” methods, while others use a more direct type of approach. I believe in a more blended approach and depending on what the dog is doing; one should be able to adjust the approach of training or correction, to fit the dog and situation. More about this later.

Positive or force free training simply means you reward they dog for correct behaviour. When the dog “sits”, you say sit and then reward him with a snack. You do not pull on the lead or push his butt down to the ground. You wait until he volunteers the behaviour, or a step towards the desired behaviour you want, and then reward him for that. The dog will associate the reward, the command, and the action and this will encourage the dog to learn and repeat his behaviour. It is all a positive experience for the dog.  In the pet dog world this can be called clicker training, where the click is the reinforcement for a good behaviour. IN our LGD, we do this on a much larger scale. We allow them to live their lives freely among the sheep and tend to only intervene if the dog starts showing worrisome behaviour. We provide learning opportunities by bonding the dog to the sheep and facilitate his learning in this way. AS long as he does the right thing, we do not nag him or punish him.

 The term “positive punishment” is where a bad thing happens to the dog, because of his (unwanted)behaviour, for example, your young LGD chases a goat, the goat turns around and butts the dog. It is a direct approach, in some circles, it is regarded as a “forceful” type of training method if you, rather than the goat, does the correcting. Instead of the goat butting him, you throw a bucket at him, and it hits him square on his bum. This will hopefully result in him connecting the dots, his chasing the goat, results in a square hit on the bum by a bucket that just fell out of the air. That was scary and not good, therefore he should not do that anymore.

A “negative punishment” is where a good thing is taken away from the dog due to his behaviour. So, for example, the dog is pawing you for attention, you can stand up, walk away, and ignore the dog. His behaviour (pawing you) resulted in you leaving which means he has lost your attention. For most dogs your attention is a reward. With LGD this is harder as the stock cannot just walk away from the dog and ignore him. However, as an owner you can take away his freedom or a bone if he is resource guarding. If he is growling at the sheep for coming to the hay feeder, you can take him away and put him in a different area. For many LGD, this form of correcting is a lot harder for them to make the connection of their behaviour and the consequence of that behaviour. It works better with high drive dogs who are either very attention motivated and less so with LGD. However, there are moments where it can be used successfully. Like jumping up against you, pawing you and other attention seeking behaviours.

“Negative reinforcement” is when bad thing goes away when the dog adjusts his behaviour.  You are teaching your young LGD to accept being chained. He is pulling at the chain, hanging at the end of the chain, yelping, and having a meltdown. As soon as he lets up and takes a step forward, the pressure of the chain releases and the young dog has relief. The dog soon learns it is a lot more pleasant to just sit and wait calmly rather than fight the chain. This is a form of pressure and release used in the horse training world.

Particularly with pet dogs, the environment in which they live, a lot of training happens under controlled circumstances and can allow for a more positive and force-free training approach. It is rare that a pet dog living in a flat can show behaviours that can result in the harm or injury of other animals such as newborn lambs.  When it comes to LGD it is a lot harder to control the environment, situation, the time, and of course the behaviour of the livestock and their interactions with the LGD. Added to this already complex situation we are asking for behaviours which are unnatural; we are expecting a predator to live peacefully and harmoniously with a prey animal, and not only that, but we also want him to fight off other predators to keep the prey safe.

With LGD, there is often minimal “training” as such, we strive instead, to mold the behaviour of the dog into what fits our expectations and needs. It may not be crucial for the young LGD to learn to sit and shake paws on command, but it is essential he shows appropriate behaviour toward the livestock. The bit of training we do tend to do, helps us to manage the dog better. I teach all my LGD to be handled for veterinary care, they can all walk nicely on a leash, they can be chained up, they will load into a stock trailer, the come (for the most part) when I call, and they are taught a few basic commands. This makes the dogs easier to handle, manage and teaches them to learn from us.

When a young dog misbehaves or is showing inappropriate behaviour towards the livestock, it is rare that a positive only training approach will work. The dog will need some form of punishment or correction to override the fun and enjoyment he is having from chasing the lambs, running them down and pulling on their wool.  In this scenario a positive punishment might be the only way to break his attention and the correction needs to be sufficient to stop the unwanted behaviour.  If the pup is in a playful mood and is play-bowing and inviting the sheep to a game, then a verbal correction or a well aimed bucket might be sufficient for the dog to stop this behaviour.  It is on the owner to find that balance of the “punishment should fit the crime”. If it is too mild, the dog will simply go back to wanting to play with the lambs.  Too harsh, and the dog might never want to live with the sheep again.
If the dog is hell bent on chasing and harming the lambs, then the punishment needs to be a lot more direct, and forceful, to ensure the dog really understands that his behaviour needs to stop. The dog must be able to link the correction to his bad behaviour (you need to catch him in the act).
Preferably, you need to stop him before he does the bad behaviour, at that point where he is getting excited and thinking about it, is a good moment to remind the dog that what he is about to do is not a good idea.

It is often hard to catch a LGD before he is about to do something bad, as we generally do not eat, sleep, and live with the sheep ourselves. The time we spend with the dog and the sheep is quite limited. We often only see the results of the naughty behaviour many hours later. This is of course a huge problem in working with LGD and trying to stop problematic behaviour. We are often too late, and the dog has already entrenched bad behaviour into his mind as something ‘fun” to do. This is why we need to pay attention to all warning signs he may be exhibiting.

It is at this point that the advice is often given to supervise the dog more. People say well how can I supervise at night, or I don’t know if a lamb will be born today, so how can I supervise the dog?   What does supervising even mean? Surely, they should just be good with the livestock as that is what they are bred to do. It is at this point where dogs either shot, rehomed, or spend the rest of their lives on the porch as many owners do not step up and deal with the problems the dog is exhibiting.

To answer some of these general questions. Well bred LGD do have a high protective instinct once they are mature and if bonded to the livestock will extend that protectiveness to the stock.  Having these instincts does not mean they are immune to normal dog adolescent behaviours. Having good instincts does not mean they will always do the right thing. A well-bred border collie with a strong instinct to herd, will not win the top sheepdog trials without some training and molding. It is the human behind the dog who works with the instinct, molds, and shapes the behaviour and provides the corrections and positive reinforcement for good behaviour. Instinct alone, is not a guarantee for a good behaviour. It is the foundation to build upon.

Most shepherds do not live with their sheep full time. So, if you dog is starting to show unwanted behaviour you must spend more time monitoring or spying on the dog. You need to be aware of all and any unwanted behaviour he is showing. You need to know what to look for and have a plan how to deal with this bad behaviour. If you know your teenage pup is getting to the chase phase, they you might want to spend more time in the pasture at sunup and sundown to watch his interactions and correct as needed. You need to remove weak and sick animals from the area where the young dog is living. You want to watch him during lambing and step up and correct him for interfering. If you are ready for bed and are unsure if the dog is “safe” with the stock, it is always better to either put him in a kennel in the pasture or on a zip line than allow him to potentially chase and harm the livestock while you sleep.  It is always better to avoid bad habits from developing than allowing them to become entrenched and escalate. A night on a zipline is better than him killing lambs.

It may require some additional facilitation to work with a naughty young dog. You might have to build a bonding pen for the pup somewhere where you can easily see what he is doing, or place cameras where you can monitor him. Sometimes, it means moving the dog to a bigger field, or in with other livestock. If I have a young dog that looks like she is triggered by lambs bouncing and playing, this dog will be moved into the lambing barn and tied up there, so she can see lambs running and playing all day. I am “flooding” her with triggers, and preventing her from acting on those triggers. Usually, a few weeks and with controlled free time amount the lambs, she is accustomed to the lambs racing around that she ignores them. I will continue to monitor her for any signs she might be getting excited about their movements and prevented bad habits from developing.
If the dog remains too excited, I will often place her in with older livestock who do not run, play and bounce. I will allow this dog to mature more and work with her at the next lambing time. By doing this, I am giving the young dog every opportunity to learn and preventing her getting herself into trouble.

 Facilitation is  creating good situations to help the dog become successful, it may involve moving sheep to suit the young dog, purchasing nice kind sheep to bond with, changing pastures, setting up a zipline, kenneling her if you have no time to work with her, building a bonding pen, fixing fences to avoid escaping, making a yoke if that is what the dog requires, selling off those old ornery goats who relentless beat up a young dog.  This is why LGD are not for everyone, as it takes time and effort to work through the rough stages and some dogs can be so determined and single-minded, that it can be exasperating to work with.

Avoiding situations where a dog can make big mistakes is the basis for working with young LGD. Timing and consequential corrections are key elements to all dog training, no matter the breed or the job.


Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Owner Failure with LGD


Owner failure
Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for: The Shepherd's Magazine

Not all things that go wrong with livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are because the dog made a mistake or was misbehaving. Very often, the owner or breeder made choices that created issues for the young dog and without some prompt and corrective actions can result in the dog failing. Sadly, it is often the dog that pays for these bad decisions with his life.

A good start for the LGD begins with the breeder selecting appropriate homes for the pups. Too often I hear of breeders selling multiple pups into a suburban home or a micro homestead situation, surrounded by neighbours. Of course, a lot of the responsibility lies with the buyer, but a good breeder would simply not place their pups in such a home. It is common knowledge that most LGD breeds bark a lot, can become stranger and other dog aggressive and generally do not do well on very small homesteads with little to no work to do. Very often these pups must be locked up all night in the garage to avoid upsetting the neighbours, people get into trouble with animal control and roaming becomes a problem because the young dogs are bored. Good breeders will simply say no to such a situation as many of these dogs end up needing to be rehomed.

 Many owners also have unrealistic expectations for their dogs thinking because they were bred to be LGD, it should all go smoothly. Not every LGD makes the grade to becoming a successful LGD, however many of them could be, if given a chance and some guidance. Recently, I heard of a family that shot their less than two-year-old LGD because it was chasing the sheep. In many adolescent dogs this is a common problem and with some corrections and supervision many young LGD grow out of this naughty behaviour. I believe in many cases some owners grab the gun to quickly, many dog who are given extra guidance and correction can go on and become good working dogs. Sometimes all that is needed is a change of environment, other livestock, different pasture and in some cases a new owner. Perhaps, we need to adjust some expectations and understand that these are living creatures who can and will make mistakes. I have had multiple dogs who have been less than stellar at times, and nothing is more rewarding than years down the road looking back and seeing how that once naughty dog, matured into a solid member of the guardian team. I have helped an owner rehome a dog that they said was unreliable, the female went to live with a friend of mine and has become an absolutely trustworthy dog around their livestock and notably even around free ranging chickens. All this dog needed was a good and timely correction. This dog soon figured out what was expected of it.

We often want the tough dog that will face up to bears and wolves when needed, but in many ways, we are not prepared to deal with the type of character that comes with such a strong-willed dog. I have mentioned in previous articles that high drive, dominant and independent dogs are often “harder” to work with as they bring this hardness with them through adolescence.  If we only select for the soft, easy to train ones then, we cannot expect them to ward off apex predators. Bravery, boldness, aggression, and determination are character traits, and although needed when dealing with a high predator load, also makes raising these pups a challenge.  When the coyotes are picking off your lambs and your dog will only stand and bark at them from a distance, then you know there might be an issue! At this point, I usually get a call from folks looking for a “harder “dog who will take on those coyotes. However, what most people are not ready for, is that these tougher dogs are more challenging to raise. It is no use shooting the tough dog, because he is tough to raise, when you are dealing with a predator issues.

I think it would be good if more breeders spoke about what they have done to work through problems. Breeders need to normalise talking about some of the challenges some dogs presented while raising their dogs. Just because a line might be more challenging to raise, does not mean they are bad dogs, buyers just need to be aware of this. There is no need to sugar coat things, as a breeder you can certainly ask a buyer if they are willing and able to work with a stronger natured dog and if not, then no harm in recommending a less aggressive breed. The beauty of the LGD, there are over 40 different LGD breeds, and many have quite predictable character traits ranging from fairly mild and softer, to aggressive and strong. Breeders need to be able to offer guidance and mentorship to their pup buyers. A friend of mine has a lovely, “perfect” LGD, she is stellar at lambing and has been a great flock protector in heavy predator country. A while back we were chatting, and she reminded me how that same dog went through a chase and nipping phase as a young dog. I had completely forgotten about it as this dog was such an amazing LGD. This friend worked through this phase, gave corrections when needed and changed things around to accommodate this adolescent dog, placing this dog in an area with mature animals and closer to home to keep an eye on her. With some time and maturity, this dog become a highly valued member of the guardian team, and the short time spent working with this dog back in her younger days has resulted in almost a decade of excellent protection to the livestock.

I have had similar experiences where I have needed to place a rambunctious teenager into the bull pen or tether him for a while. I have learnt over the years to differentiate a young LGD intentions, most naughtiness, if not allowed to escalate, can easily be corrected. A dog whose intentions are to kill, or “hunt” livestock can be,  differentiated from simple naughty behaviour.  The key when dealing with those initial moments of naughtiness, is  how the owner responds to that behaviour, that will ultimately determine whether the dog will be successful of not. Dogs who are allowed to rough play and seriously harm the sheep repeatedly, get to a point they can no longer be corrected or rehabilitated as LGD.

Too often we do not spend enough time with a young LGD to teach it some basic dog manners. If we ever want or need to rehome an LGD, it is a lot easier if this dog is accustomed to being handled, knows how to walk calmly on a lead, is not food aggressive, is used to being groomed and knows general dog manners. Many of these dogs might not be suitable as LGD but they certainly can go on and become good all round farm dogs. With shelters overflowing, chances of a young unsocialized LGD finding a new placement is very slim so every advantage we can give them is a bonus.

Sometimes we just need to “repurpose” a dog, this could mean a new address, new job or even a different class of livestock. Many years ago, I sold a pup to people who had a grizzly bear problem. The bears would raid their chicken coops and ripped the buildings open. They needed a dog to be an all-round farm dog and just keep the bears at bay. He did a stellar job at that except he become increasingly intolerant of the families own Labrador house dogs. Grizz came back to me when he was about two years old. He had, after his initial pup stage, never been back with sheep so I decided I would just keep him as I needed a guard dog for in my yard. Over the years, Grizz has become solid with the sheep and cattle, and although not a real LGD, he does fulfill some valuable other roles on the ranch. He keeps the yard safe of bears, moose, coyotes, skunks, foxes, and other critters. He is the official “guard dog” for me and my home, he is the all-round companion and for the past few years he has become the hay bale protector keeping the elk out of the hay yards. Due to his good nature, he has found a new purpose here. Having a social and well-behaved dog made this transition easy. Some people get out of livestock and then feel the need to rehome their LGD as they have no animals left. In my experience, many LGD can easily transition to being farm dogs and living out their lives on the place they were raised on.

As owners and breeders, we need to remember that although our dogs do a job that comes instinctually to them, it does not mean they do not need guidance and corrections. We do need to allocate the time and energy to work through potential hiccups and issues along the way. It is not enough just to buy the well-bred pup; we also need to see it through with time and dedication towards raising the pup to become a successful LGD.

Thursday, 6 April 2023

When good dogs go bad (Part 2)


When good dogs go bad (Part 2)
Louise Liebenberg(2023)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

In the previous article, I discussed some ideas and considerations for when you have a predation event and you suspect that the LGD might be involved.

The first step to take is to ensure that the livestock is in a safe area and a place where you can manage and supervise any interactions the LGD has with the stock. In every predatation event, you do want to try and ensure that the sheep are moved from that area and in a safe place closer to you to be able to monitor them. If that is not an option, then you may want to consider placing some electric nets in the pasture to make the area where the sheep graze a bit smaller and where you have a better overview on them. You do not want any pattern of predation (wild or domestic) to continue. To rule out your own LGD, it is advisable to remove the dog from the stock. This will serve two purposes; if you have another predator attack while the LGD is tethered or kenneled then you can probably rule out that your dog might have caused the death of the sheep. Kennelling or tethering the dog for a few days will do the dog no harm, while you try to figure out what animal did predate on the sheep.  Secondly, if your dog was involved, you certainly do not want him to continue this behaviour and you want to remove any possibility that the dog can do more damage to the livestock. Tethering or kenneling buys you a little time to figure out what your option is.

The next step would be to only allow your LGD back in with the livestock if you can supervise and watch his interactions. You could set up a remote camera system, or simply spy on the dog. It might be hard to “catch him in the act” but you can certainly watch for warning signs. If you have no time, then kennel or tether him until you can supervise. If you are concerned that wildlife killed the sheep, you may want to consider placing the dog on a zipline in the pasture. This allows the dog still to be present with the sheep, he can bark and be a deterrent, but he can not fully engage with the sheep as the sheep can move away from him. Do be aware, that the limited movement your dog has on a zipline, could make him vulnerable to predators. I like to use a combination of deterrents, dog on zipline, electric fences, close to home and possibly additional fox lights.

Behaviour or warning signs can include things like jumping and barking at the livestock, nipping, chewing ears, standing over them, excessive and aggressive resource guarding, over-interest, stalking and staring, moving the sheep, disruptive behaviour, stress and tension in the dog around the livestock, dragging them around by the legs and neck, wool pulling, chasing, over excitement or triggered behaviour ( so when livestock do normal livestock behaviour, the dog gets overly stimulated by this) and of course any outward aggression toward the stock. If the dog is not experienced around newborn lambs, that in itself can be trigger to the dog, the newness, smells of blood and afterbirths, bleating and ewes who become more aggressive toward the dog than usual.

If after a few weeks of supervision, you see no concerning behaviour you can try the dog for longer periods alone with the stock. Ensure the livestock he is in with, is not weak, sickly, or very young. Often a dog will “pick” on a specific animal over and over. Remove any of these animals. I would not trust a “suspect” dog overnight alone with the sheep at this point. 

Your dog might only show concerning behaviour under very specific circumstances. For example, the dog could be fine with newborn lambs with a ewe around, but could be predatory to lambs who are “lost”, such as a triplet lamb left behind or lagging behind. The dog might be reactive to a lamb that is calling all the time, or a chicken who is flapping a lot. Sometimes, eating and licking afterbirths can lead to predatory behaviour. I do not mind a dog eating an afterbirth but will not tolerate a dog licking and pulling on it while the ewe is still birthing or if a dog is over involving himself with the birthing. Some dogs may never be reliable with newborns but are solid with larger lambs.  Some dogs become aggressive towards rams during breeding season, it could be the “new” animals, or the smell or the higher hormone levels. Some dogs become obsessive with cycling ewes.  Some dogs do turn bad from what starts off as scavenging behaviour, so they did not cause the death of the sheep, but did start to eat it, this can lead to an escalation and in some cases to predation (this is often how wild animals start to predate on the sheep, it starts as scavenging behaviour and later becomes predatory). This is not always the case as I do know many dogs who can eat dead stock and never harm a live one. It is hard to isolate what changes in the dog to go from reliable to predatory.

Another trigger can be the bad behaviour of another dog. Some LGD will not guard the livestock from other dogs. If those dogs, for example, other farm dogs or pets, chase a sheep, the LGD might participate with those dogs. A mother dog might not correct her own adolescent pups when they rough play with the sheep or even kill them.

LGD walk a very fine line between living with the sheep and not becoming predatory towards them. It is logical that not everyone will “work out”. Some just have a higher prey drive than others, and some are easily stimulated into bad behaviour. Some of the “harder” breeds can have a higher failure rate than the more placid breeds simply because they tend to have a higher aggression level. Think of a ewe butting a dog and the dog retaliates, in a harder breed this is a little more common.

The problem with predatory behaviour is that once it is stimulated, it is very hard to stop. It is a self rewarding behaviour.  I like to think that the predatory behaviour is dormant in most LGD, and hopefully is remains that way, however if stimulated, it certainly awakens something in the dog.  It is like a little border collie pup getting turned on to sheep, it goes from nothing to turned on in an instant and once this pup is zoned in on the sheep it is virtually impossible to turn off. It is only through training and control that the pup can learn to switch off its work mode when not needed, but it is never gone. 

With the LGD, I feel it is very important to make sure that the predatory instinct does not get stimulated or awakened, because you cannot put that “genie” back once it is out. The old saying of prevention is better than a cure, is applicable here. Try to ensure the young dog is not placed into situations that could illicit a predatory response. Here are some examples for this:

  •  By raising a pup with the livestock from a young age you take the excitement of being around the livestock away. The pup will learn that livestock belong in his world. A pup raised in the house or away from stock will often meet the stock in a very elevated and excited way, this can lead to wanting to run, chase and overzealous reactions by the dog, which causes the sheep to run, this in turn excites the dog to chase. Once it starts to chase, the first step to predatory behaviour could be awakened.

  • Allowing a young dog to be too involved with the birthing process, particularly if it is licking lambs, pushing the ewes away, eating afterbirths while ewe is still lambing. The smell of the blood and fluids can excite the dog. Some dogs end up attacking the ewe while she is trying to protect her lamb from an overzealous dog. Teach the dog to back off and not interfere.

  • Remove weak, sick, and gimpy animals.

  • Watch the dog if you restrain a sheep, if it gets really excited because of the struggling of the sheep, a reprimand and backing it off is what the dog needs.

  • A dog that is “playing” with the sheep is honing his predatory skills. Stop that immediately.

  • Excessive and aggressive resource guarding is another behaviour to pay attention to.

  • Dogs generally do not grow out of bad behaviour. They do learn how to avoid being caught or how to do it when no one is around. They must be taught it is unacceptable. 

The chances of a LGD being rehabilitated from predatory behaviour towards the livestock is low. Particularly, if the dog has been allowed to repeat this behaviour multiple times. It is so important, even if you are not sure if the dog is responsible for the death of the sheep, to ensure it does not have the opportunity to repeat that behaviour. If a dog kills a lamb the first time it might have happened accidently, the second time the dog learns and the third time it is a pattern.

You can still have a chance to modifying the behaviour if it is at the accident stage, but once it learns and forms a pattern, making a reliable LGD of this dog, becomes nearly impossible. It is also always easier to modify the behaviour of a young dog than that of an older, mature dog who has learned a specific self rewarding behaviour.

Some people can make a work around. with a dog that has proven to not be totally reliable. Some will only have the dog in with non-breeding stock, or just adult livestock, or only in with larger livestock like cattle, some even have the dog work in a moat situation where the LGD is on the outside of a livestock fence. All these work arounds are okay as the dog can still be somewhat functional.  In many cases these are good solutions for the dog who may not be reliable in all situations but is still useful in specific situations.

The key take away is that not all LGD are perfect. Some show troublesome behaviour early and others can develop issues when mature. It is hard to know exactly what causes the dog to change. If a predation even happens while the LGD is in the field with the sheep, I will always first suspect the dog and take measures to control and supervise his interactions with the sheep. If you can rule out the dog, then you might want to question why the dog did nothing to stop the predation while he was in the field. Either way, it is not a good situation. If you want to have a chance of trying to rehabilitate a dog, then you must ensure it can never repeat that behaviour and it is never placed in a situation where it can be triggered into bad behaviour.

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