Thursday, 4 March 2021

The First few Weeks

When the pup and the lambs (or ewes) can be relaxed and comfortable together, that is when the bonding happens. The pup has companionship, warmth, and comfort with the lamb.

The first few weeks.

©Louise Liebenberg 2020
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

 The question of what to do with a new pup once you get him home comes up quite regularly on many of the Facebook forums and even private emails to me. I never give this too much thought as it is a process that just happens here, whether I raise my own or buy a new pup. I am always set up for this and generally do not give it too much thought.  I do however see that many people, starting with their first livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppy do have questions as to what to do in the first few weeks. I know there is a lot of contradictory information “out there” and ultimately it is the owner who gets to decide how they want to work with their dog and what the expectations are for the dog once it reaches adulthood. For some people, all they want is an all-round farm dog, others want a pet and others need a full time LGD. If the goal is a pet, then the bonding to livestock part is not necessary, as the focus will be on bonding to the family. Some people believe that a full time LGD should never be handled or associate with people, I  do not believe in this form of raising, as I know you can have a dog bonded to sheep and it can be socialized with people.

I am assuming that people who subscribe to The Shepherds Magazine are, for the most part, utilizing guardian dogs to protect their livestock. The goal for the guardian dog pup is that it will be living full time with the livestock. It is with this goal in mind, that I will describe my process with pups the first few weeks. There are multiple ways to introduce a new pup onto the ranch and my way is certainly not the only way.

I am going to assume that the pup that is being introduced onto your ranch does meet some basic criteria before you bring it home, namely:
It is a guardian dog breed or cross of guardian dog breeds ( so no heeler cross, hound or lab).
Comes from working stock.
Is healthy and has had basic and appropriate veterinary care ( deworming, vaccinations, heartworm, quality feed)
It is at least 8 weeks old, in many States it is even illegal to sell a pup younger than that. I personally think 8 weeks is the minimum age a pup should leave the litter; I prefer a few weeks older.
Before the pup comes home I usually prepare the area I would like the pup to stay in initially. As we have large pastures and a high predator load, it is certainly not a safe option to put a young pup out on the pasture. I usually have a pen in the barn where the pup will spend the first few weeks. I make sure the area where the pup will be staying in, is puppy proof and that it cannot escape from this pen. I do believe teaching fence boundaries starts directly.

I will have a smaller area within the pen that is “puppy access” only. This is usually a cattle panel placed across a corner so the pup can crawl under or in and the sheep cannot get in.  This will be an area where the pup can eat and sleep safely. He can withdraw to this spot if he is feeling a little overwhelmed and he can eat without the sheep bullying him for his food. I will often have a box or dog house for the pup filled with straw and even some sheep’s wool as bedding.

 It is really very important to have kind stock for the new pup to be able to bond too.

The next and most crucial part of preparing for the new pup is to ensure you have some nice kind ewes or lambs for the pup to bond to. We want the pup to feel comfortable and safe around these animals as we want him to bond with the livestock. The pup only needs a few kind animals initially. The sheep need to provide companionship for the pup, warmth, and comfort. Young lambs or bottle lambs can work great initially, but once the pup is a bit older  he may become too rambunctious for the smaller lambs, however the first few weeks, lambs can be great for the puppy to bond too.

With all this “facilitation” in place, I am ready for the new pup. I do like to spend time with the pup in this bonding pen. This is where the pup will be living for the next few weeks and this is where I will go and hang out with the pup and teach him some basic manners. I like to interact with my pups and handle them, I always do this in the pen with the livestock.  I do want to emphasize that the pup is always with the livestock, we do not bring the pup into the house or on the porch. We want the pup to be around the livestock constantly, and if we take him out, it is to go to other livestock.

The new pup is initially housed in the barn. As we usually have lambs on feed or some other sheep in the barn, it is easy place the pup with the livestock directly. I know the pup is safe, and is well set up to be able to get to know the livestock and us.

Bonding is a fancy word for socialization.  Research in pet dogs has found the time that bonding occurs the easiest and quickest to their new family, is the period between 7 and 12 weeks. In LGD, research has shown that this period (up to 16 weeks) is also the formative time for the pup to become bonded to the livestock. Sure, some dogs can and do bond later, but ideally, we want to optimize this time, to give the pup the best chance of becoming a successful guardian dog. We want the pup to be super socialized to the sheep. That he sees them as part of his world, and that he is content to be around them. We want the pup to be social towards people but the bond between pup and sheep really needs to be prioritized initially.  I want the pup to have every opportunity to learn about sheep and this time establishes the foundation for this.

I will let the pup meet the other farm dogs in this period. He is welcome to meet the working collies, the cats, calves, horses, and other animals on the ranch. He will hear the tractor and will have every opportunity to see and hear all the noises and activities that go on here.
As my collies come and go, I will allow for “meet and greets” but I rarely let the pup play with the collies. He can know them, be excited to see them but that is usually the limit of interaction they have. My collies and LGD are usually very fond of each other and sociable towards each other, without needing “play dates”.  Accepting and tolerant of each other is the goal here.

The pup will get to meet the other guardian dogs too. I will take the pup out to the main flock and let it meet the other guardian dogs. I know my adult dogs have stable temperaments and will not harm a pup. They will come over and greet the pup but are also usually not overly playful with the pup. I know if the pup was raised well by its mom and displays normal pup behaviour, my older dogs will have no issues meeting it and responding in a normal dog way to the new pup. This does not mean that they will not correct a rowdy pup, they can growl and warn a pup if needs be. I do allow for more interaction between the guardian dogs and the new pup than with the collies. Ultimately, the new pup will need to be integrated into the guardian team and they will be spending the rest of their lives working together. More interaction here is okay.

Things I like to watch for in the first few weeks is the comfort level the pup has around the livestock, do they lay together, does the pup move casually around the sheep, do the sheep and pup feel content to be in each others space, does the pup show some puppy submissive behavior towards the sheep, do the sheep stand watch over the pup, do the pup and the sheep “greet” each. These are all signs that the pup and the sheep are forming a bond and are comfortable with each other. My ewes are always around LGDs, so they are generally comfortable with a new pup. 

Pup is out in a small, safe pasture with the sheep. Pup is happy to be around the sheep, the ewes are kind to the pup. This larger area will provide more stimulation for the pup and it will have another LGD as a companion.

Usually around 12 to 16 weeks the pup is ready to graduate to a bigger area (small field) with his bonding sheep. I will move his box or kennel to the field and still have his sheep proof space and I will place an older dog in with the pup. This older dog will help keep the pup safe, provide companionship and hopefully be a mentor to the pup. This older dog will also help give the pup some confidence in exploring the new pasture and being around more animals.  As this is a change in environment, new sheep, and different scenery this usually helps to keep the pup stimulated and alert. After several weeks, I will upscale again, maybe add in different livestock such as replacement heifers, more sheep, larger area, and this progression happens over the first year. I do not believe that we need to keep a young LGD entertained, nor do I believe in boredom. I believe they need work and “controlled” stimulation towards integrating into becoming full time, reliable working dogs. This system works with your first LGD, even if you do not have older dogs for the pup to work alongside, provided the pup is in a safe environment.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

What does Bonding look like?


Both the livestock and the dogs are relaxed and comfortable in each others presence.  The puppy is learning to be social around the sheep and to accept that sheep belongs in its world.

What does Bonding look like?

©Louise Liebenberg (2020)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

“What does a bonding look like for a livestock guardian dog (LGD)?” This question was posted in a Facebook group and I thought it was a particularly good question to address in an article. As with all things, nothing is really set in stone and individual dogs will show various degrees of behavior.

Bonding is for both the sheep and the LGD  being comfortable with each other. The sheep are not threatened and the dogs are happy to share their space and resources with each other.

Most traditional shepherds do not really talk in terms of bonding, the dogs are around and live with the sheep, that is what is expected from them. The term bonding is more a North American term, it explains that the dog and sheep form an “unusual” relationship with one another, that crosses specie lines.  The Webster dictionary describes the word bonding to mean “the formation of a close relationship (as between a mother and child or between a person and an animal) especially through frequent or constant association.”  In the case of LGD it is a relationship that is formed between two species and in this case between a predator and its prey.  Another key aspect to the word bond, is that is formed because of frequent or constant association. This is key in LGD. If they do not have frequent or in most cases constant contact with the livestock, the relationship between these two species can becomes weaker or not form at all.

These pups are socializing with the sheep and are in the critical age where they are learning to form a bond with other animals, people and situations.

 Another term more commonly used in the dog world is “socialization”.   Socialization is the process of getting the puppy to become accustomed to other people, animals, places, and activities so that the are calm and relaxed in these situations. Socialization usually begins at an early age, with the goal of having a well-adjusted dog that can handle new situations and experiences in a calm and confident manner.  For our LGD this is what we want, we want the dog to form a relationship with the livestock so they feel calm and confident being around them and also to ensure they come to regard the livestock as part of their world.  We socialize the LGD to their livestock and over time a bond develops. The critical part is that this socialization is somewhat time sensitive and is usually most effective when the pup is in the sensitive stage, the developmental stage where it is most receptive to forming bonds and learning new experiences. This phase is usually between 3 and 16 weeks old.  Of course, there will be some dogs who form this bond at a later age and some who never do, but as a rule of thumb this does seem to be the most ideal time for the pup to form these associations. In the pet dog world, this socialization and bonding happens to the family members, in LGD, we want them to create their primary bond to the livestock, hence the recommendation to place pups directly in with gentle livestock when the pup comes home.

In the eighties, most livestock keepers approached bonding by not handling their dogs at all, believing no human contact was the only way to force this bond to the livestock. This in turn created other issues, nervous and people shy dogs, dogs that could not be handled or given veterinary treatments and feral dogs. Feral dogs are often not confident in their ability to handle new situations and experiences. Finding the right balance between too much handling and enough time to bond to the livestock is a fine line. I like to handle my pups with the livestock. They live with the stock and the handling happens right there.

It was expected that the dog stayed tight with the sheep, and where totally human shy. Many ranchers felt that the dog always had to be close to the sheep, preferably right in the middle of the stock, and preferably avoid all human contact. As more people started to use LGD, and more breeds became accessible to livestock operations,  people noticed some breed differences, some breeds seemed to be “tighter bonding” to their livestock and other breeds tended to be more perimeter or patrolling dogs. Initially many ranchers wanted nothing to do with the patrolling types, as they felt these dogs were “not working”.  However, patrolling breeds can be as effective as tighter bonding breeds. There is not one “right” way. Effectiveness should be measured in how predation is controlled as opposed to the dog’s distance relative to the livestock. The caveat here is, if the dog is always far away or never at the sheep, then chances are he will also not be as effective if he is not around when predation takes place. The patrolling dog needs to still be contact with the sheep, go and patrol and come back and check with the sheep. The patrolling type dog may not lay right in with the sheep but does need to be in relative close proximity to the flock.

The LGD is being attentive to the sheep. The sheep were staring at something moving in the bush, the dog is attentive to the sheep and is focused on what is moving. The dog and the sheep are alert, but relaxed.

I will list some behaviors and actions that indicate that the dog is bonded to the livestock. This list is not all encompassing and not every dog will show all these behaviors. However, it does illustrate what a well bonded dog looks like to the observer. A pup will certainly not show all these behaviors and as the dog matures it will learn how to be around the livestock in a better way. It is not a static process. A mature dog will have learned how to keep the sheep calm, how to avoid conflicts, how to be more tolerant, to “read the sheep’s behavior” etc.
As bonding is not a one-sided relationship, the livestock are also good indicators of how the dog is doing. The livestock know if a dog is not trustworthy and it is the livestock that is often be the first indicator that the dog might be showing troubling behavior.  I will touch on some livestock behavior too, that will reflect how bonded the animals are to each other.

The dog is comfortable and relaxed around the livestock.

The dog is calm and moves through the livestock in a mindful way.

The dog is respectful of the livestock, does not sit on them, paw them, bump into them, chase them.

Is comfortable with the livestock being in their space, laying at a hay feeder together or sharing a water   trough.

Will give the stock space when needed, if a ewe is lambing the dog will walk around her, will avoid hard staring, will overt their eyes to keep the livestock calm, the dog will move around livestock that are walking towards him. If the animals get upset, the mature dog will naturally give them more space to keep them settled. This type of behavior does come with maturity and learned experiences.

The dog is attentive to the behavior of the stock. If sheep are nervous or running, dog is looking  for danger. He is attuned to the sheep and their reactions.

Follows the animals out to graze,  and is in the vicinity of where the flock is grazing.

The dog is content to be with the livestock, when you leave the dog is happy to return to the livestock.

Is trustworthy with the livestock ( no chewing, chasing, herding, leg nipping, wool pulling)

Feels the need to guard the livestock, barks and responds to predators or unusual situations. Is protective of the animals and the space they are in.

Greeting, the sheep, happy to see them.  Forms relationships with individual animals as well as the group.

“Boring. Delightfully, wonderfully, comfortingly boring.” – Susan Soeder

Good bonding does not require the dog to always be laying in with the sheep, being snuggled up to them or even having lambs or goat kids jumping up and down on them. The dog may be bonded without showing this level of tolerance.  Some dogs do prefer more personal space and that is okay.

The livestock will show indications that they trust the dog, are relaxed in the company of the dog (not flighty, chewing cud, walking close to the dog, sharing space, looking towards the dog when unsure, following the dog  into new grazing areas or back to the barn, relaxed, content and comfortable in the presence of the dog.

It certainly is a relationship the grows and some sheep attach more to certain dogs than others. My dogs recognize individual sheep and cows, and some of my sheep adore pups and will stand with them, nuzzle them, and even push other sheep away from the pup.  Some livestock can be more aloof and that is fine too.

I think what is key to remember, the livestock guardian dog’s job is two-fold; protect the livestock and do not eat them! Some people only want to see the warm and fuzzy part of LGDs bonding to their stock, and often forget their main job is to be protective. I would rather have a dog that is tolerant, but distant towards the livestock and “guardy” in his behavior, than all cuddles and snuggles, but ineffective toward predators.

Greetings and recognition of individual animals is another way that show some level of bonding.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Adding Livestock Guardian Dogs


Merely adding in extra dogs as a response to a predation event is not as simple as it seems. Having a well functioning pack, who like to work together is what will provide optimum protection to your livestock.

Adding Livestock Guardian Dogs 
©Louise Liebenberg (Aug 2020)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

I  always question when people who have little to no experience working with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) give advise on how to raise them, work them and how many dogs someone starting with LGD should get, particularly when they themselves are not always aware of the consequences of such advise or the possible ramifications this could have for the person, livestock or other dogs. I think, people who have worked with LGD in a professional way, and by this, I mean making a living from their livestock operation, understand there are always nuances and considerations that need to be taken into account. It is not a “one size fits all” situation. In this month’s article I am going to look at the feasibility of simply adding more dogs to a flock.

On many of the social media forums, people will ask questions regarding how many dogs they need, if the person who posts the question casually mentions they live in an area with large predators (even if no predation has taken place) most advisors jump at that, and suggest they need 5 or more dogs to handle large predators.  In my rather practical way of thinking, I always question how the advisor thinks that will work? It is not so simple to just add that many dogs. Is it even warranted for that situation, or where to even find all these dogs are often not considered? In some cases, these advisors recommend the poster get 2 dogs for a situation that does not even warrant a dog.

Most people recommend high number of dogs because they think that LGD and large predators are having fights daily, the reality is, physical engagement is relatively uncommon. In areas with high predator pressure, the producer will already have higher dog numbers and is probably implementing other methods to help keep the livestock safe. 
This advise to simply add in 5 or more dogs is easy to hand out and much harder to implement. If a producer has a confirmed kill from a mountain lion or bear, it generally does not work to suddenly add multiple new dogs, all at once, to the flock.   The problems with this advice are, many people do not understand that simply adding in so many extra dogs will destabilize the original LGD pack. It is not simple to integrate new adult dogs into an existing pack as it will often result in fighting.  The dogs are focussed on pack dynamics as opposed to the flock.  There is also a real challenge to find good, sound adult working LGD and most times the livestock are wary of new dogs initially. Although the advice may be legitimate, the reality is that it is near impossible to implement as an instant solution in response to a predation event.  I read on the various livestock guardian dogs forums comments like it takes multiple dogs to take down a mountain lion, yes, that might be true, but the work of a LGD is rarely “taking it down”, instead it is to disrupt the predators behaviour, making it harder to be able to kill, to act as a deterrent and establish a territory to push predators further back.  If you have a sheep killed today by a predator then you might need to resort to other methods of protecting your flock because finding 3 or 4 new dogs to add in directly, might not be an option. In this case, night corralling the sheep in a smaller area, or using hot wire, sound and light deterrents or shepherding might be the more appropriate “instant solution”. Integrating that many new dogs into a flock takes time, management, and resources. It is not an instant fix.

A cohesive pack means there is peace in the pack, all working together as a group.

What people do not realise is that there is an optimum number of dogs, too many dogs and you have whole new set of problems to deal with. It is about finding the right number of dogs, with the best pack cohesiveness for the job. To protect the livestock, multiple strategies might need to be implemented, no method to discourage predation is 100%, so when a kill happens, other forms of protection will need to be applied. If the area where you ranch, has a high predator load and there is a need more dogs, then it is pertinent to work towards higher number of dogs over time. Build that cohesive working pack of dogs who are and can be flexible with where they are placed. We switch our dogs around depending on where they are grazing or if the risk for the livestock is higher in a certain area. We rotate our dogs around various groups and will often add in or take our dogs from different groups out to ensure all the dogs know each other well enough, to be able to work together. This flexibility allows us to manage the dogs better and provide the best protection to the flock that needs it most.  A few years back we had wolves raising 7 pups on our ranch, this required us to move some of the dogs around, to ensure the sheep grazing closest to the wolf den were more protected.  This was possible as we usually have a few “extra dogs”, who can be switched around. We pulled some of the dogs from the sheep grazing close to the barn and added them in to the main ewe flock and to the calving cattle.  As our dogs know the livestock, the other dogs, and the terrain, it was relatively easy to do. This way, we can “instantly” up our numbers without causing too much disruption within the flock and dog pack.

What is key for most producers is to have a succession plan for their LGD.  Many people start off with 2 and then in 10 years time they have 2 old dogs with no new young dogs that are up and coming. I think it is important to plan where you want to be with your operation in a few years time, are you a growing operation, expanding land base, or possibly downsizing? Planning for the number of dogs you need or having a reliable source for finding your future LGD pups is important.   If you breed your own as replacements it is good to know when to plan a litter to ensure you have the next generation starting up, before you might really need them. The most cohesive pack of LGD includes dogs with a variety of ages and experiences within the pack. I personally like to keep back a pup at least every two years, so when the older dogs move into retirement, I have sufficient, experienced younger dogs to fill those rolls. If it looks like I am getting too many dogs, there is a market for well raised, stock bonded older dogs. I have multiple people calling me and telling me their dog got old and have had a coyote kill and are now needing a full trained dog, ready to go today. A little succession planning in the dogs goes a long way to ensure you have enough, integrated dogs to not have a “gap” or opportunity for predators to take advantage of. Managing the LGDs on a livestock operation is part of the whole “business plan”, and requires forethought and planning to have optimal use of the dogs.

Succession planning in LGD, requires planning a head to ensure you have a cohesive pack of dogs for the coming years to ensure sufficient protection for your livestock.

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