Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Misunderstanding behaviour

The LGD job is to guard against predators. This LGD is choosing a high vantage point to oversee this group of ewes lambing, she does not interfere with an ewe giving birth.

Misunderstanding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg (2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

It is heart warming to see humans and animals displaying acts of kindness. Many of us like to always see “the good” in people and animals. However, many times, particularly when it comes to animals, we tend to anthropomorphize or attribute benevolent behaviour to certain actions. This can lead down a slippery slope where we assume the behaviour our livestock guardian dogs (LGD) is well intended, when in fact, it is an indication that the behaviour could become concerning down the road.

Let me start by saying I am not an animal behaviourist, what I do have is many years of working with sheep dogs, both herding and guardian breeds. I am always trying to understand the behaviour the dog is showing within the context of its work. I always question whether it is normal, is it acceptable, when does it change, why does it change, what are the triggers and how can it be corrected. I am a keen observer of all behaviour, when it comes to dogs, livestock, or other animals.

This is a scenario that I read about this week; a LGD owner posted on a social media group that she was not sure what to make of her LGD behaviour. An ewe had lambed triplets and one of these was decidedly smaller and weaker than the other two. Her dog had taken this lamb and buried it in a dirt pile, with just is head sticking out of the dirt. She was wondering if the dog had done this in an attempt to keep the lamb warm and safe, or if she was maybe reading more into the behaviour than what she thought.

When I read this, the red flags and the warning sirens were sounding off in my head. I started reading the comments from other people and I was quite surprised. I was genuinely shocked at how this behaviour was misunderstood. The number of people who praised the dog for this behaviour was astonishing, comments such as “Good dog, did a fine job of caring for the lamb! He's a keeper” or, “I don't think your dog meant any harm from what you describe. He probably didn't know how to get the baby out so decided to cover with soil to protect it”.
I could not help myself but respond. In my opinion, the behaviour this dog was showing was inappropriate for the following reasons:
The dog should never remove a lamb from its mother, it is not the dog’s job.
He should not be carrying the lamb in his mouth.
He should not be burying the lamb.

This is my interpretation of his behaviour, he is burying the lamb as a resource. In wild animals this is called “caching”.  It is the same behaviour when the dog buries an old bone in the backyard or uses his nose to covers his kibble with dirt or hay.  He is caching food to return to it later, this is an instinctive behaviour in many species (squirrels hoard nuts, birds stash seeds, predators hide carcasses).  It is a biological behaviour to aid in survival.  The lamb was lucky that is head was above the ground and that owner found it, otherwise the lamb would have suffocated, starved, or got hypothermia and died.

Another person replied,” I would think if it was a 'snack' the LGD would have killed it first.” What is forgotten is that most LGD do not go from nothing to killing a lamb in an instant, it is a process and small escalations in behaviour. The dog may not have intended to kill the lamb, but his behaviour is a start of a cycle which could lead down the path of further problems.  It might begin with, just keeping the ewe away from the lamb, the next time he is carrying the lamb to the edge of the field, following this, he may decide to hide it, or bury it, finally he might kill it. The behaviour will escalate if the dog is not corrected, and this escalation can happen very fast. Had the owner of this dog not found that lamb, it may have died and then the dog would probably have started to eat it.  This then confirms to the dog that eating the lamb is a big reward, that stealing and stashing lambs is a positive reinforcement. As a shepherd, we really do not want the dog to make this kind of connection. The dog may not have had the initial intention to kill the lamb, but his actions might have resulted inadvertently in the death of the lamb. Either way, we want the dog to understand that he should not be interfering with the ewe and her lambs

Although there are many instances where our LGD do amazing things and do show a high degree of nurturing behaviour, the danger is when we apply anthropomorphic thinking to this behaviour. We like to think that the dog is showing a high degree of caring towards the lamb, we assume he is keeping it safe, warm, and hidden from predators and by doing this, we condone the behaviour, allowing for the dog to repeat this behaviour.

This lamb got separated from the ewe and decided to follow the LGD around.

Once the lamb decided to follow the dog, this experienced female just sat down and waited. As soon as I got the lamb, the dog was happy to go on her way. She did not isolate the lamb, move it, hide it, she just stayed with the lamb.

It is a stretch to think that the dog would enact such a high degree of intentionality, that it would take a weak lamb from the ewe, dig a hole, place the lamb in the damp and cool dirt, cover it up, all with the intention that this would keep the lamb both warm and safe. It simply does not make biological sense. The more logical explanation for this behaviour is that he saw the lamb was weaker, perhaps not keeping up with the ewe and he decided to take the lamb and stash it. As this was not a very experienced dog, he most likely just followed his instincts and was a bit triggered to react to this weaker lamb. This “caching” behaviour is a simple and common behaviour in canines and provides the most logical answer to his behaviour.

In this scenario, the dog is indicating that he may not be totally trustworthy with newborns. It does not mean the dog is a bad dog, but it would certainly be advisable to supervise and watch this dog more closely.

I have seen LGD lay with a lost lamb without interfering with it, I have seen a dog showing concern when an ewe got herself stuck in some bushes and alerted me to this ewe’s predicament, some dogs are saints allowing kids and lambs to hop on and off them, all those behaviours are excellent and what we like to see. It becomes a problem when the dog directly interferes with the ewe and lamb. Some dogs will growl and snarl at an ewe or other sheep when they come close to a newborn, others will follow along with the lamb and keep it separated this way, others will lick the newborn so much that the ewe does not want the lamb and some dogs will frighten an ewe away to the point she will not longer accept her lamb. None of these actions are in the best interest for the ewe or the lamb or the shepherd. These issues are usually seen in younger dogs. If my 8-year-old rock solid female is found with a lost lamb, I am more inclined to trust that she is just watching over it after the lamb wondered over to her. If  adolescent dog  going through his first or second lambing  is found with a lam away from the ewe, then I would be more inclined to watch this dog and his interactions a bit closer.

The dog's primary job is to guard the sheep, not interfer with normal sheep behaviours.

Anytime a dog shows very unusual, out of the ordinary or questionable behaviour, the dog is telling you that he needs to be monitored. Many people have these preconceived ideas that a LGD “would not harm the animals it protects” and that type of thinking is dangerous as it gives the dog opportunity to develop bad habits.  It certainly should not harm them but very many do. Once that predatory instinct has been triggered, it becomes nearly impossible to stop the dog from repeating this behaviour. It is always better to be more alert and cautious than blindly assume that the dog has good intentions.  I would always err on the side of caution than allow a dog to develop a bad habit. Sometimes, we do not have proof that the dog was the culprit, but a bit of extra supervision never harmed any dog. If the sheep are a little nervous around the dog, or hesitant to come into the barn or go to the hayfeeder, perhaps they are cornered in the pasture then it is time to pay attention to the dog. He is the predator that lives full time with them and any behaviour that remotely looks like it could become predatory needs to be corrected (stalking, singling, chasing, nipping, standing over, controlling, wool pulling, ear chewing, guarding a specific area etc.).

To learn to differentiate acceptable from unacceptable behaviour always keep in mind what the job is that the LGD is expected to do. If the dog goes out of those parameters, then supervise. My expectations are:
The dog should guard the flock against predators.
He should not harm the livestock in any manner.
He should not cause stress to the flock by chasing, nipping, harassing, or humping them.
It is not his job to mother the lamb, it is the ewe’s job.

A rule I follow is, any time I get an uneasy feeling regarding a dog, even if I cannot define it, I will always revert to more supervision, watching at a distance or even containing the dog until such point where I can monitor him a bit more. This gives me peace of mind and it prevents bad habits from escalating. If all is well, then the dog just had a bit of extra supervision, and no harm was done.

This dog lives with the cows when they are calving. It is his job to be watchful for predators, the cow will take care of her calf, and the dog will ensure no coyotes or wolves go near the pair.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs


This is where the magic happens, where pups can learn to find comfort and companionship with the sheep. 

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs

©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

This year I celebrate 30 years of working and being around livestock guardian dogs (LGD), I have seen and experienced a lot in those years. I have lived and worked with sheepdogs on three different continents, working with dogs who were amazing at their job requiring very little correction or guidance, to dogs that have harmed livestock. I have tried to rehabilitate “lost causes”, some of which were successful, and others that were not.   I have seen dogs who were not bonded to the livestock and this manifests itself in various ways; uninterest toward the sheep, some become aggressive, and others can live with the livestock without being protective of them. I have always utilized sheepdogs in a professional capacity, my income has always been dependent on my ranching practices. As much as I like dogs, they are first and foremost here to protect the livestock. In the past 30 years, I have seen many trends come and go regarding LGD. Some good, others bad and some questionable. This article is going to look at one of these trends regarding raising LGD puppies.

Lately, the popularity of LGD has increased exponentially and along with this rise also comes a large variety of opinions, on how to raise them and how to work with them. I accept that different folks have livestock in a variety of settings, and this influences how the dogs are worked.  However, I see certain approaches to raising LGD that I really question the validity of.

Back in the 80’s the use of LGD was relatively new in North America. In the 70’s the U.S. Sheep. Experiment Station (USSES) at Dubois, Idaho studied the use of LGD, followed by the Coppinger husband and wife team working on the Livestock Dog Project (Amherst, MA) and finally a study was conducted at Colorado State University (Ft. Collins). These research projects were the basis from which LGD were studied and evaluated in North America. All the research emphasized the importance of the bonding period of the LGD to the livestock. Without this development of this bond, the LGD were simply not “invested” enough in the sheep to want to stay with them and guard them. Everyone emphasized this time as being critical to the development of the LGD puppy. Some of this was taken to the extreme where a total hands-off method of raising was promoted. This continued for the next few decades, and it was common to see completely feral LGD, that could not be handled or touched. At that time, most people using LGD had range sheep and were larger outfits. The dogs, rarely, if ever, mingled with public and as the sheep were grazing bigger areas of land, neighbors were also not a real concern for them. The dogs interacted with the shepherds for daily care. If a dog roamed away, it would often end up at another band of sheep which was not usually a big problem.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, a shift took place in how LGD were being used. They were being used on smaller, more stationary operations, where the sheep were contained by fences and grazed rotationally. At this time, I was promoting a more hands-on way of working with LGD, I spoke at a conference and the topic was “No feral livestock guardian dogs for me, or my livestock”. At this time, it was frowned upon to pet and handle LGD. Many believed that petting them would ruin them. I remember explaining that puppies still needed to be bonded to the livestock but petting, vet care and some regular handling was okay and even beneficial. Some people were skeptical about this approach as they feared that the LGD would end up on the porch rather than out in the field with the sheep. I realized that some people struggled to find that balance, how to have a friendly, sociable dog that was bonded to the livestock.

Moving along, again LGD use has shifted, many people on small homesteads, hobby farms and backyard chicken keepers are looking at keeping LGD for a handful of livestock. The expectation is that the dogs do not bark much, are friendly to all visitors to the ranch, do not roam and are good with the livestock. Talking to many of these homestead people, I feel that what they are wanting is more in line with a general farm dog than a specialist such as the LGD. In this regard I think semantics’ matters and these people need to clearly define what they are wanting and looking for in a dog. This will help them find a dog that is suitable for their situation. Having the work for the dog clearly defined (LGD, farm dog, pet, or guard dog), will also define how the pup should be raised so that it can be successful in the role the owner requires of the dog. I have noticed more of a push from certain groups to promote keeping LGD in the house, to bond first with the family and then over the next few years transition the dog outside to the livestock. I cannot help but feel that this is such a missed opportunity for the pup to truly form an attachment to the sheep. I know, I want my LGD not to feel conflicted about where they need to be, I want them to be happy and comfortable with the livestock. I want my LGD to be protective of the sheep, not just territorial guarding (which most dogs do). I question how fair it is to first raise the pup in the house and then expect it to transition living outside with the livestock?

Too often, I see people saying that a 12-week-old pup is too young to be with the livestock; it is too cold, too hot, a pup could be a target for predators and many such arguments. All these points are moot, as any good owner will know, that a pup requires adequate housing and protection from the elements, no rancher is going to drop his young pup off in some far away pasture just for a predator to come along and kill it. Having a pup grow up with the livestock, does not mean it will not have adequate protection, care, and shelter. That is basic animal husbandry!

This 12-week-old pup is content to be with the sheep and enjoys lots of human interaction while it is living full time with the sheep.

The people that promote this form of raising LGD say that the dog is capable of bonding to both the people and the livestock (I agree with this), and they want to establish this human/LGD bond first, to ensure that the dog is well socialized and attached to the owner. I have very well socialized dogs, they can all be handled, well behaved, and super attached to me despite them living full time with the sheep. Once again, there is nothing stopping an owner going to the pasture and spend valuable time with the LGD. Where they sleep, does not determine how socialized and bonded, they are to the owner. I would argue that it is easier to form a bond with the dog that lives with the sheep, than it is for the dog to form a bond with the sheep that is living in the house!

The same people explain that this is how traditional shepherds, and their dogs live, in my opinion, it is a rather romanticized image of traditional shepherds. I have never seen a true working LGD (in Europe) that lives in the house. Most times the dogs, when not working are chained up outside by the barn. The shepherds appreciate their dogs, some are very attached to their dogs but none of them are raised in the house. The dogs are tied up when the shepherds bring the sheep back to the villages or are locked up in a building, barn, or kennel. Kids do play with pups, but this happens outside. Pups are often left to free range around the yards, while the mother is chained close by. Once the pups are a little older they are chained.

A shepherd’s dog in Macedonia. The sheep are in the village for the winter, the dog is chained to an old truck cab as a shelter. No LGD are raised in the house.

There is a big difference in needing a LGD or wanting an LGD. This need or want, is often reflected in how they are raised as pups.  The folks who “want” will more likely raise the pup in the house, with the family and treat it more like a pet dog than those that “need” an LGD. The people who truly “need” a LGD will want their pup to form a bond with the livestock. These owners will ensure that the dog has every opportunity to learn about sheep, facilitate bonding and provide the right environment for the pup to be successful in its future job. I know, I want my LGD to have a certain level of maturity and seriousness regarding their job as soon as possible, and that only comes with lots of exposure to the livestock.

I am all for people raising their dogs however they want, but I also hate to see LGD fail due to people errors. It saddens me when someone raised their LGD in the house for two years and now it does not want to stay with the sheep, or the dog is so wild when outside with the livestock that it harasses them. It is very concerning that some people feel that this is the way LGD pups should be raised, it sets a trend for animal welfare people to change legislation, similarly, to the “bring-them-inside-when-its-cold” crowd. I feel that the pendulum is now swinging too far to the side of raising LGD as pets, and it feels like I am struggling to convince people how valuable that initial bonding time is to the livestock, how you can have a great relationship with your working dogs and that it is simply not cruel to raise it with the sheep.

My kids can always spend as much time with the pups that they want, provided it is with the sheep in the barn or pasture. This helps to make pups sociable to people and still allows them to bond to the livestock.

Friday, 22 April 2022

The Economic Tipping Point


Feeding multiple LGD is not cheap, the annual costs of the use of LGD needs to be weighed against the benefits.

The Economic Tipping Point
©Louise Liebenberg (2021)

 There have been several articles and studies done on the cost of raising and keeping livestock guardian dogs (LGD) versus the benefits of using guardian dogs to protect livestock against predation. In a study done by Tina L. Saitone, and Ellen M. Bruno (published in 2020) they took a closer look at the economics of utilizing LGD. The short summary concluded “We estimated that for a representative sheep operation with a breeding flock of 500 adult females (ewes), the use of 5 LGDs reduced lambs and ewes lost to coyote predation by 43% and 25%, respectively, for a total savings of US$16,200 over 7 years. However, we found that costs, which included acquisition and maintenance expenses, exceed benefits of this investment over the 7year useful life of LGDs by US$13,413. Our results inform the adoption of LGDs, demonstrating that LGDs are only costeffective for certain types of operations, namely those where LGDs can achieve high rates of predator protection efficacy.” (Wildlife Society Bulletin 1–9; 2020; DOI: 10.1002/wsb.1063)

Dan Macon, in an article he wrote, took a closer look at some of the points made by Saitone and Bruno. Macon questions how to put a value to some of the costs/benefit calculations; “how do I know how many sheep didn't die because we had dogs with them? What is the value of my own peace of mind? (https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=31326).
What was clear from both articles was that quantifying the cost /benefit is not a simple calculation of feed, purchase, and veterinary costs versus livestock lost/saved because of using LGD.  It is hard to quantify what was not lost or what was saved because of the presence of the dogs, or even the number of dogs a certain operation needs, labor costs will vary dependent on a variety of factors.

Cattle who are accustomed to large dogs, tend to be less stressed and calmer around wolves. Calmer livestock have a direct and positive effect on gains and well being of the animals.

Many of the costs/benefits are hidden and hard to quantify. Cattle who get harassed regularly by wolves tend to wean lighter weight calves, they expend more time and energy being on the lookout for predators and the cattle tend to be more nervous. They spend less time grazing and confine their grazing to safer areas. Calves can be lost due to abandonment because of predator harassment. These calves are often not even found.  These losses are not direct deaths however they do have an economic impact on the wellbeing of the livestock. How do you put a value or benefit to keeping cattle/ sheep calmer? Research (Weber et al, 2015) at the U.S. Sheep Center in Dubois, Idaho, found "that ewes grazing with accompanying LGD will travel greater daily distances compared with ewes grazing without LGD accompaniment. As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities." (https://d1cqrq366w3ike.cloudfront.net/http/DOCUMENT/SheepUSA/SGRJ_V30_18-23_Webber_7-15.pdf)
I have found in our own flock that having the LGD with the sheep allows for the sheep to spend more time grazing, they will go and graze in heavier bushed pastures.  Before using LGD, the ewes would not venture into these areas. They are more comfortable grazing when the LGD are present. Similarly, with the cattle. As our cattle are accustomed to large, big dogs in amongst them, they do not spook/scare easily.  Wolves like to test a herd by spooking them, they will make runs at the herd to create some panic where younger or older animal will split off from the main herd making it an easier target for wolves. We have seen wolves around our cattle, the cows do not spook, they tend to remain calmer and tighter together.  It would require the wolves to put a lot more effort into making the cattle run. How do you put a value to this?  Having calmer cattle that do not scatter or run through fences when approached by wolves, helps with overall cattle management and a saving in labor costs, plus the bonus is that the chance of an animal getting predated on becomes significantly reduced.

Another point to consider when looking at cost/benefit calculations is the do-ability and affordability of some of the other predator control methods versus the implementation of LGD.  It is not always feasible or cost effective to fence off a few thousand acres of land, or to hire a full-time range rider.  Not every area lends itself to rotational grazing, or where electric nets can be set up. Changing lambing time may require the building of large barns.  Not everyone can afford to pay for some of the other deterrent measures and some are simply not an option for many operations.  LGD in themselves might not always be cost effective according to Saitone and Bruno, but in comparison to many other options, it is still affordable and do-able for a variety of ranches. The cost of using LGD does need to be compared to the cost of other management tools. Most professional livestock keepers can implement and afford using LGD. Many operations find a large capital investment, such as fencing or barns, too high for their operation despite it perhaps being the “best” solution for the predation problems, affordability becomes an issue. 

Taking it a step further, the benefits may not just be directly to the rancher in how many lambs he can save but could incorporate a wider range of values.  Can one quantify what the value is of having predators on the landscape with regards to biodiversity, intact eco-systems, and populations?
In Portugal, the Grupo Lobo, is an independent, non-profit ENGO that works for the conservation of the Iberian wolf and its ecosystem. They provide LGD to shepherds, pay for the veterinary care and the first year of food for the dogs to encourage, and offset some of the initial costs of acquiring and caring for LGD.  A similar program is run through the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia where LGD are provided to sheep and goat farmers as means to reduce potential conflict between farmers and the endangered cheetah. If conflicts are reduced due to LGD being present in the flocks, then farmers are less inclined to kill the cheetah. The costs of the LGD program are far below the benefits of saving every single cheetah due to the fragility of the population.  What is it the value of saving an endangered species?

In some countries there are compensation programs to encourage people to utilize LGD. In Saskatchewan, Canada the province wants to encourage producers to find ways to reduce the possibility of predation, they have a LGD rebate program run through the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation where they contribute; “$100 to help producers offset the cost of purchasing a livestock guardian dog. The use of guardian dogs can be an effective method of preventing predation; however, it does require the commitment from the producer to develop the potential of the dog. Livestock guardian dogs are most effective when complemented by other predation management practices.” (https://www.scic.ca/wildlife/predation-prevention/). It is in this case, it is cheaper to pay towards the purchase of a LGD than to compensate for livestock that is predated on.

Using LGD is costly and for many ranchers it is a serious consideration. Many calculate this cost and write it off as an operating expense. Similarly, to a store that needs to invest in a security system.  It is the cost of doing business in certain neighborhoods. Cost estimates for keeping one LGD per year, range between $350 to $1600 per dog, this estimate includes direct costs such as veterinary care, food, purchase price, replacement costs and labor. This is a significant amount.  This brings me to the tipping point.  Where do you draw the line between if need or want an LGD?  When does the cost override the benefits? If your livestock consists of 5 hens then spending on average of $750 per year to maintain the dog, might not be proportional to the value of the livestock. It may be cheaper and an easier solution to build a solid chicken coop or good fencing, that will last many years.  In this scenario you might not really “need” the LGD.  Even smaller professional operations can often have good results with other management strategies to reduce predation, things like fox-lights or electric netting might be more profitable than working with an LGD. I often chuckle when reading through some of the social media platforms, where some people advise folks with a handful of sheep to use 3 to 5 LGD. Obviously, these people have not had to feed and provide veterinary care for this many dogs!

Each situation is unique, and it is not quite so simple to make a cost- benefit analysis. However, it is an important consideration because having LGD in the flock or herd is not “free” or cheap. Sometimes economically, it may be sensible to investigate other options than LGD for keeping the livestock safe. For many operations having LGD is a necessity and worth the financial and time investment.  In other situations, having a LGD is simple a “want” and not necessarily a “need” and that is okay too! Each operation needs to find their own tipping point where economic implications are weighed against the benefits. LGD are essential for my livestock operation, but I also value their companionship, the safety they provide me when I am in the bush and the fact that I can sleep a little easier at night knowing the dogs are watching over the sheep.

A night corral for livestock  in Portugal. The cost of this type of anti-wolf fence might not be affordable or do-able to most livestock owners.

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