Thursday, 6 May 2021

Self Rewarding Behaviours in LGD


A young 8-month-old dog play bowing to these heifers. The play bow is an invitation from the dog to play. This is a perfect moment to give a verbal correction to the dog and discourage play behaviour.

Self rewarding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg 2021
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

People who start off with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) are often confused why their adolescent LGD start chasing sheep, nipping legs, pulling wool, and displaying a bunch of traits that are concerning and unexpected.  Why would the dog harm the animals it is supposed to protect? In this article, I am going to dig a little deeper into what motivates the naughty LGD and the instincts that can be triggered by continuing this behaviour.

Where traditionally LGD were primarily found on open ranges, in shepherded grazing flocks or large operations, many LGDs are now finding placements on smaller livestock hobby/homesteading type places. On big range operations the amount of work, other dogs, and the space they have often provides enough stimulation for a young LGD, that it is less common to see major issues with things like chasing, nipping wool pulling, ear chewing and other bad behaviour. Often, the owners are also experienced in managing LGD and this behaviour is quickly corrected.  
For many people new to owning and working with LGD, this bad behaviour comes as a shock. The LGD  should not hurt the livestock it is supposed to guard. When it does happen, many owners are very confused by this behaviour and are more often in disbelief that their sweet pup could harm the livestock.  There are several reasons why LGD display this type of behaviour, commonly it is seen in poorly bred LGD, where generations of selection for good LGD traits have not been a priority, or among crossbreds with non LGD breeds, a herding dog crossed with a LGD is more likely to show more chase and nipping behavior.  However, even well bred, well raised LGD can display this concerning behaviour and unless stopped, problems can escalate.

Young LGD often go through a naughty phase, this is normal, however what is paramount is how the owner responds to this bad behaviour, that will determine whether the naughty LGD will become a reliable guardian dog once it matures.
All predators (even our LGD’s) go through a learning stage to hone their hunting skills, all predators do this. All young predators play, and the type of playing they do is specific for predators. The type of playing prey animals do is different to that of predators.  Kittens will stalk, ambush, pounce, and dogs wrestle, play fight, stalk, chase.  Lambs learn to run in a mob, they practice jumping off and onto things and become fast and agile. Lambs might head butt and show dominance type playing but most of it is running around together in a mob.
Play hunting consists of sequential behaviours that need to be refined and practiced. The interesting part of practicing these hunting behaviours is that they are self rewarding. Because they are self rewarding, the predator is encouraged to keep doing this over and over, this repetitiveness is how the predator sharpens its skills. As the saying goes; “practice makes perfect”.
 All hunting type games are exciting, for a dog fetching a ball is a “hunting game”. Herding for border collies is a derivative of the hunting sequences, and as most people know, border collies can become rather obsessive with herding and stalking balls, cats, and other dogs. It is exhilarating to do, and it stimulates the reward center in their brain.
If predators practice enough and get down to the kill part, the reward is even greater as they can consume what they caught. For the ball obsessed dog, getting the ball is the reward. This cycle is a self-perpetuating behaviour. The more they do it, the better they become and the more reward they get from doing it. Self rewarding behaviours are the hardest behaviours change. Think about how hard dieting is or quitting smoking is as these are also self rewarding behaviours! This behaviour pattern is hard to stop, even if we know it is wrong or bad, as our desire to be feel that “reward’ often overrides the knowledge that it is bad.

So, what does this have to do with our LGD?  When you are a 9-month-old adolescent pup, full of energy and you want to play, the livestock might seem like great playmates.  The dog may pick a weaker animal to focus all its energy on. Even a larger animal that tries to butt the young dog, becomes a fun challenge.  The chasing and playing starts off innocently enough. As he plays more and rougher with the livestock it becomes even more stimulating for the dog to do.  The cycle of playing becomes a self rewarding behaviour, the scary part is that after only one or two times roughhousing with the livestock this pattern of behaviour can become fairly established in the dog. The escalation in bad behaviour can go very rapidly.

LGD have a unique combination of genetic traits that shepherds have selected for. It is an odd combination of traits, where you have dogs selected for a low prey drive response (guardian) combined with a high protectiveness.  In most working dogs (police, search and rescue, drug dogs, herding dogs) one selects for high prey drive, dogs with high prey drive are easily motivated to work, the border collie always wants to work sheep, search dogs are often rewarded by a game of fetch the ball or a little tug-of war as this mimics the catch part of the hunting sequence.
LGD are selected for low prey drive as we do not want the dog, who lives full time with the sheep, to be stimulated by these prey animals.  This low prey drives allows for the LGD to be able to live with prey animals and not be overly stimulated by their movements or overly focused on weak, lame, or sickly animals. Predators are “triggered” to respond to these attributes. Think of a kitten who gets stimulated to chase a feather, or a falcon to grab a lure, a border collie pup that is “turned on” by the sheep running past a fence.
This low prey drive in LGD can often be seen by their lack of desire to play fetch the stick, their instinct to give chase is often not “triggered”.

Back to the problem of the naughty young dog and his overzealous play behaviour. If this behaviour is not stopped directly and discouraged firmly, it can trigger a prey drive response in the LGD. This low prey drive in LGD is generally dormant, but not gone.  If the naughty dog gets to play rough with the sheep it can “awaken” this prey drive.  Combining the self rewarding behaviour and the possibility for the dog to become more prey focused, the problem that starts off innocently enough soon becomes a major issue where the livestock are hurt, maimed, or killed.

People often ask if a young dog that has pulled wool and chases the sheep is ruined?
It is vital that when a LGD starts to display play behaviour towards the livestock that it is stopped immediately, and the dog prevented from continuing this behaviour. Depending on how long this behaviour has continued, the severity of the roughhousing and if the dog has come to view the livestock as prey will determine if the dog is ruined or not.   Signs of play behaviour are things like a play bow towards the livestock, a play bow is an invitation to play, or where the dog and animals “chase each other around”.  If one can correct the play behaviour at this point, the dog will most likely grow up and become a reliable LGD. If he is eating lambs on the regular, then the prognosis becomes very poor for that dog.
On social media there are hundred of cute videos of the dog “hugging” a goat, or a dog jumping up and mouthing/ nipping the nose of a pony, the pony in turn rears up and runs away then the chase ensues between the dog and pony. The most cringe worthy is where the dog is swinging on the tail of some poor farm animal.  The commentary on these videos is all look how sweet they play together.
To me, this is all bad behaviour, and it needs to be discouraged directly. The LGD should not be playing with his livestock, ever. To correct a self rewarding behaviour the punishment must override the pleasure the dog associates with that behaviour. In this case prevention is always better than curing!

 To conclude, all playing is a self rewarding behaviour that perpetuates even more play behaviour. Most play behaviour is part of the of the prey- hunt sequence for predators.  With LGD, this play can trigger the prey instinct in the young dog, and this can ultimately result in a dog that is no longer trustworthy with livestock as he starts to view the livestock as prey.

A snapshot of this young dog giving indications that he wants to play. The heifer is saying no. Although his behaviour at this point is innocent enough, it needs to be curbed. At this point a firm “no” will usually suffice.  Heifers still like to run around and buck and that could encourage this young dog to want to play with them. Picking the right livestock at the right age also goes a long way to curbing bad behaviour.


Thursday, 15 April 2021

Question and Answer Time


Working together and depending on each other to be a strong team against predators, is a good type of dependency.

Question and Answer Time
©Louise Liebenberg (Nov 2020)

My favorite time when presenting at various events is the question-and-answer period, as this is the time one can really focus on the issues people are experiencing with their dogs. After, I saw a post by Cat Urbigkit saying how she was receiving a lot of questions about livestock guardian dogs (LGD). I thought a “question and answer session” might be a good thing to incorporate into some of the monthly articles in this magazine. This month will be a “Ask Dr. Ruth/Phil” kind of column. I gathered up a few questions from readers and will attempt to answer them, bearing in mind I do not know the full situation, and I do not have all the answers, I can certainly give my opinion or share my thoughts on these topics.
Hi, I’m reaching out to you to see if you can give me some advice on my LGD. I locked my sheep in the corral a couple months ago and now she has gone to the neighbor’s flock and I cannot get her to come home. She is just a year old. Any suggestions?
The best suggestion I would have is to go and get your dog and set her up in your corrals to try and get her to bond to your livestock. Sometimes, you need to take a few steps back and place the dog back into a bonding pen or corral. This pen or corral needs to be one where she cannot escape from and where she has some nice kind sheep to bond to. The change from the field to the corral, might have caused the dog some stress. Most LGD do not like big changes, and this could have resulted in the dog wondering away to find a flock out on pasture again.  If the neighbor’s sheep are still out on the range, your dog might feel that that is the place to be. The dog might feel more comfortable out with those sheep and possibly also with their dogs.  If she is just a year old, she could be confused about where she needs to be. I would try to keep her contained, re-bond her to your livestock and encourage her to stay. Of course, the information provided is a little scant, and for a more detailed reply more information would need to be supplied. Things like what type of operation do you have, what did the bonding process look like, how close are the neighbors sheep, does she have other dogs to work with and if you have fencing in place.

Each individual dog, and even various breeds display different working styles, some like to be tight bonding and others like a bit more space. Some work more on a territorial type of guarding as opposed to guarding the livestock.

From Diane:
Is there anything "wrong" with an LGD that is somewhat indifferent to the stock, but does a great job protecting their territory and is kind to their charges, just not "bonded" to them?

No nothing “wrong”, some dogs never tightly bond to their livestock. Provided the dog is reliable around the stock (so “kind and indifferent” is okay) and they are keen to protect the area the flock is in, then this is not an issue.  Different dogs or even breeds, have different working styles some people call it perimeter versus close bonding.  These working styles are not static, at various times in a dog’s life these styles may change. If a dog is feeling more predator pressure, it may be more active in guarding a larger area around the flock, go and do more scent marking and patrolling. A younger dog might stay closer to the flock. Some dogs are more territorial as opposed to guarding the livestock itself.
Certain livestock lends itself better to a territorial approach (free range poultry, horses) as opposed to being bonded to the flock itself. LGD can have a smaller or larger personal space “bubble”, and although trustworthy with the livestock, some dogs just do not like cuddling with the livestock.
I think it is good to remember what working mandate you have for your dog, for most LGD it will be guard the livestock/territory from predators and do not kill/harm the livestock. Within that mandate, there is a lot of room for various working styles.

From Jennifer:
What do you wish someone had told you when you first got an LGD and what can you only learn through time?
This is a great question and I think it warrants an entire article on it, so I will probably come back to it in the future but will touch on a few things here. A little back story here, I have worked and trained border collies and have shepherded sheep for many years. AS far as sheepdogs go, I always felt that the herding border collie was the most important sheepdog to have. I got my first LGD after some serious dog depredation events. I now see the value of both types of sheepdogs! When working herding dogs, you build a working relationship based on the ability to direct the collie to maneuver the flock as required. As a shepherd you command the collie and guide the sheep through the dog. Things like obedience, biddability and control are important when working with a herding breed.
It is an intense working partnership, and the amount of work the herding dog saves you is significant. The way you work with a collie is however quite different than how you work with LGD. Even working with dogs who are pets or other working breeds the approach is very different than working with LGD.

I think the biggest lesson in working with LGD is learning to “let go” of control, micromanaging, and the need for over-training. Where you actively go out and train your collie, with LGD the “training” consists more of facilitating, and creating a good environment for the pup to grow up in. The training is primarily supervision as opposed to active training; it is more about moulding behaviour and allowing the process (bonding and socialization to the livestock) to take place. I am all for hands on rearing, but one must be aware that the initial work is primarily allowing the pup to simply grow up with his livestock and form those relationships/bond to the stock. LGD do not have to be taught to guard, a well bred LGD will be naturally protective and reactive to perceived threats. You do not need to actively get them to chase a coyote or anything like that. That comes with age and experience. The work or training is more corrective/preventive when bad behaviour occurs. I think, simply put, when all is going well, you do nothing, and you only intervene when you see concerning behaviour. The hardest part is to just allow the pup grow up with the livestock, facilitate a good environment for the pup, watch for concerning behaviour, correct when needed.  All those people advocating for in house rearing or suggesting no pup under two years old should be with the livestock are simply slowing down or interfering with the ability for the pup to bond with the stock. The actual obedience training part is rather elementary when compared to a collie. Some basic training is handy, LGD should be comfortable being handled, walk on a lead, accept grooming, and vet care, come (sort of) when called, possibly travel and load into a trailer or truck, know being tied up and to be accepting of kennelling. This training part is to make your life easier!

From Ashlee:
Can a LGD become dependent on another LGD? Is there codependency that becomes toxic
This is a tough question as a lot really depends on a variety of factors such as the working situation, what behaviours are concerning and how the LGD interact with each other.  Not all dependency is bad. On a working ranch dealing with high predator numbers and threats, the working dogs should form a cohesive team together and that form of dependency is fine. Co-dependency becomes an issue when one dog cannot function without the other or, one or both dogs show concerning behavioural traits when separated from one another. These problems are often seen between siblings or with pups raised close in age to each other. I think, it is important that each member of the LGD team is comfortable and independent enough to work on their own and, be calm with things like working in different areas or with different flock without exhibiting extreme anxiety or stress when away from the other dog. It is important on a multi LGD ranch to be able to work together as a stable pack.

These are just a few questions that people have asked recently. I would be happy to cover some more in another article. You are welcome to send your questions to The Shepherds Magazine and the editor will forward them on to me.

Raising LGD is a fine line of trust, observation, and supervision without feeling the need to micromanage. Allowing relationships to develop between the pup and the sheep is for many people a big challenge.

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.

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