Monday 12 February 2024

Bonding older LGD dogs to sheep.


Bonding older dogs to sheep.
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)

A question that comes up regularly is how to bond an older livestock guardian dog LGD) to the livestock if they have not previously been with livestock? This question however will need a little more clarification as to why a LGD has not been raised with livestock prior to adulthood? In most cases, anyone who needs their livestock protected from serious predators will usually not “waste” their time on a dog that has not been raised with stock. Most livestock operations will either breed their own replacements and, will then raise them in a way they feel is most successful for their operation. Very few of these producers will take a gamble on an unknown adult dog with their livestock, as it could result in dead and injured stock or a lot of dog management to try and integrate it in with the livestock.

In some instances, people will take a chance on a rescue, where very little is known about the history or even the raising practices that the dog was exposed to. Some of these people are willing to try and, are prepared to take the time to work with the dog to make a LGD from it. In fact, my very first LGD was a rehome, had never been raised with sheep before and in my total ignorance I just placed the dog out with the stock trusting entirely on instinct and good breeding to kick in despite, no bonding or raising with the stock. This dog was a saint, and everything worked out very well for us and she become a very successful LGD. In my naivety I certainly thought that LGD were very simple. You just take the dog, put him in with sheep and all is good. My second, and later third rescue/rehome dogs were sheep killers, their instinct and good breeding did not kick in and they viewed sheep as play objects and soon realised that lamb tasted good. Despite my firm belief that I could work with them and get them to a point of reliability with the stock, these dogs never bonded to the sheep nor became reliable.  I had enough sheep knowledge that I could see that the sheep were never ever comfortable around either of those dogs, and yet the sheep trusted my first LGD. Over the years I have certainly come to appreciate the sheep’s ability to gauge if the dog is trustworthy or not. Following these three dogs, I soon realised that raising a pup myself, offered the highest chance of success.

Over the years I have come to believe that it is simply not all genetics and instinct, a large portion is also raising them in an environment that will provide them with the most opportunity to learn about livestock. Just because a pup might be a LGD breed or mix of LGD breeds does not guarantee that it will be successful. If the dog comes from multiple generations of non-working lines, its recent ancestors have never even sniffed a sheep or coyote and no selection has taken place on working ability, then despite it being a LGD breed, chances are fairly low that this dog will be successful in its job as a LGD. It is well known in many working breeds, if you do not use the instinct, you lose it. I have seen generations of show line bred border collies who have totally lost their instinct to herd sheep. Just because it is a border collie, does not always mean it will be a working sheepdog.
The loss of instincts can disappear quickly, particularly when breeders focus on other qualities over those needed for the job. If having a perfect build is more important to a breeder than working qualities, then you breed away from the instinct and selection for the other qualities becomes more important.

To ensure selection for good working qualities to pass on to future generations, breeding dogs do need to be evaluated on their ability to do their job. Are the protective of the flock, are they bonded, will they chase off predators, will they watch over newborns, do they have a low prey-drive, are they trustworthy, attentive and protective of the livestock?

When an older dog is acquired to protect the livestock, it is often not clear what genetics and instinct are selected for. The next big hurdle is the early raising and training. As socialization and introduction to sheep at a young age is important to the development of the pup, an older dog often misses out a large chunk of this learning experience. It is so much easier to teach a young child a new language or skill than it is to teach an adult. Although not impossible, it certainly takes more time. Similarly, the young pup that is raised with livestock from the start will learn to read the sheep, will learn to respond to sheep behaviour and body language, they will seek companionship from the sheep. All this information is freely assimilated by a pup. It is also for the rancher a lot easier as an 8-week-old pup is not able to physically harm the sheep, it is easier to trust the pup alone with the sheep than adding in an adult dog, unsure if it will be safe with the sheep or not. An 18-month-old dog can do a lot of physical damage to a flock of sheep should some predatory response be ignited. The process of freely learning, is a concept that works well in all forms of training and management, whether human or animal.

Developmentally, pups do have phases or windows of learning opportunities that have been well researched and defined. The ideal window for socialization of LGD pups to livestock, is typically between 7 and 16 weeks of age. Once again, it is not impossible to bond an older pup to the sheep, it just becomes more of a challenge. If the pup is already bonded to the house, yard and kids, the pup may never want to bond to the sheep.

The question of how to bond an adult dog to the sheep will require a lot of time, effort and facilitation and the outcome is unknown. With some dogs, that goes smoothly, and others never do bond with the stock.  There is not one method that is a 100% guarantee that works. It is about working with the dog and offering every opportunity to bond to the sheep.

What I would recommend one does with an older dog who you want to attempt to bond to the livestock is the following: I would make a bonding pen, that has very secure dog proof fencing. I would place 5 or 6 large adult sheep in that pen, maybe even rams who are accustomed to LGD. It does not work well if the sheep have never been around LGD before, as their response to a large dog in their pen, will be complete panic. If you have no sheep that are used to LGD, it might be worth buying some from an operation who does use LGD. I would then start by introducing the adult dog on a leash to the sheep. I would closely monitor the dog’s behaviour and interest in the sheep. If the dog looks calm and controlled, I will slowly allow the dog to roam around the stock while I am supervising. I would let the dog drag the leash, if needed I can quickly intervene. When you must leave, I would either place the dog on a zipline or in a secure kennel within the bonding pen. I will ensure that the sheep need to come close to the dog to eat or drink or have some shade in the vicinity of the dog. I would repeat this process until I feel the dog and sheep are comfortable with each other. The dog will be tethered or supervised constantly for the first month of two.
The dog will closely be observed for any good and bad signs. Lunging and snapping at the sheep would be corrected, fearfulness will be ignored, and calmness will be quietly praised. Slowly, the time the dog is allowed to roam freely with the sheep will be extended. I would supervise closely, and slowly move away and spy on the dog from further away. Camera’s are a nice technological aid in being able to spy on the dog. Provided the dog shows no aggressive or predatory reaction, I would continue this path. I will only allow the dog to be free overnight and not supervised, if I am convinced the sheep will be safe, they are calm, and the dogs is relaxed and comfortable around the stock. Once this has been achieved, I will expand the pasture and add in a few more sheep. Watching closely how the sheep and dog interact. With a pup, from the time is a pup to the time it is going out with the flock is usually a process of around 8 to 10 months. I would be looking at a similar timeline for a newly introduced adult dog. Often people make the mistake of trusting the dog to quickly, do take the time to ensure both dog and sheep are comfortable in their presence. Watch for signs of the dog being attentive toward the sheep. The most important quality initially is simply for the dog to be trustworthy and not harm the sheep in any way. Playing with the stock might not seem harmful, but it is. One really does need to pay attention to the details of the behaviour for both the dog and the stock when introducing an adult who has never been with livestock before.  I have written multiple articles on bonding and on looking for good and warning signs, when working with an older dog, it might be a good idea to reread some of those articles.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Good Homes and LGD


Good homes
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine.

When I read through many of the social media livestock guardian dog (LGD) pages, I am absolutely shocked at the number of dogs looking for a new, good home. It is not just the odd one here and there but instead a continuous stream of failed LGD looking for a great non-working home, someone looking for a placement of their dog on a bigger ranch, or with a more experienced trainer. Friends of mine who work with rescues are overwhelmed with the shear number of LGD and mixes of LGD entering the shelter/ foster system, and within that system, there simply are not enough good homes for all these unwanted LGD.  In many cases, it is not even just LGD mutts that end up in rescues, a lot of purebred dogs can be found there too. The number of “rehomes” is excessive, however the number of litters from LGD breeds being advertised is staggering, many of which, are not even from working dogs. In all honesty, there is little to no market for most of these pups. Recently, a breeder has struggled to give away, for free, a litter of a rare breed LGD pups. Ultimately, these pups are 4 or 5 months old, become a handful to handle and are expensive to feed, these pups ended up in a variety of homes, whether suitable or not, simply to “get rid of them”, the leftovers ended up in a shelter. Many of the people who drop off these pups in a shelter hope they will find that illusive “good home”. For many of these pups, the good home ends up being euthanasia.

The myth of the good home needs to be addressed.  Those folks looking for a new placement for their roaming, sheep worrying or chicken killing dogs have this idea that these dogs would be better suited to a bigger ranch. What many people forget is on larger, commercial operations, the sheep or cattle are the main source of income and the people who live this lifestyle, are often very busy. It takes time to graze animals, check fences, doctor sick animals, haymaking. Few shepherds are willing to take on an uncontrolled, problematic dog, often with questionable genetics and poor raising. These dogs can be a threat to their own livestock (and livelihood) and few have the time to invest in someone else’s failed dog. It is not simple to rehabilitate a failed LGD.   The person wanting to find the “good home” does not understand the risk, stress, time and cost it would take to make this type of dog into a functional dog.   I know, I would not risk my own sheep’s lives or risk the chance of my own dogs getting injured in such a situation.

If the “good home” is not a large sheep operation, perhaps it is with small acreages or homesteads? Sadly, these places are often not suitable for failed LGD either. Most homesteads or micro farms have neighbours who may not appreciate a LGD barking all night. Most smaller homesteads do not have the work for the dog or the ability to fence to contain a roaming LGD. Few people are willing to risk having a large breed dog, who has perhaps shown some killing behaviour around livestock, be in contact with their own and neighbors’ children.  Added to this, there is not only the threat of a bite incident with an unknown adult LGD, but the liability of a dog roaming and potentially causing a vehicle accident is just too overwhelming for most people to contemplate. Few homesteaders have the experience to work with a problematic dog.  
Finally, the in-town, pet home is an even less likely option. Their natural guarding behaviour, their canine aggressiveness, their stranger wariness, the strength, and size simply do not lend themselves to town or pet living situations. There simply is no demand or not enough good homes for unwanted LGD.

The “good home” for the failed LGD rarely exists. People who start with LGD need to be aware of this. Few people are wanting a wool pulling, lamb eating, chicken killing, calf chasing large breed dog. The moment you take that cute pup or multiple pups’ home, your options for an alternative home “if they don’t work out” is almost non-existent. The responsibility of breeding and placement is with the breeder. However, it is the first owner’s responsibility to give this pup the best chance of success and to commit to owning this dog for its life span. It is very important that new owners are supported in making the best decisions they can to ensure the pup has a lifelong home.

Sometimes the best decision is for the person enquiring about LGD, is to choose to not get an LGD.  As hard as it maybe to hear, not every situation warrants an LGD. Many of the rehomes are coming from smaller homesteads who only have a few poultry or maybe a handful of other livestock. Many people are unprepared for the work it takes to get a dog to be reliable with poultry and other small stock. Few are prepared for the sheer determination a LGD can have to escape from its pen, or the aggression it can display towards strangers or animals unfamiliar to it. The time, cost and work it takes to get a poultry safe dog is vastly underestimated.

It is time for the LGD community to say no to selling pups into situations where the chance of failure is high. We need to be vocal about how most LGD were never bred to be guardians of poultry or rabbits, and that most immature LGD will harm them, given the opportunity. They were bred to cover large distances moving with the shepherds and their flocks and are mostly not suited to small acreages. They are strong and independent thinkers which makes them hard to train, obedience is not a top priority for these breeds. They are physically strong dogs who do best in serious working situations. We need to talk about how not all LGD work out, many do harm stock while growing up, it is a challenge to keep them fenced in on smaller places, they bark a lot, they are not always the friendliest dogs, they might even kill the beloved cat. Many people need a large dose of realism and people new to LGD need to hear this.

Part of the problem also lies in the volume of LGD and LGD crosses being bred. It is hard to manage intact animals. Perhaps, the continual pushing of later spay and neutering is contributing to the excessive number of pups being born. Of course, in a perfect world, it is better to hold off on spaying and neutering until the dog is over two years of age, but the reality is heat-cycles in females are easily missed and before you know it, the LGD is bred by the collie. Few people are even capable of recognizing when their female is in heat, and many do not have a place to lock her up in for a three-week stint. There is a risk in everything, our dogs live a risky lifestyle. Early spaying and neutering might have some health risks, but so does pregnancy and unwanted litters.  Spaying and neutering makes for more manageable working dogs, and I am a firm believer that owners should make the decision when to spay and neuter based on what works best for their operation.

Finally, we need to call out bad management and raising practices that contribute to failure in LGD. Quite frankly, we need to keep the “pet dog” mentality out of the working dog world. Many LGD fail due to misconceptions that pups can only bond to their owners and families while living in a house.  Or, the notion that the pup must bond first to its human family before it gets placed with the livestock.  The sad thing is, this LGD shelter and unwanted pups’ problem reflects on our industry. The ranchers and shepherds who need working LGD are viewed as the cause of the problem. We need to be cognizant of this.  As a livestock and LGD owning community, we need to do our best to help curb the enormous influx of these breeds into shelters and the number of LGD being bred. We can do our part by educating and mentoring suitable owners and dissuading the acquisition of a LGD into situations with a high chance of failure.  We need to talk about the realities of owning these dogs, and taking responsibility for the dogs we bring onto operations. The mythical good home does not exist and often the outcome for the failed LGD is death.

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.


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