Saturday 31 December 2016

20 lessons you can learn from the Guardian dogs

1. Take time to meet new friends

2. Whisper sweet things in each other's ear.

3. Don't bite off more than you can chew.

4. Affection goes a long way.

5. Team work

6. Don't be afraid of big things.

7. Sometimes, realign yourself, and make sure everyone is facing in the same direction.

8. Have fun.

9. Go with a purpose. 

10. Have each other's back.

11. Nothing beats a good conversation.

12. Bask in the sun rays

13. Hang out with good friends.

14. Look beyond the gate.

15. Look out for each other.

16. Take care of those less fortunate.

17. There is always a reason to smile.

18. Aim high

19. Lead the way

20. Appreciate  the beauty around you.

Wishing everyone a great new year.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

The dilemma of “hands on or hands off” raising.

This article was published by the Shepherds Magazine
Copyright: Louise Liebenberg 2016

As a child we played a game at school, were the kids formed a long line and the teacher whispered a sentence into the ear of the first child. That child would then turn and whisper it into the ear of the second child, and so it went all the way down the line. The last child had the task of saying out allowed what the original message was. It was always very funny as the message became distorted and often ended up not being anything like the original message.

It would seem that somewhere along the line, the message about how to raise LGD got a bit lost and distorted from the original introductions of LGD into North America. When LGD were introduced in the 1970’s to sheep keepers in the USA, a large scale study was undertaken by the Hampshire College under the guidance of Ray and Lorna Coppinger. Their job was to import LGD from Europe, distribute these dogs to sheep keepers and monitor these dogs over an extend time. This is too date, the largest and had the longest running time, study conducted on LGD. It spanned 10 years and well over 1000 dogs were monitored and "scored". Almost every, more recent study, always references the studies conducted by the Coppingers. 

Coppinger has always been blamed for promoting the “hands off” rearing practice. Reading through many older publications, I did not find anywhere in that original study that it advocated that the pup should be reared with no human contact at all. Somehow, somewhere the message become distorted to the point that no handling became the norm. This idea is still perpetuated three decades later, and the ramifications of this distorted message are felt within the livestock guardian dog world.

What was written by the Coppinger was that “minimal human contact” was recommended in order to allow the pup to form the sheep-dog bond. Nowhere in the old 1990’s USDA publication does it say that LGD should not be handled at all. 

Coppinger did state that some dog/human interaction was required and that some petting was appropriate. (

In more recent publications they still advocate “minimal human contact” is the best way to raise them.  (

Somewhere the “minimal contact”, evolved, the message went from little contact to no contact, hands off rearing. 
Hands off rearing become very much the norm under the sheep keepers, resulting often in semi feral dogs, distrustful of people, difficult to catch and impossible to handle. 

The idea that a LGD is raised in a vacuum without any human interaction is perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions with these dogs. Wherever you look in Europe, (where these LGD breeds originate), no where do you see a pup raised in isolation with the stock. The kids will play with pups, the dogs are often tethered in the villages during the winter months and in some cultures the dogs are even honored and celebrated for the work they do in keeping the livestock safe. 

Shepherd in Macedonia

In the Balkans, the sarplaninac dog who killed a wolf, would be paraded through town with flowers around its neck. The Turkish celebrate their dogs in big festivals with the dogs wearing ornately decorated collars, and in Italy the sheepdog of Abruzzo is not only the guardian of sheep but also “custodians of the ancient traditions”. ( 

Photo of a painting from a restaurant in Macedonia. 

These dogs live a hard life, as do the shepherds, and to outsiders, it may seem a harsh existence, but the shepherds value and revere these dogs. While visiting Macedonia last year, I saw the gentle scratches behind an old dog’s ear, the shepherd’s pride in their dogs and the kids playing with a pup. These dogs were never raised hands off, 
but they also did not get to sleep on the couch! 

(Credit: Google images) 

In the late 1970s, the larger US sheep operations were the ones mostly utilizing these LGD breeds, grazing large tracts of land with thousands of sheep. Since then, there has been a shift, with more hobby farms and homesteaders keeping small livestock. 

According to the 2004 article “Trends in the U.S. Sheep Industry by Keithly G. Jones; 
“the proportion of small farmers with sheep operations is on the rise”  (

With this shift in the sheep industry, also comes a shift in the use and utilization of LGD. With the homesteaders and hobby farms there is often no history or experience of working with livestock or even with the guardian dogs. For many “newbies” it is tough to figure out how to go about raising their dog to be a successful LGD, where on the one hand some people are advocating for hands off rearing, publications say “minimal handling” and those, (like me) who advocate for a well socialized/handled working dog. 
Conflicting information, for the newbie, often results in insecurity on how to move forward with a young pup. Perhaps a good starting point would be for the livestock owner to define exactly what role he/she expects the dogs to play on the farm. 

Some people do not necessarily even understand exactly what job a LGD actually does, and will often confuse the roles of a general farm dog, with that of a herding dog and that of a livestock guardian dog. Understanding these differences is crucial to knowing what dog is required on the small farm. A new book by Janet Vorwald Dohner called “Farm Dogs: A Comprehensive Breed Guide to 93 Guardians, Herders, Terriers, and Other Canine Working Partners” might be a good place to start. ( Available on Amazon)

The first place to start with a young LGD is understanding the importance of allowing the young pup to form a sheep/dog bond. This is really critical, as it forms the basis from which the dog will grow up and understand its role as protector of the stock.

For many, the idea prevails that they need to “train” their LGD pup to do the job it was bred for. Working with LGD is not so much a “training”, instead, it can be seen as a process. A process where the instinct of the pup is allowed to develop, is cultured and molded. You do not “train” a LGD to go out and bark at coyotes, you do not tell it what it needs to bark at, nor train it to go out and attack an approaching predator. 
The guardian dog is one of the few breeds that must be trusted to make certain judgement calls, the dogs needs to have the freedom to make these decisions on their own. Unlike a police dog, that is taught to bite and attack on command, a guardian dog needs to make the “call” whether to simply bark and posture, or if it needs to engage the predator. The LGD is ineffective if it needs to wait on a signal or command from the owner to go out and protect the stock. 

For the dog to accomplish this, he needs to rely on his instincts, the bond he has with the stock and his understanding of the livestock’s behavior. 

This process of learning, involves allowing the pup to develop a bond with the livestock it will be protecting when it is older. The pup needs to spend the most part (preferably 24/7) of its day in with the stock so that it can learn everything about the livestock. The pup needs to learn when a sheep stomps it foot, the pup needs to back off, when the sheep gather together something might have startled them, the pup needs the time to “learn” all about sheep behavior. It is this time where it will learn that sheep are an integral part of his life. 

It is imperative for a young LGD to build the sheep/dog bond so that it is happy and content to live with the stock. 

Having said this, it sounds pretty much like I am advocating for “hands off rearing”, but no, I believe that human interaction with the guardian dogs is vitally important for the well being of the dog and for the family who live and work on the farm. There is no danger of ruining the young LGD by petting, loving or playing with it, but there must be some boundaries to this; in order to get the perfect mix of a well socialized dog who is respectful and friendly to the family, 
and one who is bonded to the livestock. 

Too achieve this, all interaction needs to be at the stock, if the pup is allowed to come up to the house for treats and petting, it will ditch the sheep and take up residence at the house. The pup needs to understand that all good things happens at the livestock. I always teach my young dogs some basic manners. This is the training part, and these lessons takes place AT the livestock and IN the pasture the livestock are in.

I teach them to walk nicely on a lead, not jump up, to sit, not to barge through open gates, be tied, hop in and out a stock trailer, to be groomed and nails trimmed etc. This all happens out in the field with the stock. The kids can go to the pups and pet them AT THE STOCK. I will work with the young dog for 10 minutes at a time, a few times a day. I always spend some time petting and visiting with the pup when I am doing chores or checking the livestock. My dogs are super sociable to me and our family, accepting of people who are with us and yet they know their job is to stay with a guard the stock, and will warn strangers to stay away.

During this process, your main job is to supervise. Intervening with a well timed correction for unwanted behavior, a reprimand and some guidance goes a long way in ensuring the LGD pup grows up to be a calm, respectful hardworking guardian dog. 

So, to recap; 

The young guardian dog needs time to form a bond with the livestock, he needs to spend the most part of the day with the livestock he is supposed to be guarding. The goal is not to micromanage every move he makes; he needs to spend a large portion of the day in with the stock. It is imperative to also build the human/ dog bond but, within certain parameters. Dogs can certainly form bonds with both the livestock and humans, however initially the dog needs to understand that the stock should be his main priority. Allowing this bond to form, does not mean you cannot supervise or correct unwanted behavior. The supervision and guidance, is what molds his behavior to ensure the young dog becomes a successful LGD. 

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Part 5: Portugal, an overview so far

I recently had the privilege to be invited to go to Portugal and participate in a workshop involving biologists, farmers and shepherds, who together, are looking for (more) solutions on how to co-exist with wolves. The Iberian wolf is protected throughout Portugal and absolutely no lethal control is allowed to take place. The protection of the Iberian wolf is also mandated by the European Union and the losses are compensated out of Government and EU funds. That the wolf is protected does not mean it is truly protected, as illegal hunting and poisoning is common. The wolf population in Portugal is estimated around 300 wolves.  The situation in neighboring Spain is a little different as the wolf is only protected in some regions and not throughout the whole of Spain. The largest concentrations of wolf populations are found in the northern parts of Portugal and Spain, so predictably this is a high conflict area between the wolves and the livestock keepers.

The Iberian wolf is smaller in stature than the Canadian Timber (Gray) Wolf weighing less and smaller in overall build. According to some, it is perhaps more aggressive than the its North American counterpart. I am not sure if the species as a whole can be seen as more aggressive, however the Iberian wolves are more habituated to the presence of people showing less caution than our wolves here. As livestock is a big part of the Iberian wolf’s diet, it may be seen as more aggressive due to its boldness, and the close proximity to humans and villages, during hunting.

 The northern part of Portugal is characterized by rugged mountains, quaint villages, terraced gardens and smaller scale livestock husbandry. The shepherding system is traditional, where the sheep, goats and cows are housed indoors at night and then taken to the mountains to graze during the day.

The mountains are communal grazing but most of the animals are “hefted” to a certain part of the mountains. Some shepherds spend their days in the mountains with their flocks while others go and check up on the animals during the day. At the end of the day, the shepherds collect their stock when night time rolls around and they return to their little sheds in the villages for the night. The shepherds do not use herding dog breeds to shepherd their livestock.

The wolf was almost entirely extirpated in these regions during the 1950-1960’s and with that, many of the shepherds lost the knowledge of working with livestock guardian dogs to protect their flocks. The majority of shepherds do take the small (knee high) Podengo type hunting dogs with them into the mountains, but these little hunting dogs are no match for wolves, do not stay with the stock and are often off hunting small game. 

With the increase of the wolf population, predation of the herd/flocks is becoming a bigger problem and shepherds are lacking the know how to deal with this.

“Life Medwolf” is an organization that has been working with shepherds for more than 20 years. This organization supplies shepherds with the traditional Portuguese Livestock Guardian dogs in an effort to help them protect their flocks. Medwolf supplies a working pup to a shepherd, pays for the vaccinations and health care, and will provide feed for the dog for the first year. The dogs are monitored, problems discussed and raising advice is given by the Medwolf organization.  They use traditional LGD such as the Cão da Serra da Estrela, Cão de Castro Laboreiro, Rafeiro do Alentejo and the Cão de Gado Transmontano.

For many of the shepherds the large size of these dogs is seen as problematic, many fearing that these dogs would physically be unable to work in the rough mountains. The resistance to the bigger breeds is still prevalent in some areas, so the choice to use the more agile and smaller Castro Laboreiro is often made.  Unfortunately, I did not get to see any Castro Laboreiro’s working. Size is often a big discussion point in the USA and Canada, with many people feeling that size is all important in the ability to protect flocks. The smaller and more agile Castro Laboreiro is showing excellent effectiveness in its ability to protect the flocks from the Iberian Wolf.

Relatively speaking, very few shepherds are actually utilizing LGD, many still preferring to take the small hunting dogs with them. In the villages where the LGD have been implemented the shepherds are seeing good results and a reduction in predation. The younger generation shepherds seem to be embracing the concept of finding solutions and investigating ideas to prevent predation, rather than being resistant to efforts to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock.

I had the honour of been taken into the mountains to see some of the Medwolf project dogs, and to see first hand some of the issues facing the shepherds. One of the biggest eye openers for me was the extreme lack of any game/ prey animals, it made we really wonder what the wolves were supposed to eat? It seemed that the wolves have no alternative but to eat livestock to survive. This in itself compounds the issues, as there is simply not enough game to support the wolf populations without the wolves needing to feed on livestock. 

Another problem is, that in all European countries it is mandatory to remove all carcasses and offer them to rendering companies. The dilemma is, by removing the carcass it forces the wolves to hunt again for food. If the carcass was left and the wolves could come back and feed a day later, then that may lower the number of livestock being killed. 
The problems are often so complex and for many shepherds the rules from the EU are so restrictive that it does not allow them to make the choice of whether or not to leave the carcasses out. 

Official lethal control is simply not an option. The illegal killing and poisoning of wolves is however rife, unfortunately this does not only affect the wolves, but certainly has a high toll on the livestock guardian dogs, as well as other animals in the area.

I asked about the potential use of donkeys as guardian animals, considering that many people in Canada feel that a donkey may be a good alternative to using guardian dogs. Donkeys and horses are highly valued by the Portuguese people.  The shepherds assured me that donkeys and horses were most definitely on the wolves’ menu. 

Many shepherds are very resistant to change, and some will even resort to killing the LGD of other shepherds. The lifespan of many of these dogs is around 2 years due to poisoning and shooting of the dogs.

The shepherds who do use LGD will only use one or two dogs, and primarily males.  Most do not want a female dog, preferring intact males due to the convenience of not having to deal with heat cycles. Looking at the rugged terrain and the high pressure from the wolves, it did seem to me that most flocks were under dogged. However, adding more dogs brings additional costs to feed them.  These shepherds are subsistence farmers in a traditionally “poor” region, the cost to feed these additional large dogs may be too prohibitive.

Compensation is paid for dead stock, but as most of the shepherds say; the compensation is always too little, too late and complex to apply for. As with most places, when compensation is paid it rarely covers costs such as stress from harassment, lower birth percentages and other ‘hidden” costs. “Missing” animals cannot be claimed as there is no proof of depredation. The compensation system is open to fraudulent use.

The issues are complex and solutions are not easy to find, however many of the issues are similar across the various countries and the problems that the shepherds face are similar in Italy, Canada and other countries dealing with wolf-livestock conflicts. Attitudes are shared over the various countries.

The “Life Medwolf” project decided to do a brainstorming session ahead of the Iberian Wolf Conference in Portugal. Farmers and shepherds from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Canada (me) were invited to come to Portugal and discuss some non lethal practices that work in their own flocks and countries. The plan was to pool knowledge and ideas. 

Here are some short clips of the animals heading to the mountains to graze for the day.

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