Tuesday 20 February 2018

Breeding Evaluations of LGD

Traits such as attentiveness towards the livestock are part of what makes LGD successful.

Breeding Evaluations of LGD
appeared in
©Louise Liebenberg 2018

Do we need to do this? How do we evaluate if our LGD are “good enough” to be bred from?  What criteria do we use to select suitable breeding companions?  Why do some people feel that certain LGD are not able to do their job well enough any more? Are they too “watered down” or are we not making the correct selections when it comes to breeding good working dogs? In the livestock industry you have livestock shows, and you have statistical data to help make selections in the form of EPD (Expected Progeny Differences), you have rib-eye measurements and a multitude of other tools to help make selections for your overall herd or flock improvement. Most livestock keepers understand that to improve your overall flock, attention needs to be paid to sire and dam selection, genetics, and many other factors. We cull poor producing animals, and we try to preserve good animals, through selection and meeting certain criteria, be it conformation, production, rarity, temperament or even working ability. However, when it comes to our LGD, what selection criteria do we use?
Mali is alert and protective of the sheep.

It is common to evaluate a dog on suitability to be a breeding animal, for people who regard perfect conformation and adherence to a breed standard, the dog show world provides a means to compare and evaluate the dog. Top winners will often be used more for stud purposes. In herding dogs, sheepdog trials provide the means to compare and compete, which dog does the job best. Top winners of sheepdog trials are regarded as top working dogs, who then go forth and breed.  The same happens with gun-dog trials, rat terrier tests and many of the other working breeds. With LGD this is somewhat complicated as it is not possible to set up any specific trial to gauge how effective the dog is in doing his job of protecting livestock from predators, or looking how the dog interacts with the sheep.  It is not possible to compare the working ability of one LGD to another as the conditions each dog works in is so vastly different, from a micro-farm with a few chickens and a goat, to large open range areas with thousands of sheep, to a pastured system. Even the predators differ vastly between areas. It really is not possible to compare and select based on a competitive field trial system.

In traditional shepherding cultures, LGD selection mainly takes place through culling, and indirectly through low pup survival rate. Many pups do not reach adulthood due to things such as poor health, diseases, little veterinary care, accidents, poor nutrition, and a variety of other causes. Those pups that do survive, go through some rigorous culling simply because a shepherd does not have the luxury to feed a non-working dog.  Those pups that make it to adulthood, still face challenges, from other packs of LGDs, predators and tests that shepherds put their pups through. In the Balkans a traditional way to test courage in young dogs was to kill a wolf, cut its head off and place that head on a pole. The pups would be tested by having someone walk along with the pole and wolf head. The pole would be moved towards the chained young dog. If he was fearful and wanted to run and hide then the dog did not make the grade, if the dog reacted aggressively then the pup was petted and cheered. As the dog further matured he would be further evaluated for his courage and bravery, and for his ability to keep the sheep safe. Dogs that were known wolf killers, or who showed great bravery would be celebrated and paraded through town. This dog would often be the favored stud dog.

In many of these traditional regions, the shepherds feel that dogs can earn their breeding rights. Up in the mountains, male dogs from neighboring sheepfolds would challenge other males, for the right to breed an in-heat female. The strongest and most dominant dog would often win these fights, and the right to breed the female. This selection process is not decided by people, it is left to the dogs, with the understanding that the dogs instinctively would select the best and fittest for breeding.  Sometimes, it is the bitch in heat who will “chose” a suitable mate.

Lucy is tightly bonded with her sheep.

 In Portugal, a wolf group gives LGDs to shepherds to help with mitigating wolf/livestock conflicts.  This group monitors and tracks the dogs, evaluating and scoring the dogs on working ability on a scale that Raymond Coppinger used to evaluate the dogs in the Livestock Guardian Dog Project. The scoring was based on the assessment of three core traits namely, attentiveness, trustworthiness, and protectiveness.  Similarly, the Cheetah Conservation Fund, also used this model to evaluate their dogs used in the Namibian project. Most of the data was through interviews and how the ranchers perceived the effectiveness of their dogs. From all this data and statistical analysis various percentages could be attributed to things like behaviour, success, and problematic behaviour. These parameters are tools to help evaluate how successful LGD are, or at least, are perceived to be. 

Looking through some Craigslist advertisements or even some Facebook posts it is abundantly clear that the motivation to breed LGD is often not based on decisions such as working ability, temperament, ease of integrating the dog into a flock, protectiveness, and aggressiveness towards predators or even things such as health, coat quality or correct conformation. It is quite disheartening to see how little forethought is given to breeding and selecting for good working dogs. It is sad to see the number of LGD being crossed with breeds who are unsuitable to be used as LGD, things like Pitbull x Great Pyrenees, or Heeler x Maremma, and it is even more concerning seeing these breeders promoting these crosses as LGD.

I can understand how the lack of selection has resulted in a watering down of certain traits in some of the LGD breeds, prompting organizations such as the USDA to research other LGD breeds who would be better suited to facing up to the expanding wolf population. Traditionally, all the LGD, are supposed to be able to work in wolf country and yet, it seems certain breeds do not have this ability any more.

 Breeding good working dogs who are capable mentally and physically to do this job requires stringent selection, the willingness to remove those who are not good enough from the gene pool (culling through spaying and neutering), keeping of records and data on dogs, evaluating the effectiveness of the dogs and only breeding from the best dogs who are out in the field with the livestock and working in large carnivore country.  Within that package of considerations can be added; maintaining breed specific traits, improving health and structure, selection for things such as coat quality, longevity, quick (er) maturing and a multitude of other traits.
Breeders should be paying attention to problematic traits such as excessive (nuisance) barking, roaming, extended juvenile periods, rough with stock, fearfulness, lack of courage and should carefully consider if breeding from these dogs is really an asset to the farmer (and, his livestock) or not. I do understand that many of these traits are also dependant on the ability of the rancher to raise the young LGD in an appropriate manner, but I would like to see some more consideration given to assessing working LGD. Perhaps, it is time to make a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of our LGD?

The sheep are quick to show if they feel a dog is trustworthy or not. The relaxed behaviour of the sheep and the dogs, illustrates a good relationship between the LGD and their stock.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Bonding ( Part 2)

This article appeared in the January issue of THE SHEPHERD'S Magazine
Louise Liebenberg

Part 1 on this mini series on bonding covered the more theoretical side to bonding, part 2 will look at the practical implementation of this information.

The breeder will ensure that the bitch has had good quality food and has a safe place to whelp her pups, ideally in an area where the livestock are. Some wool, added to the whelping area will provide some warmth, as well providing the initial smell imprinting. We know that scent imprinting creates a connection and curiosity in the brain of the developing pup. Early exposure to the smell of the livestock tells the pup that the scent “belongs” in his world.  I think it is also important to handle these very young pups so that the smell of humans is another scent imprinted on them.
At 10-14 days their eyes and hearing are opening, allowing them to see and hear mom, siblings, sheep, and people. They will still be confined to the whelping area at this age until about 3-4 weeks old where they will slowly start to explore more of their area. It is at this stage that the breeder can introduce these pups to some solid food. As they start to venture out of the whelping area, letting them have access to kind, gentle livestock is the next phase, and this should be ongoing until they leave the breeder. Having gentle livestock that likes to be with the pups, is very important to facilitate this initial bond.

As a pup learns things such as bite inhibition, fair play, social rules and hierarchy from its mother and siblings, it is important not to remove the pup from the litter too soon.  Pups need to learn how to be “good dogs” first. The absolute earliest a pup should leave the litter is around the 7 or 8 weeks, preferably even a little later.  In many Countries, it is law that the pups must stay at least 8 weeks with its dam. If the mom growls at them, she is teaching them a lesson, just because she does not feed them anymore, does not mean they are ready to go. After that 8-week mark, most pups leave to their new homes. It is highly recommended that the buyer continues to build on the foundation that the breeder has created.

Before the pup comes home the buyer should be prepared by having the area where the pup will live ready. We like to place a pup in a smaller area with some sweet kind sheep. The stress for the pup of leaving its litter and going to a new farm, is an opportunity to help build a bond with the stock. Remember, a little stress helps in that forging a bond process.  The livestock the pup is placed with must be gentle, preferably used to LGD, and calm. You do not need a lot of livestock for this but at least 2 or 3 animals so the pup learns that it can form an attachment to all of them, and not just a specific one. If the pup is your first LGD pup, and your stock are not accustomed to LGD, then it is advisable to buy a few cull ewes or some bottle lambs (from the breeder) for the pup. A pup cannot form a bond with the livestock if the stock keeps running off, or attacks the pup. As the window of opportunity is relatively short and quite critical, it is important that the pup has every opportunity to bond with the stock, having the right kind of stock is essential for this process.

Often a pup will whimper and howl a little when it is separated from it litter, many people feel the need to comfort the pup by bringing it into the house, but remember if this pup needs to be a full time working dog and not a house pet, then it is better to leave him with the livestock. If the pup can cuddle up with some nice ewes it will associate the ewes with safety, warmth, and companionship. We know that pups can form an attachment to humans easier and quicker than to livestock, so it is imperative that the pup is given both the time and opportunity to bond with the livestock.

It is important to allow the pup to live with, and grow up with the stock. Integrating him into the flock directly, will be most beneficial. Pups need to learn about sheep behaviour, they need to learn how to react, they need to learn which animals are less tolerant of a dog, and a multitude of other lessons. This all takes time, and the more time the pup can spend with the stock the sooner he will learn this. The focus should be that the pup feels happy and confident with the sheep, and that he is content to be with them.  Too many distractions and too much time spent away from the stock certainly hinders this bonding process.

 I am NOT advocating to never touch or handle the pup, or even comfort him. On the contrary, please go to the sheep pen and spend time with the pup, let him see that you are also a part of his world, that sheep are important to you and that all the attention he gets from you is with the stock. He will soon learn that this is truly the sweet spot to be.  I will usually check up quite regularly on the pup, to feed him and give him some attention. When you leave the pasture, he should be content to go back to the stock, if he wants to follow you out, then this is a great opportunity to reinforce the command “go back to the sheep” or “stay”. Ensure that this initial bonding area is also a mini Alcatraz, so that the pup learns that he cannot, and should not even try to escape and leave the pen.
We usually place a “puppy only” kennel in the pen with the sheep. This is an area that only the pup can get into, if it needs to retreat from the sheep, or eat alone, take a nap or whatever reason, it is the safe spot for the pup. The pup can go in and out, but the sheep cannot get in.

Your biggest role is to facilitate that initial sheep/dog bond. By facilitate I mean, providing the correct type of livestock, allowing him the time to bond to the stock, building a safe kennel for the pup, if needed, fence in a smaller pen for the pup and the sheep, and to socialise the pup to other things such as other animals, farm equipment, kids, and vehicles.  This is also a great time to teach some basic obedience commands, that will make your life a whole lot easier once he is an adult. While in the pasture teach him to come, sit for petting, walk on a lead, tie, groom, and basic veterinary checks (ears, eyes, nails etc.). 

As the pup grows, you can provide him with some new situations to expand his learning, perhaps add in a few more sheep, enlarge the area he is in, or allow him to be with some of the other guardian dogs. By the time the pup is around 4 months old, this initial bonding window (between 7 and 16 weeks) will close, and a new phase starts. This window for bonding is not set in stone, and the initial period of bonding does not end abruptly at 16 weeks, some older dogs can be bonded to livestock later, or the period may extend longer in some dogs. It is not so, that a pup that has not had this initial bonding opportunity will never work out as a LGD. Providing this time to bond with the stock means you have optimised that natural developmental phase of the pup and provided the best possible opportunity for the pup to become successful in his job.

Certain things can hinder the bonding process to livestock, things such as fear, pain, isolation, a lack of time spent with the stock, and conflicting distractions. A pup bonded to livestock, can also be sociable to humans. There is no harm in petting and loving the pup, but just do it in the pasture with the livestock.

How do we know if the pup is bonded to the sheep? The pup will be relaxed and content to hang out with them, he will lay around a feeder/water trough with them, lay close to the sheep, he will be attentive to them. He will trot off back to the sheep when you leave, he will greet them, he will lick them around their face, he will be alert if the sheep startle and he will be submissive towards them. You can see by the behaviour of the sheep too that they are comfortable with the pup, some old ewes will nuzzle the young dog, they are calm when the pup moves around them, they are not fearful or constantly running off. A good sign that a pup is bonded with the livestock is when the animals move off to graze a new area, the pup happily follows them and hangs out in this area.

Ultimately, the most important factor to successful LGD, is the owner. The owner choses the best pup from good working lines, he buys from a breeder who will provide the pup with a healthy start and excellent learning opportunities.  It is the owner who will continue this education through facilitation, guidance and providing opportunities for the pup to learn and grow into its role as a LGD.

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