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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