Sunday 29 July 2018

How many LGD do I need?

Two dogs, out of a group of 4, leading the flock back into the nigh corral after a day of grazing.

How many LGD do I need?

©Louise Liebenberg, June 2018

 “How many Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) do I need?” is probably one of the most asked questions when people start utilizing LGD. The standard answer is typically two or more, however I think there are certain situations that require more thought and consideration than a standardized answer. There are some situations that certainly do not warrant a LGD, especially when the“cons” outweigh the “pro’s”. This article will look at this question in a little more depth.

The primary job of a LGD is to ensure that predators stay away from the flock, and they do this by patrolling, scent marking, barking and if needed, engaging the predator. These are instinctual behaviors and are “hard wired” in these breeds.  Most LGD are more active from dusk to dawn, the period when many predators are out looking for an easy meal. Many LGD are canine aggressive due to the very nature of their job, they are also self thinkers and are not prone to being very obedient. They can be stubborn, bold, and dominant; all characteristics that make them effective as a protector of the flock, however, it is also these characteristics that make it hard to keep LGD in certain situations. Not every location or enterprise warrants a LGD and this needs to be said, as many shelters are overflowing with roaming, barking and disruptive LGD.

 Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in the number of people turning towards LGDs for their micro-farm or mini homestead. These are folks living on a few acres, have chickens and possibly a handful of other livestock. Many of these mini homesteads are closer to towns, and other houses.  Trouble with the neighbors start when the dog barks through the night, when it roams beyond the few acres of the homestead and is threatening to the local delivery person. In this situation a LGD is perhaps not the best solution for the protection of the livestock simply because of its inherent nature and the proximity to other people. To keep the livestock safe, a well constructed chicken coop, a barn or even good fencing, is probably an adequate solution. If a person feels that there is a risk of predation and that a LGD is the solution, then usually one dog can handle this situation effectively. A single LGD would not be overworked when the area it is guarding is small, low numbers of livestock, plenty of human presence and a low risk for predation. I think many people underestimate the ability these large dogs have in deterring predators.

This Estrela is the only LGD protecting about 100 goats in the northern part of Portugal.
Making a good evaluation of your situation will highlight what your needs are.
Consider things such as:
Predation pressure?
Type of predators?
Have you lost livestock to predators?
Size of your land your animals utilize?
How many animals is the dog expected to guard, how many groups?
What is the terrain like? Open, hilly, bushy?
Do you have close neighbors?
What is your fencing like?
What is your livestock management like?
Are you prepared to work with dogs? Do you have time?

In the literature, the recommendations on the numbers of LGD varies enormously. I have heard suggestions of 1 dog for every 25 head of goats/sheep (on a 1000 head operation that would mean 40 dogs!), in Portugal it was typical to only see 1 LGD with the flock (a few hundred head) on rough expansive areas, in Macedonia the shepherds had more dogs with their flocks, we saw a few flocks with 2-6 dogs accompanying them.  Robin Rigg worked with the Georgia Carnivore Conservation Project on wildlife/livestock conflict and in that study, the average number of dogs per farm was 8.  In the USDA study conducted by Julie Young and Daniel Kinka, they suggest that 4 to 5 dogs are the “breaking point” for the number of dogs to run with a flock. Other people suggest that you just keep adding dogs until the predation stops.

There is certainly no magical formula to figure out how many dogs one will ultimately need. Each situation is unique, and there are too many variables to make a good estimation on how many dogs one needs. Acquiring the dogs, is a process that needs to built-up over time. The whole idea of an “insta-pack of LGD” generally does not work out well. Most people are looking for this instant solution once predation sets in, rather than making a long term planning regarding the use of LGD.
 In my experience and in our situation, it is always better to have a dog too many than, a dog too few. With that said, I also believe that there is an optimum threshold.  Having too many dog’s can result in ineffectiveness in their guardian duties, in-pack fighting, disruption in the dog pack structure, boredom, dogs being expelled from the flock, and them being more preoccupied with pack dynamics than protecting the flock.

Multiple LGD in a shepherd’s camp in Macedonia. These dogs are of varying ages and sexes.
The LGD pack structure is perhaps more important than the ultimate numbers. Having two dogs that work well together, can be more effective than four who are fighting all the time.  Effective dogs are those who are mature enough (18 months and older), experienced, work well together, bonded to the livestock, and focused on their job. The ability for the dogs to work together is a deciding factor in effectiveness to protect the sheep. A sheep rancher in Canada was having coyote issues with his flock, purchased 5 sibling LGDs. He felt he needed more dogs to solve the problem and getting all siblings seemed like a good plan. He got a discount for buying multiple pups and was told how well they would work together due to them being siblings.   These dogs ended up forming such a tight bond with each other, they never truly integrated into the sheep flock.  These dogs strayed and ended up killing calves at the neighbor. Ultimately, these dogs became feral and were shot. The rancher got out of the sheep business.
More is not always better or even more effective. We have found that staggering of ages and having familial lines (parent-sibling as opposed to sibling-sibling) work well in our situation. On our ranch we have 6-8 mature dogs between the ages of 1 and 10 years old, these dogs are divided up among various groups of livestock. We have the flexibility to move the dogs around depending on where the flocks are grazing and the predator pressure. We normally do not have more than 4-5 dogs in one group, as we find dog management becomes more complicated when we add more dogs to that group. Tensions between the dogs can run high, particularly with bitches coming into heat. Stress and tension between the dogs reduces their ability to guard the flocks.

I think for any average, pasture-based sheep flock in the USA (about 70-100 ewes) 2 LGD, staggered in age would be the best starting point. If these dogs are effective and no predation is occurring then this might be the optimum number, with a third dog being added before the oldest dog is retired.  If the predation risk is high, or you have en established predation problem, or dealing with larger predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears, then more mature dogs would be recommended.  In an ideal world the livestock keeper getting into LGD for the first time, would start with a mature, well bonded adult. Then add a pup once the new dog is settled in. Once the pup is past the teenage phase (18 months- 2 years) and is reliable, then add a third if needed. For those who like to start with multiple pups at the same time, remember that all those pups will be old and retired all at the same time. Staggering of ages will help ensure you have a continuous flow of mature experienced dogs working with the flock.

 On larger operations it is easier to run and manage more dogs due to the size of the flocks and the expansive areas they cover. It is more fluid. These dogs tend to form their own pack structures and the dogs are often free to move among groups of livestock and even various bands. 
Whatever the situation, a good evaluation of your needs is the best starting point. It takes years to build up a solid and reliable set of dogs. Adding a well bonded pup every few years will ensure you have a good age distribution, enough dogs, and a spread of experience to effectively protect the livestock for the next years.

A pair of dogs, ages 5 and 2, working well together. These dogs form a team and are effective in protecting their flock.

Friday 6 July 2018

Predators and perimeter type working LGD

A bold coyote watches the flock from the top of a bale. This is a good moment to add in additional guardian dogs.

Predators and perimeter type working LGD
©Louise Liebenberg, May 2018

Much of the focus when raising Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) is ensuring that they form a tight bond with sheep. We want the dog to be nurturing towards the sheep, endlessly patient, gentle, and respectful of their charges. Most livestock keepers value the tighter bonding type of dogs over the more patrolling or perimeter type dogs, believing that when the dog is close to the livestock, it is more effective.

 A successful LGD should have a balance between these two primary behaviours, the dogs need to be trustworthy towards the livestock and protective against predators.
If the dogs are only nurturing types, then they are likely to be a bit milder in nature and perhaps a little less effective in protecting the livestock should predators come calling. To stand up to large predators, the dog needs to be bold and brave, and willing to confront a predator if that is required. Many highly nurturing types will often stand and bark at a distance, but few are willing to be combative. The ideal LGD will have a balance of this traits, however not every LGD has that perfect 50-50 mix. Some are more nurturing, and others are more protective. Some are closer bonding and other LGD like to be more proactive when dealing with predators.

A dynamic exists between predators and prey, a predator needs to stay in close contact with their prey to ensure a constant and predictable food source. However, not every interaction between predators and prey results in a predation event. You will see lions drinking side by side with zebra, at a water pool in Africa, or cheetahs walking past herds of gazelle without the gazelle being overly concerned about their presence.  The prey is wary, and aware of the predators. Many times, predators will just be passing through, observing, and resting close to their prey animals.

This got me thinking about the relationship between the coyotes and our sheep. A few months back I got a call from a sheep rancher in central Alberta, Canada. He runs a flock of a few hundred ewes and has a mature LGD who he described as a close bonding type of dog and very sweet to the sheep. He was concerned about what he was observing. The coyotes would be coming close to the flock, he (estimated around 150 feet) of the flock, and the dog did not seem to respond to them. If the coyotes came even closer the dog would get up and bark at them and chase them a short distance away. According to the owner, the dog was just not motivated to chase the coyotes, and unfortunately the coyotes knew this too.

Coyotes are experts in observation, they have all day to watch and learn what we are doing, they learn our routines, patterns and even the habits of our stock and guardian dogs. Likely, these coyotes were just checking out what is going on, testing what they can and cannot do and learning how much of a deterrent the LGD is. They may not in predatory mode (yet) and just observing the situation. The coyotes could be habituating both the dog and the stock to their presence.

Habituation is a subtle process, it can be defined as “a decrease in responsiveness upon repeated exposure to a stimulus”. The LGD shows a decrease in response towards the regular presence of the coyote. Without the coyotes behaving in a predatory manner, the stock and the dog learns to disregard the presence of the coyotes. The dog may have initially barked at, or chased off the coyote, however over time the dog got a little tired, and accustomed to the presence of the coyotes. Gradually, the dog started reacting less and less to the presence of the coyotes, allowing them closer and closer. Some people may feel that this dog is responding with appropriate force, as no predation was occurring.

I have seen similar behaviour with the coyotes on our ranch. They regularly check out what we are doing, if we move the stock or change our patterns, the coyotes come and see what has happened and changed. A few years ago, I noticed a coyote coming around at various times of the day, staying beyond the fence. Within several days, I found the same coyote laying on a hay bale in a field closer to the sheep watching what was going on. A few days later, the same coyote was laying on a bale in the same pasture where the sheep were grazing. At this point, I had two dogs with the flock on a large pasture containing both open areas and bush. There was a progression in the coyote's behaviour and his boldness. I realized that I needed to “up the ante” and increase the number of LGD working in this pasture to ensure that the coyote did not become even bolder. Thankfully, I have some "spare" LGD and could re-group them and increase the number of dogs in this big and difficult to work pasture.

Two of the guardian dogs lead the flock back to the night corral after a day of grazing.
What is important in these situations is to understand that patrolling dogs/perimeter type dogs have a function to push predators further away than just the area directly around the flock. In most instances when we change pastures or move into a new area, the dogs will forge ahead and do a sweep through the area. In heavy bush, we will allow a some of the dogs to go in a few days before the sheep arrive to ensure that the predators move out.  By having dogs who go a bit further, check out the regular trails and place pressure on the predators at a distance, ensures that coyotes do not get overly comfortable being around the sheep and dogs. The patrolling dogs form a greater buffer zone around the flock.

I have read that LGD who chase predators with determination and over a greater distance, will deter predators for a longer period, than when the dog only barks and chases for a short distance. The key is, that the dogs need to work with conviction and determination so that the predator feels his life may be in jeopardy when it approaches the flock.  These types of dogs are often higher on the protective side, and more proactive in their guardian duties.  It surprises me how many ranchers feel that the only good LGD is one who is close and tight with the sheep. I think both types play an important role in providing protection for the flock.

We have found the tasks of staying close to the flock or out patrolling are not static, and are interchangeable between various dogs.  We have seen when a cougar is close by, that many of the older more experienced dogs head out and form a perimeter around the livestock, when the predator pressure is low the older dogs are quite content to lounge around the sheep and let the younger dogs patrol. The division of roles could be because of the age of the dogs, temperament, predator pressure and even the dynamic within the pack.

 I do not like to define close bonding types or perimeter types as something that is a breed specific trait as I have seen both traits within one breed. We run one breed of LGD (the Sarplaninac), when I am asked if our dogs are tight bonding or more perimeter types, I am never sure what to say, as our dogs do both tasks, they are often sleeping tight in with the sheep but are certainly quite willing to go out and patrol too.  Defining a breed by these two labels (perimeter or close bonding) is too generalized and static, it negates the fluidity and adaptability that each dog has within the pack. A perimeter type is not less effective than a close bonding type, each have an important role in keeping the flock safe. Too often, a dog that is not bonded to livestock or one that roams, is described as a “perimeter” type, and that is part of the problem when we use such generalized labels.

The roles our LGD have are not static, depending on a certain situation they could be described as close bonding types and at other times, very willing to be out patrolling pushing predators further back.

A good livestock guardian dog ensures the livestock are safe, and that predators are happy to avoid the area the flock grazes in.

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