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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