Thursday 28 February 2019

The shepherd is the glue.

LGD working together provides companionship for the dogs as well as back up and safety.

The Shepherd is the Glue.

© Louise Liebenberg 2018

Traditional livestock guardian dogs (LGD) have been used to guard small hoofed stock in Europe and Asia, their role was to accompany the shepherd and his flocks, into the mountains or steppes to graze, with the primary job being keeping the flocks safe from marauding predators.  These were un-fenced communal grazing areas, often marginal land they were only suitable for grazing. Fencing is generally not used in these areas, to contain grazing livestock, the shepherd controlled where and what was grazed. The fencing consisted mostly of a night corral during the summer grazing period.  If the sheep were not grazing, they were either back in the village for the winter either in a barn or, contained in a yard of sorts. In areas where crops were grown, the livestock was often shepherded and grazed on winter pastures or stubble. In the Netherlands, the traditional shepherding way, was a village shepherd would walk past all the small farms in the morning, each farmer would open the gate and let their handful of sheep out, all the sheep from the various farmers would go as one flock with the shepherd to the heather areas, dykes or stubble to graze. In the evening, as the shepherd walked down the road, each owner’s sheep would turn off into their own yard for the night. The land grazed, was communal land.  This system is still practiced in Europe, particularly in the more rural regions, were shepherding or tending is the how sheep are managed while grazing.

The LGD, sheep and shepherd are a unit, working together. The shepherd watches over the dogs and their interactions with the livestock and will be quick to chastise a young dog who is too rambunctious. The dogs live within the villages, the kids play with the pups, and the dogs provide protection for the home and village. A few older dogs may be laying around, but the younger ones will often be tethered to ensure they do not get into mischief. Though the dogs may never go into a home, they are close at hand, at the barn, in the courtyard, tethered to a shelter, laying at the entrance to the yard, or lazing under a tree close to the flock and the shepherd. Tethering is a very common occurrence in many of these traditional shepherding systems. Of course, during the grazing times the dogs are free to travel with the sheep, but often, back at the camp or village the young dogs are tethered. As the sheep are often locked into a barn, the need for protection is diminished.
In North America, the range flocks are still tended in this manner, with shepherds living with the stock during the summer months and the flocks often returning to the homestead following the grazing months. The LGD travel with the herds, keeps the flocks safe and are the alarm system for the shepherds.

Traditional shepherding has been replaced by fenced in pasture systems. With this change the role and work required of LGD changed.

When, the manner of raising sheep changed from a shepherded system to a more stationary grazing system, fencing was integral to this change. The fence allowed the sheep to be left unattended, while the owner could do other work. Fencing allowed for sheep to graze any time day or night, provided a barrier against theft and depredation, reduction in wages of a shepherd and provided a clearly marked boundary (ownership or right to use solely).
When the sheep are housed in a barn, the dogs are often tethered. The shepherds still interact, touch and pet their dogs. The dogs do not live in isolation and are handled. This shepherd pets his dog in Macedonia.
It is also with this change in management system that they way LGD were used, changed. Prior to fencing, it was the shepherd that was the glue of the whole operation between sheep and dogs. The shepherd was tasked with training the young dog, to ensure he would become a good dog. It was the shepherd who reprimand the naughty pup, or tethered the unruly dog, tossed a clod of dirt at a dog misbehaving or swiped at the dog with his shepherds’ staff if the dog did not heed his warning. The shepherd had eyes on the dog pretty much all day and at night they were often chained within the sheepfold, with the older, reliable dogs free. The dogs were handled as pups, played with by kids, many got taught to walk on a rope lead, they would get the odd ear rub or attention while out in the fields. There is a direct relationship between the shepherd and their dogs.

When sheep became fenced in, the LGD were now required to live alone with the sheep within a fenced area. The contact between the sheep keeper and the dog become minimized. The idea of minimal contact was encouraged in order to ensure that dogs would stay with the sheep and not leave to go and find companionship. Thirty or forty years ago there was generally only one dog in the flock per pasture. The prevailing thought was; as it is a working dog, to not “spoil” the dog by handing it. Handling it would mean the dog would become soft and not want to work anymore.  As dogs are social creatures, they would often want to leave their job with the sheep in search of companionship and attention.  To discourage this, the owners were advised to not touch or pet the dogs, to basically keep them shy of humans so that they would remain with the sheep and not come looking for attention.

 This was generally called “bonding” the dog to the sheep, and this bonding did not include humans.
With shepherds this bonding to the sheep was more natural and less forced. The interactions between the dogs and the sheep occurred more fluidly, the dogs and sheep lived in proximity with each other and under the guidance of the herder. Pups were raised in and around the sheep, the barn or yard was close to the shepherd’s hut or the within the village. The pups did not need forced bonding or isolation to learn to “stay with the sheep”.

This difference in approach is the key to many issues we see today. Many owners complain about roaming dogs, dogs that are not trustworthy with stock, a lack of maturity in their dogs, roughhousing, excessive barking, fearful dogs and ones that cannot be trusted with family members or other pets.

When people come looking for advice to many of these issues, the solution is most often supervision. Supervision means watching, observing, guiding and directing. To supervise, you need eyes on the dog. In some cases, it can mean spying, or watching with a remote camera, or pretending to do chores while keeping an eye out on the pup.  It may mean camping out in the field with a good book observing the dog’s behaviour. In some situations, it is the livestock that are your “eyes” in the field as they will often indicate if the LGD is not behaving appropriately.

When, I suggest supervise the dog more, I will often get the reply “well, I have a job, or cannot watch the dog 24/7”,  all this is true, but depending on the what the dog is doing he may not need 24/7 supervision, the time you are out doing chores can often be enough to suggest the pup change his behaviour. If the problems are bigger, then there is nothing wrong to tether the dog when you cannot watch him. Sometimes a colt needs to be tied to the “thinking tree”, and sometimes a young dog needs a time-out to think about his life choices.  Tethering is often regarded as an animal welfare issue, and in some areas tethering is illegal. Tethering is as much a training tool as it is a form of confinement.
When the sheep are not been grazed, the LGD are often tethered or housed near the sheep, this is a shepherd’s dog in Macedonia.

Providing the dog with companionship with other LGD, and human interaction, helps a young dog feel more secure and comfortable in its roll. Being relegated to the live a life alone in the back forty, is certainly a precursor for trouble in the form of excessive barking, roaming, playing with the stock and other unwanted behaviors.

Every day this shepherd in Portugal heads out with his mixed herd of sheep, goats and some cattle, the dogs accompany him, if they get rowdy he tells them to quit what they are doing, he guides and works with these dogs.

So, with this change in livestock management and the way we use LGD, will require us to adapt in the way we work with these dogs. It may be against what has been advocated over the years, and perhaps we need to integrate more of the old ways into the new way of keeping sheep. Despite sheep being out in pastures and not requiring daily shepherding, we may have to consider a more “shepherded” approach when we deal with the LGD.
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