Wednesday 27 March 2019

First pup, and the first time LGD owner

A three-month-old pup, hanging out with some mature rams.

First pup, and the first time LGD owner
© 2019 Louise Liebenberg

For folks who have had livestock guardian dogs (LGD) for many years, the succession of dogs mostly goes flawlessly, a pup is either acquired or bred. They are then raised on the ranch, among the sheep (that know LGD) and with other LGD to support and nurture the pup as it matures. However, if someone is starting with their first pup and do not have livestock used to having LGD around, no other adult mentor dogs around and an owner who is new to the whole LGD scene, then the prospect of raising a pup becomes rather daunting. In this article I will highlight a few things to make the transition into the wonderful world of livestock guardian dogs a little easier.

The very best option for the first time LGD owner is too try and acquire a mature, good working dog. It makes the process for the “newbie” owner so much easier, and that dog can in the future be a great mentor to any future new pups. Finding a reliable and good adult can be a challenge, as most ranchers who have good dogs, rarely part with them. Watch for a flock dispersal sale, or someone retiring from the sheep industry as they might just have a suitable adult available. Beware the Craigslist dogs, or the pets gone wrong adverts. If finding an adult is not an option, then it is a matter of biting the bullet and starting off with a pup or sub adult. I would highly recommend you researching as much as you can before getting the pup, so you are aware of what lies ahead.

I do not want to go into detail about puppy selection, so I will assume the pup acquired is from sound working stock, healthy and has, at minimum been raised with livestock.

Allowing a pup the time to live with, interact and bond with the sheep is the best start you can give to the pup.

The first phase is to work on the bonding process, too many people suggest that a pup cannot be raised in with livestock, or should be kenneled or penned adjacent to the stock for the first 2 years. I strongly disagree with this sentiment, the place the pup needs to be is in with the livestock from the first day. This stage is very important for the pup to learn that, being with the livestock is the best place to be, the pup will learn to “read” the sheep, will come to regard the sheep as a being part of his world and will learn that sheep need to be respected. You can absolutely build a space that is only accessible for the pup within the area of the livestock, a safe place for pup to sleep, eat or withdraw to.  This can be an area that is surrounded by cattle panels that the pup can crawl under to allow it free access to the livestock or its safe place and will keep the sheep out.
When introducing the pup, the easiest is to have a smaller, well contained yard, pasture or paddock, where you can place a few older, kinder sheep to help transition the pup from the breeder to your place. Too large an area can be overwhelming for the pup, and you want the pup to be near the livestock. You do not want the pup to hide in some distant corner and avoid the sheep. For a pup around 8 weeks old, I like the area to be a large pen or small paddock.

Another issue that often arises when starting out with LGD is that the livestock have never had a dog live among them. The reactions of the livestock can range from fearful, constant running away (which can incite the young dog to “chase” as it wants to sniff and meet these animals) to very aggressive behaviour (goats can be particularly mean with butting pups). Space, time and a safe zone are important factors with wary livestock.  If you are concerned about the livestock being too wild, or aggressive to the pup, consider buying 2 or 3 culls from the breeder. These sheep will be used to LGD and will behave appropriately towards the young dog. These old ewes will help settle the new livestock and make the transition for the pup a lot easier. You want to allow the pup to interact with the sheep as much as possible for the first few weeks, you can go and visit, play with, pet and handle the pup, but just do it in this area with the livestock. The pup needs to have a positive experience with the sheep to encourage the bonding and learning process. This phase ranges in age from about 8 weeks to 12-14 weeks, for some pups a bit longer for other a bit shorter.
Phase 2, this is the phase I call the exploratory stage, starts by either adding more sheep into the pen or by making the area the pup and sheep live in a bit larger. This is necessary to avoid the pup become bored and to mentally stimulate it. If you can keep the mind learning with new experiences, then the pup does not have time to “be bored”. When, this stage starts, depends very much on the character of the pup, a pup that likes to explore may need the challenge of more space sooner than another pup with a shyer nature. On larger operations the pup will start heading out and following the bigger dogs out with the sheep when they are ready. It is not so much a step by step process but rather a fluid development. Allow the pup to spend more time out on pasture with the sheep. Ensure the pup is safe from predators. It is important to watch the pup interact with the sheep without too much interference on your part. I find leashed visits, too much interference and too little time for interactions. The pup really needs as much time with the livestock as possible without being micromanaged all the time. I hear so often that people take their pup to “visit” with the livestock, I think this creates unnecessary excitement and does little to teach the pup about sheep behaviour.  In this exploratory or expansion phase, it is good to introduce other livestock species to the pup. Ours get to hang out with cattle and horses, while still contained in a relatively small area. In our Canadian winters, when the livestock are in winter corrals or feeding pastures, this is a great opportunity for young pups to learn about all the animals, while close at hand to be supervised. The cold winter really does encourage snuggling with the warm woollies.  We will introduce the pup to our other herding dogs, and if we have more than one pup, this is the stage I would separate them so that they can develop and grow more independently from one another.

This 5-month-old is relaxed and happy to hang around with the ewes, this is exactly the type of behaviour you want to see.

The good things to watch for in this stage is following the stock out to graze, calmness, a submissive type of walking, respectful behaviour towards the stock, soft eyes when looking at the stock. The pup may need a reprimand or correction if he wants to chase or play. A well-timed bucket to his butt, or clod of dirt (snowball, for us) certainly helps to snap them out of that naughty mindset.  At around 4 to 5 months, a pup can get naughty (chasing, nipping), the best thing for the bored pup is more work. Change things up, send them out with the main flock, place with a new group of animals such as rams. Just because a pup may be in a naughty stage, it does not mean they need to be entirely separated from the stock, try to place the pup with livestock that will be less inclined to run and play. If a pup is being naughty, you may want to remove it from fragile animals such as newborns, or weak animals, but you do want to try and keep the pup with older and bigger livestock, such as cattle, or bucks.  Do supervise more, and correct unwanted behaviour in a firm and very consistent manner. Correct for play chasing, cornering of the stock, nipping, wool pulling, tail chasing, ear chewing, rough and rude behaviour, barging through the stock etc. A verbal correction should stop the behaviour, if not, then escalate your approach to bad behaviour. I will run towards a pup, yell at it, chase it off, maybe toss out a few cuss words. Whatever you do, it needs to make an impression on the pup that he certainly knows, without a doubt, that you are very unhappy with that behaviour. If the pup is very hard and persistent, then this pup may have to be supervised more closely, perhaps back into the small pasture at night or contained within a kennel or zip line in the pasture. Some dogs do require separation from the flock if there is a potential of them harming the animals. Separation or segregation prevents bad behaviour escalating, and allows you time to work on the issues, bear in mind, that the separation alone does not ‘fix” problems. Many pups are good, and with a few small corrections along the way, continue and mature without ever needing separation or containment.

When a pup is around 4 to 5 months old, we like to switch things around, introducing to other livestock, a larger pasture and more work all helps to keep the mind of the pup learning.

From this point on usually around 5-6 months, you can expect the pup to start reacting more to threats, barking at things, maybe more patrolling. He may not be old enough to fight off predators, but he will start reacting more. Some will follow the livestock out to graze but then head home partway through the day. An immature dog feels less confident out in the pastures alone with the stock or where the predator pressure is high.  A single young dog knows that he is vulnerable, so they need time to mature and be comfortable alone in the back forty with the sheep. If possible take the young dog back to the flock, or send it back so that it does learn to stay out with the sheep.

The first LGD may be lonelier and seek out human and other canine companionship, which is understandable. However, be consequent with him staying with the stock, and spend time with the young dog in the pasture. Check the sheep, feed, do chores and be with the pup, observe how the pup interacts. If your young dog has progressed well, and you are happy with where he is in his development, then it could be time to consider another one. I certainly feel that all LGD need canine partners to help with the guardian duties.

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