Wednesday 16 October 2019

When things are not as they appear.

Wolf collar, protects the dog, but looks unwieldy and the perception for some people is that it is a cruel device.

When things are not as they appear.

©Louise Liebenberg (2019)

I some times feel that we are conforming to this image that dogs are helpless fur babies, that only live a good life when they are obese, live inside a house and sleep in bed with the owner. Anything less, is regarded as abusive, neglectful or even cruel. Where is the respect and admiration for healthy working dogs, who are fit, strong and capable?

This “fur-baby” rhetoric is propagated by “rescue organizations” who refuse to place working dogs on ranch’s, or place pet dogs if there is not at least one “stay at home pet parent”, or the vigilante do-gooders who go around smashing car windows in order to feel good about rescuing an animal. Animal activist organizations play on people’s emotions to suck out as much money as they can to use to pay for advertisements to make even more money. Some, of these organizations go as far as to lobby for new legislation, persuade lawmakers and fund lawsuits all with the goal to stop animal ownership. Owners, who need working animals, are not organised into large (financial) lobbying groups and tend to lightheartedly dismiss the activist’s rhetoric as nonsense. When campaigns such as “bring them inside during the winter” morph into laws, and owners of working dogs are suddenly hit with the reality of this, it is often too late.

Animal abuse includes both deliberate harm done to an animal (overt or intentional acts of violence) as well as, failure to provide adequate care for the animal (neglect).  The term “animal abuse” gets used in a variety of situations and the definition is very subjective; an activist’s definition for animal abuse will vary from that of a hunter, a rancher or even that of a pet owner. 
The accusation of abuse is easily tossed around by anyone, and often is used to help turn others against an industry (Peta and their anti-wool campaign, carriage horses in New York, greyhound racing in Florida). The word abuse and the reporting of abuse can be used in cases of personal vendetta’s, angry neighbors, do-gooders, rescuers and some activist groups as a form of retaliation. In many cases laws are changed to ensure that welfare standards are upheld, and new laws are often legislated without consideration for working dogs, the “bring them inside in winter” campaigns have resulted in certain States making it illegal to have dogs outside in certain winter temperatures. These laws are often blanket laws, covering all dogs from the fat, couch potato pug to our working livestock guardian dogs (LGD) living with their livestock. It is a very fine line to negotiate and many people fear the vigilante actions of animal activist groups, the neighbor with a grudge and the 
do-gooder crusader. No one wants to be labelled an animal abuser, which often results in owners who are fearful of allowing their working dogs to work or even correcting an unruly pup. We often build elaborate shelters for the benefit of the neighbors, as we all know that most LGD will not use these structures preferring to sleep with the livestock, under a big shady tree or even nestled into a large round straw bale. We do this, so that others feel appeased, and that we are not labelled an abuser.

People driving by on a wintery day may see our LGD sitting out in the pasture watching over his sheep. The passer-by see’s a dog sitting alone out in the cold and immediately feels that this dog is neglected. We see a dog choosing to be in that spot at that given moment, watching over his sheep, doing his job, revelling in the wintery weather which he is well equipped to deal with. We see a dog fulfilling his purpose in life. The passer-by does not see a shelter, or that the dog has a choice where it wants to sit, sleep or go. The passerby calls animal control and the problems start.

Not everything that is perceived as abuse is abuse, and often, all that is needed is education to understand the situation or the reason why things are done a certain way. Regarding the anti wool campaign (Peta), the onus is on sheep keepers to educate the public that shearing is beneficial for the sheep, that it is done in a humane manner and certainly does not constitute abuse. We need to campaign as hard as Peta does, to educate the public, show videos of our newly shorn sheep and even explain that sometimes nicks and cuts do happen. We need to be active in disputing what is being told to the pubic by organizations that want to discredit our industry with misleading information. The same applies to our LGD. We need to educate people, explain what LGD do, the importance of their job and we must counter bad information. In all aspects of farming there will always be the “bad apples” who do abuse and neglect animals, and we need to distance ourselves from those folks. We need to be active in countering misinformation, share the truth and good stories on social media and campaign for the preservation and the right to work and own working dogs.

Some people seeing a large LGD wearing a spiked collar,  will immediately think that something cruel is happening to that dog, as many wolf collars are scary weapons. There was recently a case in Canada, where folks had placed a spiked collar on their LGD after it had been previously injured by a wolf. The people felt they were doing the right thing for their dog by giving it some added protection in the form of a spiked collar. They were reported to the SPCA, and had charges laid against them for animal cruelty. Fortunately, the case was dropped after the people’s veterinarian intervened and wrote the SPCA how the collar was not cruel, and it was a tool to help keep the dog safe.  If people do not understand the role of a wolf collar, they will immediately think the worst. People need to understand that wolf collars are designed to help protect the dog and are often life savers for the dog. We need to inform, educate and explain.

For many people tethering a dog is synonymous with a neglected dog living its life at the end of a heavy chain in some back yard. Images of fighting pit bulls come to mind, tethered out on heavy duty chains, a far cry to temporarily tethering of an LGD.
What many do not realise that tethering is not only a temporary constraint, but is also a training tool. Most LGD cannot work while being tethered so it is in the best interests of the owner to not have the dog tethered for a long time. Times that tethering may be used are when a new adult dog is brought to a new flock, tethering will ensure that the dog does not escape and run off, he may need to be introduced to new family members and other livestock and having the dog temporarily tethered can help with this transition. If a female comes into heat, she may be tethered in the barn or in another pasture to ensure she does not get bred, a dog who is injured may require to be tethered or kennelled while recuperating. Tethering keeps the dog and the livestock safe in times of need. If a fence is down due to a tree or other reason, an LGD might be tethered to ensure it does not get on the road and be killed by a vehicle. Not all tethering is bad.

Yokes are another lightweight training tool. The yoke in no way injures the dog, it may look uncomfortable, but it is not inconvenient nor harmful for the dog. He can run, play, move, sleep, scratch his ears, and eat.  The only thing he cannot do is squeeze his head through a hole under the fence. This training tool is temporary and designed to help teach the dog to stay within its fences in order to prevent roaming and possible death due to collisions.  Made from pvc pipes, it is light weight and flexible and can rotate so that he can lay with his head flat on the ground. It can be a life saver for the dog. The dog that cannot be contained in the fence is a liability for the owner. If a yoke can be used to help teach an LGD not to dig under the fences, and in doing so saves its life, then that little inconvenience of having to watch a dog with a pvc pipe triangle on his neck for a few weeks may be worth it.
The choice for this LGD is to sleep away from the livestock in a hard-bottomed shelter filled with straw or bury herself in a haybale close to her animals. Abuse or not?
In many areas it is mandatory to provide a shelter for the dog, and I do agree that on some very small acreages that it is a must. If the dog is only living in a confined yard, or small area, then he does not have the ability to choose the spot where he wants to sleep. Our dogs work on hundreds of acres, and they have bush, trees, natural shelters, they have ponds and open land, they have lookout areas, they have multiple places they can chose as a shelter.  In some cases, our dogs dig their own dens to sleep in. They have options and choices and are more than capable to choose where they want to sleep.  Invariably, the shelter we provide is not their preferred spot to sleep. Our dogs prefer sleeping in a thick pile of straw by a large round bale close to their stock.  Is it abusive to allow them to chose to sleep where they want? 

I think there is a role within the sheep industry to not only protect and regulate the sheep industry, but I feel they have a secondary responsibility to help ensure that our LGD remain working dogs and that they are not legislated out of a job through laws that make the use of them impossible. In Alberta, our sheep organizations have created animal welfare rules and regulations pertaining to all aspects of the sheep industry, including welfare rules for tagging, tail docking, transportation and care. What is missing, is a chapter on welfare and care of LGD and herding dogs. Having the backing of a Statewide sheep organization, with clearly laid out protocols on the work and welfare of our LGD, will provide a good educational tool for lawmakers and welfare organizations, as to what is good practices when it comes to using LGD to protect our livestock.

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