Wednesday 26 February 2020

What matters more breed or breeder?

This young guardian dog is being raised with and bonded to some heifers, his job in the future will involve working with cattle.

What matters more breed or breeder?
©Louise Liebenberg 2019
Written for: The Shepherds Magazine

By the time you receive this issue of The Shepherds Magazine the new year will be underway. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a healthy and prosperous new year! 

The USDA, under the guidance of Julie Young and Daniel Kinka recently did a study to compare livestock guardian dog (LGD) breeds, they found that all the LGD breeds were more similar, than different in how they respond to threats. This is a logical conclusion, bearing in mind that all livestock guardian dogs have the same job, and that is to protect the livestock from predators. This job description remains the same throughout all the different countries and all the different breeds. With well over 30 different livestock guardian dog breeds who are all bred to protect livestock from large predators, the expectation would be, that these breeds should exhibit similar traits despite differences in looks and type.

 Livestock guardian dogs do not only share similar working traits (high nurturing qualities that allows them to bond to the livestock, high protectiveness, vigilant, independent, discerning, loyal, canine aggressive) but also many phenotypical traits which are directly related to their effectiveness to do their job. LGD are large dogs, most are double coated (a few exceptions), many have thick loose skin, all have hanging ears, most have “normal” proportions and angulation, strong, large teeth in a correct configuration even head proportions are similar. Coat types (corded, rough and shorter coated) and colours do vary among the breeds.  

These traits are what you can generally expect when looking for a livestock guardian dog breed. When bred for this job, these traits become hardwired into the DNA of the dogs. You can count on a certain amount of predictability of these traits. Predictability is what differentiates a mutt from a purebred (not, a registered dog) dog. Careful breeding and selection (culling) is what the shepherds did to have a breed suitable and capable of doing its job. Predictability in traits reduces the risk, and the time required for a dog to learn to do a specific job.  An example would be that a greyhound, they have been bred and selected for speed, when you breed a greyhound to another greyhound, you know how it will look and it will have speed. That is predictability in traits. It is similar for all the various groups of dogs, herding dogs’ herd, hounds have good noses and scenting abilities. If you need a herding dog, your success will greatly improve if you select a herding breed to start with. 

Therefore, the advice is given to new people looking for an LGD pup to stay within the LGD breeds or crosses only between LGD breeds. Once you add in breeds such as border collie or Labrador, the genetic waters get muddied, certain traits can conflict with others resulting in unpredictable behaviour. Imagine buying a Border Collie x Great Pyrenees, you hope to have a livestock guardian dog, but instead you get a very large, stubborn, white herding dog that could not care at all about the coyotes but wants to spend its entire life herding the livestock around. 
Alternatively, you could win the lottery and maybe that cross will be what you want, but we all know that the chance of winning the lottery is slim! Having a cross like this is like playing Russian Roulette with your livestock, you could be lucky, but most of the time you are not.

So, this brings me to the most common question asked regarding LGD: “What breed of LGD should I get?” (This question is often followed with parameters such as no roaming, little barking, preferably really friendly with other dogs, good with strangers).
Personally,  I do not think that the breed itself is what will determine the most success on your operation, I think it has more to do with the breeder and their ability to help and guide you.

A good breeder will be able to tell you about their operation and help you decide if what they breed and select for, will be suited for your operation. They will guide you in your decision making and be willing to answer your questions. The right breeder will be able to tell you about the working ability of their dogs, will share the challenges of raising their dogs and can outline what you can expect from a dog bred by them. They will have information on possible genetic health issues and the health status of their dogs and can explain what they value in their breeding dogs. The breeder should be willing to offer mentor-ship and support to you, to ensure the pup they bred will be successful on your operation. The breeder should be your first go to for questions regarding raising and training your LGD. The breeder will inform you about vaccinations and de-worming your pup will have, as well as advise you what future veterinary care may be needed.  The breeder should be able to give you important information regarding the temperament of the parents and perhaps other siblings and family members, which could make your decision easier.

It really amazes me when people contact me to ask some basic questions regarding their pup, questions I feel, should be answered by their breeder. In many cases these people do not even know the name of their breeder. When you are willing to pay good money for dog that is supposed to protect your livelihood, you should invest that money into a breeder who will provide you with support. 
I regard using LGDs as an investment in your ranch and security for your livestock, it is in your own best interests to get the best you can.

Even though each breed is unique, their basic traits are similar, finding the right breed for your operation should certainly include finding the right breeder too. Personal preferences and some parameters will narrow down the options. 
Some ranchers do not like dealing with long coated breeds, so breed selection might be narrowed down to the shorter coated breeds such as the Kangal, Akbash, Anatolian or Central Asian Ovcharka. Some, people prefer the white dogs, this will also narrow down your breed choice.  People who are dealing with larger predators might want breeds who are perhaps a little higher on the protectiveness/aggressive side, so breeds such as the Sarplaninac, Kangals or Ovcharkas might be what you need. If you run a large range operation, then dogs who are more athletic in their conformation might be a good criterion to select for. 
All LGD bark, all LGD like to expand their territory so those might not be reliable parameters to select an LGD on.

For many people, availability is an issue, you might decide the perfect breed for you is Koochi, but finding a reliable breeder, who has working dogs that fit your operation might be a bigger challenge than anticipated. Importing brings its own risks; breeder support becomes more complicated, costs generally skyrocket, and then of course you have scammers, peddlers and false advertising to navigate in a foreign language. Plenty of breeders in foreign countries who advertise “working” LGD, but working can be relative, for some it may be dog fighting, or shows, or the fact that the breed itself is classified as a LGD breed, but over the past 5 generations none of the breeding dogs have actually seen a sheep.

My advice would be for finding the right LGD for your operation is to review some of these questions:
What do I need? An LGD in with stock to protect from predators or a general farm dog?
How big is the threat of predators and what predators am I dealing with?
What breeds am I attracted to and why?  (read about the breeds, do some research, ask people their opinions, speak to breed clubs, speak to producers who have these breeds)
Are their neighbors who have similar operations to mine and how are their dogs? Go for a visit and talk dogs and livestock.
Speak to breeders and ask questions that are important to your operation and what you want in a dog.
Is health testing important to you, then ask about that.
Ask about temperament, problems, good things, predator losses, how they would describe their dogs working abilities?

Pay attention to “red flags”; if a breeder cannot spell the breed name correctly, beware. No livestock, but a good story, probably not what you want. More dogs than livestock? Accidental litter, are you sure the daddy is who they say it is? When the breed standard says a breed can only be a certain colour and you see a litter with odd colours or markings, or a questionable size, or erect ears then take a deep breath and think hard if this is what you think it is. It is amazing how many “throwback” or rare pups are out there,  when breeders start spinning the throwback story to a long lost line and colours that normally are not found in a certain breed, then it is time to pause.

My advise would be look for the breeder who operates a livestock operation similar to yours, see the dogs working, ask about mentorship and chose the breeder who has your best interests at heart. I think the breeder is perhaps more important than the breed, in being successful in raising your LGD.

A good breeder will be able to give you information on the parents of a pup and also assist a new LGD owner with raising and training the pup.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Seasonality Issues

An early snow fall means the sheep need to come into the winter feeding areas, the LGD need some time to adjust to the new routine, smaller pastures and the breeding season for the sheep.

Seasonality Issues
©Louise Liebenberg 2019

This article was written for the The Shepherds Magazine

I hear this  question more often than what one would believe; how can I prevent my dog from “humping the sheep”? Recently, the question was asked how can I prevent my goat buck from “humping” the livestock guardian dog (LGD)? As comical as it sounds, these questions arise regularly and I see a pattern in the time of the year that certain issues seem to be more prominent than other times.
Although no statistical claims can be made regarding this, I do see a seasonal pattern with some of the issues we see with LGDs. Understanding the triggers to bad behaviour, could make finding the solution to the problem a little easier.

Seasonality issues are often related to changes in livestock husbandry. Fall time is usually a big change in livestock management. After the long warm days of summer pasturing, fall comes with cooler temperatures. In colder climates the sheep come off pasture, lambs are weaned, rams or bucks are introduced for breeding and routines change. The ewes start to cycle as the days become shorter and colder.  Livestock guardian dogs generally like calm and order, big changes often require an adjustment period for the dog, and some dogs tend to show some disruptive and odd behaviours when things change. 

Our dogs spend all winter and spring with our cattle, during the summer the cattle go onto summer pasture. The dogs only see the cows again when the first snow starts to fly, and we bring the cows and calves home for the winter. It will usually take a few weeks for them to quit barking at the cows and the dogs will even attempt to chase them away from the sheep. I will correct the dogs for doing this, but also know that it is a temporary adjustment and soon the dogs will settle down. With a younger dog, he could become a little more fanatic in chasing and barking at the cows, unless dealt with, it could escalate to seriously problematic behaviour. A younger dog might be placed in a smaller pasture so I can better monitor what he is doing and can correct his behaviour or will be in an adjoining pasture until he settles down. A little dog management goes along way to prevent an escalation of bad behaviour.

This young LGD was getting a little too enthusiastic with chasing the cows after they returned off summer pasture. Some time in a smaller pen to get reacquainted with each other solved that issue.

Dogs are not immune to the hormonal changes in the livestock, they smell the testosterone coursing through the veins of the rams, and everyone can smell a Billy goat in the rut!  The ewes are highly hormonal, and some male dogs can be triggered by this smell. They will attempt to mount the ewe; some might lick the ewe’s vulva excessively, some will attempt to “hold” an ewe in place by holding it down with its paws or teeth, some wool plucking can occur too. All these behaviours need correcting and monitoring. In some instances, neutering the male will have a positive effect on reducing this behaviour however, the most important point is to make the LGD know it is unacceptable behaviour. Timely corrections go a long way to putting an end to bad behaviour, many dogs do mature out of this behaviour once they are more accustomed the cycle of the sheep.

For some dogs, the introduction of a new buck or ram can lead to him chasing it away aggressively, attacking the new ram or constantly keeping it away from the ewes. A younger dog might perceive the new ram as a threat and these new sheep do not belong here. Some bucks can be quite aggressive or obstinate towards the dogs and this can cause some problems with the LGD.  A belligerent ram and a playful dog might start a game of headbutting, play bowing, nipping and running off, this pattern can eventually become quite aggressive where the dog and ram attack each other. Initially, it looks like fun and games but, it can become a serious problem. 
A young dog could benefit from time in the buck or ram pen before the introduction of the rams into the flock, this way the dog can get to know the “new” animals and become accustomed to the smell and behaviour of the rams before they are mixed into the flock. These introductions are important when new breeding animals are introduced to the herd.  It might make the transitions a little easier for the rams and LGD.

The young male LGD spends time in with the rams to ensure that when the rams join the ewes at breeding time he knows them and will not be too concerned about their introduction into the flock.

Roaming can be another issue in the fall, some dogs might want to head back out to the summer grazing pastures, other might feel “bored” coming into a smaller winter feeding pen, the confinement and perhaps less active work can lead to some dogs to start roaming.

Going back to my initial example, if a goat buck is humping the dog, you could see an escalation in aggressive behaviour on the part of the dog, he might retaliate with a bite to the goat, growling and generally trying to protect his space and body. Some bucks can be relentless, and the dog certainly does not have to be abused by the buck. I am one of those LGD people that feels that a dog does not have to tolerate being jumped on, pushed away from its food and certainly not being mounted by a randy goat. My dogs can protect their space, food and body. However, this protection of their space and body does have restrictions, it may protect itself within reason and it certainly may not escalate its protective behaviour. A growl, a snap and a nip are acceptable but biting and ripping is not. He can snap at the goats and chase them away from his food but may not pursue the animal over an extended distance.  As many young dogs do not know what I regard as “reasonable”, I will often just watch the dog, if he chases or bites a sheep too harshly while protecting himself,  I will correct him or will give him a place to retreat to where the sheep or goats cannot get in. I sometimes will feed the dogs in a corner of the pasture that I have closed off with cattle panels where the dog can crawl under to go and eat and sleep in peace.

 Similarly, a dog that is humping the livestock also needs to be corrected, of course the sheep or goat can butt or stomp, but often the dog is too powerful and the animal cannot protect itself, this is where we need to step in and correct the behaviour. I am a firm believer in each species living together and yet having respect for personal space. The dog should not be “hugging” (holding the livestock between its paws), holding it with its teeth or chewing the livestock. Sexual mounting falls into the unacceptable behaviour patterns!

Although no excuse for bad behaviour, it is always good to consider what could be the reason for a change in the LGD’s behaviour. Particularly, when the dog has been good all summer and suddenly, his behaviour becomes concerning. Question what changed, what could have instigated the change in behaviour, what factors need to be considered? When you consider these questions, solutions are often easily found.

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