Friday 27 March 2020

Why do Livestock Guardian Dogs need Fencing?

Regular woven wire fence that can contain the livestock should be good enough to contain the LGD.

Why do Livestock Guardian Dogs need Fencing?

©Louise Liebenberg 2020

Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) seem to have this reputation for being known to roam. It is true that LGD like to expand their territory and push predators further back. They have no qualms about claiming the neighbors land to guard, as well as your land and all the adjacent land too. On large expansive range operations, what keeps the LGD close to the band of sheep is his bond to the livestock, the shepherd and the other dogs working on that range. In Europe, the shepherds always accompany the sheep while grazing and rarely are the dogs left alone to guard the livestock, as they are here in North America. At night the sheep return to the village or the yard of the shepherd, and the dogs spend the nights at the sheep fold or tethered close by. The dogs travel with the shepherds and their flocks, and are always under the watchful eyes of the shepherds who will call a dog back if it goes to far.

As the shepherds live in the village, and the goats and sheep are housed in barns within the village, the neighbours are more tolerant of the working dogs. Everyday the shepherd leaves the village, collects the goats from the various houses and heads out to the mountains to graze. The village people are tolerant of the dogs and traffic is mindful of the shepherd, his goats and the dogs.
In North America, we have a system that is primarily based on a pastured system, the sheep are contained within some fencing and grazing is rotated through pastures or on large tracts of fenced land, in this way, the sheep control their own grazing and a shepherd does not have to be present to tend to the sheep. To ensure the sheep are safe, even when no one is present, the LGDs are left alone with the sheep within the fenced pastures. It is not the original way shepherds worked with LGD but has become the North American way.  This system of pasturing livestock creates some issues that are often not seen in the more traditional husbandry systems. Although some guardian dogs do roam, even with a shepherd in attendance, it is less common, and these dogs often find their way back to their own band or join up with another band.  Due to the vast areas these sheep graze, the lack of neighbours and roads, if the LGDs do head out and go further away chasing predators, it is not usually a big problem. 

The biggest issues for LGD are those living on smaller pasture-based systems, where roaming or chasing predators away could mean these dogs end up on neighbour’s land, in their yards and on public roads. Neighbors are generally intolerant of having strange dogs on their properties. Dogs that roam  are a nuisance, they poop, urinate against vehicles, cause the neighbors dogs to bark, they could potentially breed the neighbors dogs, kill cats, frighten children, eat the neighbors dog food, rip garbage bags open, bark at the landowners and a multitude of other problems. The roaming LGD is not only a cause of frustration for other people but is also a liability for the owner. A roaming LGD could cause a vehicle accident, could cause stock (not familiar with dogs) to panic and get injured, they can bite or injure someone. Not only is this bad for the LGD as it could end up run over, shot, picked up by animal control or injured, but it reflects poorly on the sheep industry. It gives “ammo” to the animal rights groups on how badly we care for our dogs. A big difference here, in comparison to remote villages in Europe, is that we live in a litigious society, who are generally less tolerant about other people’s animals coming onto their property and causing problems such as barking and roaming. Fellow shepherds in Europe are less like likely to cause you legal issues, the biggest problem could be that your dog gets killed by their own LGDs.

The question often arises, surely if LGDs are properly bonded to the livestock it will not roam?  This is true to a degree, in those vast open ranges, the bonding works well, however, no matter how tight the bond is between dog and livestock, it will generally not prevent a LGD chasing a coyote a fair distance away. It is their job to ward off predators, not just hang out with the livestock. It is part of their duties to “claim” the territory where the sheep graze by patrolling, barking, chasing predators and scent marking. Staying in the vicinity of the flock is part of their job, but it is not the whole job.  Bonding alone, will not prevent an LGD from leaving the property or the sheep flock. Nothing is more fun for an LGD than to actively chase away yipping and howling critters and expanding their own territory. Dogs do not have the same sense of space as we do, our boundaries and fences are  not necessarily boundaries a LGD would respect.

The solution to this roaming issue is simple; you either go and shepherd the sheep during the hours they graze and tether or kennel the LGD at night when the sheep are back in the fold, or you can move and run a range operation where roaming LGD are not a big problem  or you might have to fence your property to prevent the LGD from leaving your land. 

This Shepherd in Portugal keeps an eye on the dog and goats while grazing. It is the bond between the shepherd, the goats and the dog that keeps the dog from roaming away.

Many LGDs are (unfortunately) not simply contained, what drives them to want to leave are primal instincts and those are powerful. We also know that LGDs seem to have an uncanny ability to find and utilize every weakness in your fence. If you think you have a well contained area, wait until you add an LGD to show you every low spot, crawl space and gap in the fence. LGDs have Houdini like qualities, can shape shift and can clear just about any obstacle. Some people build veritable prisons to contain their LGDs,  others employ the “fence in front of a fence” system, and others throw everything they have to keep their dog contained, woven wire fences, hotwires, buried in the ground anti-dig fences, coyote rollers on gates and to finish it off an invisible fence.

The doubters will point out if you need fencing this good to contain the dog, then surely it will keep the predators out and one would not even need a dog. Yes, that might be true, but if I look at enclosures in zoos to keep wolves in, then I do not doubt that most fences found on ranches, are simply not predator proof enough. The fence on most ranchers are to keep the livestock in, they are not built to keep predators out.

We have good fences, (bison woven wire fence with hot-wires over top) and, we have bears, wolves, coyotes, lynx, cougars and all the ungulates and moose all within our fenced areas. The fences do not keep the wildlife out but are good enough to keep our livestock and LGD in.

I think the biggest “trick” to keeping the livestock guardian dog contained is to ensure it is happy to want to live with the livestock (bonded and content), that its social needs are met either with contact from humans or other pack members, possibly spay and neutering to reduce any hormonal desires to find  a mate and some fence training. Teaching the pup to respect boundaries and fences is easier done than trying to break the habit of roaming. Roaming is a self rewarding behaviour, and those behaviours are generally very hard to stop. Every time the dog gets to leave, reinforces his own desire to go.

I do not think that fences have to be excessive, if it is good enough (except for barb wire strands) to contain the livestock, the fence should be sufficient to contain the dog. I do like to have a starter pasture that is very well fenced that I can use as my teaching pasture. I use this area to bond the pups to the livestock, and the pup learns early on that fences and boundaries need to be respected. If a pup does find its way out of the pasture, we make the experience outside the pasture quite unpleasant and the pup is returned to the pasture directly. We always make time to ensure that the training field fences are excellent. If we notice a pup has a desire to leave, we will rig up a learning situation. If the pup likes to dig, we will run a strand of hot-wire of on the outside of the fence so if he is trying to crawl under, he will get zapped. If he is a climber an offset hot-wire over top will help with that. We make sure we never talk to the pup over the fence, as this encourages the pup to stand up against the fence. We teach them about electric sheep nets as much of our summer grazing for the sheep are in nets. Most importantly, we spend time to ensure the pup is happy and content being where he is. We will have a mature companion dog in this area, the pup is in with kind livestock, he has a nice place to sleep and eat without the livestock bullying the pup, and we spend a fair amount of time with the pup in that area. In this way his needs are met, food, shelter and companionship (livestock, another dog and human).

Macedonia, when the sheep are back in the village, after a day of grazing, the LGDs are tethered for the night. A few pups or an older dog, may be a laying in the yard loose.

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