Wednesday 27 May 2020

Lambing time and Livestock Guardian Dogs

This is IMO the best LGD behaviour for a LGD around lambing. The dog is not intruding, allows the ewe to do her job, is fully aware that the ewe is lambing. 
Lambing time and Livestock Guardian Dogs
©Louise Liebenberg, March 2020

As we slowly roll into spring, most sheep operations are preparing for the upcoming lambing season. For most ranches, this once a year event is a big one, as it marks the start of the new cycle. It is often met with excitement to see what new rams throw, watching lots of lambs running together in a mob and the joy of all this new life. It is also a time of concern, worries about weather, health and predators weigh on the sheep ranchers’ mind. With sleepless nights and long days, it is not a good time to have to worry about the livestock guardian dog (LGD).

Even though lambing time is when most producers need a trusted LGD, introducing a new adult at this point, might be a little too late. A new adult dog requires a settling in time, if sheep are not used to LGD then they may become quite stressed about the dog, if the shepherd does not know this dog, it will need supervision and guidance during the first few weeks to months, this all takes time and generally lambing time is not conducive to this. It is better to be prepared and have your new LGD in place a long time before lambing starts, so that you know the dog is trustworthy and your stock accepting of this dog.

Lambing time is, however, a great time to have pups aged 8 to 16-week-old around. Very few LGD pups cause trouble at this age, they are still too young and easily impressed by a protective ewe. The pup can really learn from this experience, build bonds and understand that ewes need to be respected. Lambs are not fearful and will happily go and lay with a young LGD pup. This is an ideal time for a pup to learn about sheep without the shepherd needing to fear that the pup might harm a lamb. This is what people call bonding, it is the time when the pup is impressionable and can come to see the sheep and lambs as part of his world. 
Having young pups around the lambs is a great way to help them learn that lambs and sheep are a part of their world. This is an ideal age for pups to bond with the ewes and lambs, as the pups get older more supervision will be needed.
After about 4 to 5 months of age, is when some issues can creep in. A 5month old pup is much stronger than the lambs, the pup wants to play all day and playing for a pup is wrestling, playfighting, mouthing and chasing.  The pup is in a stage of its development where it wants to push some boundaries and one can expect some naughty chase and nipping behaviour. Lambs can not discipline a rowdy pre-teen and it will require the owner to guide these interactions and ensure that the pup does not get into some bad habits or hurt the lambs.

The bonding process for this litter is so natural, the pups are raised in the barn with the sheep and lambs.  We spend time with the pups to ensure they are socialised with people, but this all happens in the barn  and with the sheep.

A pup in adolescence (between 8 and 18 months) can be a handful, as it can show a whole range of “bad” behaviors towards lambing ewes, these can include; stealing lambs, chasing the ewes away from her lambs, carrying lambs around in its mouth, running down/chasing lambs, attacking the ewe when she tries to protect her lambs, ear and face biting, holding lambs down with their paws, pulling afterbirths out of the ewe before she is done lambing, killing and eating the lambs and wool pulling. All highly undesirable behaviors if allowed to continue, escalate very quickly to killing and seriously maiming the livestock. When any of these behaviors are seen or even suspected, it is essential that the dog is contained and only allowed to be with the ewes while under human supervision. Just removing the dog temporarily does not teach it anything, this dog needs to be told in very clear terms that none of this behavior is acceptable. The good thing is, if you see these behaviors, the dog is telling you very clearly that it is not ready to be trusted around young and birthing stock. If it can escalate, then you have failed to take note of this behavior and have not taken the appropriate steps to stop it.  If you do not see the dog displaying this behavior but you find “evidence” of bad behavior ( sheep in a corner, panting livestock, tufts of wool, bloodied ears, a dead lamb  or half chewed lamb) then always suspect the LGD first, if you give it the "benefit of the doubt”, you might be allowing it to reinforce its own (bad) behavior. It is better to act immediately and supervise the dog, than let bad behavior escalate.  It is better to err on the side of caution than allow bad behavior to continue.  There is nothing wrong with a bit more supervision and guidance, and it is always preferable to trying to correct a dog that has got into a habit of chasing ewes away from their lambs, or killing newborns.

It is also good to remember that not every dog is equally good in all aspects of livestock guardian work. Some dogs might never be 100% reliable with newborns and yet they can still be very functional and excellent guardians with older stock. I think it is  good to remember that on a small operation, an LGD might only ever experience a handful of births. This is not enough for an LGD to become super reliable with birthing if it only experiences a few births, once a year. A dog on a large operation might experience a few thousand births per year and by the time it is 10 years old might have experienced tens of thousands of births. In behavioral language this is called “flooding”, where the dog is exposed to so much stimuli that it does not really react to it anymore.  A young LGD on a large operation will eat so many afterbirths that it truly will not find this a novel or  an exciting experience anymore. It will have met up with so many belligerent ewes that it will know to make a nice wide berth around these ewes.

The experiences for an LGD on a small versus large operation are just not comparable. Similarly, an operation that lambs indoors, will also not give the LGD the opportunity to experience lambing ewes and newborn lambs. One day the LGD  might be surprised when his ewes who are suddenly accompanied by small little bouncy things. This can certainly excite a young LGD enough that it might do some naughty things like chase those new creatures around. Watching the dog when lambs and ewes are first turned out, is always a good policy.

Some people promote this idea that two is the magic age when suddenly, LGDs become reliable and before then, they are not trustworthy. I am going to suggest, all LGD who shows any signs of not being trustworthy, at any age, requires supervision, whether they are 9 months old or 10 years old. If the dog only experiences a few births ever, he might need supervision all his life. Some dogs are trustworthy right from the start, but many do make mistakes and it is the job of the shepherds to teach them what is acceptable behavior and what is not. There are no hard and fast rules to this, and the key is “reading your stock” and paying attention to the dog.

I know a lot of people have a nice, warm fuzzy feeling when they see their LGD licking off a newborn and certainly in the case of an experienced and trustworthy adult  LGD this might be okay. I prefer my LGD to watch at a distance and do not want them to interfere with the birth process. The ewe has her job, and that is to care for her lamb, lick it dry, feed it and bond with it. The dog’s job is to watch for predators and be ready to spring into action if one appears. Some dogs can be very intrusive and push the ewe away from her lamb, or the dog wants to lick the lamb clean and the ewe might reject that lamb. Some skittish yearlings will drop the lamb and if the dog comes too close, she will run away and never think of her lamb again. I want my dog to do his job, and my ewes to do theirs.

So, what does good lambing behavior look like for an LGD? I like my dogs to be watchful, at a comfortable distance from a lambing ewe. The dog must not intrude on her space or disrupt her in anyway. I want them to walk very calmly past and through the ewes and lambs, I want them to walk with their head low, avoid hard eye contact and to move around the ewes without disturbing them. If an ewe feels uncomfortable, then I want the dog to give her more space and quietly walk away or further around. I want the dog to be tolerant of the lambs without getting excited when they run and play. If the dog is not comfortable with the lambs, then it is the dog who should get up and move away. If an ewe charges the dog he does not need to retaliate, but just move away so that the ewe does not feel the need to charge the dog.  He may eat the afterbirths once the ewe has finished lambing. He needs to alert, vigilant and protective to predators, watchful and calm around the sheep.  I like my dogs to do a regular walk by an ewe who as lambed or lay calmly at a distance close to the ewe and her newborns.
The LGD watching a ewe giving birth at a nice respectable distance, the ewe is unconcerned about the dog.

The same dog does a walk by, just checking it out, eyes are averted, head low and her demeanor is calm. You can see the ewe is completely relaxed.
The dog has her back to the ewe; she is calm watchful and not intrusive. She is not trying to lick the lamb or grab an afterbirth and she is certainly not pushing the ewe away from her lamb.

A dog who is disruptive or excitable needs to spend more time with the sheep, it must be supervised or possibly tethered on a zipline. Removing the dog entirely will not help calm the dog down. I have a young female that was getting excited when the sheep ran, or the yearling ewes would jump and play. She spent the winter in our barn with the ewes who were lambing. She got to watch lambs run around all day and she is now not “triggered” by their movements.
Lambing time is a wonderful time for young pups to learn, it is also an important time for the adolescent dog but requires more supervision and guidance from the shepherd to ensure he does not get too excited or learns bad habits.

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