Wednesday 8 July 2020

Wool pulling

Wool pulling by a LGD.
The ewe was fine.

Wool Pulling
©Louise Liebenberg (2020)
Written for the Shepherds Magazine 

“Hi,  Do you think a dog would pull the wool on a sheep to try and help it?
This morning I got up to one of my ewes, heavy with lambs, over on her side/back unable to get up with one of my dogs laying beside it and a bunch of its wool pulled out. We were wondering if the dog could have been trying to help it get up by pulling on the wool? When I approached them, the dog got up calmly walked away about 10 feet and laid down again. We got the ewe up and she staggered a bit and then slowly headed back to the flock. He walked beside her, about 15-20 feet away.  So, I am not sure if dog was exceptionally good or bad?  He is 18 months old he has been with these sheep since he was 9 months old. I do not know that it was him, as was he was laying beside her not touching her and I never saw him touch her, is it possible something else did this?”

Wool pulling by a young Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) occurs more frequently than what many people care to admit.  The reasons why a dog pulls wool are multiple, most often it occurs in younger, adolescent dogs who are playing and getting a bit rough with the sheep. It is a game of chase and grab, often, wool pulling is also combined with the dog nipping the legs of the sheep and some ear chewing.

In some instances, wool pulling also occurs under specific circumstances such as if a sheep is weaker, down, cast or caught with its head in a fence or feeder. The fact that the sheep is compromised, triggers a predatory type response in the dog where it will start to pull the wool of this animal. It is important to note that play behaviour in carnivores is often based on predatory learning behaviours. So, what might be play in a young dog can soon escalate to being predatory. Even though LGD are bred to have a low prey drive towards the livestock and combined with a lot of socialisation to the livestock, they are and remain dogs who can be triggered to react in a predacious way.

The answer to the question at the beginning of this article is no, the dog was not attempting to help the sheep into an upright position.  The dog found the sheep in a prone and compromised position and this triggered an inappropriate response in the dog.  I have seen older, exceptionally reliable dogs also pulling wool in sheep who have been caught with their heads in the fence or a feeder.  Once the sheep was freed, the dog was completely uninterested in that sheep. It was the specific situation that gave rise to a poor response from the dog.  Some LGD will pick out a weak, compromised, sickly animals (thin, old, high worm load) to “play with”, separate out, chew ears, pull wool etc.  In many cases the dog will continue to pick on the same animal unless it is removed. It is in the world of carnivores, a normal survival behaviour. Although undesirable in our LGD, we must remember that they are still dogs and predators.
The key to raising LGD is select for genetics with a low predatory drive and to socialise them sufficiently (bond) then to the livestock. The last part of this is to ensure that any unwanted and undesirable behaviour is immediately corrected and that the dog is not placed in situations where he can repeat his mistakes.

When a dog is pulling wool, the dog is sending the owner a clear message that he is not reliable to be left with smaller and potentially weaker animals, and that he needs supervision. A dog pulling wool should be monitored and corrected for this behaviour. The dog should not be put into a situation that it can continue to hurt the sheep or escalate its behaviour. In many cases the owners are often surprised at this behaviour and similarly to the lady who sent me the original message, she was questioning if the dog could do this. She was willing to give the dog the benefit of the doubt. This is a pivotal moment, as owners who have never seen an LGD display this type of behaviour might inadvertently “forgive” the dog, and the dog has no idea it has done something wrong. The owner might believe the dog was trying to help the sheep, so the dog was not corrected for this behaviour, possibly rewarded for the perceived good intentions of the young LGD and most times it is left alone with the sheep providing more opportunity to repeat its behaviour.
Although not a very clear photograph it does illustrate what sometimes happens when a LGD pulls wool. A young dog sitting next to an ewe whose wool was plucked. Although unwanted behaviour this does occur very often in LGD. This ewe survived and rejoined the flock.
Thank you to Laurie Mclaren for allowing me to use this photograph.

In some instances, wool pulling is a collective behaviour, two pups together might engage in this and yet, when separated from each other do not. It is clear to see that some pack mentality takes over at that point.

That a young dog might pull some wool does not mean that the dog is ruined for life  it does depend on the severity and frequency, the more the dog does this, the lower his chances are of becoming a successful LGD. Most first-time offenders can be corrected and still become very solid and reliable LGD. Most young dogs do not have to be “got rid of” but they do need more supervision and be placed in  a situation where they do not have the opportunity to repeat this behaviour. A young dog who is maybe a little too rough, might be better in with some big old rams or placed on a zipline when he cannot be monitored.   The key thing to remember is that wool pulling for a dog is fun, and when something is fun, the dog likes to repeat that behaviour, it becomes a self rewarding behaviour, he will keep doing it and escalate his behaviour each time. Self rewarding behaviours are hard to stop, the correction needs to override the reward and the opportunity to repeat that behaviour must be controlled.

I think the golden rule, no matter what the age of the dog is that the dog should simply never put his mouth or paws on a sheep. He should not be pulling wool, chewing ears, eating placentas out of ewes, dragging the sheep around, sitting on them, carrying lambs, nipping legs etc.  He may gently sniff them, some butt licking, or some face licking of the sheep is acceptable provided he is quiet, gentle, and not intrusive in doing so. Butt and face sniffing are generally a form of greeting, and that is permissible.

If an ewe is down or stuck, he may watch it, guard it, but not touch it.  If I see a young dog standing on a sheep, or over a sheep, or one using its teeth, it will receive an immediate verbal reprimand, it may also include me chasing the dog off a little way simply to emphasize that I am unhappy with him.   Being consistent with the dog provides a constant reminder of how he is expected to behave with the sheep. If I am aware that a young adolescent dog is maybe a little too excitable or is showing some naughty behaviour (chase or controlling behaviour) he will be removed from any flock or herd where he has access to smaller or weaker animals.  I can place the dog in with mature rams or bulls so that the opportunity to be naughty is removed. They are still in with the livestock, just with livestock that are not so vulnerable. It is also generally good livestock management to remove very weak or compromised animals from the flock.

Trustworthiness is one of the three cornerstones of good LGD behaviour, however few LGD are born that never make a mistake or do something naughty. It is the job of the shepherd to correct unwanted behaviour in most instances a timely correction, switching the dog to less vulnerable livestock or even a change of environment can be all the dog needs. Some of the more protective dogs who are harder in nature, might need more supervision than softer breeds. Bolder, more aggressive dogs towards predators are also often bolder and sometimes a bit more challenging to raise. 
Here are a few tips:
No touching livestock with teeth or paws.
Correct any signs of bad behaviour.
Remove an adolescent or naughty dog from weak, sickly or compromised animals.
Supervise, supervise but do not micromanage.
If the dog is doing naughty things, do not give him the benefit of the doubt until you are 100% sure he is reliable. Better to be cautious than allow bad behaviour to continue.
Watch for tell tale signs that the dog might be roughhousing the livestock (panting livestock,  individual animals separated, livestock huddled in a corner, nervous livestock around the dog, tufts of wool pulled out.

It is easy to think that a good LGD should never harm the livestock, but the reality is that they can and do. Not every LGD bred, becomes a successful LGD. No dog is faultless and a lot of the problem-solving lies with a diligent shepherd who will correct a dog showing poor behaviour!

A typical sign of an ewe where the wool has been pulled by an adolescent LGD.  The ewe was fine.
Photo by Laurie Mclaren.

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