Intact or Altered?
Written for The Shepherds Magazine
An intact breeding pair of LGD. The male will only be focused on “guarding” this female while she is in heat. It certainly detracts from his guarding of the livestock during this time.
As veterinary knowledge expands many “standard” procedures are getting a new look. One of the areas that has come under greater scrutiny is what long term affects (health and behavioural) does spaying and neutering have on dogs. For many years, the standard approach has been to recommend spaying a female prior to her first heat cycle and neutering a male under one year of age. In some areas and particularly with shelter dogs, many of these dogs are altered as juveniles, around 8-12 weeks old. With new research and looking into long term studies it has been found that early spay and neuter does carry increased health risks for the adult dog. This article will explore some of the options for livestock guardian dogs (LGD) and how to manage intact and altered dogs.
I could not find any direct studies that determined if an altered or intact LGD had a significant effect or their working ability to deter predators from the sheep flocks. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication states; “Either sex can be an effective LGD and spaying or neutering does not seem to decrease a guardian dog’s protectiveness.”
In the more traditional cultures in Europe, altering is not a standard procedure and many pastoralists do not have access to this type of medical intervention. In some regions it is frowned upon and many shepherds believe that neutering or spaying will render the dogs less effective. Personally, I do believe that intact LGD might have a slight advantage when it comes to behaviours such as sent marking, displays of dominance, aggression and claiming of territories. The degree of difference in effectiveness has not been measured (to my knowledge) and the question arises if that difference overrides the advantages of sexually altering a LGD?
The primary reasons for altering LGD is to prevent unwanted litters of pups, crosses between LGD and non LGD breeds, to keep the dogs focussed on their job rather than finding breeding partners and in some cases to reduce some behavioural problems such as aggression and roaming.
The advantages of intact dogs in regards to working ability is that a lot of information is transmitted through scent, intact dogs could have an advantage over altered dogs in this regard, intact dogs can be more dominant and show more aggression when it comes to pack dealings and the message it can portray to wild canids. Of course, the option of breeding a good working dog is gone once a dog is altered.
In the vast majority of cases, I think altered LGD do make the best working dogs for most livestock operations and I personally do recommend spaying or neutering them. The next question however is when to do that? In most cases it is convenient for the rancher to do this when the pup is young, close to the ranch and before they become sexually mature. This is usually before 6 months for a female and under a year for a male. However, some recent research does suggest a correlation with long term health affects associated with early spaying and neutering which includes things such as joint diseases (including hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear or rupture, and elbow dysplasia) and cancers (such as lymphoma, mast cell tumor, hemangiosarcoma, and osteosarcoma). Both which can seriously affect the working life of our LGD.
In this July 2020 published research paper titled: Assisting Decision-Making on Age of Neutering for 35 Breeds of Dogs: Associated Joint Disorders, Cancers, and Urinary Incontinence. By Benjamin L. Hart, Lynette A. Hart, Abigail P. Thigpen and Neil H. Willits. (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2020.00388/full)
It found: “In previous studies on the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd Dog, neutering before a year of age was associated with increased risks of one or more joint disorders, 2–4 times that of intact dogs. The increase was particularly seen with dogs neutered by 6 months of age. In female Golden Retrievers, there was an increase in one or more of the cancers followed, to about 2–4 times that of intact females with neutering at any age.”
The breeds studied did not include any of the LGD breeds, but it is generally accepted that size and sex certainly does impact the affects of early spay and neutering. Looking at all the larger breeds in this study it can be concluded that for large breeds the recommendations for neutering varies from 11 months to over 2 years, and for spaying a female from 6 months to over 2 years. I think if your breed is prone to joint issues and cancers, it is prudent to allow them to mature before considering spaying or neutering. I think it is always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to pick the best age that suits your management and is most appropriate for your dog. I recommend to my pup buyers usually to alter their dogs after 18 months old. Allowing them sufficient time to mature, grow and develop.
So, this leads into the next issue on how to deal with intact dogs who could potentially breed, before they are altered. Both males and females can breed from about 6 months old and considering that most LGD breeds come into heat 2 x a year for 3 weeks at a time, it will require additional dog management to deal with an intact animal.
LGD are notorious for their ability and ingenuity to escape any enclosure, so this means when a female is in heat and needs to be locked away, the encloser will need to be very substantial; jump, climb, crawl and dig proof. Dogs have been known to breed through diamond mesh fencing. As most of my females tend to trigger each other and they tend to cycle together, it is often easier for me to lock away the male than lock away all the females. My advantage is that we live remotely and have no other neighbor dogs that could come in and potentially breed our LGD. My border collies are kenneled and do not just free roam, so that is usually not a problem.
I have built a designated kennel for my LGD that needs to be in lock down, it is away from the sheep pastures, it is high, with coyote rollers over top. The bottom is fortified. If I have an incredibly determined dog, I am also able to tether the dog inside this pen if I am worried about it escaping. My next favorite place to contain my LGD is a stock trailer, providing the air openings are not spaced too far apart that the dog can slither through. I think every working ranch should have at least one super good containment pen, this can be used for when males or females need to be kept separate during heat cycles but can also double as sick bay or even a time out place when the need arises. This pen really does provide some peace of mind. If sheep are grazed out on the range, sometime taking the dog back to the home ranch might be an option, as many of the intact males might spend all their time hanging around the pen where the female is, as opposed to protecting the flock.
|This is my lockdown kennel, complete with coyote rollers to dissuade any jumpers. This kennel is used for containing either an intact male or female when I do not want them to breed or at times when a dog is needing veterinary care.
Just a reminder, most female LGD pups have the first heat cycle between 6 and 8 months. Some can start as early as 4 months. Most females will cycle every 6 months. I like to track who is in heat and when and this is noted down on a calendar. I will usually place a reminder to check a certain female in 6 months time for signs of being in heat. Some females show little signs of a heat, so this does require hypervigilance. Finally, I am a huge advocate that all LGD should be handled. Appropriate handling does not break the bond with sheep, it makes for easier management of the dogs. All LGD should be able to be leashed, caught, handled, vet inspected, de-wormed and be accustomed to tethering. The dogs should be comfortable with you handling their legs, head, ears, touching all over their body so that you can inspect them for signs of being in heat. If you are unable to handle your LGD at all, then I would certainly recommend early spay and neutering, I believe dealing with unwanted litters is a greater issue.