Wednesday 28 October 2020

Adding Livestock Guardian Dogs


Merely adding in extra dogs as a response to a predation event is not as simple as it seems. Having a well functioning pack, who like to work together is what will provide optimum protection to your livestock.

Adding Livestock Guardian Dogs 
©Louise Liebenberg (Aug 2020)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

I  always question when people who have little to no experience working with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) give advise on how to raise them, work them and how many dogs someone starting with LGD should get, particularly when they themselves are not always aware of the consequences of such advise or the possible ramifications this could have for the person, livestock or other dogs. I think, people who have worked with LGD in a professional way, and by this, I mean making a living from their livestock operation, understand there are always nuances and considerations that need to be taken into account. It is not a “one size fits all” situation. In this month’s article I am going to look at the feasibility of simply adding more dogs to a flock.

On many of the social media forums, people will ask questions regarding how many dogs they need, if the person who posts the question casually mentions they live in an area with large predators (even if no predation has taken place) most advisors jump at that, and suggest they need 5 or more dogs to handle large predators.  In my rather practical way of thinking, I always question how the advisor thinks that will work? It is not so simple to just add that many dogs. Is it even warranted for that situation, or where to even find all these dogs are often not considered? In some cases, these advisors recommend the poster get 2 dogs for a situation that does not even warrant a dog.

Most people recommend high number of dogs because they think that LGD and large predators are having fights daily, the reality is, physical engagement is relatively uncommon. In areas with high predator pressure, the producer will already have higher dog numbers and is probably implementing other methods to help keep the livestock safe. 
This advise to simply add in 5 or more dogs is easy to hand out and much harder to implement. If a producer has a confirmed kill from a mountain lion or bear, it generally does not work to suddenly add multiple new dogs, all at once, to the flock.   The problems with this advice are, many people do not understand that simply adding in so many extra dogs will destabilize the original LGD pack. It is not simple to integrate new adult dogs into an existing pack as it will often result in fighting.  The dogs are focussed on pack dynamics as opposed to the flock.  There is also a real challenge to find good, sound adult working LGD and most times the livestock are wary of new dogs initially. Although the advice may be legitimate, the reality is that it is near impossible to implement as an instant solution in response to a predation event.  I read on the various livestock guardian dogs forums comments like it takes multiple dogs to take down a mountain lion, yes, that might be true, but the work of a LGD is rarely “taking it down”, instead it is to disrupt the predators behaviour, making it harder to be able to kill, to act as a deterrent and establish a territory to push predators further back.  If you have a sheep killed today by a predator then you might need to resort to other methods of protecting your flock because finding 3 or 4 new dogs to add in directly, might not be an option. In this case, night corralling the sheep in a smaller area, or using hot wire, sound and light deterrents or shepherding might be the more appropriate “instant solution”. Integrating that many new dogs into a flock takes time, management, and resources. It is not an instant fix.

A cohesive pack means there is peace in the pack, all working together as a group.

What people do not realise is that there is an optimum number of dogs, too many dogs and you have whole new set of problems to deal with. It is about finding the right number of dogs, with the best pack cohesiveness for the job. To protect the livestock, multiple strategies might need to be implemented, no method to discourage predation is 100%, so when a kill happens, other forms of protection will need to be applied. If the area where you ranch, has a high predator load and there is a need more dogs, then it is pertinent to work towards higher number of dogs over time. Build that cohesive working pack of dogs who are and can be flexible with where they are placed. We switch our dogs around depending on where they are grazing or if the risk for the livestock is higher in a certain area. We rotate our dogs around various groups and will often add in or take our dogs from different groups out to ensure all the dogs know each other well enough, to be able to work together. This flexibility allows us to manage the dogs better and provide the best protection to the flock that needs it most.  A few years back we had wolves raising 7 pups on our ranch, this required us to move some of the dogs around, to ensure the sheep grazing closest to the wolf den were more protected.  This was possible as we usually have a few “extra dogs”, who can be switched around. We pulled some of the dogs from the sheep grazing close to the barn and added them in to the main ewe flock and to the calving cattle.  As our dogs know the livestock, the other dogs, and the terrain, it was relatively easy to do. This way, we can “instantly” up our numbers without causing too much disruption within the flock and dog pack.

What is key for most producers is to have a succession plan for their LGD.  Many people start off with 2 and then in 10 years time they have 2 old dogs with no new young dogs that are up and coming. I think it is important to plan where you want to be with your operation in a few years time, are you a growing operation, expanding land base, or possibly downsizing? Planning for the number of dogs you need or having a reliable source for finding your future LGD pups is important.   If you breed your own as replacements it is good to know when to plan a litter to ensure you have the next generation starting up, before you might really need them. The most cohesive pack of LGD includes dogs with a variety of ages and experiences within the pack. I personally like to keep back a pup at least every two years, so when the older dogs move into retirement, I have sufficient, experienced younger dogs to fill those rolls. If it looks like I am getting too many dogs, there is a market for well raised, stock bonded older dogs. I have multiple people calling me and telling me their dog got old and have had a coyote kill and are now needing a full trained dog, ready to go today. A little succession planning in the dogs goes a long way to ensure you have enough, integrated dogs to not have a “gap” or opportunity for predators to take advantage of. Managing the LGDs on a livestock operation is part of the whole “business plan”, and requires forethought and planning to have optimal use of the dogs.

Succession planning in LGD, requires planning a head to ensure you have a cohesive pack of dogs for the coming years to ensure sufficient protection for your livestock.

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