Wednesday 30 December 2020

What does Bonding look like?


Both the livestock and the dogs are relaxed and comfortable in each others presence.  The puppy is learning to be social around the sheep and to accept that sheep belongs in its world.

What does Bonding look like?

©Louise Liebenberg (2020)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

“What does a bonding look like for a livestock guardian dog (LGD)?” This question was posted in a Facebook group and I thought it was a particularly good question to address in an article. As with all things, nothing is really set in stone and individual dogs will show various degrees of behavior.

Bonding is for both the sheep and the LGD  being comfortable with each other. The sheep are not threatened and the dogs are happy to share their space and resources with each other.

Most traditional shepherds do not really talk in terms of bonding, the dogs are around and live with the sheep, that is what is expected from them. The term bonding is more a North American term, it explains that the dog and sheep form an “unusual” relationship with one another, that crosses specie lines.  The Webster dictionary describes the word bonding to mean “the formation of a close relationship (as between a mother and child or between a person and an animal) especially through frequent or constant association.”  In the case of LGD it is a relationship that is formed between two species and in this case between a predator and its prey.  Another key aspect to the word bond, is that is formed because of frequent or constant association. This is key in LGD. If they do not have frequent or in most cases constant contact with the livestock, the relationship between these two species can becomes weaker or not form at all.

These pups are socializing with the sheep and are in the critical age where they are learning to form a bond with other animals, people and situations.

 Another term more commonly used in the dog world is “socialization”.   Socialization is the process of getting the puppy to become accustomed to other people, animals, places, and activities so that the are calm and relaxed in these situations. Socialization usually begins at an early age, with the goal of having a well-adjusted dog that can handle new situations and experiences in a calm and confident manner.  For our LGD this is what we want, we want the dog to form a relationship with the livestock so they feel calm and confident being around them and also to ensure they come to regard the livestock as part of their world.  We socialize the LGD to their livestock and over time a bond develops. The critical part is that this socialization is somewhat time sensitive and is usually most effective when the pup is in the sensitive stage, the developmental stage where it is most receptive to forming bonds and learning new experiences. This phase is usually between 3 and 16 weeks old.  Of course, there will be some dogs who form this bond at a later age and some who never do, but as a rule of thumb this does seem to be the most ideal time for the pup to form these associations. In the pet dog world, this socialization and bonding happens to the family members, in LGD, we want them to create their primary bond to the livestock, hence the recommendation to place pups directly in with gentle livestock when the pup comes home.

In the eighties, most livestock keepers approached bonding by not handling their dogs at all, believing no human contact was the only way to force this bond to the livestock. This in turn created other issues, nervous and people shy dogs, dogs that could not be handled or given veterinary treatments and feral dogs. Feral dogs are often not confident in their ability to handle new situations and experiences. Finding the right balance between too much handling and enough time to bond to the livestock is a fine line. I like to handle my pups with the livestock. They live with the stock and the handling happens right there.

It was expected that the dog stayed tight with the sheep, and where totally human shy. Many ranchers felt that the dog always had to be close to the sheep, preferably right in the middle of the stock, and preferably avoid all human contact. As more people started to use LGD, and more breeds became accessible to livestock operations,  people noticed some breed differences, some breeds seemed to be “tighter bonding” to their livestock and other breeds tended to be more perimeter or patrolling dogs. Initially many ranchers wanted nothing to do with the patrolling types, as they felt these dogs were “not working”.  However, patrolling breeds can be as effective as tighter bonding breeds. There is not one “right” way. Effectiveness should be measured in how predation is controlled as opposed to the dog’s distance relative to the livestock. The caveat here is, if the dog is always far away or never at the sheep, then chances are he will also not be as effective if he is not around when predation takes place. The patrolling dog needs to still be contact with the sheep, go and patrol and come back and check with the sheep. The patrolling type dog may not lay right in with the sheep but does need to be in relative close proximity to the flock.

The LGD is being attentive to the sheep. The sheep were staring at something moving in the bush, the dog is attentive to the sheep and is focused on what is moving. The dog and the sheep are alert, but relaxed.

I will list some behaviors and actions that indicate that the dog is bonded to the livestock. This list is not all encompassing and not every dog will show all these behaviors. However, it does illustrate what a well bonded dog looks like to the observer. A pup will certainly not show all these behaviors and as the dog matures it will learn how to be around the livestock in a better way. It is not a static process. A mature dog will have learned how to keep the sheep calm, how to avoid conflicts, how to be more tolerant, to “read the sheep’s behavior” etc.
As bonding is not a one-sided relationship, the livestock are also good indicators of how the dog is doing. The livestock know if a dog is not trustworthy and it is the livestock that is often be the first indicator that the dog might be showing troubling behavior.  I will touch on some livestock behavior too, that will reflect how bonded the animals are to each other.

The dog is comfortable and relaxed around the livestock.

The dog is calm and moves through the livestock in a mindful way.

The dog is respectful of the livestock, does not sit on them, paw them, bump into them, chase them.

Is comfortable with the livestock being in their space, laying at a hay feeder together or sharing a water   trough.

Will give the stock space when needed, if a ewe is lambing the dog will walk around her, will avoid hard staring, will overt their eyes to keep the livestock calm, the dog will move around livestock that are walking towards him. If the animals get upset, the mature dog will naturally give them more space to keep them settled. This type of behavior does come with maturity and learned experiences.

The dog is attentive to the behavior of the stock. If sheep are nervous or running, dog is looking  for danger. He is attuned to the sheep and their reactions.

Follows the animals out to graze,  and is in the vicinity of where the flock is grazing.

The dog is content to be with the livestock, when you leave the dog is happy to return to the livestock.

Is trustworthy with the livestock ( no chewing, chasing, herding, leg nipping, wool pulling)

Feels the need to guard the livestock, barks and responds to predators or unusual situations. Is protective of the animals and the space they are in.

Greeting, the sheep, happy to see them.  Forms relationships with individual animals as well as the group.

“Boring. Delightfully, wonderfully, comfortingly boring.” – Susan Soeder

Good bonding does not require the dog to always be laying in with the sheep, being snuggled up to them or even having lambs or goat kids jumping up and down on them. The dog may be bonded without showing this level of tolerance.  Some dogs do prefer more personal space and that is okay.

The livestock will show indications that they trust the dog, are relaxed in the company of the dog (not flighty, chewing cud, walking close to the dog, sharing space, looking towards the dog when unsure, following the dog  into new grazing areas or back to the barn, relaxed, content and comfortable in the presence of the dog.

It certainly is a relationship the grows and some sheep attach more to certain dogs than others. My dogs recognize individual sheep and cows, and some of my sheep adore pups and will stand with them, nuzzle them, and even push other sheep away from the pup.  Some livestock can be more aloof and that is fine too.

I think what is key to remember, the livestock guardian dog’s job is two-fold; protect the livestock and do not eat them! Some people only want to see the warm and fuzzy part of LGDs bonding to their stock, and often forget their main job is to be protective. I would rather have a dog that is tolerant, but distant towards the livestock and “guardy” in his behavior, than all cuddles and snuggles, but ineffective toward predators.

Greetings and recognition of individual animals is another way that show some level of bonding.

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