Thursday 4 March 2021

The First few Weeks

When the pup and the lambs (or ewes) can be relaxed and comfortable together, that is when the bonding happens. The pup has companionship, warmth, and comfort with the lamb.

The first few weeks.

©Louise Liebenberg 2020
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

 The question of what to do with a new pup once you get him home comes up quite regularly on many of the Facebook forums and even private emails to me. I never give this too much thought as it is a process that just happens here, whether I raise my own or buy a new pup. I am always set up for this and generally do not give it too much thought.  I do however see that many people, starting with their first livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppy do have questions as to what to do in the first few weeks. I know there is a lot of contradictory information “out there” and ultimately it is the owner who gets to decide how they want to work with their dog and what the expectations are for the dog once it reaches adulthood. For some people, all they want is an all-round farm dog, others want a pet and others need a full time LGD. If the goal is a pet, then the bonding to livestock part is not necessary, as the focus will be on bonding to the family. Some people believe that a full time LGD should never be handled or associate with people, I  do not believe in this form of raising, as I know you can have a dog bonded to sheep and it can be socialized with people.

I am assuming that people who subscribe to The Shepherds Magazine are, for the most part, utilizing guardian dogs to protect their livestock. The goal for the guardian dog pup is that it will be living full time with the livestock. It is with this goal in mind, that I will describe my process with pups the first few weeks. There are multiple ways to introduce a new pup onto the ranch and my way is certainly not the only way.

I am going to assume that the pup that is being introduced onto your ranch does meet some basic criteria before you bring it home, namely:
It is a guardian dog breed or cross of guardian dog breeds ( so no heeler cross, hound or lab).
Comes from working stock.
Is healthy and has had basic and appropriate veterinary care ( deworming, vaccinations, heartworm, quality feed)
It is at least 8 weeks old, in many States it is even illegal to sell a pup younger than that. I personally think 8 weeks is the minimum age a pup should leave the litter; I prefer a few weeks older.
Before the pup comes home I usually prepare the area I would like the pup to stay in initially. As we have large pastures and a high predator load, it is certainly not a safe option to put a young pup out on the pasture. I usually have a pen in the barn where the pup will spend the first few weeks. I make sure the area where the pup will be staying in, is puppy proof and that it cannot escape from this pen. I do believe teaching fence boundaries starts directly.

I will have a smaller area within the pen that is “puppy access” only. This is usually a cattle panel placed across a corner so the pup can crawl under or in and the sheep cannot get in.  This will be an area where the pup can eat and sleep safely. He can withdraw to this spot if he is feeling a little overwhelmed and he can eat without the sheep bullying him for his food. I will often have a box or dog house for the pup filled with straw and even some sheep’s wool as bedding.

 It is really very important to have kind stock for the new pup to be able to bond too.

The next and most crucial part of preparing for the new pup is to ensure you have some nice kind ewes or lambs for the pup to bond to. We want the pup to feel comfortable and safe around these animals as we want him to bond with the livestock. The pup only needs a few kind animals initially. The sheep need to provide companionship for the pup, warmth, and comfort. Young lambs or bottle lambs can work great initially, but once the pup is a bit older  he may become too rambunctious for the smaller lambs, however the first few weeks, lambs can be great for the puppy to bond too.

With all this “facilitation” in place, I am ready for the new pup. I do like to spend time with the pup in this bonding pen. This is where the pup will be living for the next few weeks and this is where I will go and hang out with the pup and teach him some basic manners. I like to interact with my pups and handle them, I always do this in the pen with the livestock.  I do want to emphasize that the pup is always with the livestock, we do not bring the pup into the house or on the porch. We want the pup to be around the livestock constantly, and if we take him out, it is to go to other livestock.

The new pup is initially housed in the barn. As we usually have lambs on feed or some other sheep in the barn, it is easy place the pup with the livestock directly. I know the pup is safe, and is well set up to be able to get to know the livestock and us.

Bonding is a fancy word for socialization.  Research in pet dogs has found the time that bonding occurs the easiest and quickest to their new family, is the period between 7 and 12 weeks. In LGD, research has shown that this period (up to 16 weeks) is also the formative time for the pup to become bonded to the livestock. Sure, some dogs can and do bond later, but ideally, we want to optimize this time, to give the pup the best chance of becoming a successful guardian dog. We want the pup to be super socialized to the sheep. That he sees them as part of his world, and that he is content to be around them. We want the pup to be social towards people but the bond between pup and sheep really needs to be prioritized initially.  I want the pup to have every opportunity to learn about sheep and this time establishes the foundation for this.

I will let the pup meet the other farm dogs in this period. He is welcome to meet the working collies, the cats, calves, horses, and other animals on the ranch. He will hear the tractor and will have every opportunity to see and hear all the noises and activities that go on here.
As my collies come and go, I will allow for “meet and greets” but I rarely let the pup play with the collies. He can know them, be excited to see them but that is usually the limit of interaction they have. My collies and LGD are usually very fond of each other and sociable towards each other, without needing “play dates”.  Accepting and tolerant of each other is the goal here.

The pup will get to meet the other guardian dogs too. I will take the pup out to the main flock and let it meet the other guardian dogs. I know my adult dogs have stable temperaments and will not harm a pup. They will come over and greet the pup but are also usually not overly playful with the pup. I know if the pup was raised well by its mom and displays normal pup behaviour, my older dogs will have no issues meeting it and responding in a normal dog way to the new pup. This does not mean that they will not correct a rowdy pup, they can growl and warn a pup if needs be. I do allow for more interaction between the guardian dogs and the new pup than with the collies. Ultimately, the new pup will need to be integrated into the guardian team and they will be spending the rest of their lives working together. More interaction here is okay.

Things I like to watch for in the first few weeks is the comfort level the pup has around the livestock, do they lay together, does the pup move casually around the sheep, do the sheep and pup feel content to be in each others space, does the pup show some puppy submissive behavior towards the sheep, do the sheep stand watch over the pup, do the pup and the sheep “greet” each. These are all signs that the pup and the sheep are forming a bond and are comfortable with each other. My ewes are always around LGDs, so they are generally comfortable with a new pup. 

Pup is out in a small, safe pasture with the sheep. Pup is happy to be around the sheep, the ewes are kind to the pup. This larger area will provide more stimulation for the pup and it will have another LGD as a companion.

Usually around 12 to 16 weeks the pup is ready to graduate to a bigger area (small field) with his bonding sheep. I will move his box or kennel to the field and still have his sheep proof space and I will place an older dog in with the pup. This older dog will help keep the pup safe, provide companionship and hopefully be a mentor to the pup. This older dog will also help give the pup some confidence in exploring the new pasture and being around more animals.  As this is a change in environment, new sheep, and different scenery this usually helps to keep the pup stimulated and alert. After several weeks, I will upscale again, maybe add in different livestock such as replacement heifers, more sheep, larger area, and this progression happens over the first year. I do not believe that we need to keep a young LGD entertained, nor do I believe in boredom. I believe they need work and “controlled” stimulation towards integrating into becoming full time, reliable working dogs. This system works with your first LGD, even if you do not have older dogs for the pup to work alongside, provided the pup is in a safe environment.

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