Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Other Guard Animals: Donkeys





A pair of standard donkeys hanging out with a flock of ewes in Northern Alberta.



Other Guard Animals: Donkeys
Louise Liebenberg (2022)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This month’s article is going to deviate from my regular column on livestock guardian dogs (LGD) and I am going to look at other guard animals to protect livestock. Typically, donkeys and llamas are the other “go to” animals used to guard livestock.  Very little research has been done regarding the effectiveness of these other guard animals and any that I can find, was done almost 30 years ago.  A lot of the information available is anecdotal and quite subjective, where owners “feel or think” that the guard animals are being either effective or not.
In this article I am going to focus on using donkeys as guard animals.

Donkeys that stay close to the flock can add a layer of protection to the flock against predators.



There is a tradition of shepherds using donkeys, going back to Biblical times. Many shepherds used donkeys to help transport products, shelters and fencing into grazing areas.  Donkeys carried supplies into the high mountain summer pastures and grazed alongside the sheep. In more nomadic tribes, donkeys, along with camels, were commonly found in their caravans. As donkeys lived near to the sheep flocks and their shepherds, it can be assumed that the donkeys might have started to display protective behaviours around the flocks. I have met shepherds in Europe who still use donkeys to help transport electric fencing, milking items and food supplies for the grazing period and they feel having a donkey in the flock is a positive addition as the sheep will follow the donkey on a flock move.

Donkeys are often found around sheep camps as they can be used to transport goods and supplies to high mountain pastures.

The effectiveness of using donkeys is a strongly debated topic.   As with LGD, some are great, and others simply do not work out. A study done in Ontario, Canada in 1995, reported that “about 70% of the donkeys being used were rated as either excellent or good in terms of providing flock protection. However, the donkeys’ effectiveness ranged from total elimination of predation, to having absolutely no impact on predation, while simultaneously causing other problems within the flock. In many instances, poor management practices and unrealistic expectations (too many sheep, scattered sheep, or pastures) are as much or more to blame for many failures as any shortcoming of the donkey(s).” (1995 Ontario Predator Study, Study 6: Donkeys as Mobile Flock Protectors, by Fytche Enterprises)

Although success is a difficult metric to define, I will define success as; the donkey has been reliable around the sheep and does not harm the sheep, the sheep are comfortable around the donkey and no/little predation has taken place. Donkeys seem to be the most successful on smaller groups of sheep and on open terrain, some research suggests a hundred ewes or less is the optimum number of ewes for a donkey to watch over.  This is logical because large bands of sheep spread out and it is hard for the donkey to be able to watch over this expansive area. As donkeys are taller than sheep, they do act more like a sentry and can spot predators further away. Ranchers have found donkeys to be less effective in bushy and hilly areas, where sight lines are obscured, and predators can do sneak attacks from a wooded area.

Some research suggests that donkeys are more successful if they are kept alone with the sheep. As soon as they have other donkey companions, they tend to buddy up with them and the sheep become less important. The donkeys will form their own little “herd” and the donkey may no longer feel protective over the sheep when danger approaches.  This could happen also when horses or even cattle are included in the mix. The donkey might feel more herd affinity towards these species, than to the sheep.

The most functional guarding donkeys are those that are bonded to the sheep, similarly to livestock guardian dogs. The donkeys that are raised with sheep from a young age and are bonded to the flock will tend to be more protective, in this way very similar to how LGD are bonded to the sheep as puppies.  The sheep intuitively will tend to congregate around the largest animal in their pasture, in this case it would be the donkey. Donkeys are regarded as more effective against predators than cattle or horses as they seem to have a more inherent hatred toward canines. Unlike LGD, donkeys tend not to be purposefully protective of the sheep, instead they react aggressively towards a predator in their territory, or a jenny might be protective of her own young that is within the sheep pasture.  

As with all guardian animals, they all have their “pros and cons”. One advantage to utilizing donkeys are that they do not require specialized feed, they eat what the sheep eat. They can be contained in similar fencing as the sheep and are not prone to roaming like some LGD.
Overall, donkeys are also cheaper to purchase, often live longer and are less expensive to maintain in comparison to LGD.

Problems that people have with donkeys are comparable to some of the issues people have with LGD. Some donkeys are not bonded to the sheep and do not feel protective toward them. It is also well documented that they can be very aggressive towards the sheep and lambs, stomping on them, picking them up and shaking them. Intact males can be aggressive toward the sheep and people, if not gelded.  Occasionally the guard donkeys will chase the rams away from the ewes in breeding season, which would require them to be separated during this time. Perhaps, the biggest downfall could be that they can be aggressive towards your own farm dogs, making it hard to use herding or guardian dogs around them.

As donkeys are prey animals, it is not fair to choose a mini donkey be used as a guard animal, they need to be at least standard or large size. While I was in Portugal, many of the shepherds were quite horrified to hear that sheep keepers in North America purposefully use donkeys to guard the livestock. Stories were told to me how donkeys were the favoured animal for wolves to eat, how sheep were passed by, and the donkey was killed. They all asked how a prey animal could be effective in guarding against large predators?

I personally believe that there is no one solution to reducing predation. Predation management involves layering of different forms of deterrents.  If you are not able to utilize LGD, then adding a large donkey might be a good alternative. Having the donkey, might not prevent predation but it might still work as a deterrent, particularly if you are in open areas, with a smaller flock and where coyotes or stray dogs are the main predators. Having at least one form of predation mitigation strategy in place is always better than none.
Combining the donkey with deterrents such as foxlights or electric fencing, all add additional layers of protection around the sheep. In certain circumstances, a standard or large size donkey may be the only way to provide some form protection to the flock, however one does need to remember that using prey animals to guard against predators may not be the most effective strategy and in some areas, where large predators are in abundance, the donkey might become food to these predators.

Some people suggest that having just one donkey with the flock might be more effective, however donkeys that have been raised with, and bonded to the flock, might be more important than  the number of donkeys. A jenny and her baby would certainly capitalise on her protective instincts to keep her own baby safe from predators.


Friday, 4 November 2022

Bonding and Trustworthiness

 







Bonding and Trustworthiness
Louise Liebenberg(2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

I have written many columns for this magazine on Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) and the regular readers may be accustomed to me writing about the importance of understanding the nuances in behaviour and the use of language to describe this behaviour.  Terms are tossed around without fully grasping the differences or similarities. We cannot fully appreciate the level of working ability our LGD display, or even manage some behavioural issues that pop up, without fully understanding the differences in the behaviour. A lot of behaviours look similar and yet, they are not. It is in this gray area where confusion and misunderstanding can grow. I like to explain these subtle variations in the hopes to provide some more clarity on the behaviour these dogs display.

This article is going to dive a little deeper into two concepts and how they differ: bonding and trustworthiness.  The most successful livestock guardian dogs are those who are bonded, trustworthy, attentive, and protective towards the livestock. This is the gold standard in working LGD. Some LGD can be effective, to a slightly lesser degree, if they are perhaps not quite as protective or attentive toward the livestock. Less effective dogs can have a deterring effect on predators, but may no be as effective as some other dogs are. The problem arises when a LGD is not trustworthy, this is a total failure, as no shepherd can tolerate a dog that is harming the stock. Trustworthiness can be described as an absence of predatory behaviour towards the livestock.

Trustworthiness and bonding look very similar in normal LGD/ sheep interactions, a dog who is trustworthy can live with the livestock and will do them no harm. A dog can be trustworthy and yet, not be bonded to the sheep.
Many people struggle to differentiate between the two. This can be seen in the numerous comments on social media pages, where people talk about what a fantastic LGD their Pitbull is, or their Labrador. What these people are seeing is a dog that is trustworthy with their livestock, mostly through training and socialization. Rarely, do these dogs live full time with the livestock as our LGD do, so it is not really a true reflection on trustworthiness under all circumstances. Very many breeds, not only the LGD breeds, can become trustworthy around the livestock, the general farm dog is usually a trustworthy dog, but that alone, does not make him an LGD.

Bonding on the other hand is the attachment the dog makes with the livestock, and this attachment is fostered through intense socialization with livestock from a young age. This attachment becomes the primary attachment for the pup. He learns that sheep are his companions and later, his charges. Bonding differs with trustworthiness in the (free) choices the dog makes. A dog who is bonded with the livestock will chose to be with the livestock, it will move with the sheep when they graze, they will want to be with the livestock rather than hang out elsewhere. I have a female LGD who is so bonded with her sheep, if she gets locked out the pasture (usually accidently) she will dig under the fence to get back in with them. When the sheep move around the pasture, she moves with them. She protects the sheep wherever the sheep are.  The bonded dog is attached to the sheep and not to the “space” (pasture, field, corral). A bonded dog can certainly be territorial, but when that territory changes, as it does with flocks grazing in open spaces, then it becomes important for the dog to want to stay close to the livestock. The LGD choses the livestock over being with people, other dogs, or the yard.


Bonding is not just the dog bonded to the sheep; the relationship is bi-directional. The sheep also need to bond to the dog. We must appreciate the level of trust the sheep need to have in the dog (predator) we place with them. To achieve this level of trust both species need to bond with each other. I can usually see on a sheep flock whether the sheep trust the dog or not. If the sheep give indications that the dog is not trustworthy it is important for the shepherd to pay attention to the dog. The sheep “know” if the dog is showing predatory behaviour.

What many of the folks who advocate to “raise them in the house” are doing, is simply training their LGD to be trustworthy around the livestock, but not allowing the dog to form a bond with the sheep. There are very many LGD who are trustworthy, but not bonded to the sheep. These dogs can still make excellent guardian dogs, even though they might not feel super attached to the sheep, the territorial instinct kicks in and the dog will protect the sheep within their area. Good fences usually facilitate this, as the dog can be contained in the area the livestock grazes.

People who have never owned a bonded dog, do not actually know, or see what the difference is between the two. They often mistake bonded with trustworthy, particularly when the dog is confined to a specific area.  We do not know, what we don’t know, and unless you have worked with dogs so loyal, devoted, and protective of their sheep one might never truly appreciate the difference.


Now, don’t get me wrong, a trustworthy dog is an amazing dog and that is what we strive for with the LGD. We need them to be trustworthy, but it is an amazing bonus if they are also truly bonded to the sheep.  

When it comes to poultry, the focus is simply for the dog to become trustworthy. LGD and chickens rarely actually “bond” to each other. When it comes to guarding styles most LGD working with poultry, guard more out of territorial protectiveness as opposed to being bonded to the animals. Most times, chickens are also fairly limited in their range that the move about in, so a trustworthy dog who is territorial will often work well in chasing small predators away.

Years ago, ranchers felt that the dog was bonded to the sheep when it only stayed close to the sheep, many ranchers felt the more perimeter style guarding meant that the dog was not bonded or even doing its job. I believe there are some breed differences here, where some breeds are staying naturally closer to the livestock than others. I also believe that difference depends on the level of boldness in the dogs, if they have a pack to support them, age, level of predator pressure and other factors will shape the style of guarding the dogs do.  Some breeds are more “looking for a fight” type, while others are content to stay closer to the sheep. A bonded dog will still patrol but will come back to the sheep and stay with them.

For many smaller homesteads who may be dealing with few smaller predators, having a trustworthy all round farm dog might be sufficient for their needs. On a larger range operation, shepherds are needing LGD who are bonded to the stock. Trustworthiness does not always mean bonded, but do not discount the value of a reliable dog!

It is heartwarming to truly see these deep relationships the dogs form with the sheep. The sheep look to the dog for guidance and direction, and the dog feels the need to protect them. This is the relationship we want to foster!

 



Friday, 12 August 2022

Herding behaviour in LGD

 

These guardian dogs are moving alongside the flock during a flock move. They are moving with the flock, this is not “herding “behaviour.


Herding behaviour in LGD

©Louise Liebenberg(2022)

In the last issue I discussed some behaviour that could be misconstrued or misread, where the owner thinks what the dog is doing looks okay, when in fact it could be concerning behaviour or trigger behaviour patterns that should not be encouraged. I have decided to continue with this and will discuss some more behaviours.


The concept of “herding” is a unique one and while herding breeds, herd (border collie, kelpie, Australian Shepherds), guardian dogs, guard the flock from predators. Two totally different jobs. People who have never worked with either group, may not really know the differences between each group. As both groups fall under the same general category of “sheepdogs”.  To add to the confusion, most of the original breed standards for livestock guardian dogs (LGD) were not written by shepherds or sheepdog specialists. Semantics matter, so describing a guardian dog as a herder of the flock is incorrect in terms of the function the dog has in relation to the sheep.

Herding can be described as the deliberate movement of the flock, either gathering up single animals to the group, actively moving the flock from one place to another, or simply keeping the animals bunched together. Herding can be a combination of these activities. Most herding by a sheepdog is under direct supervision of the shepherd who uses the dog to help him control the flock and bring it/hold it where the shepherd needs it.  Herding is an instinctual behaviour that is based on predatory sequences (search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat). The shepherd breeds and selects for parts of this sequence that include, search, stalk, chase, and sometime bite, as this allows him to control the flock. With selective breeding that highlights the “useful” parts of the sequence and good training, the shepherd has a wonderful way to manage the sheep. Herding dogs have a high prey drive (they love to chase things, nip things) and are high energy as this is very demanding work. Herding dogs love to herd, it is the excitement of the search, stalk, chase that is highly rewarding and is the primary motivation for the dog.  Herding is a self rewarding behaviour and that is why some border collies can literally be worked to death, and some can be very obsessive in what they do, sometimes herding vehicles, balls, and other dogs. Most herding dogs are smaller in stature and very athletic in comparison to the guardian dog breeds.

This border collie is controlling the movement, speed, and direction of the sheep. The sheep are not moving voluntarily but are under the direction of the collie, who is being commanded by the shepherd. This is herding behaviour.


Guardian dogs have a completely different role, that is to protect the flock from predators. That is their only job, and it comes with some conditions; the LGD must not hurt, harm, or stress the livestock it lives with.  The ideal LGD will be bonded to the sheep and live permanently with them. They blend in amongst the flock and generally are on the lookout for predators.  LGD have been bred by shepherds to have a very low prey drive, which allows them not to be stimulated to chase and kill the sheep. Most LGD have a low energy level, so that it does not disrupt or excite the sheep when it moves about. Most LGD have perfected the art of mooching around the sheep, sleeping under a tree but always have one eye open for threats. The LGD’s energy should match that of the sheep.  LGD that have too much prey drive generally do not make good LGD as they tend to not be trustworthy around the sheep. Shepherds do not train LGD to obey commands like they do with herding dogs. Most LGD are “trained” with supervision and corrections for unwanted behaviour. Most LGD are large, they have the physical properties to live outside with the flock all year. The have been bred to be powerful, strong dogs to be able to be a formidable opponent to predators.
Interestingly to note, all wild canines have erect ears, most high drive dog breeds (such as herding dogs) have erect ears. Every single LGD has low hanging ears, it is thought that it appears less predatory and therefore more calming for the sheep. Just this simple observation illustrates the difference each category of sheepdog can have on the sheep.

These two types of sheepdogs have an entirely different set of instinctual traits and have been selected for very different jobs.  Understanding these differences and nuances, it is easy to see why “herding” behaviour is problematic in LGD. A LGD herding the sheep may indicate that he has too much prey drive to be suited for this job. Sometimes, I read that people are all excited that their LGD herded the sheep. This is a red flag behaviour, particularly if involves an immature dog. The dog has no business herding/chasing the sheep. This stresses the sheep and can lead to injured or even dead sheep.  Chasing/ nipping and playing with the sheep encourages predatory behaviour and that is the last thing we want to stimulate in our LGD.

 
Many people think that the LGD “herds” the sheep to safety when predators approach, but the reality is, that the sheep would probably run to their safe space, and a good LGD would go out and “meet the threat”. At least, that is what the brave ones do!

 

These two LGD are between the threat and the flock. The sheep have not been moved, but the dogs have positioned themselves between the sheep and the predator.

The LGD should position itself between the threat and the sheep, he is the first line of defence. In a flock that is very accustomed to LGDs, the sheep will follow the LGD, they will hangout close to the dog if they feel threatened and will gather behind the LGD. This is all sheep-initiated behaviour and movement. It is not that the dog is actively herding them together and chasing them in a specific direction. I have seen our flock of sheep refusing to go and graze in a certain wooded pasture, unless the LGD go into that area first. They will hang back and wait for the dogs to go up ahead. I have spoken with shepherds in Italy who say that their Maremma will enter a new grazing area and chase the predators away before the sheep go in.

This LGD is leading the way and the sheep are willingly following the LGD back to the night corral.


Some breed standards mention that historically, the breed is used both for herding and guarding, often they will add in a bunch of other job titles such as hunting, home guards and personal protection dogs in their descriptions. Sadly, this really does confuse people new to LGD, as this makes them think that the herding behaviour their dog is showing is normal. If the breed description includes herding, then this makes it seem like the behaviour is permissible. It really illustrates how little knowledge these writers have about working dogs. Semantics matter. Similarly, a coyote might be killed by a LGD while protecting its flock, but the LGD is not “hunting” like coonhound hunts. Just because the coyote was killed does not make the LGD a “hunting” dog.  A polish Tatra might protect its owner, but it is not a personal protection dog like a Doberman is.

Encouraging a herding type of behaviour in LGD is indirectly encouraging predatory behaviour. Some old dogs very familiar with routines might head to the barn at a certain time and it may move with the sheep, this should not be confused as herding. Active and directional movement or bunching of the flock is not what a LGD should be doing. He is allowed to lead the sheep in, walk among them but his job is guard them and not control their movements. Guarding dogs have to allow sheep to freely be able to move and graze, it is the dog’s job to move with the sheep and ensure they are safe wherever the sheep chose to graze.


Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Misunderstanding behaviour

The LGD job is to guard against predators. This LGD is choosing a high vantage point to oversee this group of ewes lambing, she does not interfere with an ewe giving birth.


Misunderstanding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg (2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine


It is heart warming to see humans and animals displaying acts of kindness. Many of us like to always see “the good” in people and animals. However, many times, particularly when it comes to animals, we tend to anthropomorphize or attribute benevolent behaviour to certain actions. This can lead down a slippery slope where we assume the behaviour our livestock guardian dogs (LGD) is well intended, when in fact, it is an indication that the behaviour could become concerning down the road.

Let me start by saying I am not an animal behaviourist, what I do have is many years of working with sheep dogs, both herding and guardian breeds. I am always trying to understand the behaviour the dog is showing within the context of its work. I always question whether it is normal, is it acceptable, when does it change, why does it change, what are the triggers and how can it be corrected. I am a keen observer of all behaviour, when it comes to dogs, livestock, or other animals.

This is a scenario that I read about this week; a LGD owner posted on a social media group that she was not sure what to make of her LGD behaviour. An ewe had lambed triplets and one of these was decidedly smaller and weaker than the other two. Her dog had taken this lamb and buried it in a dirt pile, with just is head sticking out of the dirt. She was wondering if the dog had done this in an attempt to keep the lamb warm and safe, or if she was maybe reading more into the behaviour than what she thought.

When I read this, the red flags and the warning sirens were sounding off in my head. I started reading the comments from other people and I was quite surprised. I was genuinely shocked at how this behaviour was misunderstood. The number of people who praised the dog for this behaviour was astonishing, comments such as “Good dog, did a fine job of caring for the lamb! He's a keeper” or, “I don't think your dog meant any harm from what you describe. He probably didn't know how to get the baby out so decided to cover with soil to protect it”.
I could not help myself but respond. In my opinion, the behaviour this dog was showing was inappropriate for the following reasons:
The dog should never remove a lamb from its mother, it is not the dog’s job.
He should not be carrying the lamb in his mouth.
He should not be burying the lamb.

This is my interpretation of his behaviour, he is burying the lamb as a resource. In wild animals this is called “caching”.  It is the same behaviour when the dog buries an old bone in the backyard or uses his nose to covers his kibble with dirt or hay.  He is caching food to return to it later, this is an instinctive behaviour in many species (squirrels hoard nuts, birds stash seeds, predators hide carcasses).  It is a biological behaviour to aid in survival.  The lamb was lucky that is head was above the ground and that owner found it, otherwise the lamb would have suffocated, starved, or got hypothermia and died.

Another person replied,” I would think if it was a 'snack' the LGD would have killed it first.” What is forgotten is that most LGD do not go from nothing to killing a lamb in an instant, it is a process and small escalations in behaviour. The dog may not have intended to kill the lamb, but his behaviour is a start of a cycle which could lead down the path of further problems.  It might begin with, just keeping the ewe away from the lamb, the next time he is carrying the lamb to the edge of the field, following this, he may decide to hide it, or bury it, finally he might kill it. The behaviour will escalate if the dog is not corrected, and this escalation can happen very fast. Had the owner of this dog not found that lamb, it may have died and then the dog would probably have started to eat it.  This then confirms to the dog that eating the lamb is a big reward, that stealing and stashing lambs is a positive reinforcement. As a shepherd, we really do not want the dog to make this kind of connection. The dog may not have had the initial intention to kill the lamb, but his actions might have resulted inadvertently in the death of the lamb. Either way, we want the dog to understand that he should not be interfering with the ewe and her lambs

Although there are many instances where our LGD do amazing things and do show a high degree of nurturing behaviour, the danger is when we apply anthropomorphic thinking to this behaviour. We like to think that the dog is showing a high degree of caring towards the lamb, we assume he is keeping it safe, warm, and hidden from predators and by doing this, we condone the behaviour, allowing for the dog to repeat this behaviour.

This lamb got separated from the ewe and decided to follow the LGD around.

Once the lamb decided to follow the dog, this experienced female just sat down and waited. As soon as I got the lamb, the dog was happy to go on her way. She did not isolate the lamb, move it, hide it, she just stayed with the lamb.


It is a stretch to think that the dog would enact such a high degree of intentionality, that it would take a weak lamb from the ewe, dig a hole, place the lamb in the damp and cool dirt, cover it up, all with the intention that this would keep the lamb both warm and safe. It simply does not make biological sense. The more logical explanation for this behaviour is that he saw the lamb was weaker, perhaps not keeping up with the ewe and he decided to take the lamb and stash it. As this was not a very experienced dog, he most likely just followed his instincts and was a bit triggered to react to this weaker lamb. This “caching” behaviour is a simple and common behaviour in canines and provides the most logical answer to his behaviour.

In this scenario, the dog is indicating that he may not be totally trustworthy with newborns. It does not mean the dog is a bad dog, but it would certainly be advisable to supervise and watch this dog more closely.

I have seen LGD lay with a lost lamb without interfering with it, I have seen a dog showing concern when an ewe got herself stuck in some bushes and alerted me to this ewe’s predicament, some dogs are saints allowing kids and lambs to hop on and off them, all those behaviours are excellent and what we like to see. It becomes a problem when the dog directly interferes with the ewe and lamb. Some dogs will growl and snarl at an ewe or other sheep when they come close to a newborn, others will follow along with the lamb and keep it separated this way, others will lick the newborn so much that the ewe does not want the lamb and some dogs will frighten an ewe away to the point she will not longer accept her lamb. None of these actions are in the best interest for the ewe or the lamb or the shepherd. These issues are usually seen in younger dogs. If my 8-year-old rock solid female is found with a lost lamb, I am more inclined to trust that she is just watching over it after the lamb wondered over to her. If  adolescent dog  going through his first or second lambing  is found with a lam away from the ewe, then I would be more inclined to watch this dog and his interactions a bit closer.

The dog's primary job is to guard the sheep, not interfer with normal sheep behaviours.


Anytime a dog shows very unusual, out of the ordinary or questionable behaviour, the dog is telling you that he needs to be monitored. Many people have these preconceived ideas that a LGD “would not harm the animals it protects” and that type of thinking is dangerous as it gives the dog opportunity to develop bad habits.  It certainly should not harm them but very many do. Once that predatory instinct has been triggered, it becomes nearly impossible to stop the dog from repeating this behaviour. It is always better to be more alert and cautious than blindly assume that the dog has good intentions.  I would always err on the side of caution than allow a dog to develop a bad habit. Sometimes, we do not have proof that the dog was the culprit, but a bit of extra supervision never harmed any dog. If the sheep are a little nervous around the dog, or hesitant to come into the barn or go to the hayfeeder, perhaps they are cornered in the pasture then it is time to pay attention to the dog. He is the predator that lives full time with them and any behaviour that remotely looks like it could become predatory needs to be corrected (stalking, singling, chasing, nipping, standing over, controlling, wool pulling, ear chewing, guarding a specific area etc.).

To learn to differentiate acceptable from unacceptable behaviour always keep in mind what the job is that the LGD is expected to do. If the dog goes out of those parameters, then supervise. My expectations are:
The dog should guard the flock against predators.
He should not harm the livestock in any manner.
He should not cause stress to the flock by chasing, nipping, harassing, or humping them.
It is not his job to mother the lamb, it is the ewe’s job.

A rule I follow is, any time I get an uneasy feeling regarding a dog, even if I cannot define it, I will always revert to more supervision, watching at a distance or even containing the dog until such point where I can monitor him a bit more. This gives me peace of mind and it prevents bad habits from escalating. If all is well, then the dog just had a bit of extra supervision, and no harm was done.

This dog lives with the cows when they are calving. It is his job to be watchful for predators, the cow will take care of her calf, and the dog will ensure no coyotes or wolves go near the pair.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs

 

This is where the magic happens, where pups can learn to find comfort and companionship with the sheep. 


Trends in Raising Livestock Guardian Dogs

©Louise Liebenberg (2021)
Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

This year I celebrate 30 years of working and being around livestock guardian dogs (LGD), I have seen and experienced a lot in those years. I have lived and worked with sheepdogs on three different continents, working with dogs who were amazing at their job requiring very little correction or guidance, to dogs that have harmed livestock. I have tried to rehabilitate “lost causes”, some of which were successful, and others that were not.   I have seen dogs who were not bonded to the livestock and this manifests itself in various ways; uninterest toward the sheep, some become aggressive, and others can live with the livestock without being protective of them. I have always utilized sheepdogs in a professional capacity, my income has always been dependent on my ranching practices. As much as I like dogs, they are first and foremost here to protect the livestock. In the past 30 years, I have seen many trends come and go regarding LGD. Some good, others bad and some questionable. This article is going to look at one of these trends regarding raising LGD puppies.

Lately, the popularity of LGD has increased exponentially and along with this rise also comes a large variety of opinions, on how to raise them and how to work with them. I accept that different folks have livestock in a variety of settings, and this influences how the dogs are worked.  However, I see certain approaches to raising LGD that I really question the validity of.

Back in the 80’s the use of LGD was relatively new in North America. In the 70’s the U.S. Sheep. Experiment Station (USSES) at Dubois, Idaho studied the use of LGD, followed by the Coppinger husband and wife team working on the Livestock Dog Project (Amherst, MA) and finally a study was conducted at Colorado State University (Ft. Collins). These research projects were the basis from which LGD were studied and evaluated in North America. All the research emphasized the importance of the bonding period of the LGD to the livestock. Without this development of this bond, the LGD were simply not “invested” enough in the sheep to want to stay with them and guard them. Everyone emphasized this time as being critical to the development of the LGD puppy. Some of this was taken to the extreme where a total hands-off method of raising was promoted. This continued for the next few decades, and it was common to see completely feral LGD, that could not be handled or touched. At that time, most people using LGD had range sheep and were larger outfits. The dogs, rarely, if ever, mingled with public and as the sheep were grazing bigger areas of land, neighbors were also not a real concern for them. The dogs interacted with the shepherds for daily care. If a dog roamed away, it would often end up at another band of sheep which was not usually a big problem.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, a shift took place in how LGD were being used. They were being used on smaller, more stationary operations, where the sheep were contained by fences and grazed rotationally. At this time, I was promoting a more hands-on way of working with LGD, I spoke at a conference and the topic was “No feral livestock guardian dogs for me, or my livestock”. At this time, it was frowned upon to pet and handle LGD. Many believed that petting them would ruin them. I remember explaining that puppies still needed to be bonded to the livestock but petting, vet care and some regular handling was okay and even beneficial. Some people were skeptical about this approach as they feared that the LGD would end up on the porch rather than out in the field with the sheep. I realized that some people struggled to find that balance, how to have a friendly, sociable dog that was bonded to the livestock.

Moving along, again LGD use has shifted, many people on small homesteads, hobby farms and backyard chicken keepers are looking at keeping LGD for a handful of livestock. The expectation is that the dogs do not bark much, are friendly to all visitors to the ranch, do not roam and are good with the livestock. Talking to many of these homestead people, I feel that what they are wanting is more in line with a general farm dog than a specialist such as the LGD. In this regard I think semantics’ matters and these people need to clearly define what they are wanting and looking for in a dog. This will help them find a dog that is suitable for their situation. Having the work for the dog clearly defined (LGD, farm dog, pet, or guard dog), will also define how the pup should be raised so that it can be successful in the role the owner requires of the dog. I have noticed more of a push from certain groups to promote keeping LGD in the house, to bond first with the family and then over the next few years transition the dog outside to the livestock. I cannot help but feel that this is such a missed opportunity for the pup to truly form an attachment to the sheep. I know, I want my LGD not to feel conflicted about where they need to be, I want them to be happy and comfortable with the livestock. I want my LGD to be protective of the sheep, not just territorial guarding (which most dogs do). I question how fair it is to first raise the pup in the house and then expect it to transition living outside with the livestock?

Too often, I see people saying that a 12-week-old pup is too young to be with the livestock; it is too cold, too hot, a pup could be a target for predators and many such arguments. All these points are moot, as any good owner will know, that a pup requires adequate housing and protection from the elements, no rancher is going to drop his young pup off in some far away pasture just for a predator to come along and kill it. Having a pup grow up with the livestock, does not mean it will not have adequate protection, care, and shelter. That is basic animal husbandry!

This 12-week-old pup is content to be with the sheep and enjoys lots of human interaction while it is living full time with the sheep.


The people that promote this form of raising LGD say that the dog is capable of bonding to both the people and the livestock (I agree with this), and they want to establish this human/LGD bond first, to ensure that the dog is well socialized and attached to the owner. I have very well socialized dogs, they can all be handled, well behaved, and super attached to me despite them living full time with the sheep. Once again, there is nothing stopping an owner going to the pasture and spend valuable time with the LGD. Where they sleep, does not determine how socialized and bonded, they are to the owner. I would argue that it is easier to form a bond with the dog that lives with the sheep, than it is for the dog to form a bond with the sheep that is living in the house!

The same people explain that this is how traditional shepherds, and their dogs live, in my opinion, it is a rather romanticized image of traditional shepherds. I have never seen a true working LGD (in Europe) that lives in the house. Most times the dogs, when not working are chained up outside by the barn. The shepherds appreciate their dogs, some are very attached to their dogs but none of them are raised in the house. The dogs are tied up when the shepherds bring the sheep back to the villages or are locked up in a building, barn, or kennel. Kids do play with pups, but this happens outside. Pups are often left to free range around the yards, while the mother is chained close by. Once the pups are a little older they are chained.

A shepherd’s dog in Macedonia. The sheep are in the village for the winter, the dog is chained to an old truck cab as a shelter. No LGD are raised in the house.

There is a big difference in needing a LGD or wanting an LGD. This need or want, is often reflected in how they are raised as pups.  The folks who “want” will more likely raise the pup in the house, with the family and treat it more like a pet dog than those that “need” an LGD. The people who truly “need” a LGD will want their pup to form a bond with the livestock. These owners will ensure that the dog has every opportunity to learn about sheep, facilitate bonding and provide the right environment for the pup to be successful in its future job. I know, I want my LGD to have a certain level of maturity and seriousness regarding their job as soon as possible, and that only comes with lots of exposure to the livestock.

I am all for people raising their dogs however they want, but I also hate to see LGD fail due to people errors. It saddens me when someone raised their LGD in the house for two years and now it does not want to stay with the sheep, or the dog is so wild when outside with the livestock that it harasses them. It is very concerning that some people feel that this is the way LGD pups should be raised, it sets a trend for animal welfare people to change legislation, similarly, to the “bring-them-inside-when-its-cold” crowd. I feel that the pendulum is now swinging too far to the side of raising LGD as pets, and it feels like I am struggling to convince people how valuable that initial bonding time is to the livestock, how you can have a great relationship with your working dogs and that it is simply not cruel to raise it with the sheep.

My kids can always spend as much time with the pups that they want, provided it is with the sheep in the barn or pasture. This helps to make pups sociable to people and still allows them to bond to the livestock.

Friday, 22 April 2022

The Economic Tipping Point

 

Feeding multiple LGD is not cheap, the annual costs of the use of LGD needs to be weighed against the benefits.


The Economic Tipping Point
©Louise Liebenberg (2021)

 There have been several articles and studies done on the cost of raising and keeping livestock guardian dogs (LGD) versus the benefits of using guardian dogs to protect livestock against predation. In a study done by Tina L. Saitone, and Ellen M. Bruno (published in 2020) they took a closer look at the economics of utilizing LGD. The short summary concluded “We estimated that for a representative sheep operation with a breeding flock of 500 adult females (ewes), the use of 5 LGDs reduced lambs and ewes lost to coyote predation by 43% and 25%, respectively, for a total savings of US$16,200 over 7 years. However, we found that costs, which included acquisition and maintenance expenses, exceed benefits of this investment over the 7year useful life of LGDs by US$13,413. Our results inform the adoption of LGDs, demonstrating that LGDs are only costeffective for certain types of operations, namely those where LGDs can achieve high rates of predator protection efficacy.” (Wildlife Society Bulletin 1–9; 2020; DOI: 10.1002/wsb.1063)


Dan Macon, in an article he wrote, took a closer look at some of the points made by Saitone and Bruno. Macon questions how to put a value to some of the costs/benefit calculations; “how do I know how many sheep didn't die because we had dogs with them? What is the value of my own peace of mind? (https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=31326).
What was clear from both articles was that quantifying the cost /benefit is not a simple calculation of feed, purchase, and veterinary costs versus livestock lost/saved because of using LGD.  It is hard to quantify what was not lost or what was saved because of the presence of the dogs, or even the number of dogs a certain operation needs, labor costs will vary dependent on a variety of factors.

Cattle who are accustomed to large dogs, tend to be less stressed and calmer around wolves. Calmer livestock have a direct and positive effect on gains and well being of the animals.

Many of the costs/benefits are hidden and hard to quantify. Cattle who get harassed regularly by wolves tend to wean lighter weight calves, they expend more time and energy being on the lookout for predators and the cattle tend to be more nervous. They spend less time grazing and confine their grazing to safer areas. Calves can be lost due to abandonment because of predator harassment. These calves are often not even found.  These losses are not direct deaths however they do have an economic impact on the wellbeing of the livestock. How do you put a value or benefit to keeping cattle/ sheep calmer? Research (Weber et al, 2015) at the U.S. Sheep Center in Dubois, Idaho, found "that ewes grazing with accompanying LGD will travel greater daily distances compared with ewes grazing without LGD accompaniment. As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities." (https://d1cqrq366w3ike.cloudfront.net/http/DOCUMENT/SheepUSA/SGRJ_V30_18-23_Webber_7-15.pdf)
I have found in our own flock that having the LGD with the sheep allows for the sheep to spend more time grazing, they will go and graze in heavier bushed pastures.  Before using LGD, the ewes would not venture into these areas. They are more comfortable grazing when the LGD are present. Similarly, with the cattle. As our cattle are accustomed to large, big dogs in amongst them, they do not spook/scare easily.  Wolves like to test a herd by spooking them, they will make runs at the herd to create some panic where younger or older animal will split off from the main herd making it an easier target for wolves. We have seen wolves around our cattle, the cows do not spook, they tend to remain calmer and tighter together.  It would require the wolves to put a lot more effort into making the cattle run. How do you put a value to this?  Having calmer cattle that do not scatter or run through fences when approached by wolves, helps with overall cattle management and a saving in labor costs, plus the bonus is that the chance of an animal getting predated on becomes significantly reduced.


Another point to consider when looking at cost/benefit calculations is the do-ability and affordability of some of the other predator control methods versus the implementation of LGD.  It is not always feasible or cost effective to fence off a few thousand acres of land, or to hire a full-time range rider.  Not every area lends itself to rotational grazing, or where electric nets can be set up. Changing lambing time may require the building of large barns.  Not everyone can afford to pay for some of the other deterrent measures and some are simply not an option for many operations.  LGD in themselves might not always be cost effective according to Saitone and Bruno, but in comparison to many other options, it is still affordable and do-able for a variety of ranches. The cost of using LGD does need to be compared to the cost of other management tools. Most professional livestock keepers can implement and afford using LGD. Many operations find a large capital investment, such as fencing or barns, too high for their operation despite it perhaps being the “best” solution for the predation problems, affordability becomes an issue. 

Taking it a step further, the benefits may not just be directly to the rancher in how many lambs he can save but could incorporate a wider range of values.  Can one quantify what the value is of having predators on the landscape with regards to biodiversity, intact eco-systems, and populations?
In Portugal, the Grupo Lobo, is an independent, non-profit ENGO that works for the conservation of the Iberian wolf and its ecosystem. They provide LGD to shepherds, pay for the veterinary care and the first year of food for the dogs to encourage, and offset some of the initial costs of acquiring and caring for LGD.  A similar program is run through the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia where LGD are provided to sheep and goat farmers as means to reduce potential conflict between farmers and the endangered cheetah. If conflicts are reduced due to LGD being present in the flocks, then farmers are less inclined to kill the cheetah. The costs of the LGD program are far below the benefits of saving every single cheetah due to the fragility of the population.  What is it the value of saving an endangered species?

In some countries there are compensation programs to encourage people to utilize LGD. In Saskatchewan, Canada the province wants to encourage producers to find ways to reduce the possibility of predation, they have a LGD rebate program run through the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation where they contribute; “$100 to help producers offset the cost of purchasing a livestock guardian dog. The use of guardian dogs can be an effective method of preventing predation; however, it does require the commitment from the producer to develop the potential of the dog. Livestock guardian dogs are most effective when complemented by other predation management practices.” (https://www.scic.ca/wildlife/predation-prevention/). It is in this case, it is cheaper to pay towards the purchase of a LGD than to compensate for livestock that is predated on.

Using LGD is costly and for many ranchers it is a serious consideration. Many calculate this cost and write it off as an operating expense. Similarly, to a store that needs to invest in a security system.  It is the cost of doing business in certain neighborhoods. Cost estimates for keeping one LGD per year, range between $350 to $1600 per dog, this estimate includes direct costs such as veterinary care, food, purchase price, replacement costs and labor. This is a significant amount.  This brings me to the tipping point.  Where do you draw the line between if need or want an LGD?  When does the cost override the benefits? If your livestock consists of 5 hens then spending on average of $750 per year to maintain the dog, might not be proportional to the value of the livestock. It may be cheaper and an easier solution to build a solid chicken coop or good fencing, that will last many years.  In this scenario you might not really “need” the LGD.  Even smaller professional operations can often have good results with other management strategies to reduce predation, things like fox-lights or electric netting might be more profitable than working with an LGD. I often chuckle when reading through some of the social media platforms, where some people advise folks with a handful of sheep to use 3 to 5 LGD. Obviously, these people have not had to feed and provide veterinary care for this many dogs!

Each situation is unique, and it is not quite so simple to make a cost- benefit analysis. However, it is an important consideration because having LGD in the flock or herd is not “free” or cheap. Sometimes economically, it may be sensible to investigate other options than LGD for keeping the livestock safe. For many operations having LGD is a necessity and worth the financial and time investment.  In other situations, having a LGD is simple a “want” and not necessarily a “need” and that is okay too! Each operation needs to find their own tipping point where economic implications are weighed against the benefits. LGD are essential for my livestock operation, but I also value their companionship, the safety they provide me when I am in the bush and the fact that I can sleep a little easier at night knowing the dogs are watching over the sheep.
 

A night corral for livestock  in Portugal. The cost of this type of anti-wolf fence might not be affordable or do-able to most livestock owners.

Sunday, 6 March 2022

What is the ideal age to bring a LGD pup home?

 


These pups are in the neonatal stage. They can smell and from this early age the smell of their mom, sheep and people becomes imprinted in their brain.

What is the ideal age to bring a pup home?
©Louise Liebenberg(2021)
Written for : The Shepherds Magazine


Social media platforms always provides me with material to write about! This past week a man made a post introducing himself and mentioning that he was excited to welcome his first livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppy to his place and that he was collecting his 8-week-old pup that week. With that comment, the floodgate of opinions and advice opened. Most people mentioned that 8 weeks was “waaaay” too young and that ideally, the pup should remain with its littermates and mother until at least 12 weeks, but preferably 16 weeks of age. Other people mentioned even longer, and some said 8 weeks was just fine. I am sure this first time LGD owner was totally confused what is best to do. I like to give practical advise and share experiences that will lead to the highest chance of success for both owner and pup. I like to present what I regard as best practices, regarding the use of LGD. This discussion on social media led me to change the original topic I was working on, and I decided to prioritize this one!

The consensus amongst breeders, veterinarians and behaviorists is that the best age to place a puppy with its new family is around eight weeks of age. Puppies go through a socialization phase between 7 and 14 weeks. The 8-week age allows the breeder sufficient time to ensure adequate basic veterinary care that includes deworming and vaccinations and allows the pup ample time to socialize and form attachments with its new family. In many States, it is illegal to sell puppies younger than eight weeks old. This is to ensure that the welfare of the pups is not compromised by breeders weaning and selling too young. This eight-week-old standard should be regarded as the absolute minimum age a puppy should leave the litter.

In livestock guardian dogs research, the critical period for bonding the pup to livestock has also been shown to coincide with that general socialization phase, researchers suggest that pups can best form a bond to the livestock between 7 and 16 weeks old. Older dogs can bond to the livestock; however, it is much easier to utilize this natural socialization phase to encourage bonding to the livestock.

This 5-week-old puppy is learning that sheep belong in its world. It is learning to form attachments with the livestock and people, not just to its mother and littermates.

In the past few years, I have seen a “trend” in many of the online LGD forums advocating for pups to remain longer with the breeder, where some are suggesting that pups should be staying a minimum of 16 weeks with the breeder. I understand the motivation for suggesting this, but the reality is often a lot different. Anyone who has raised a litter of LGD pups will know that by 4 months old, you would have a gang of prepubescent pups who live by their own rules! None of these pups will have had the opportunity to develop individually and few will have had the opportunity to form a close bond with the livestock. 

The stress the pup feels when being separated from its littermates is a trigger for the pup to seek new companions, be it the new family or the livestock. At four months of age this gang of puppies will be solely focused on each other and constantly playing/fighting with each other. A large litter will explore and roam further away and be less motivated to respond to people or the livestock in a positive way.
If these pups are to be raised around poultry, a litter of four-month-olds would wreak havoc on these chickens or even lambs due to playing, roughhousing and general puppy antics. Bad habits and behaviours can creep in very quickly particularly when the pups feed off each others excitement. These pups will not be having the ideal start as so many believe. 

Eight-week-old puppies are very exploratory, provided they have a few littermates to go on adventures together.

This leads onto the next problem. If someone posts on social media that they have acquired two pups at the same time, the comment section fills up with suggestions to separate the pups as possible to ensure they do not develop littermate syndrome. Littermate syndrome is a term used to describe when two siblings or close in age pups form a hyper attachment (co-dependency) to one another, resulting in an inability to function independently, a lack of forming attachments to people (or livestock) and multiple other behavioural issues. This co-dependency starts to form during the later stage of the socialization period, problems may however only be manifested at a later stage, often around adolescence. It is contradictory to suggest that raising two pups could result in behavioral issues due to littermate syndrome and yet expect a breeder to raise a litter until 16 weeks of age!

It is essential that pups need to have time with their littermates to learn about dog social behaviour, this is where pups learn about fair play, bite inhibition and they learn “dog language”. It is also important for a pup to observe how the mother interacts with the livestock; a pup that is raised with livestock will have seen these interactions daily since birth. The groundwork has been done by the time a pup is 8-12 weeks old. For a young LGD it is important to learn to function independently, to build confidence, to learn to work with various dogs and to form attachments to different people and animals, not just its mother and siblings. This process starts when the pup leaves the breeder and goes to its new ranch.

Some breeds of dogs are slower maturing than others, a border collie at 8-weeks old is ready for new adventures, while most LGD pups are somewhat slower, an 8-week-old Great Pyrenees cannot be compared to an 8-week-old Border Collie developmentally. Allowing for this, the ideal age for a border collie to leave the breeder could be 8-10 weeks, while a LGD pup might be better off leaving at 10 to 12 weeks.

These pups are 8 weeks old, are learning all about social interactions with other dogs and expanding their learning around the sheep.

The development of a puppies can be seen as stages. The stages can be divided up into what the needs of the pup are and its ability to learn and grow through each period.
These stages are categorized as follows
Neonatal Period (0 – 2 weeks), Transitional Period (2 – 4 weeks), Socialization Period (3 – 12 weeks), Testing Period (3 – 6 months) and Adolescence (6 – 18 months)
Pups also go through a few fear periods, usually around 8-10 weeks, then 9-14 months and sometimes around 18 months. Fear periods are normal, and it is during these fear periods that the “fight or flight” instinct becomes established. It is a mechanism for self preservation, pups need to learn what to be afraid of and how to avoid bad situations in the future. Coincidently this first fear period is also right in that optimum socialization period. As a 8 week old pup becomes more explorative, he will need to learn quickly, what is safe and what is not. Fear periods can be seen as a crash course in survival training.

A pup that has been raised with livestock from birth will have the initial foundation, it is for the owner to extend its learning to its new flock.

So, how does a new owner navigate; optimal canine socialization, introduction to livestock, littermate syndrome, bonding, fear stages, maturation rate and attachment issues? I believe it starts with the breeder building that initial foundation. Ideally, the pup will have had been raised with livestock, has learnt about canine behaviour from its mom and other littermates and has been introduced to various sounds and activities on the ranch. Waiting a few weeks longer until the pup is  10-12 weeks of age, will give the slower maturing LGD pups a little extra time to learn and mature. It will most likely have gone through the initial fear stage at the breeder with nothing bad happening to them at that point. When the pup leaves to the new owner, there is still sufficient time to start the bonding process with the new livestock. The separation from its littermates will stimulate its individual development and it will seek to form new relationships. It is a valuable time for the new owner to bond the pup with their livestock and introduce the pup to its new environment. It is important that the new owner facilitate the pup by providing a safe bonding area with gentle and kind livestock. Removing a pup too young from the litter can have very negative consequences for the pup’s development, staying too long at the breeder can also result in the development of questionable behaviour. To make a long story short, I believe the best time to bring the new pup home, is around 10 to 12 weeks!

 

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