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.

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