Thursday 5 October 2023

Good Homes and LGD


Good homes
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine.

When I read through many of the social media livestock guardian dog (LGD) pages, I am absolutely shocked at the number of dogs looking for a new, good home. It is not just the odd one here and there but instead a continuous stream of failed LGD looking for a great non-working home, someone looking for a placement of their dog on a bigger ranch, or with a more experienced trainer. Friends of mine who work with rescues are overwhelmed with the shear number of LGD and mixes of LGD entering the shelter/ foster system, and within that system, there simply are not enough good homes for all these unwanted LGD.  In many cases, it is not even just LGD mutts that end up in rescues, a lot of purebred dogs can be found there too. The number of “rehomes” is excessive, however the number of litters from LGD breeds being advertised is staggering, many of which, are not even from working dogs. In all honesty, there is little to no market for most of these pups. Recently, a breeder has struggled to give away, for free, a litter of a rare breed LGD pups. Ultimately, these pups are 4 or 5 months old, become a handful to handle and are expensive to feed, these pups ended up in a variety of homes, whether suitable or not, simply to “get rid of them”, the leftovers ended up in a shelter. Many of the people who drop off these pups in a shelter hope they will find that illusive “good home”. For many of these pups, the good home ends up being euthanasia.

The myth of the good home needs to be addressed.  Those folks looking for a new placement for their roaming, sheep worrying or chicken killing dogs have this idea that these dogs would be better suited to a bigger ranch. What many people forget is on larger, commercial operations, the sheep or cattle are the main source of income and the people who live this lifestyle, are often very busy. It takes time to graze animals, check fences, doctor sick animals, haymaking. Few shepherds are willing to take on an uncontrolled, problematic dog, often with questionable genetics and poor raising. These dogs can be a threat to their own livestock (and livelihood) and few have the time to invest in someone else’s failed dog. It is not simple to rehabilitate a failed LGD.   The person wanting to find the “good home” does not understand the risk, stress, time and cost it would take to make this type of dog into a functional dog.   I know, I would not risk my own sheep’s lives or risk the chance of my own dogs getting injured in such a situation.

If the “good home” is not a large sheep operation, perhaps it is with small acreages or homesteads? Sadly, these places are often not suitable for failed LGD either. Most homesteads or micro farms have neighbours who may not appreciate a LGD barking all night. Most smaller homesteads do not have the work for the dog or the ability to fence to contain a roaming LGD. Few people are willing to risk having a large breed dog, who has perhaps shown some killing behaviour around livestock, be in contact with their own and neighbors’ children.  Added to this, there is not only the threat of a bite incident with an unknown adult LGD, but the liability of a dog roaming and potentially causing a vehicle accident is just too overwhelming for most people to contemplate. Few homesteaders have the experience to work with a problematic dog.  
Finally, the in-town, pet home is an even less likely option. Their natural guarding behaviour, their canine aggressiveness, their stranger wariness, the strength, and size simply do not lend themselves to town or pet living situations. There simply is no demand or not enough good homes for unwanted LGD.

The “good home” for the failed LGD rarely exists. People who start with LGD need to be aware of this. Few people are wanting a wool pulling, lamb eating, chicken killing, calf chasing large breed dog. The moment you take that cute pup or multiple pups’ home, your options for an alternative home “if they don’t work out” is almost non-existent. The responsibility of breeding and placement is with the breeder. However, it is the first owner’s responsibility to give this pup the best chance of success and to commit to owning this dog for its life span. It is very important that new owners are supported in making the best decisions they can to ensure the pup has a lifelong home.

Sometimes the best decision is for the person enquiring about LGD, is to choose to not get an LGD.  As hard as it maybe to hear, not every situation warrants an LGD. Many of the rehomes are coming from smaller homesteads who only have a few poultry or maybe a handful of other livestock. Many people are unprepared for the work it takes to get a dog to be reliable with poultry and other small stock. Few are prepared for the sheer determination a LGD can have to escape from its pen, or the aggression it can display towards strangers or animals unfamiliar to it. The time, cost and work it takes to get a poultry safe dog is vastly underestimated.

It is time for the LGD community to say no to selling pups into situations where the chance of failure is high. We need to be vocal about how most LGD were never bred to be guardians of poultry or rabbits, and that most immature LGD will harm them, given the opportunity. They were bred to cover large distances moving with the shepherds and their flocks and are mostly not suited to small acreages. They are strong and independent thinkers which makes them hard to train, obedience is not a top priority for these breeds. They are physically strong dogs who do best in serious working situations. We need to talk about how not all LGD work out, many do harm stock while growing up, it is a challenge to keep them fenced in on smaller places, they bark a lot, they are not always the friendliest dogs, they might even kill the beloved cat. Many people need a large dose of realism and people new to LGD need to hear this.

Part of the problem also lies in the volume of LGD and LGD crosses being bred. It is hard to manage intact animals. Perhaps, the continual pushing of later spay and neutering is contributing to the excessive number of pups being born. Of course, in a perfect world, it is better to hold off on spaying and neutering until the dog is over two years of age, but the reality is heat-cycles in females are easily missed and before you know it, the LGD is bred by the collie. Few people are even capable of recognizing when their female is in heat, and many do not have a place to lock her up in for a three-week stint. There is a risk in everything, our dogs live a risky lifestyle. Early spaying and neutering might have some health risks, but so does pregnancy and unwanted litters.  Spaying and neutering makes for more manageable working dogs, and I am a firm believer that owners should make the decision when to spay and neuter based on what works best for their operation.

Finally, we need to call out bad management and raising practices that contribute to failure in LGD. Quite frankly, we need to keep the “pet dog” mentality out of the working dog world. Many LGD fail due to misconceptions that pups can only bond to their owners and families while living in a house.  Or, the notion that the pup must bond first to its human family before it gets placed with the livestock.  The sad thing is, this LGD shelter and unwanted pups’ problem reflects on our industry. The ranchers and shepherds who need working LGD are viewed as the cause of the problem. We need to be cognizant of this.  As a livestock and LGD owning community, we need to do our best to help curb the enormous influx of these breeds into shelters and the number of LGD being bred. We can do our part by educating and mentoring suitable owners and dissuading the acquisition of a LGD into situations with a high chance of failure.  We need to talk about the realities of owning these dogs, and taking responsibility for the dogs we bring onto operations. The mythical good home does not exist and often the outcome for the failed LGD is death.

Wednesday 30 August 2023

LGD Training Principles ( part 1 and 2)


Training principles Part 1 and 2
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This is a long read as I included both parts 1 and 2 into one post.

I know I am guilty of suggesting to people, when they are dealing with an unruly livestock guardian dog (LGD), to simply supervise them more without more clarification or explanation. For many people this is a somewhat vague term, and many do not really know what it all involves. This article will cover some training principles and how they can be used when dealing with a naughty LGD. There are many ways to skin a cat. Different approaches are like having a variety of tools in the toolbox, and depending on the problem, character of the dog and other influences, different approaches may be needed to achieve a certain result.

There are several concepts used in the dog training world, both pet and other working breeds,
some people will only use “positive”  or “force free” methods, while others use a more direct type of approach. I believe in a more blended approach and depending on what the dog is doing; one should be able to adjust the approach of training or correction, to fit the dog and situation. More about this later.

Positive or force free training simply means you reward they dog for correct behaviour. When the dog “sits”, you say sit and then reward him with a snack. You do not pull on the lead or push his butt down to the ground. You wait until he volunteers the behaviour, or a step towards the desired behaviour you want, and then reward him for that. The dog will associate the reward, the command, and the action and this will encourage the dog to learn and repeat his behaviour. It is all a positive experience for the dog.  In the pet dog world this can be called clicker training, where the click is the reinforcement for a good behaviour. IN our LGD, we do this on a much larger scale. We allow them to live their lives freely among the sheep and tend to only intervene if the dog starts showing worrisome behaviour. We provide learning opportunities by bonding the dog to the sheep and facilitate his learning in this way. AS long as he does the right thing, we do not nag him or punish him.

 The term “positive punishment” is where a bad thing happens to the dog, because of his (unwanted)behaviour, for example, your young LGD chases a goat, the goat turns around and butts the dog. It is a direct approach, in some circles, it is regarded as a “forceful” type of training method if you, rather than the goat, does the correcting. Instead of the goat butting him, you throw a bucket at him, and it hits him square on his bum. This will hopefully result in him connecting the dots, his chasing the goat, results in a square hit on the bum by a bucket that just fell out of the air. That was scary and not good, therefore he should not do that anymore.

A “negative punishment” is where a good thing is taken away from the dog due to his behaviour. So, for example, the dog is pawing you for attention, you can stand up, walk away, and ignore the dog. His behaviour (pawing you) resulted in you leaving which means he has lost your attention. For most dogs your attention is a reward. With LGD this is harder as the stock cannot just walk away from the dog and ignore him. However, as an owner you can take away his freedom or a bone if he is resource guarding. If he is growling at the sheep for coming to the hay feeder, you can take him away and put him in a different area. For many LGD, this form of correcting is a lot harder for them to make the connection of their behaviour and the consequence of that behaviour. It works better with high drive dogs who are either very attention motivated and less so with LGD. However, there are moments where it can be used successfully. Like jumping up against you, pawing you and other attention seeking behaviours.

“Negative reinforcement” is when bad thing goes away when the dog adjusts his behaviour.  You are teaching your young LGD to accept being chained. He is pulling at the chain, hanging at the end of the chain, yelping, and having a meltdown. As soon as he lets up and takes a step forward, the pressure of the chain releases and the young dog has relief. The dog soon learns it is a lot more pleasant to just sit and wait calmly rather than fight the chain. This is a form of pressure and release used in the horse training world.

Particularly with pet dogs, the environment in which they live, a lot of training happens under controlled circumstances and can allow for a more positive and force-free training approach. It is rare that a pet dog living in a flat can show behaviours that can result in the harm or injury of other animals such as newborn lambs.  When it comes to LGD it is a lot harder to control the environment, situation, the time, and of course the behaviour of the livestock and their interactions with the LGD. Added to this already complex situation we are asking for behaviours which are unnatural; we are expecting a predator to live peacefully and harmoniously with a prey animal, and not only that, but we also want him to fight off other predators to keep the prey safe.

With LGD, there is often minimal “training” as such, we strive instead, to mold the behaviour of the dog into what fits our expectations and needs. It may not be crucial for the young LGD to learn to sit and shake paws on command, but it is essential he shows appropriate behaviour toward the livestock. The bit of training we do tend to do, helps us to manage the dog better. I teach all my LGD to be handled for veterinary care, they can all walk nicely on a leash, they can be chained up, they will load into a stock trailer, the come (for the most part) when I call, and they are taught a few basic commands. This makes the dogs easier to handle, manage and teaches them to learn from us.

When a young dog misbehaves or is showing inappropriate behaviour towards the livestock, it is rare that a positive only training approach will work. The dog will need some form of punishment or correction to override the fun and enjoyment he is having from chasing the lambs, running them down and pulling on their wool.  In this scenario a positive punishment might be the only way to break his attention and the correction needs to be sufficient to stop the unwanted behaviour.  If the pup is in a playful mood and is play-bowing and inviting the sheep to a game, then a verbal correction or a well aimed bucket might be sufficient for the dog to stop this behaviour.  It is on the owner to find that balance of the “punishment should fit the crime”. If it is too mild, the dog will simply go back to wanting to play with the lambs.  Too harsh, and the dog might never want to live with the sheep again.
If the dog is hell bent on chasing and harming the lambs, then the punishment needs to be a lot more direct, and forceful, to ensure the dog really understands that his behaviour needs to stop. The dog must be able to link the correction to his bad behaviour (you need to catch him in the act).
Preferably, you need to stop him before he does the bad behaviour, at that point where he is getting excited and thinking about it, is a good moment to remind the dog that what he is about to do is not a good idea.

It is often hard to catch a LGD before he is about to do something bad, as we generally do not eat, sleep, and live with the sheep ourselves. The time we spend with the dog and the sheep is quite limited. We often only see the results of the naughty behaviour many hours later. This is of course a huge problem in working with LGD and trying to stop problematic behaviour. We are often too late, and the dog has already entrenched bad behaviour into his mind as something ‘fun” to do. This is why we need to pay attention to all warning signs he may be exhibiting.

It is at this point that the advice is often given to supervise the dog more. People say well how can I supervise at night, or I don’t know if a lamb will be born today, so how can I supervise the dog?   What does supervising even mean? Surely, they should just be good with the livestock as that is what they are bred to do. It is at this point where dogs either shot, rehomed, or spend the rest of their lives on the porch as many owners do not step up and deal with the problems the dog is exhibiting.

To answer some of these general questions. Well bred LGD do have a high protective instinct once they are mature and if bonded to the livestock will extend that protectiveness to the stock.  Having these instincts does not mean they are immune to normal dog adolescent behaviours. Having good instincts does not mean they will always do the right thing. A well-bred border collie with a strong instinct to herd, will not win the top sheepdog trials without some training and molding. It is the human behind the dog who works with the instinct, molds, and shapes the behaviour and provides the corrections and positive reinforcement for good behaviour. Instinct alone, is not a guarantee for a good behaviour. It is the foundation to build upon.

Most shepherds do not live with their sheep full time. So, if you dog is starting to show unwanted behaviour you must spend more time monitoring or spying on the dog. You need to be aware of all and any unwanted behaviour he is showing. You need to know what to look for and have a plan how to deal with this bad behaviour. If you know your teenage pup is getting to the chase phase, they you might want to spend more time in the pasture at sunup and sundown to watch his interactions and correct as needed. You need to remove weak and sick animals from the area where the young dog is living. You want to watch him during lambing and step up and correct him for interfering. If you are ready for bed and are unsure if the dog is “safe” with the stock, it is always better to either put him in a kennel in the pasture or on a zip line than allow him to potentially chase and harm the livestock while you sleep.  It is always better to avoid bad habits from developing than allowing them to become entrenched and escalate. A night on a zipline is better than him killing lambs.

It may require some additional facilitation to work with a naughty young dog. You might have to build a bonding pen for the pup somewhere where you can easily see what he is doing, or place cameras where you can monitor him. Sometimes, it means moving the dog to a bigger field, or in with other livestock. If I have a young dog that looks like she is triggered by lambs bouncing and playing, this dog will be moved into the lambing barn and tied up there, so she can see lambs running and playing all day. I am “flooding” her with triggers, and preventing her from acting on those triggers. Usually, a few weeks and with controlled free time amount the lambs, she is accustomed to the lambs racing around that she ignores them. I will continue to monitor her for any signs she might be getting excited about their movements and prevented bad habits from developing.
If the dog remains too excited, I will often place her in with older livestock who do not run, play and bounce. I will allow this dog to mature more and work with her at the next lambing time. By doing this, I am giving the young dog every opportunity to learn and preventing her getting herself into trouble.

 Facilitation is  creating good situations to help the dog become successful, it may involve moving sheep to suit the young dog, purchasing nice kind sheep to bond with, changing pastures, setting up a zipline, kenneling her if you have no time to work with her, building a bonding pen, fixing fences to avoid escaping, making a yoke if that is what the dog requires, selling off those old ornery goats who relentless beat up a young dog.  This is why LGD are not for everyone, as it takes time and effort to work through the rough stages and some dogs can be so determined and single-minded, that it can be exasperating to work with.

Avoiding situations where a dog can make big mistakes is the basis for working with young LGD. Timing and consequential corrections are key elements to all dog training, no matter the breed or the job.


Wednesday 21 June 2023

Owner Failure with LGD


Owner failure
Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for: The Shepherd's Magazine

Not all things that go wrong with livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are because the dog made a mistake or was misbehaving. Very often, the owner or breeder made choices that created issues for the young dog and without some prompt and corrective actions can result in the dog failing. Sadly, it is often the dog that pays for these bad decisions with his life.

A good start for the LGD begins with the breeder selecting appropriate homes for the pups. Too often I hear of breeders selling multiple pups into a suburban home or a micro homestead situation, surrounded by neighbours. Of course, a lot of the responsibility lies with the buyer, but a good breeder would simply not place their pups in such a home. It is common knowledge that most LGD breeds bark a lot, can become stranger and other dog aggressive and generally do not do well on very small homesteads with little to no work to do. Very often these pups must be locked up all night in the garage to avoid upsetting the neighbours, people get into trouble with animal control and roaming becomes a problem because the young dogs are bored. Good breeders will simply say no to such a situation as many of these dogs end up needing to be rehomed.

 Many owners also have unrealistic expectations for their dogs thinking because they were bred to be LGD, it should all go smoothly. Not every LGD makes the grade to becoming a successful LGD, however many of them could be, if given a chance and some guidance. Recently, I heard of a family that shot their less than two-year-old LGD because it was chasing the sheep. In many adolescent dogs this is a common problem and with some corrections and supervision many young LGD grow out of this naughty behaviour. I believe in many cases some owners grab the gun to quickly, many dog who are given extra guidance and correction can go on and become good working dogs. Sometimes all that is needed is a change of environment, other livestock, different pasture and in some cases a new owner. Perhaps, we need to adjust some expectations and understand that these are living creatures who can and will make mistakes. I have had multiple dogs who have been less than stellar at times, and nothing is more rewarding than years down the road looking back and seeing how that once naughty dog, matured into a solid member of the guardian team. I have helped an owner rehome a dog that they said was unreliable, the female went to live with a friend of mine and has become an absolutely trustworthy dog around their livestock and notably even around free ranging chickens. All this dog needed was a good and timely correction. This dog soon figured out what was expected of it.

We often want the tough dog that will face up to bears and wolves when needed, but in many ways, we are not prepared to deal with the type of character that comes with such a strong-willed dog. I have mentioned in previous articles that high drive, dominant and independent dogs are often “harder” to work with as they bring this hardness with them through adolescence.  If we only select for the soft, easy to train ones then, we cannot expect them to ward off apex predators. Bravery, boldness, aggression, and determination are character traits, and although needed when dealing with a high predator load, also makes raising these pups a challenge.  When the coyotes are picking off your lambs and your dog will only stand and bark at them from a distance, then you know there might be an issue! At this point, I usually get a call from folks looking for a “harder “dog who will take on those coyotes. However, what most people are not ready for, is that these tougher dogs are more challenging to raise. It is no use shooting the tough dog, because he is tough to raise, when you are dealing with a predator issues.

I think it would be good if more breeders spoke about what they have done to work through problems. Breeders need to normalise talking about some of the challenges some dogs presented while raising their dogs. Just because a line might be more challenging to raise, does not mean they are bad dogs, buyers just need to be aware of this. There is no need to sugar coat things, as a breeder you can certainly ask a buyer if they are willing and able to work with a stronger natured dog and if not, then no harm in recommending a less aggressive breed. The beauty of the LGD, there are over 40 different LGD breeds, and many have quite predictable character traits ranging from fairly mild and softer, to aggressive and strong. Breeders need to be able to offer guidance and mentorship to their pup buyers. A friend of mine has a lovely, “perfect” LGD, she is stellar at lambing and has been a great flock protector in heavy predator country. A while back we were chatting, and she reminded me how that same dog went through a chase and nipping phase as a young dog. I had completely forgotten about it as this dog was such an amazing LGD. This friend worked through this phase, gave corrections when needed and changed things around to accommodate this adolescent dog, placing this dog in an area with mature animals and closer to home to keep an eye on her. With some time and maturity, this dog become a highly valued member of the guardian team, and the short time spent working with this dog back in her younger days has resulted in almost a decade of excellent protection to the livestock.

I have had similar experiences where I have needed to place a rambunctious teenager into the bull pen or tether him for a while. I have learnt over the years to differentiate a young LGD intentions, most naughtiness, if not allowed to escalate, can easily be corrected. A dog whose intentions are to kill, or “hunt” livestock can be,  differentiated from simple naughty behaviour.  The key when dealing with those initial moments of naughtiness, is  how the owner responds to that behaviour, that will ultimately determine whether the dog will be successful of not. Dogs who are allowed to rough play and seriously harm the sheep repeatedly, get to a point they can no longer be corrected or rehabilitated as LGD.

Too often we do not spend enough time with a young LGD to teach it some basic dog manners. If we ever want or need to rehome an LGD, it is a lot easier if this dog is accustomed to being handled, knows how to walk calmly on a lead, is not food aggressive, is used to being groomed and knows general dog manners. Many of these dogs might not be suitable as LGD but they certainly can go on and become good all round farm dogs. With shelters overflowing, chances of a young unsocialized LGD finding a new placement is very slim so every advantage we can give them is a bonus.

Sometimes we just need to “repurpose” a dog, this could mean a new address, new job or even a different class of livestock. Many years ago, I sold a pup to people who had a grizzly bear problem. The bears would raid their chicken coops and ripped the buildings open. They needed a dog to be an all-round farm dog and just keep the bears at bay. He did a stellar job at that except he become increasingly intolerant of the families own Labrador house dogs. Grizz came back to me when he was about two years old. He had, after his initial pup stage, never been back with sheep so I decided I would just keep him as I needed a guard dog for in my yard. Over the years, Grizz has become solid with the sheep and cattle, and although not a real LGD, he does fulfill some valuable other roles on the ranch. He keeps the yard safe of bears, moose, coyotes, skunks, foxes, and other critters. He is the official “guard dog” for me and my home, he is the all-round companion and for the past few years he has become the hay bale protector keeping the elk out of the hay yards. Due to his good nature, he has found a new purpose here. Having a social and well-behaved dog made this transition easy. Some people get out of livestock and then feel the need to rehome their LGD as they have no animals left. In my experience, many LGD can easily transition to being farm dogs and living out their lives on the place they were raised on.

As owners and breeders, we need to remember that although our dogs do a job that comes instinctually to them, it does not mean they do not need guidance and corrections. We do need to allocate the time and energy to work through potential hiccups and issues along the way. It is not enough just to buy the well-bred pup; we also need to see it through with time and dedication towards raising the pup to become a successful LGD.

Thursday 6 April 2023

When good dogs go bad (Part 2)


When good dogs go bad (Part 2)
Louise Liebenberg(2023)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

In the previous article, I discussed some ideas and considerations for when you have a predation event and you suspect that the LGD might be involved.

The first step to take is to ensure that the livestock is in a safe area and a place where you can manage and supervise any interactions the LGD has with the stock. In every predatation event, you do want to try and ensure that the sheep are moved from that area and in a safe place closer to you to be able to monitor them. If that is not an option, then you may want to consider placing some electric nets in the pasture to make the area where the sheep graze a bit smaller and where you have a better overview on them. You do not want any pattern of predation (wild or domestic) to continue. To rule out your own LGD, it is advisable to remove the dog from the stock. This will serve two purposes; if you have another predator attack while the LGD is tethered or kenneled then you can probably rule out that your dog might have caused the death of the sheep. Kennelling or tethering the dog for a few days will do the dog no harm, while you try to figure out what animal did predate on the sheep.  Secondly, if your dog was involved, you certainly do not want him to continue this behaviour and you want to remove any possibility that the dog can do more damage to the livestock. Tethering or kenneling buys you a little time to figure out what your option is.

The next step would be to only allow your LGD back in with the livestock if you can supervise and watch his interactions. You could set up a remote camera system, or simply spy on the dog. It might be hard to “catch him in the act” but you can certainly watch for warning signs. If you have no time, then kennel or tether him until you can supervise. If you are concerned that wildlife killed the sheep, you may want to consider placing the dog on a zipline in the pasture. This allows the dog still to be present with the sheep, he can bark and be a deterrent, but he can not fully engage with the sheep as the sheep can move away from him. Do be aware, that the limited movement your dog has on a zipline, could make him vulnerable to predators. I like to use a combination of deterrents, dog on zipline, electric fences, close to home and possibly additional fox lights.

Behaviour or warning signs can include things like jumping and barking at the livestock, nipping, chewing ears, standing over them, excessive and aggressive resource guarding, over-interest, stalking and staring, moving the sheep, disruptive behaviour, stress and tension in the dog around the livestock, dragging them around by the legs and neck, wool pulling, chasing, over excitement or triggered behaviour ( so when livestock do normal livestock behaviour, the dog gets overly stimulated by this) and of course any outward aggression toward the stock. If the dog is not experienced around newborn lambs, that in itself can be trigger to the dog, the newness, smells of blood and afterbirths, bleating and ewes who become more aggressive toward the dog than usual.

If after a few weeks of supervision, you see no concerning behaviour you can try the dog for longer periods alone with the stock. Ensure the livestock he is in with, is not weak, sickly, or very young. Often a dog will “pick” on a specific animal over and over. Remove any of these animals. I would not trust a “suspect” dog overnight alone with the sheep at this point. 

Your dog might only show concerning behaviour under very specific circumstances. For example, the dog could be fine with newborn lambs with a ewe around, but could be predatory to lambs who are “lost”, such as a triplet lamb left behind or lagging behind. The dog might be reactive to a lamb that is calling all the time, or a chicken who is flapping a lot. Sometimes, eating and licking afterbirths can lead to predatory behaviour. I do not mind a dog eating an afterbirth but will not tolerate a dog licking and pulling on it while the ewe is still birthing or if a dog is over involving himself with the birthing. Some dogs may never be reliable with newborns but are solid with larger lambs.  Some dogs become aggressive towards rams during breeding season, it could be the “new” animals, or the smell or the higher hormone levels. Some dogs become obsessive with cycling ewes.  Some dogs do turn bad from what starts off as scavenging behaviour, so they did not cause the death of the sheep, but did start to eat it, this can lead to an escalation and in some cases to predation (this is often how wild animals start to predate on the sheep, it starts as scavenging behaviour and later becomes predatory). This is not always the case as I do know many dogs who can eat dead stock and never harm a live one. It is hard to isolate what changes in the dog to go from reliable to predatory.

Another trigger can be the bad behaviour of another dog. Some LGD will not guard the livestock from other dogs. If those dogs, for example, other farm dogs or pets, chase a sheep, the LGD might participate with those dogs. A mother dog might not correct her own adolescent pups when they rough play with the sheep or even kill them.

LGD walk a very fine line between living with the sheep and not becoming predatory towards them. It is logical that not everyone will “work out”. Some just have a higher prey drive than others, and some are easily stimulated into bad behaviour. Some of the “harder” breeds can have a higher failure rate than the more placid breeds simply because they tend to have a higher aggression level. Think of a ewe butting a dog and the dog retaliates, in a harder breed this is a little more common.

The problem with predatory behaviour is that once it is stimulated, it is very hard to stop. It is a self rewarding behaviour.  I like to think that the predatory behaviour is dormant in most LGD, and hopefully is remains that way, however if stimulated, it certainly awakens something in the dog.  It is like a little border collie pup getting turned on to sheep, it goes from nothing to turned on in an instant and once this pup is zoned in on the sheep it is virtually impossible to turn off. It is only through training and control that the pup can learn to switch off its work mode when not needed, but it is never gone. 

With the LGD, I feel it is very important to make sure that the predatory instinct does not get stimulated or awakened, because you cannot put that “genie” back once it is out. The old saying of prevention is better than a cure, is applicable here. Try to ensure the young dog is not placed into situations that could illicit a predatory response. Here are some examples for this:

  •  By raising a pup with the livestock from a young age you take the excitement of being around the livestock away. The pup will learn that livestock belong in his world. A pup raised in the house or away from stock will often meet the stock in a very elevated and excited way, this can lead to wanting to run, chase and overzealous reactions by the dog, which causes the sheep to run, this in turn excites the dog to chase. Once it starts to chase, the first step to predatory behaviour could be awakened.

  • Allowing a young dog to be too involved with the birthing process, particularly if it is licking lambs, pushing the ewes away, eating afterbirths while ewe is still lambing. The smell of the blood and fluids can excite the dog. Some dogs end up attacking the ewe while she is trying to protect her lamb from an overzealous dog. Teach the dog to back off and not interfere.

  • Remove weak, sick, and gimpy animals.

  • Watch the dog if you restrain a sheep, if it gets really excited because of the struggling of the sheep, a reprimand and backing it off is what the dog needs.

  • A dog that is “playing” with the sheep is honing his predatory skills. Stop that immediately.

  • Excessive and aggressive resource guarding is another behaviour to pay attention to.

  • Dogs generally do not grow out of bad behaviour. They do learn how to avoid being caught or how to do it when no one is around. They must be taught it is unacceptable. 

The chances of a LGD being rehabilitated from predatory behaviour towards the livestock is low. Particularly, if the dog has been allowed to repeat this behaviour multiple times. It is so important, even if you are not sure if the dog is responsible for the death of the sheep, to ensure it does not have the opportunity to repeat that behaviour. If a dog kills a lamb the first time it might have happened accidently, the second time the dog learns and the third time it is a pattern.

You can still have a chance to modifying the behaviour if it is at the accident stage, but once it learns and forms a pattern, making a reliable LGD of this dog, becomes nearly impossible. It is also always easier to modify the behaviour of a young dog than that of an older, mature dog who has learned a specific self rewarding behaviour.

Some people can make a work around. with a dog that has proven to not be totally reliable. Some will only have the dog in with non-breeding stock, or just adult livestock, or only in with larger livestock like cattle, some even have the dog work in a moat situation where the LGD is on the outside of a livestock fence. All these work arounds are okay as the dog can still be somewhat functional.  In many cases these are good solutions for the dog who may not be reliable in all situations but is still useful in specific situations.

The key take away is that not all LGD are perfect. Some show troublesome behaviour early and others can develop issues when mature. It is hard to know exactly what causes the dog to change. If a predation even happens while the LGD is in the field with the sheep, I will always first suspect the dog and take measures to control and supervise his interactions with the sheep. If you can rule out the dog, then you might want to question why the dog did nothing to stop the predation while he was in the field. Either way, it is not a good situation. If you want to have a chance of trying to rehabilitate a dog, then you must ensure it can never repeat that behaviour and it is never placed in a situation where it can be triggered into bad behaviour.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

When good dogs go bad (Part 1)


Laurie McLaren photo

When good dogs go bad (Part 1)
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

When a predation incident occurs in the pasture while the livestock guardian dog (LGD) is in the field with the sheep, can be very confusing to sort out what occurred. The scene can be baffling as one does not normally expect predation in the field where the LGD are, and yet there are either dead or injured livestock in the field. It is human nature to want to understand what happened; how did the predator get in, why did the dog not “do anything”, what predator was it and what to do now? One needs to be a bit like a crime scene investigator and try to piece the puzzle together. This article is going to look at some myths surrounding the killing and harming of livestock by an LGD.

Just as in a murder or disappearance, the police always take a closer look at those people closest to the victim. They look at spouse or family first and who was last seen with the victim. It is always a good place to start, even when it comes to dead or injured livestock in the pasture with the LGD.
Unless there is a pattern of regular predation taking place, then the first place to look is at the ranch’s own dogs, these could be pets, herding or even the LGD. All dogs are predators and considering that our LGD live with the livestock, this is the first place to look when sheep are injured or killed in a pasture. It is always better to rule out our own dogs first and take preventative measures to ensure no further injury or killing of the sheep takes place.

It is often very hard for people to wrap their head around that their LGD, who was acquired to protect the flock, could now be suspected of harming the animals. It is easier to blame a random predator for causing havoc amongst the flock than it is to believe the trusted dog could do this. Sadly, it is more common than one wants to believe. Younger adolescent dogs can be prone to rough housing or showing some more worrisome behaviour, things like wool pulling, chewing ears, chasing the sheep, and nipping them. These signs are usually an indication that the owner needs to take control and work with the dog to ensure he stops this behaviour.  Not stopping this behaviour will result in escalation and that never ends well for either the sheep or the dog. It is a lot harder to believe that an older, previously reliable LGD changes and starts to harm the livestock, but this can happen when certain events trigger the predatory behaviour in the dog.

Younger LGD tend to harm the livestock due to too much energy, not enough work, playfulness, ganging up on the livestock together with other younger dogs, naughtiness and a multitude of other reasons.  When an older dog suddenly changes and starts to harm the livestock, the triggers for this change might be harder to identify. I have heard of a female who had a litter of pups, change and starting to kill lambs to “feed” the pups, or when a new dog is introduced to the older, reliable LGD that together, they two start to kill the livestock. Another incident I have seen is when a goat got its head stuck in a feeder and the goat was screaming and bouncing around and this “wounded prey” behaviour of the goat triggered the dog to harm the goat.  Dogs that have shown high prey drive as younger dogs, can easily be triggered to revert to that behaviour. Some dogs are reliable when alone with the livestock, but when partnered with another dog, they “hunt” the livestock.  Certain triggers can sometimes elicit a predatory response in an LGD, this can include birthing events, injured livestock, new livestock, gimpy and weak animals, scavenging on carcasses, new LGD added to the pack, new home, hormones, excessive resource guarding or dogs who stay in a very juvenile mindset for a long time.

When trying to figure out if this was indeed a wild predator that injured the stock or your own dogs, there may be some clues.
The dog might have shown a pattern of problematic behaviour before or at least shown some warning signs before. Typical signs of a dog harassing the sheep include chasing, nipping, wool pulling, chewed ears, bite marks on legs, missing tails, scratch marks on the hide. Often there will be lots of pieces of wool laying in the pasture, the sheep will be nervous and jumpy, or the sheep will be standing tightly bunched in a corner of the pasture while breathing heavily. If sheep have been killed you will often see a hind leg chewed off, the belly opened and scratch marks on the hide or just the wool plucked off depending on when you come into the pasture and disrupt whatever was going on.
Most dogs, unless they have killed before, do not really know how to kill quickly and cleanly.  Sometimes, the dog might kill a sheep by running it to death and then the dog will not really know what to do further and may end up simply just laying beside the sheep, giving the illusion that it is guarding the dead sheep or that it has chased off the predators after the sheep had been killed. Although plausible, it is still better to be 100% certain that the dog did not cause the demise of the sheep.

With lambs, it is not unusual for a dog to carry the lamb around and try and bury it, sometimes the dog will consume half the lamb or simply just eating the head of the lamb.  Some people will see the LGD with the lamb and assume the dog is guarding the lamb or protecting it from predators. The dog can chew a head or leg off a lamb so cleanly, that it looks like a surgical incision.  I have read some people’s posts on social media where they describe a lamb kill where just the head is missing, or the hide is peeled back, or scratch marks on the lamb.

Another myth that is often perpetuated is that if a LGD kills or injures a sheep it “will be covered in blood”. This is not necessarily true, and it is often very hard to find blood on the fur. Most LGD have fur that self cleans quickly. Years ago, we had two huskies that got into our sheep and killed 24 ewes, injured dozens more and there was not a speck of blood on either dog. We had caught both dogs in the act and had leashed them so we could track down the owner. It was only possible to “prove” these dogs did the killing by the veterinarian inducing the dogs to vomit and finding wool fibers in their stomach contents. Although the sheep were massacred, there was no blood to be found on either dog.

There are some signs to look for when trying to distinguish between a predator kill and that of a dog. Most dogs are sloppy killers, predators tend to be more efficient and specialized. If one looks closely at the neck of a dead ewe, one can usually see the small puncture marks on the bottom side of the neck if a coyote killed the sheep. One can measure the distance between the two canine teeth to help distinguish between the bite of a wolf or coyote. Most coyotes kill the sheep by strangulation as opposed to ripping the throat open. The bite area is clean, small, and rarely will have more than a small drop of blood around the wound.  Wolf kills, the puncture marks are also relatively small and deep, however if you skin the sheep or calf, it will show massive bruising under the skin. With wild predators you will also often find drag marks as they do try to move the carcass, one can usually see a kill spot, drag marks and the eating area.

Coyote attacks are usually very quick while dog attacks can be quite prolonged, flocks that experience a coyote attack may seem calmer and quieter than after a dog attack, due to the efficiency of the kill.  Coyotes seldom inflict injuries to other parts of the adult animal or carcass, dogs typically do. Dogs will often attack from the side or rear inflicting non-fatal wounds on various parts of the body. Frequently the skin and muscles in the flank, hindquarters and head will be ripped. Neck wounds will typically show rips and slashes rather than the neat puncture wounds left by the teeth of a coyote. Dog attacks results often in multiple injured animals, the scene will be messy. Dogs might start to chew on the live animal, where most coyotes will kill first before feeding.  If the sheep is eaten, a coyote will normally open the stomach cavity and feed from the inside out. Dogs will often chew on various parts of the carcass and will usually eat from the outside in, generally starting around the anus area, hind leg or shoulder.

In the event of a kill in your pasture, particularly if there has not been a recent history of predation, I would always suspect the ranch dogs first, whether it is the LGD, pets or herding dogs.  In next months article I will continue with this topic and how to further manage this situation.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

How to find your next guardian dog pup.


How to find your next guardian dog pup.
©Louise Liebenberg (2022)
Written for The Shepherd's Magazine

Once the decision is made to add a livestock guardian dog
(LGD) to the ranch, the search begins to find a suitable pup or adult dog that can be added to your flock. In many cases people are a bit unsure how to go about finding a “good” breeder. In this article I am going to offer some suggestions on how to find a breeder or pup.
It can be a challenge to find the right dog for your operation and many people are a little stumped where to look and what to look for. Since Facebook does not allow animal sales posts and Craig’s list might not be the best place to find your future guardian dog, finding that pup or breeder can be a little daunting, particularly when new to LGD or even livestock raising.

I think the first step is to look at your operation and decide what you are really looking for, each operation is different and that means the needs are also different. If you have a large, grazed range type flock, in an area with many predators your requirements are very different than a small homestead type of operation.  Writing down a list of wants and needs is a good place to start.

The next step is doing your research, read books, read breed websites, join some LGD pages and learn as much as you can before you purchase a pup. Spending a few days doing research is a good investment of time. A LGD should not be purchased on a whim, as it is a 10 plus year commitment and the lives of your livestock and, potentially your livelihood will depend on the LGD doing a good job.

You could include contacting breed clubs to help narrow down the type of dog you are wanting. Some breed clubs focus more on pet and companion dogs and others value and uphold working dogs. Either way, it is still a good starting point for general information and potential leads on litters. It is good to learn more about the traits, character, size, coat, temperament, of each specific breed. There are well over 40 different LGD breeds, each with their own ingrained characteristics. Some breeds have milder natures while others are higher drive dogs.

Personally, I think the actual breed is a little less important than finding the right breeder. For example, you need a truck, it can be a Dodge, Ford or GMC, all similar vehicles but each is slightly different. It might be more important to find the right dealership that will provide you with quality service, terms and who will provide support and help when and if you need it. Similarly, most LGD share a lot of similar traits but finding the right breeder who can mentor and guide you might be more important than the breed itself.   Some breeders offer a lifetime guarantee for support, while others offer support to the end of their driveway.

I think the best route to finding the right breed or even breeder is to speak to the folks who already use LGD. This could be through sheep organizations, producer forums, and neighbors. Find producers who raise livestock in a similar area and manner as you do. Ask them about their dogs, where they got their dogs or even any issues or recommendations they may have. We raise livestock in a very high predator area but also in an extremely harsh cold climate. Finding dogs who have been raised and worked in similar circumstances will ensure a high probability of success.  I think we need to move away from solely searching for dogs just through the internet and we need to go back and pick up the phone and speak to other producers. Having these conversations will be both educational and will most likely lead to more contacts and references on who might have pups available and who to avoid.

Then the process starts on contacting various breeders and talking to them about their breeding program, how the pups are raised, what the parents of the pups are like and how they work, veterinary information, price, and any other things you might need to know. Some breeders make require you to sign a purchase agreement, breeding restrictions may apply, others might require proof of spay/ neuter or even things like hip dysplasia testing. It is good to know ahead of time what the expectations are on both sides.  Some buyers prefer a “no strings attached” approach and others value the input and contact with a breeder. If possible, ask to meet the breeder and the parents of the pups. Be aware that some breeders might have a waiting list and so getting a good pup might mean you have to wait for it.

Questions that could be important to ask include things like:
What type of support do you offer?
Should my life circumstances change, are you willing to take the pup back or help with rehoming?
What program would you recommend for the initial raising of the pup?
Do you offer any guarantee’s and if so, what?
What age can the pup leave the litter? (Should be at least 8 weeks and older)

How experienced or knowledgeable is the breeder?

There are also lots of reg flags when puppy shopping. 
Here are some to be aware of:

  • Breeders selling crosses with non LGD breeds.
  • If the breeder cannot spell their own breed name correctly then that would be a warning sign regarding how well they know their own breed.
  • Pups that have colours, size, ear set or other distinguishing features that make you question the parentage of the pups.
  • Selling pups too young.
  • Breeders who have multiple litters all at the same time, are they a puppy mill? Are they in the business of dog breeding or breeding a litter for the livestock operation?
  • Beware of fancy terms; Holistically raised (does this mean no veterinary care?), or breeders who create a “new breed”, along with a new fancy made up name?
  • Breeders who own no livestock.
  • Show breeders toting their ribbons and claiming that instincts do not get lost even after multiple generations of no work or selection.
  • If you are needing a full time working dog, beware of folks saying pups need to be raised in the house and are not ready to work until over 2 years old.

In a nutshell, the old fashion “word of mouth” is still often the best way to find the dog you are needing and wanting. Utilise the internet to learn as much as you can and be very aware of all the conflicting information. Try and figure out if the person commenting or advertising on the internet has valid experience or not. Do some reading; books, websites of LGD breed clubs (it will soon be apparent who focuses on pets or working traits) subscribe to industry magazines as many have an advertising section and often in sheep related magazines you can find advertisements for herding and guardian dogs, speak to breeders directly, be clear on what you are wanting or needing.

Impulse buying is never a good strategy, neither is emotional buying. I think purchasing your next flock protector should be a business decision; is it a good investment, do I have time, are there other or better ways to protect my livestock, how much do I need a dog compared with how much do I want a dog, is a LGD what I want, or do I want a general farm dog? Do I have the space, number of livestock and work for an LGD? Is good fencing a better option? What is my plan if the dog does not work out? Can I manage the dog in a suitable way to avoid unwanted litters? What do I need to facilitate to ensure the pup has the highest chance of success? What is the long-term plan with the dog, how many other LGD do I need? When should I add a second one? Can I manage things such as in-pack fighting, roaming and other possible behavioural problems? Do I need to consider neighbors and the impact of having a large breed dog barking a lot will have on them?
There are multiple things to consider before acquiring the pup and being systematic in your approach in researching and speaking to people will ensure a thorough decision-making process. Not all situations warrant an LGD, and recognising this might be the most important decision you make!

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Unsung Hero


Unsung hero
Louise Liebenberg
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This past week all my social media feeds were about a young livestock guardian dog (LGD) that battled some coyotes to save his sheep. The story was shared far and wide and it made me realise that for many of us full time shepherds this is “normal” for our dogs, we keep these dogs with our flocks to do this exact job. Many of our dogs, although very much appreciated and loved, never will get the media attention that this dog did. We all have “unsung hero’s” in our back pastures, in this article I am going to share the story of one of mine.

I lost one of my most favorite livestock guardian dogs (LGD) last week to old age, normally I am not one to really express publicly, the sadness I feel when one of the team passes on. This time it is a little different and I would like to share some of the lessons I have learnt from this dog. His name was Vuk, which is the Serbian word for wolf. Vuk, has challenged many of my previously held ideas on what LGD should be and do. He forced me to reassess my thoughts on how LGD work, and to not limit their working ability because of how I expected them to be.
Vuk came to me as a 12-week-old puppy from his breeder in Pennsylvania. The first year with him was a struggle.  He was high energy and was rather difficult to form a relationship with as he was fiercely independent and although being friendly enough, simply had no time for anyone.  As a pup he was always on the go, I used to joke that he should have been a sled dog rather than an LGD. He could not relax and seemed “hyper” all the time. With the sheep, his energy and activity level was certainly not something the sheep were used to. The found him disruptive and I was irritated by him. I always felt the energy level of the LGD should match that of the sheep. I liked the slow and steady types. This young dog was so energetic, that I sincerely questioned if he would make the grade as an LGD.  Whenever he moved, the sheep became startled. When he was about a year old, I mentioned to his breeder, that I may consider rehoming him, he was just not "my kind" of dog.

He was everything I thought was wrong with a LGD, he was high energy and did not really want to be a “close” type of guardian dog. I questioned if he was bonded with the sheep as he never really “snuggled” with the sheep.  He was never far away, but never chose to be close to the sheep, or huddle up against the sheep during the frigid winters here in Canada. However, as he was never inappropriate toward the livestock, and he never set a foot wrong towards the sheep. He never showed any predatory behaviour towards them; never played with them, was not rough, he never pulled wool, nipped, or chased them, and it was this, that made me decide to keep working with him.   I learnt not to try and shape Vuk into being the dog I wanted, instead to learn to work with him and his unique character.

Once I had that mind shift, things changed. When he was old enough to go and work on the larger bush pastures where the predator pressure was high, he settled into his job. He would patrol hundreds of acres of bush and pasture, and his energy level became an asset. He was tireless in checking out regular predator trails and chasing off predators. He would come and check in with the sheep and be off actively patrolling again. By the time he was three years old he was had fully settled into his job, he was calm and controlled around the sheep as he had enough work to keep his mind and body busy. He was always checking in with the flock, laying in an area he could watch over them, and was highly protective of them. I have seen him battle coyotes, tree bears and be on the watch for cougars. I have even seen Vuk fearlessly chase away a large bison bull from our cows. Wolves are part of our environment, and I am sure his presence and determination helped keep wolves away from the livestock. We could see tracks in the snow where confrontations have taken place and we would find dead coyotes in the pastures, He was powerful, fast, and smart and never backed down from a confrontation.

Vuk understood his job and that was evident in all his interactions with the livestock. He was the guardian of the livestock and left the mothering of lambs to the ewes themselves. He was adamant about chasing ravens and eagles out of the pastures and would guard a dead sheep’s body from scavengers until I removed it.  He was more a warrior than the nursemaid type.  Although he was never the type of dog that would allow lambs to jump up on him, or lay down close to him, he was super reliable with lambs.  He valued his personal space and when a lamb or calf would come and lay near him, he would get up and move to another spot. In many ways he was like this with us too. He would come for some petting but would after a few minutes, trot off back to the livestock. He would watch over lambs and calves with vigilance and dedication.

He could often be found watching over a bunch of calves, while the cows went to eat or drink. He read the body language of any animal perfectly. If he got to close to a cow with a newborn calf and she gave him “the look”, he would quietly move further away and gave her space, enough so, that the cow did not feel the need to run him off. He was very in tune with the reactions of the livestock, he would back away from an ewe that might feel nervous around him yet would stand his ground around the big bulls.  He was probably the dog with the best ability to “read” the livestock I have ever worked with. The sheep and cows soon grew a bond with this dog and trusted him.

He was a true leader when it came to the other dogs, he was respectful of the older females and would work well within the team. Most of the other dogs really liked to work with him. He was an excellent mentor to other young dogs. He was fair when it came to young males, he did not go looking for a fight, but if the fight came to him, he would deal with it. He was adaptable and could be moved around with other dogs and situations where he was needed, from the calving corrals one day to large, forested sheep grazing pastures the next.

He taught me that patrolling or perimeter type dogs are as valuable at their job of protecting the sheep as close guardians. He proved to me that high energy is not a bad trait to have. Having a strong lupine build, that could move,  was more advantageous than big slow cumbersome dogs when dealing with predators. Despite not being a dog that liked to be physically close to the sheep, it did not mean he was not bonded to them.  Having the space to work, the challenges of his job and ability to utilise his energy made him into a fine working dog. His ability to read the livestock become so finely tuned, that it really took my breath away to watch him work around an ornery cow, or a young ewe.

As he grew older, I made some attempts at retiring him, fearing he might be killed by predators. He wanted nothing to do with that and would take every opportunity to escape back to the livestock. During the harsh winter months, I would put him in the heated shop and then back in the pastures when the weather was milder, this is where he was happiest. This winter his health declined, and a few weeks back he passed away.

I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to work with such a fine dog, and that I had the right environment for him to be the best he could. I grew to admire and respect this dog deeply, and as he aged, he was more accepting of me cuddling him and I think he actually started to enjoy it!  He changed my perceptions of what a good working dog could be.  Over the years we bonded to each other, and I adored this dog, and he will forever be one of the great ones in my life, perhaps the greatest.

Vuk, no sheep or calves were ever lost under your watch! Thank you.



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