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.

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