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.

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