One of the hazards of referring to livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) as predator protection “tools” is that we seem to think of them like other tools. While one claw hammer might be reasonably interchangeable with any other claw hammer, I've found that every LGD I've worked with is an individual with his/her own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Just as I wouldn't use a claw hammer to install a wood screw, I wouldn't use each of my dogs identically. That said, I certainly didn't realize this nuance when I started using LGDs!
Researchers (and I include myself in this) have a tendency to want neat models against which to test our hypotheses. This approach can lead to “hard-and-fast” rules that might work for experiments but that have little basis in real-world management. For example, there are several scientific papers that suggest that the proper ratio of LGDs to livestock is 1 to 100 – that is, for every 100 sheep in a flock (or cows in a herd), a rancher needs one dog to optimize predator protection. In reality, the ratio of dogs to livestock is much more fluid; it depends on the individual dog, the predator pressure and environment, the stage of production for the operation, and a host of other factors. The researcher part of me wants this definitive ratio; the rancher and extensionist in me knows the answer to question, "how many dogs," is always, “It depends.”
We currently havethreeLGDs in our small sheep operation, which is at least one too many for part of the year. During our 6-week breeding season, we have three groups of sheep (two breeding groups and our replacement ewe lambs, which are not big enough to breed). Typically, we keep one dog with each group. Following breeding, however, we combine all three groups into one larger mob and separate the rams. In our environment (and since we also use electric fence), one dog can usually protect the big mob until we start lambing in late February. Depending on where we put the rams post-breeding, we can sometimes get by without putting a dog with them. Once we start lambing, though, the dogs' work becomes more challenging. We lamb during a time of year when there is not much “natural” prey for the coyotes and mountain lions here in the foothills. We lamb on pasture, typically in paddocks that are 8-10 acres in size, with rolling terrain and substantial brush and/or tree cover. Consequently, we find that we're more comfortable with two dogs during lambing (as are the sheep). Once we wean the lambs in late June, we run the replacement ewe lambs and feeders separate from the main flock again – and keep a dog with each bunch.
Over the last four summers, I've been working with a large-scale sheep operation that grazes on the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee. They typically turn out 3,000-plus ewes and rams in three bands of roughly 1,000 ewes each. These are dry ewes; that is, they don't have lambs at their sides. While there are many predators present on the landscape (our trail cameras have picked up coyotes and black bears, and gray wolves have occasionally traversed the region), there is also a plentiful supply of natural prey – fawns, in particular, but other smaller mammals, as well. As a result, the sheep operation has been able to get by with just 1 to 4 dogs per band – and has experienced fewer than 5 ewes lost to predators in the four years I've been researching their use of dogs.
Most cattle producers in California have little experience in working with LGDs, and their natural assumption is that the dogs need to protect all of the cattle, all of the time. In talking with ranchers in the Northern Rockies who are using LGDs to protect cattle, I suspect the reality of using dogs with cattle is based on the situation – just as it is with sheep. Dogs are placed with groups of cattle that are particularly vulnerable to predators – first calf heifers during calving season, for example, or stocker cattle that may be grazing in an area with greater predator pressure. Other classes of cattle may not be as susceptible to predators – because of the stage of production or the area in which they're grazing.
This situational approach suggests that some producers have specific times of year when they may not need ANY dogs. Again, unlike that claw hammer, a dog can't simply be put back in the tool box and stored until needed. We “store” our extra dogs with our sheep – at the moment, we have two dogs with one of our breeding groups, even though one would suffice. Other ranchers tell me that they sometimes kennel an extra dog for short periods, or they'll allow a well-bonded dog to decide which particular group of livestock it wants to “protect.”
Understandably, fitting LGDs into a complex cattle operation might be difficult. Consider an operation that manages cattle with multiple irons and/or ownership arrangements, on a combination of owned and leased private land, as well as federal land. Add in stocker cattle (which may be owned or grazed for other producers), heifers that may need a little extra attention at calving, grazing permits that require cattle to be dispersed out of riparian areas, and other considerations – adding dogs quickly becomes extremely complicated. Other predator protection tools might be more viable. And each ranch will likely have some level of predator problems that are within acceptable limits.
- Author: Dan Macon
- Author: Laura Snell
Bonding works both ways...
Bonding a livestock guardian dog (LGD) to livestock is a critical first step in using dogs to protect livestock from predators. Practically, the bonding process helps ensure that the dog will stay with livestock; economically, successful bonding improves the cost effectiveness of this tool. But as I've learned in bonding my own LGDs with our sheep, the bonding process has to work in both directions. The dog must be bonded to the livestock, obviously; naïve livestock take some time to bond to the dog, as well. We're learning this lesson again as we're bonding Sam the LGD pup with cattle in Likely, CA.
Several weeks ago, our rancher-collaborator, Myles Flournoy, needed to work some calves – and decided to work the seven orphaned calves that had been bonding with Sam. Myles had some smaller orphaned calves that he intended to replace them with; figuring a new set of calves would be helpful in Sam's progress. I would have figured the same thing.
These new calves had been around herding dogs, but never a 50+ pound goofball of a puppy. Sam was excited to meet his new “friends.” The calves, unfortunately didn't share his enthusiasm. Myles reported that Sam clumsily bounded up to the calves – and proceeded to push them through the electric fence, leaving Sam sitting next to the now flattened electro-net! The new calves had not been exposed to electric fence, nor had they been fed grain (as the first calves had been) – these new experiences made the transition even more challenging. Myles sorted off two of the original calves and added them back to the pasture – they were happy to see Sam! Myles reported that it took more than two weeks of uncertainty, but by the time I visited the ranch on October 13, the new calves had settled down, as well. And the bonding process continues.
I've noticed a similar dynamic when I've purchased sheep that have not been with an LGD. The naïve sheep are typically afraid of the dogs – probably because all of their prior interactions with dogs have been with herding dogs or with dogs that are chasing them for sport. I've found if we combine the new sheep with our own ewes (who know and trust our LGDs), they settle down quickly.
Ranchers who use LGDs with cattle report comparable observations. Cat Urbigkit, a Wyoming sheep and cattle rancher who uses LGDs extensively, tells me that she will introduce dogs to uninitiated cattle along with two or three steers or heifers that are well-used to the LGDs. Having cattle that trust the dogs seems to calm the new cattle more quickly. Jill Hackett, who runs a cow-calf and sheep operation in Humboldt County, says it took about 6 months for her cattle to completely bond to the dogs. Anna Harvey, who ranches in Sierra Valley, says it took longer than that initially, but now that there are cows in her herd who are used to the dogs, it only takes two days for the new cattle to become comfortable with the LGDs.
In observing our sheep with our dogs – and in observing Sam with his calves yesterday – this reciprocal bonding becomes evident. Some of our sheep will actively seek the dogs when they bed down. Myles reported that when he returned the two original calves the pasture, they walked over and nuzzled Sam (a phenomenon I observed yesterday, as well). The benefit of this reciprocal bonding has practical implications beyond keeping livestock and dogs together. A research project at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, ID, found that ewes and lambs grazing in the company of an LGD traveled greater distances: “Our findings support the hypothesis that sheep with LGDs spend less time being vigilant for predators and more time moving,” the researchers reported, adding “As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities. The observed changes in movement behavior may result in more effective use of pasture resources” (Webber, B. et. al 2015 - read the abstract here).
Sam still has a long road ahead of him – he is still a puppy, after all! But I am impressed with the progress he's made – and with the progress the calves are making. And once again, we are incredibly thankful for the work that Myles and the entire Likely Land and Livestock crew are putting into this effort! Stay tuned!
I suspect anyone who has used livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) to protect livestock has experienced at least one of the following interactions with non-ranchers:
- A call or conversation with a neighbor, complaining about the dog barking;
- An email (often anonymous) from a neighbor about the dog barking;
- A visit from animal control about (a) the dog barking, (b) the fact that the dog is outside ALL OF THE TIME, or (c) all of the above;
- A call from animal control that a well-meaning person "found" a stray big white dog and brought it into the animal shelter.
And the list probably goes on!
These complaints, in my experience, reflect a number of misconceptions. Most people think of dogs as pets, and expect that working LGDs should be treated as such (which apparently means letting them sleep inside). A surprising number of people here in the foothills have never seen any of our local predators (especially mountain lions) and so have no idea of the threat these predators pose to livestock. And virtually nobody who doesn't use a dog to protect livestock understands the types of behaviors that make for an effective LGD.
Nine summers ago, I received an anonymous email from a neighbor complaining about our LGD awakening him at 5 a.m. and suggesting that we use a bark collar on him. While my initial inclination was to respond immediately (and angrily), my wife urged me to sleep on my response (and, as usual, she was right about this!). Here's how I ultimately responded:
Sorry to hear that our dogs have inconvenienced you. As you may not know, we are in the commercial sheep business. All of our dogs are an essential part of our business - either as herding dogs or as livestock guardian dogs (LGDs). While most of our operation exists on leased land around Auburn, we do keep some sheep and goats at our home place. These are generally animals that require special care - orphaned lambs that must be bottle-fed 2-3 times daily, older sheep and goats that require special care and feeding, and an occasional injured or sick animal. Our property is zoned "Farm" by Placer County, which permits these commercial activities.
Sheep and goats are vulnerable to predators like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs - even in a neighborhood like ours. Indeed, the only animals we've ever lost to predators were killed by a neighbor dog two years ago in our back pasture. At that time, we did not have any LGDs with the sheep. The neighbor dog was observed chasing sheep into the irrigation ditch and killing them for sport - we lost 4 ewes in the attack. Since that time, we've tried to make sure that we are always protecting our animals (and our livelihood). Our LGDs are critical to this effort.
LGDs instinctively respond to anything they perceive as a threat to the animals they are guarding. The best LGDs are raised with the animals they spend their lives guarding - our dogs have been with sheep from the moment they were whelped. Their first response to a perceived threat is to bark. If the threat persists, an LGD will aggressively challenge the threat. Sometimes the threat is readily apparent to us humans; other times it is not. We have experienced our dogs barking at the scent or sound of a coyote, which we only discovered later. We've also noticed that our LGDs can learn about routine - for example, they don't bark at folks who walk their dogs past our place at the same time everyday. Since barking is part of their guarding behavior, discouraging an LGD from barking will ruin the dog's effectiveness.
When we have LGDs at our home place, we are especially aware of their barking - both because it represents a potential threat to our livestock and because we want to be good neighbors. When a dog sounds a warning bark (and we've found that LGDs only bark when they are trying to warn off a perceived threat), we'll check it out - even in the middle of the night. Most of the time, our dogs relax and stop barking once we've responded to their warning barks.
I would like to invite you to visit our operation at some point. The partnership that we've developed over many years with both our herding dogs and our LGDs represents an amazing relationship between humans and dogs. We could not operate a commercial sheep business without this partnership, and watching our dogs work - even for us - is a wonderful experience. Also, we'd be glad to forward you additional information regarding LGD behavior and training.
Several days later, I received this response:
Thank you for your reply and detailed information regarding your business. We wish you the best success for your business! Someday my wife and I will come by and see your farm.
Thanks again for understanding and making great efforts in keeping the barking to a minimum as much as possible. We too have a dog, so we do understand.
While I still don't know who this neighbor was (and they still haven't visited our operation), we haven't had any further problems at our home place.
I'm often asked if there are particular LGD breeds that are less likely to bark. In my experience, barking varies more by individual than by breed - all LGD breeds are inclined to bark as a first line of protection. Our older dogs, typically, bark less - I suspect that experience often equals better judgment about what is a threat (and what isn't). When we're working in an area where neighbors are particularly sensitive to barking, we'll try to use an older dog if possible.
Finally, we've discovered that trail cameras can help us educate neighbors (and the public) about the predators in our environment. Last year, we photographed a mountain lion on a well-used community trail about 30 yards from where our ewes were lambing. Nobody in this neighborhood had seen a lion before; suddenly, they were happy to have an alert (and barking) dog nearby!
LGDs are not appropriate in every situation. While they may keep raccoons out of a suburban backyard chicken coop or away from pet pygmy goats, there are generally better options for protecting livestock in suburban settings. As a farm advisor, most of the calls I've received in the last 4-plus years have been about LGDs in these kinds of settings. Predator-proof fencing, night penning, and FoxLights are usually effective in these situations - and less annoying to the neighbors. But in a commercial setting, LGDs may be the best option for protecting livestock - explaining how and why these dogs work is an important part of using them effectively.
An Overview of the California Vegetation Treatment Management (CalVTP) Program
More than 18 months ago, the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved the California Vegetation Management (CalVTP) Final Program Environmental Impact Report (Program EIR). If you're like me, you probably wonder what this alphabet soup of bureaucratic acronyms means – and what it as to do with targeted grazing and fuel-load reduction! The bottom line – the CalVTP is good news for our foothill communities and for the grazers who are working to make us all more fire safe!
Projects that use state funding to manage fuel loads – or that are on state or local government-owned lands – must evaluate the environmental impacts of these activities, under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). As you might imagine, completing a full CEQA analysis (or EIR) of every possible project can present a financial and logistical barrier for project proponents. As the state began to prioritize fuel-load reduction projects through funding from CalFire, the Board of Forestry realized that a streamlined process would be necessary if we were going to treat 250,000-500,000 acres a year (a goal established by Governor Newsom). The CalVTP is the vehicle for this streamlined process!
Overall, the purpose of the CalVTP is to reduce wildfire risk and promote resiliency. To accomplish this task, CalFire hopes to increase the pace and scale of vegetation treatments by streamlining CEQA review. Project proponents (state and local agencies, or the recipients of state funding) can adhere to a set of Standard Project Requirements (SPRs) designed to avoid and minimize environmental impacts and comply with applicable laws and regulations. In other words, a local community or agency can commit to this list of requirements and obtain CEQA coverage (rather than doing a full-blown EIR on its own).
Projects must either be within the “treatable landscape” (defined as land within the State Responsibility Area that is at risk of wildfire), or adjacent to these lands. And the types of projects covered include fuel reduction projects in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), the construction of fuel breaks, and ecological restoration.
Most importantly, however, from a grazing perspective is the fact that the CalVTP (and by extension, the Board of Forestry) recognizes “prescribed herbivory” (a fancy way of saying targeted grazing) as one of five covered treatment activities covered in the environmental analysis. This means that targeted grazing is on equal footing with other fuel-load reduction tools (like prescribed fire, mechanical treatment, manual treatment, and herbicide application). This means that state and local agencies, local communities, and others can receive funding from state grants for targeted grazing projects and know that these activities have CEQA coverage!
Why is this a big deal?! From my experience, it represents an explicit acknowledgment that grazing is an important fuels management tool – that grazing livestock are important beyond the production of food and fiber! The CalVTP puts grazing on a level playing field with these other treatments!
What does this mean for us locally? If you are a targeted grazer, you can help communities, agencies, and organizations develop funding proposals for fuel-load reduction projects. You can assist these organizations in developing the Project Specific Analyses that will ensure coverage under the Program EIR – and there will be funding available for this during the winter of 2021-22. Most importantly, this means more opportunities for partnerships between grazers and communities who want to make our region more fire safe! Sometimes acronyms mean good news!
- Author: Dan Macon
- Author: Laura Snell
- Author: Rachael Stucke
Our ongoing journal about our efforts to bond a livestock guardian dog pup with cattle. Funded by the Rustici Rangeland and Cattle Endowment.
After spending about a week with a handful of rams in Auburn, we scheduled an afternoon to set up a bonding pen at Likely Land and Livestock in Modoc County last week. The pup (named Sam by the ranch!), rode in a crate in the back seat of the pickup. He was unhappy about the crate for about the first 4 miles; after that he slept for most of the 5-hour drive! We stopped twice to stretch our legs and get a drink – which meant he got his first lessons on a leash. He did great! And once we arrived, we tethered him to a fence post while we set up our equipment – lesson number 2 was also a success!
The ranch provided seven small calves for the bonding process. The calves are in a small irrigated pasture grazing and being hand-fed grain. Size-wise, they aren't much larger than the rams that Sam had been with. To make sure Sam stays with the calves, we cut the pasture in half using electro-net fencing (including along the perimeter fence) – the initial bonding pen is about one acre in size. We also built a small 8' x 8' escape pen from wire panels where he can go if he feels threatened by the calves. Upon completing the fencing and pen, we fed Sam and made sure that he saw the calves (and vice versa). And then we left them for the night!
When Rachael Stucke, a UCCE intern, showed up the next morning to feed him, Sam was sleeping in the middle of the calves – a great sign! We still have a long road ahead, but the first steps have all been positive!
During this initial phase, we'll will observe Sam on a regular basis from a distance for evidence of prey drive, submissive behavior towards livestock, and a calm temperament. While some things like chasing stock can be corrected if dealt with sternly and immediately, other things like dominant behavior towards livestock is more difficult to change in a pup. Pups tend to be easily excited when humans are with them, but when observed from a distance he should slowly approach livestock and remain calm unless he is alerted to a predator or unknown animal at their location. The livestock should remain calm, as well.
Specifically, we'll watch for evidence of the following behaviors:
- Prey Drive: this includes stalking behavior, as well as chasing or biting the livestock. If any of us do observe this behavior, we'll correct it by saying “NO” in a gruff voice. As Sam matures, he should not exhibit these behaviors at all.
- Submissive Behavior: Sam will likely be curious but somewhat cautious at first around the cattle. Appropriate submissive behaviors include avoiding eye contact with the cattle, walking (rather than running) when approaching cattle, dropping to the ground or rolling over when near cattle, lowering the head and tail, licking at the mouths of the cattle, and choosing to sleep next to the cattle.
- Calm Temperament: We think we've selected a pup with a calm temperament, but we will to be sure he's not overly aggressive, fearful, shy, or clingy; he should also not be overly excited to see people. We'll watch for him to walk off by himself after greeting us or being fed.
If the cattle are being too rough with him, we will try different cattle. Similarly, if Sam starts being too rough, older cattle may help teach the pup to be submissive and respectful.
After our initial set-up day, Rachael observed that Sam seems to want to be with the calves when there are not people around. He will follow people in his pen, and he will whine briefly when people leave (which are normal behaviors). She also noted that the calves seem to be comfortable around Sam. She did observe some play behavior, which provoked the calves to lunge gently. Sam responded by trotting way from the calves or showing submissive behavior.
Going forward, the ranch will do most of the observation and virtually all of the early care and training. Several times a week, someone will spend 5-10 minutes socializing Sam to humans. They'll rub their hands all over the dog, especially his feet, and place their fingers inside his mouth to check tooth development. They'll also check ears for ticks and infections and brush him if possible.
After the first month, they'll begin teaching basic commands. Sam should know his name and come when he's called (or at least not run off!). He should also know the meaning of “No!” Critically, we'll always make sure any and all positive reinforcement (praise, etc.) is done in an area with livestock!
They'll also continue the leash and tether training I started on our trip to Likely. Leash training should start out slowly (maybe 2-3 minutes at a time) until Sam will walk without pulling away from his handler. Tether training is important in case he ever gets caught in a snare. Tethering is also useful when working cattle or doing other activities where the dog might get in the way.
Teaching Sam to ride in the pick-up truck and stock trailer is also important. Early on, he should learn to ride in the cab of the truck or in a crate. As he grows, he can be taught to ride in the back of a pickup and in a stock trailer.
As with training or bonding with any animal, this won't be a linear process. Some lessons will probably need to be learned several times; other lessons will be solid the first time through. But we're off to a promising start!