- 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!
- Author: Dan Macon
- Author: Carolyn Whitesell
Along with several of my UCCE colleagues, I received a small grant from the Rustici Rangeland and Cattle Endowment at UC Davis to demonstrate how to bond a LGD with cattle. Earlier this month, Likely Land and Livestock in Modoc County offered to collaborate with us - and this week, we found a pup! Next week, I'll deliver the dog and all of the necessary bonding "equipment" to Likely!
The bonding process is critical to the success of any LGD. When pups are 8-20 weeks of age, their brains are especially receptive to forming social bonds - if you've had a pet dog, you'll know that this period is when we try to socialize the pup by exposing it to all sorts of situations and people. With a LGD pup, this period is crucial for creating a bond between dog and livestock. Having used LGDs in my own sheep operation for 15 years, I seem to learn something new every time I start a pup.
Part of this bonding process involves my own behavior. I'm a sucker for puppies, so it takes a real effort on my part not to over-socialize with these cute white fuzzballs. Since these dogs need to spend their lives living with and protecting livestock, we need them to prefer the company of livestock to humans. And my early interactions with a pup are an important part of this process. I should be a source of food and health care, but not the kind of affection we typically show to a puppy - in other words, I need to be somewhat aloof.
Bonding also requires the right kind of physical set up. I want to create an environment where the pup has to interact with livestock. While a successfully bonded dog won't want to escape, a young puppy naturally wants to respond to all external stimuli. Since we use electro-net fencing with our sheep, I usually put the pup with a handful of mature sheep (ewes or rams) inside of electric fence. Typically, the pup learns quickly that the fence has a pop to it - and that life is good when it stays close to the sheep (who already know about the fence).
On Wednesday, my colleague Carolyn Whitesell, the human-wildlife interactions advisor with UCCE in the Bay Area, picked up our pup from a goat producer near Tracy. Since we couldn't get to Likely until next week, we decided to put the pup with a handful of rams at my home place - the pup had been reared with goats, so we thought the rams would be a good option.
As soon as the puppy was left with the rams, he promptly decided that he could get through the bottom section of the electro-net - even though he got shocked. But imagine all of this from the pup's point of view. In one day, he was separated from his siblings and mother, had his first experience in a dog crate and in a moving vehicle, only to arrive at another farm where there were sheep, chickens, horses, mules, and other dogs. I suspect he was a little overwhelmed! We needed to get a little creative.
While all of this was happening, I was on the east side of the Sierra crest, collecting data for another project. Sami came up with a potential solution—why not put up some electrified poultry netting (which has a smaller grid pattern) along the section of electro-net fencing where the pup had been escaping? She put the puppy in our kennel while she set up the poultry netting and then placed the puppy back with the rams. Problem solved! Even though he could have still scooted through other sections of the paddock fence, he now thought he had to stay with the rams. And stay he did!
By the time I got home that evening, the pup had decided he liked the rams. I watched him lick their faces and roll onto his back in front of them (signs of appropriate submissiveness). The next morning, at feeding time, he decided he needed to be in the scrum at the hay bunk (signs of appropriate attentiveness).
The next test will be to take the poultry netting down and make sure he'd still prefer to be with his livestock even without this physical barrier. If he passes this test, I'll be comfortable putting him with calves inside an electro-net paddock next week! Stay tuned!
Every rancher dreads getting that phone call - "Your cows [sheep, goats, etc.] are out." And anyone who relies on fences to keep livestock contained has probably received that call at some point. Fences fail, gates are left open, somebody forgets to hook up the electric fence energizer. Whenever I get that call, I drop everything else and take care of getting our sheep back where they belong. Getting our livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) back in the sheep paddock can sometimes be more problematic!
Over the years, I've come to realize the importance of a well-bonded LGD. Even if our sheep escape, a well-bonded dog will stay with them - and will often come back with the flock when we herd them back to the paddock. But sometimes, a dog will get out of our fences to chase off a predator. Sometimes a dog will simply decide to explore the neighborhood. Sometimes a dog will slip a collar or scoot through a gate when we're moving the sheep.
LGDs can get into trouble when this happens. One of our earlier dogs, Reno, loved chicken dinners - woe to the free-range chickens that might be nearby. He also disliked outdoor cats immensely (and often to their detriment). And so on the occasions that he got out of the sheep paddock, I was often in a hurry to catch him and keep him out of trouble. I'd call to him and follow him around, trying to catch him by the collar. The more I called (often increasingly frantically), the more he'd run away from me. I joked that if he'd had five toes on a front paw, he would have flipped me off!
I discovered, however, almost by accident, that he would generally come back if I ignored him. One afternoon, he escaped and took off across the ranch. I went about fixing fence and checking sheep, and within five minutes, he was back and wanted to be back with his sheep. I've subsequently experienced the same thing with other dogs.
This morning, I got that call - "Your sheep are out." When I arrived, I found most of the sheep grazing in a neighbor's pasture - and spotted Dillon the LGD gallivanting across the far side of the pasture, perhaps a quarter-mile away. I focused on getting the sheep back into their paddock, and before I finished Dillon returned and allowed himself to be herded along with the sheep. A few minutes later, I found several straggler sheep outside another section of fence. As my border collie brought them back, I opened the electronet for them - allowing Dillon to escape again. Once again, I ignored him - and within minutes he walked up to me so I could catch his collar.
This kind of behavior, I think, is related to the bonding process that we use. I want my LGDs to know how to ride in the truck, to accept being walked on a leash or tied out on a chain while we're working sheep. But I most want them to want to be with their sheep in all circumstances. Teaching a livestock guardian dog to come when I call (or other obedience training, for that matter) seems to require a bond with me rather than with the livestock. A dog that sits, stays, and comes when I call, might prefer to be with me rather than with my sheep. Working LGDs are not pets, and so we have to meet them on their terms when we need them to guard livestock. Figuring this out has made catching the occasional wayward dog much less stressful!
As I've written numerous times, research into the efficacy of livestock protection tools, including livestock guardian dogs, is difficult (if not impossible). The traditional model for scientific inquiry - that of comparing a treatment to a control - is extremely challenging when it comes to livestock protection tools. Fundamentally, nobody wants to be part of the control group (that is, nobody wants to leave a group of livestock unprotected to see if the treatment works!). Further challenges arise when we begin thinking about other variables - questions like the specific environment, the predators in that environment, the dietary preferences of those predators, the surrounding land uses, and so on.
Yet these challenges don't mean that we shouldn't try to shed light on questions about where specific livestock protection tools may work, or where they may fail. I like the idea of doing case studies - real world examples of the success or failure of these tools. In my mind, a useful case study would objectively describe as many of the site- and operation-specific details as possible. Case studies could take into account that many real-world management systems employ multiple tools. And case studies could be important whether or not a particular approach successfully prevented predator losses - sometimes we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The following account, then, is my first attempt at writing one of these case studies.
Flying Mule Sheep Company grazes approximately 100 head of sheep on foothill annual rangeland west of Auburn, California, from mid-December through early April. The flock is comprised of bred ewes (approximately 80 head) and replacement yearling ewes (approximately 20 head). The grazed landscape is a large-lot subdivision (20-40 acre lots). Individual parcels are connected via paved and unpaved private roads and Nevada Irrigation District canals. Many residences have domestic dogs; some have horses and donkeys. Vegetation in the grazed landscape includes open grasslands, blue/live oak savanna, blue/live oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Surrounding land uses include grazing land (cattle, sheep, and goats) and a large regional park (mostly wildland).
Twelve game cameras were placed throughout the grazed landscape in late December. Cameras were placed adjacent to game trails, roads, and canals to help determine the species of wildlife present and the frequency of camera "capture" in relationship to the proximity of livestock guardian dogs and sheep. In order of prevalence in game cameras from late December through early April, I noted coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and a single mountain lion (in the evening on March 1, 2020). Other wildlife caught on camera included deer, raccoons, skunks, jackrabbits, and turkeys.
During the graze period (December 15, 2019 through April 6, 2020), we had no predator losses. In early February, I found a buck that was likely killed by a mountain lion. On the night that we documented the mountain lion in a game camera (March 1), the flock was in a 13-acre paddock, the boundary of which was about 30 yards away from the camera location. On that date, there were 47 lambs with the ewes (between the ages of 1 day and 11 days). The sheep had been moved into this paddock on the morning of March 1. We lost three lambs during the time the sheep were in that paddock due to starvation or mis-mothering.
From a purely scientific standpoint, I cannot say that the dogs and electric fence prevented predation. While the cameras clearly demonstrated that we had predators in the vicinity of the sheep, I don't know that these specific predators would have killed sheep (rather than wildlife prey) if they'd had the opportunity. I don't know if these predators took livestock from unprotected herds/flocks during the same time period. That said, I can conclude that I feel much safer having dogs with the sheep in this landscape! I can also conclude that the mountain lion I caught in my camera has probably seem me more than I've seen it!
Like any livestock management tool, livestock guardian dogs come with both costs and (hopefully) benefits. Some of these are easily calculated - for example, through today, we've spent $624.70 on dog food and veterinary costs related to our livestock guardian dogs this year. We currently have 3 dogs (Bodie, a 3-year-old I purchased as a pup for $350; Elko, a 2-year-old given to me as a pup; and Dillon, a 9-month-old pup purchased for $500). Some of the costs and benefits are less easily calculated, however; how do I know how many sheep didn't die because we had dogs with them? What is the value of my own peace of mind? A recent paper by Dr. Ellen Bruno (Cooperative Extension specialist in agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley) and Dr. Tina Saitone (CE specialist in agriculture and resource economics at UC Davis) sheds new light on these questions. Read the complete paper here.
Using data from the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, Bruno and Saitone estimated that dogs reduced lambs lost to coyotes by 43% each year; ewe losses were reduced by 25%. The authors calculated the present value of these prevented deaths over the 7-year useful life of the dogs to be $16,200 (present value calculations were based on the market value of the lambs as well as the value of running-age ewes). Their model was based on using one dog per 100 ewes (more on this below).
On the cost side, the authors included initial purchase of pups, dog food (and labor associated with feeding the dogs), veterinary costs, and dog replacement costs. Labor costs, as they note, are largely dependent on the type of production system - Hopland's labor costs are probably much higher than the typical commercial operation. Using net present value analysis, Bruno and Saitone found that the costs of Hopland's livestock guardian dogs exceeded the benefits (in the value of lambs and ewes not killed by predators) by $13,412 over the seven-year analysis period. In other words, the dogs didn't pay their own way.
Bruno and Saitone offer several important caveats when interpreting these results. First, many ranchers report that dogs eliminate predation entirely (which has been our own experience). If this had been the case at Hopland, the benefits would have exceeded the costs of using dogs by over $12,000. Second, labor-related expenses associated with dogs can be difficult to quantify. In our operation, feeding the dogs is part of our daily check of fences and sheep - we see the sheep every day whether we have dogs with them or not. We charge about 5 minutes per day to feeding 3 dogs - even if I pay myself $20 per hour for this work, our "dog" labor amounts to $371 per dog annually. Hopland, on the other hand, reported labor costs of nearly $1,600 per dog per year. Finally, the authors note that lamb and ewe prices may (and usually do) change from one year to the next - and sometimes dramatically. Sheep values can alter the cost:benefit ratio.
Skeptics might wonder, "Even if you use dogs, if you're not experiencing any predator losses, maybe there aren't any predators around." My ongoing research into livestock guardian dog behavior suggests that there are ALWAYS predators around where small ruminants are grazing (whether on rangeland or irrigated pasture). Using trail cameras, we frequently "capture" coyotes, foxes, and bobcats within 10-15 feet of our sheep paddocks. Interviews with sheep- and goatherders working in the Sierra Nevada indicate that coyotes are heard - and often seen - every night near sheep and goat bed grounds. Though we see them less frequently, we know there are mountain lions and black bears in the vicinity of these operations. The predators are there - the dogs must be at least partly responsible for the lack of predator losses!
As I've written previously, the number of dogs used by producers can vary greatly - from one producer to the next, and from one season to the next on the same operation (see How Many Dogs?). One of the bands of sheep I'm observing near Truckee is guarded by a single dog (band is roughly 1,000 ewes - this scenario is significantly more cost effective than the 1 dog per 100 ewes ratio used in Bruno and Saitone's model). This ratio works because the band is comprised of mature ewes without lambs - and because the predators have plenty of other prey at this time of year. Once this band moves back to Los Banos to lamb on alfalfa stubble later this fall, the dog-to-sheep ratio will increase.
In my experience, peace of mind for the shepherd (or goatherd) can be a significant (if qualitative) benefit. My friends Brad Fowler and Nathan Medlar recently started a targeted grazing project at Squaw Valley Ski Resort north of Lake Tahoe (see Watching Other Dogs). They started the project without livestock guardian dogs (mostly to avoid conflicts with recreationists). They are herding the goats on the ski slopes during the day and penning them at night near their camp (a tent on the side of the mountain). Brad reported that neither they nor the goats slept at all on the first night - the coyotes kept the goats stirred up even though they were protected by electric fence. Brad and Nathan added two dogs on the second day - which relaxed the goats (and the goatherds). Brad reported both herders and livestock slept soundly on the second night.
Finally, research at the U.S. Sheep Center in Dubois, Idaho, found "that ewes grazing with accompanying LGD will travel greater daily distances compared with ewes grazing without LGD accompaniment. As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities." See Webber et al. 2015 for the complete study. To me, this suggests that dogs may make our grazing operations more efficient - allowing us to access forage that would otherwise not get grazed by unprotected livestock. This increased grazing efficiency can reduce our supplemental feed costs.
From my perspective, perhaps the most important part of Bruno and Saitone's work comes at the end of the paper:
"Sheep producers who are considering the purchase of LGDs, or those who already have LGDs and are interested in their return on investment, need a few pieces of data to make this determination. Market lamb and ewe prices are typically well known to producers and can be used, in conjunction with efficacy rates from this study, to estimate the benefits of LGDs.
"On the cost side, producers would need to make some logical forecasts about the time required to maintain LGDs, given their operation specifics.... Also, using guidance from the literature included herein, producers could calculate the likely dog cull and mortality costs of the LGD's useful life."
Ultimately, the success of any livestock protection tool (including lethal control) is highly variable depending on operator characteristics and environmental conditions. Dogs work in our operation because we see the sheep every day and because they are our only option for protecting lambing ewes (we lamb on pasture without access to a lambing shed). Dogs work for the range outfit on the Tahoe National Forest as well; human presence, the vigilance of the dogs, and the stage of production during their time in the mountains virtually eliminates predator losses. And dogs work for the targeted grazing outfits I work with in the foothills and mountains; peace of mind and lack of predator losses justify the costs of keeping dogs in these operations, too.