- Author: Dan Macon
On to the Next Phase
We've reached a new phase in our effort to learn how to bond a livestock guardian dog with cattle. As we described in previous blog posts, we are learning that we need to bond Sam, our 7-month old LGD puppy, with cattle – and vice versa. The cattle need to be as comfortable with Sam as he is with them – and so we'll be trying Sam in a new setting, with new cattle, after the first of the year.
The ranch we'd been collaborating with was planning to try Sam with a group of bred heifers they're keeping in close to their headquarters (they're due to start calving next month). The heifers, we were thinking, were more curious than older cows, which would hopefully help them accept Sam more readily. For the initial part of this new phase, we planned keep Sam fenced in an electronet paddock in the midst of the heifer field – the heifers would be fed and access water in close proximity, but the electric fence would prevent direct contact initially.
Snow is hard on electronet fencing – the weight knocked down sections of the fence, allowing the calves and Sam to get out into the larger pasture. On the plus side, Sam clearly demonstrated that he preferred being with the calves. While he'd come up to the ranch buildings when there was activity, he always returned to his calves. On the negative side, however, the ranch felt that our plan to keep Sam in electronet fencing in the heifer pasture was not workable with more snow in the forecast. On December 20, I traveled to Likely one last time and retrieved Sam. We'll move on to a new phase of the project!
I should note that Sam traveled well – the ranch trained him to walk on a lead and to be tied out, and he made the 4-hour trip in a dog crate without soiling the crate, crying, or barking.
For the short term, this new phase involves putting Sam with a handful of rams at our home place. He's also with our oldest and best dog, Bodie. We don't typically put a small pup with an older dog (as we want the pup to bond with livestock first). As a pup matures, however, an older dog can help reinforce the importance of respect for the livestock - Bodie has already corrected Sam several times.
While Sam continues to mature physically, he also continues to behave like a puppy on occasion – a puppy who weighs 80 pounds or more! In Likely, Sam demonstrated that he still liked to play with the orphan calves he was pastured with. This behavior included licking and sometimes gently biting their ears and faces, and bounding up to the calves if they were grazing at a distance. While the ranch corrected this behavior when observed, Sam couldn't be observed around the clock. Similarly, he was initially overly enthusiastic about the rams he's with now - so we're trying a tool that I've used on other young dogs that were exuberantly playful.
A dangle stick is a device that hangs from a dog's collar and makes running and jumping uncomfortable. Comprised of a piece of wood, short pipe, or weighted piece of PVC attached to a chain, the dangle stick hits a dog in the mid-leg area, making this activity uncomfortable. This discomfort, which is alleviated when the dog is walking calmly, corrects the unwanted behaviors – in other words, it makes the right behavior easy and the wrong behavior difficult. The dog can correct himself!
When we first attached the dangle stick to Sam's collar, he was annoyed by it – he chewed on the chain. Within several minutes, however, he accepted it and learned how to navigate the pasture with it. Over the last several days, I've watched Sam bound after the rams, only to have the stick knock against his legs. He stopped running and walked up to them calmly – just the effect we were looking for. Sam will wear the dangle stick for several weeks – and then we'll assess his behavior without it. If he reverts to his old puppy habit of running up to the livestock, we'll put it back on.
After the holidays, we'll place Sam on another cattle ranch here in the Sierra Foothills. This new ranch is a bit smaller (both in terms of acreage and livestock), but is having significant coyote issues during calving. We'll work with this new outfit to introduce Sam to the cattle and vice versa – with the hope that Sam and the cattle will eventually accept one another. While Sam still needs to prove himself, we hope that controlling his interaction with the cattle in a new operation will help further his training. I've observed similar challenges in bonding naïve sheep with LGDs – sheep that have been raised to be afraid of dogs don't immediately trust these big white dogs. In my experience, this is where the dog's submissive behaviors are so critical. While play behavior can be excused, aggressive or dominant behavior can't be. We'll be watching Sam for continued submissiveness as he moves into this new environment. We'll also be watching the cattle to see if they begin to accept this big white dog in their pasture. And as always, we'll be monitoring Sam's desire to stay with livestock. Stay tuned!
- Author: Dan Macon
In "A Livestock Guardian Dog by Any Other Name: Similar Response to Wolves Across Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds," authors Dan Kinka of Utah State University and Julie Young of the Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center compare several new (to the United States) breeds of LGDs with the typical American "whitedog" (Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian, Maremma, and crosses of these breeds). Some producers believe that because the American whitedog breeds were initially selected to protect small ruminants from coyotes, they may not be well suited to deterring larger predators (especially gray wolves and grizzly bears). As part of the study, Kinka and Young imported kangals from Turkey, karakachans from Bulgaria, and cao de gado transmontanos from Portugal. These breeds were selected because they were typically used in their home countries to protect livestock from wolves and European brown bears - and they were considered to be human-friendly. The imported dogs were placed with sheep ranchers in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. The whitedogs used by these operations were considered to be a single control breed for the purposes of the study.
The study included direct observation of behavior during normal ranch operations, as well a decoy test designed to simulate mule deer and wolf encounters. Kinka and Young recorded five behavior components (activity, posture, vocalization, proximity to livestock, and out-of-view to the observer). Within these components a number of specific behaviors were documented (like scanning, investigation, vigilance, chasing, etc.).
While the authors noted some subtle differences in behavior and responses to simulated wildlife encounters between breeds, they noted "that kangals, karakachans, transmontanos and whitedogs spent equivalent proportions of time in most behaviors during both baseline sampling and simulated wolf encounters." They also found that LGD age and time of day influenced LGD behavior and that sex had no effect on any behavior - observations I've made with my own LGDs. For example, our LGDs always seem to be much more active and vigilant at dusk than during the middle of the day. Ultimately, the authors suggest, "the homogeneity of behavioral data for multiple LGD breeds suggests that regardless of breed, LGDs operate in much the same way. As such, breed may be a less important predictor of a 'good dog' than often suggested."
So what makes a good dog? Obviously, this definition varies from one operation to the next based on context. In our operation, a good dog needs to stay with our sheep, inside our electro-net fencing. A good dog shouldn't chew on or chase (or kill!) the livestock it is protecting. A good dog should be reasonably friendly with people but prefer the company of sheep. And good dog should deter coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and other minor predators in our environment.
If wolves continue to move south, I suspect my definition of a good dog might evolve. I know ranchers in the northern Rocky Mountains who are using larger dogs (including some of the breeds evaluated in this study). A large-scale targeted grazing contractor who has grazed sheep and goats in wolf territory in Montana and Idaho swears by intact male whitedogs. Last week, I visited a sheep permittee as they turned out onto a Tahoe National Forest grazing allotment approximately 12 miles northeast of where the California Department of Fish and Wildlife detected a GPS-collared wolf in early June. The ranch manager indicated he'd be adding more dogs to each of his two bands of sheep. For those of us in California, wolves are a wild card - our dogs have never had to contend with a large, pack-hunting predator.
While formal research on the behavioral attributes of successful LGDs is critical, we also need to share our on-the-ground experiences! What do you look for in an LGD in your operation? Do you use different dogs for different situations? I suspect each of us will have a slightly different answer to these questions! I hope you'll join in this conversation!
Kinka, D., Young, J.K., A Livestock Guardian Dog by Any Other Name: Similar Response to Wolves Across Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds, (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2018.03.004