I realized this morning that it's been some time (nearly a year, in fact) since I posted an update on my progress with our youngest livestock guardian dog, Elko. In case you missed the first five installments of this journal, Elko is a Pyr x Akbash dog we acquired from Fred Groverman in Petaluma in September 2017. I've been tracking our progress in his development. This weekend marked a significant step in Elko's development.
During the last week of March, I traveled through northeastern California talking about (and more importantly, learning about) protecting livestock from predators. Thanks to a Renewable Resources Extension Act grant, a number of my UC Cooperative Extension colleagues and I were able to bring some folks with experience dealing with wolves and grizzly bears in Wyoming and Montana to share their perspectives with California ranchers. During our formal workshops - and during the 700+ miles we traveled together - I learned a tremendous amount!
George Edwards is the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, a state program that compensates ranchers for losses to wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears. George provided invaluable insights into why a compensation program makes sense - and into the types of tools that ranchers are using in Montana to avoid these losses. He shared this outstanding video about an innovative carcass disposal program in western Montana.
I first met Cat Urbigkit nearly 10 years ago at an American Sheep Industry conference in Reno. I've since had the chance to get to know Cat as a fellow producer and friend. Her experiences using livestock guardian dogs to protect both sheep and cattle from large carnivores - including gray wolves and grizzlies - was especially enlightening.
Now that I've had a few weeks to reflect on what I learned, my own experiences with livestock guardian dogs have come into clearer focus. Cat emphasized that no two dogs are alike - just as no two livestock operations are alike. A dog that will work for Cat in western Wyoming may not be a good fit for me in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada; similarly, my dogs may not work well in Cat's extensive rangeland environment. In other words, a dog "trained" by someone else - that is, bonded with someone else's livestock in their environment - won't necessarily stay with my sheep. I have not been successful in outsourcing the critical bonding period. My dogs have to bond with my sheep.
Livestock guardian dogs, as Cat says, are "dogs of nature." Rather than "training" them, we must give them the opportunity to fully express their own instincts. They should smell, hear, and see the livestock they'll spend their lives protecting from the earliest possible moment. I've written previously that I think this means that my dogs need to bond with my sheep and my system (electric fenced paddocks in the urban-rural interface). I think that's not quite right, however. After visiting with Cat, I think the bond between dog and my sheep is the most critical component. My dogs stay with my sheep because of their bond - not because of my fence. The dogs I used early in my shepherding career roamed because I hadn't allowed them to bond properly, I suspect. And this bonding process has to happen on my operation - a livestock guardian dog "specialist" who isn't also a rancher can't duplicate my specific conditions.
Elko spent last summer with our dry ewes in the company of another LGD, Bodie. When we split our sheep into separate breeding groups in late September, Elko (who was then just over a year old) went with his own group of ewes. About a week into our breeding season, we suspect we lost a ewe in Bodie's group to a coyote attack (in a paddock with low visibility due to vegetation). We put Elko with Bodie at that point, with good results. Bodie, who we know we can trust with lambing ewes, stayed with the ewes through the winter and during lambing. Once we separated the rams from the ewes in mid-November, Elko stayed with the rams until this past Saturday. The rams went home to be shorn; the ewes and lambs went to irrigated pasture - and Elko joined Bodie as part of his "final exam."
Last year, we put Bodie with an older dog at the beginning of lambing season (here's a video link). The older dog, Reno, chased Bodie away from lambing ewes, which helped Bodie understand what was expected of him. By coincidence, our last ewe lambed on Saturday shortly after we put Elko with Bodie and the ewe flock - and I observed Bodie provide similar training. Bodie would not let Elko get too close to the ewe and her new lambs. I suspect that this was at least partly because Bodie wanted to eat the afterbirth; regardless, the result was that Elko learned to respect a lambing ewe's "personal space."
Elko's training is not completed - he's still in the canine equivalent of his late teen years. At the risk of anthropomorphizing our LGDs, I know that I didn't always make the best decisions in my late teen years - we'll keep a close eye on Elko while he's with the lambs and ewes. That said, this weekend he passed a significant test!
A final note on costs - Elko cost us $525.35 to acquire (cost of puppy + mileage). Through Saturday, we've spent $526.44 on vaccinations and dog food.
As you probably know if you've read previous posts on Ranching in the Sierra Foothills, my go-to tool for protecting sheep on our foothill rangeland and irrigated pasture is my livestock guardian dogs. Since we're trying to protect our sheep from carnivores, it makes sense to protect them with a carnivore! The right dog (or dogs) will protect our sheep from stray dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, foxes, and other predators. Check these previous posts to learn more about our livestock guardian dogs:
But livestock guardian dogs are not the only tool available! Some recent research suggests that an ever-changing mix of livestock protection tools may be necessary. Predators can adapt, and so must livestock producers. A 2017 paper in the Journal of Mammalogy tracked the adaptive use of a suite of nonlethal livestock protection tools in Idaho (see Stone et al. 2017, "Adaptive use of nonlethal strategies for minimizing wolf-sheep conflict in Idaho"). Other research acknowledges the difficulty designing experimental studies to analyze the effectiveness of specific tools (see Eklund et al. 2017, "Limited evidence on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce livestock predation by large carnivores").
But formal research isn't the only approach to determining whether a given tool works in a specific environment. On-the-ground use of these tools by ranchers in real-world production settings is invaluable. In my experience, the success or failure of a particular livestock protection tool depends, at least in part, on the paradigm and know-how of the person using the tool. I expect the livestock guardian dogs I've "trained" to work in my environment - and when they don't, I try to learn from my mistakes. My own hands-on experience with these dogs gives me a greater level of comfort in using them in a variety of settings. Similarly, my familiarity with electro-net fencing helps me adapt this tool to our environment.
Recently, a group of colleagues and I received grant funding to put on a series of Livestock Protection Tool Field Days in a number of northern California counties that have been visited by gray wolves (Nevada, Sierra, Plumas, Lassen, Modoc and Siskiyou). These field days will be held in late March 2019 (check the calendar on my website for exact dates - go to https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/). In addition to providing information about using livestock guardian dogs in rangeland environments with both cattle and sheep, these field days will give producers an opportunity to set up and use some additional tools, including electro-net fencing, turbo fladry (an electrified fence with flapping red flags that apparently deters wolves), and FoxLights (a device that emits random flashes of light to mimic a person with a flashlight).
We've also purchased a half-mile of turbo fladry. Sometime in the next month, we'll set up a fladry barrier to familiarize ourselves with setting it up and taking it down. Stay tuned for information on this, as well!
As with any tools, there will be a learning curve for these new techniques. I've built lots of temporary electric fence, but laying out a quarter-mile of poly-wire with red vinyl flags will take a different technique. I'll need to learn to place the wire at the proper height to deter wolves. I'll need to figure out how to re-wind the fladry. As always, I'll track the cost of using these tools, as well. With livestock guardian dogs, the costs include dog food and vet bills. With fladry, the cost will mostly involve my own time.
Finally, I know that I learn best by doing. Reading about a technique or a tool is a helpful introduction, but I need to use these tools in a real-world setting to gain any sense about their effectiveness - and about my willingness to use them. I suspect many of you feel the same way! I hope you'll be able to make one of our field days in March!
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
Now that our Pyrenees x Akbash "puppy" Elko has nearly reached full-size, I have difficulty remembering he's still a puppy - a 120-pound puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. There are signs, however, that his brain is catching up with his body! Here are a few updates and observations.
For much of the winter and spring, Elko has been with our rams (who graze separately from our ewes except for a six-week breeding season). This allows us to keep Elko with livestock without great expectations that he'll need to provide protection - we find that our rams are less susceptible to predators, especially when we graze them at our home place. But this arrangement also gives Elko some sense of what his job will be when he's mature. He definitely seems bonded with sheep - while he's a friendly dog who is enthusiastic about feeding time, he'd prefer to spend his day in the company of ovines rather than humans - critical for a livestock guardian dog in our operation. The rams have also helped teach Elko some manners.
The next step in Elko's education has been to move him with the rams to another location. We typically move dogs with the sheep in the stock trailer; last Sunday, we hauled the rams and Elko to a pasture several miles away. I was encouraged to watch Elko walk the entire perimeter of the new field when we unloaded - that's something our working-age dogs do consistently.
After we wean the lambs in early June, we'll plan to put Elko with the dry ewes and one of our older dogs. Hopefully, the older dog will help Elko continue to learn about how to behave around different classes of sheep (much like our oldest dog, Reno, taught his protégé how to act around lambing ewes this winter). I'll keep you posted!
A final note: we typically have not had to clip our livestock guardian dogs in the summer - they don't seem to get stickers even if they're rough coated, and they seem to handle the summer heat just fine. Elko's coat is different, however; we'll likely give him a haircut before the end of the month.
Since I haven't posted an update to my Livestock Guardian Dog Journal for four months, I thought an update on this project might be timely! We've been training a new dog to work during lambing (with some interesting observations about behavior). We've trained the new dog to respect 3-wire temporary fencing (as opposed to electro-net). And we've been collecting GPS and trail camera data on predator interactions. Lots to report!
GPS Collaring / Remote Sensing Project
We have been putting GPS sensors on two livestock guardian dogs that are with a flock of 82 sheep (bred ewes and open yearling ewes) west of Auburn. One of these dogs is a 10-year-old Anatolian shepherd neutered male; the other is a 2-year-old Anatolian x Maremma intact male. These collars record location every 5 minutes. We've also deployed seven trail cameras on the parameter of the sheep paddock to document wildlife, domestic animal and human activity in the proximity of the sheep. Our hope is that when we compare the time stamp on photos with the GPS locations of the dogs, we'll begin to understand what kinds of interactions the dogs have with predators and non-predators.
The habitat where the sheep are grazing is foothill oak woodland and open grassland. To date, the cameras have detected coyotes, foxes, deer, jackrabbits, skunks, raccoons, owls, and small birds - along with domestic dogs, walking/jogging/cycling humans and horseback riders. We're in the process of going through the GPS data to determine what the dogs were doing when these animals and people showed up in the cameras. Here are a few of the most interesting photos:
Learning to be a Lambing Dog
Our oldest dog, Reno, has been an outstanding dog at lambing. He keeps his distance from lambing ewes, is very patient with rambunctious lambs, and keeps afterbirth cleaned up (which can attract scavengers and predators). Since he's ten years old, we decided we need to try 2-year-old Bodie with the lambing ewes this year. We also hoped that Reno would teach him manners and respect - Bodie is still a bit immature behaviorally.
Our first lamb was born on February 22, and I was fortunate to arrive shortly after the birth. As has been typical, Reno was lying about 20 yards away from the ewe and lamb. Bodie met me at the pasture fence well away from them. After I had been there about 10 minutes watching the new lamb, Bodie joined us. I shot video of his interaction with the ewe and with Reno - you can view it at this link:
Training a New Lambing Dog (YouTube)
I suspect that some of Reno's protectiveness has to do with his love for eating afterbirth! That said, in the weeks since this interaction, Reno has enforced Bodie's respect for the sheep even when there isn't afterbirth available. And Bodie seems to have matured. He's more respectful of the sheep, less rambuctious in his behavior, and a better guardian dog in general.
Developing an LGD Puppy
Finally, an update on the Pyrenees x Akbash puppy we picked up in September. Elko is going to be a big dog - he's already as big as Bodie. Since pulling the rams from the flock in November, Elko has been with the rams learning manners. For several months, we kept him with Reno (which also helped on the manners front). Since we moved Reno to the lambing flock, Elko has been on his own. He's still definitely a puppy - we're not expecting him to provide much protection at this point, but he is learning to stay with his sheep.
Several weeks ago, we tried an experiment using a different type of fencing. We have found that most of our dogs will stay in 42-inch electro-net. However, we wanted to try training the sheep (and the dogs) to 3-strand poly-wire fencing. I installed a short stretch of fence at our home place and have watched Elko check it out and decide to stay on the proper side. Success!
Here's a relatively recent photo of Elko:
Stay tuned for more information on these topics! And just a note: last week, Reno became lame on a back leg. Our small animal veterinarian thinks he probably tore his ACL. At the moment, he's recuperating in the barn and watching over a trio of very annoying bottle lambs. Given the seriousness of his injury, he's probably permanently retired. He's been a great dog!