- Author: Dan Macon
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!
- 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!
- Author: Dan Macon
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!