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.
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
I realized last weekend that I hadn't posted any updates to my Livestock Guardian Dog journal for some time. Elko, our new pup, is growing quickly - and his behavior is evolving, too. As you might recall, we'd placed Elko in a paddock with an older ewe and several ewe lambs. One of the older ewe lambs had apparently decided Elko was her lamb, which was intimidating for the pup. At the same time, Elko had taken to trying to play with the younger ewe lambs. We decided that we needed to move him - both for his safety and comfort, and to help him understand that he shouldn't play with the sheep. We put him in a smaller paddock with two of our rams, which seemed to help. He's more respectful of the sheep, but the rams don't intimidate him like the ewe lamb did. We'll keep monitoring his behavior - he may go to the ranch to live with our entire ram battery once we separate them from the ewes. We'll also consider putting him with one of the older dogs for a few weeks (with sheep).
On Saturday, I also had a chance to observe some interesting behavior with our older dogs. We combined breeding groups last week, so both dogs are in the same paddock at the moment. Reno, who is approaching 10 years of age, is a neutered Anatolian male. Bodie, who will be 2 early next year, is an intact Anatolian-Maremma cross.
On several occasions in the past, Reno has killed raccoons that come into his paddock. If you've been around raccoons, you'll know that they can be fairly vicious - most dogs give them a wide berth. We always keep an eye on Reno after we find a raccoon to make sure he doesn't develop infections from bites. On Saturday morning after I fed the dogs, they both trotted to the far end of the 3 acre paddock and began barking at something in a small tangle of blackberries. As I approached, I realized that whatever it was they had cornered was snarling and defending itself.
Here's a video of what transpired:
I made several observations:
- Reno is definitely still the alpha dog in this group. He took the lead in investigating and challenging the intruder to the paddock.
- The sheep responded to the alarm raised by the dogs. Whether it was because they didn't like the barking or because they knew the dogs were communicating that there was an intruder, they decided to move away from the commotion.
- Once I decided to move the sheep into a new paddock (to allow the intruder to escape - if you've watched the video, you'll know why), the dogs both decided to stay with the sheep rather than continue to try to get at the intruder. However, both dogs remained focused on the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence).
The literature I've read suggests that livestock guardian dogs may fill the ecological niche typically filled by wild canids in our environment (mostly coyotes in the foothills). The behavior I observed last weekend would fit this hypothesis, I think. Over the course of the next several months, I'll be using game cameras and GPS collars on both sheep and dogs to test this idea further - stay tuned!