Monday, 15 May 2017

Cows/Calves and of course the sarplaninac dogs

 There are a number of points that need to be considered before you place a LGD in with the herd:

  • Most cattle ranchers have no history or experience in integrating LGD into their herds, many do not even try, dismissing it as “impossible”.
  • On very large herds that graze thousands of acres of public land the challenges are vastly different than the smaller herds that remain on the home farm. 
  •  The management system used to raise cattle can influence how well a dog will work.
  • The type of fencing used for cattle, is traditionally 4 strand barb wire, and that, is not really a fence that can contain a LGD. 
  •  Are the cattle grazed on your own land or public lands?
  • Are different herds of cattle integrated together during the grazing season?
  • Can public access the areas that the cattle graze?
  • What other strategies are incorporated in predator management practices?

Livestock guardian dogs work the best where the livestock are contained/grouped/bunched in some manner. Containment does not only mean behind a fence, but in many areas will include flocks or herds that are shepherded /gathered together.
They work best in a well established pack and are highly socialized with the animals that are to be guarded.
Supervision and guidance of the dogs is a key element for the success of utilization LGD.  

The most vulnerable time for cattle is during calving time and the period that the calves stay with their mothers until weaning. The majority of mature cattle can fend pretty well for themselves. The group of cattle that suffer the most depredation, are calves to yearlings. With heifers losing their first calves easier to predators than mature cows. 

There are so many different ways to raising cattle that there really is not simply one system or way to integrate a LGD. What we have found to be successful is due in part  the way we raise our livestock guardian dogs and how we manage our cattle during the calving season.

Our system of raising cattle lends itself very well for the use of LGD. 
Our ranch is in the Northern part of Alberta, Canada and we have all the large predators; bear, cougar, wolf and coyote. We regularly see these predators on and around our ranch. Our ranch is partly open and has a lot of bush and forest. We are close to a National park and are surrounded by forest. We have a herd of 80 black and red Angus cattle in combination with a breeding flock of ewes, and raising feeder lambs.

We calve the cows in April and May, in June we take the cows and their calves to pasture. This is to land we rent and is away from our home ranch.
 The cows graze from June to end of October on these pastures and then before the snow starts in winter. Our cattle return home after the grazing season in fall, and are fed on large wooded pastures around our ranch. The calves are weaned and sold in fall, only the replacement breeding heifers stay on the ranch. They are usually kept closer to the barn area and are fed and supplemented extra grain over the winter. The bulls are removed from the main herd and are pastured together with the breeding rams. The cow herd, are kept on fields we want to reseed in spring and by feeding them on this area over the winter we can ensure more manure and organic matter on that field.
The cattle are in three different management groups over the winter. 
As soon as the cows return home after the grazing season, we will normally place 2 to 3 adult LGD in with the main herd. These cows live with these dogs the entire winter.
Most of our cattle, have grown up with LGD and are comfortable with them. 

When the cows start to calve, the mother cows become super vigilant and can be very aggressive to the dogs, which is why we only have adult and experienced dogs in with the cattle during calving. These dogs need to know to how to avoid a very aggressive cow, how to check up on the calves without being too intrusive and not become intimidated by the cows.

The dogs will often check up on a newborn calf without getting too close and upsetting the cow. They will do a slow walk past any newborn and remain at a respectful distance. After a few weeks the mother cows relax more, and we often find the dog babysitting a group of calves while the mothers go off and graze, drink or eat grain. These dogs stay with the cow herd until all calving is done.

So, how do we get the LGD to this stage?
I believe that the dogs do not form as tight a bond with the herd as they do with the sheep. . I have found our dogs  really enjoy being with the cattle. The dogs do form  individual relationships with specific cows. The dogs  are perhaps a little more territorial  rather than being herd protective.
The dogs ensure that predators stay out of this area.

This is how we raise our pups to ensure they become reliable adults with both the cattle and the sheep.
The pups are born in the barn, are raised with sheep and are never ever away from any livestock. The pups can see some cattle through a fence, but are protected from them. We are really careful to ensure that no pup gets hurt by the livestock, pain and fear are not good for the bonding process. A pup that is fearful of the stock will not make a good LGD. They grow up seeing cows, sheep and horses.

 Up until about 4-5 months old, the pups live with the sheep. Once the young dogs is around 4-5 months old he is placed in the bull and ram group. The bulls are steady and calm, they will generally not mess with a young dog. The rams are in this same area so the dog has both cattle and sheep to bond with. We also keep some horses in this area.

This “bonding” period is the period that the young LGD learns to “read” and understand the behavior of the livestock. It is the time when it learns to get out of the way, to understand a head toss, or the butting behavior of the sheep. They learn to be attentive of the livestock and their behavior. It is also the time we teach the young LGD to respect fences, to tie, walk on a lead, and other basic handling. We never remove the young LGD from the stock but we do pay attention that the LGD does not show any undesirable behavior. Supervision is key. We do not micromanage the young dog as it really does need the time to be with the livestock. We will often place the young LGD together with a good, steady adult dog so that good behavior is modelled. This older dog will bark at threats, patrol and generally show the young dog what is expected of him.  In this pasture we will set up a few cattle panels in the corner of the field. This is the safe place for the young dog. The dog can go through the panels, and the cattle cannot get into this area. This “safe place” is a place for the young dog to be able to rest, eat and sleep. The dog can chose to go and sleep in this area or it can chose to sleep out with the cattle and sheep. The safe place is primarily for the young dog to have a place where he can eat and sleep unhindered. I have found that a pup only uses this area for the first few days until it is comfortable with the stock, and then only for feeding time.

The young dog will remain with this group for a number of months, after which we will often move the young dog and the older dog, to the heifer group. The heifers behave totally different to the bulls. They are more curious, run and buck, are more energetic and will often seek out the dogs for some interactions. 

Our goal here, is just for the young dog to learn to deal with all types of livestock, not to get excited when the heifer's are playful. The dog is physically stronger and quicker and can generally get out of the way of these young cattle. It is also an ideal time for the heifers to grow accustomed to the dogs, and be comfortable with them. This is also the time for the heifers to have a reminder that the dogs are not to be feared. Our cattle graze away from our ranch for the whole summer, so once they leave the ranch, they do not see any of the LGD for 3-4 months. The last time these heifers saw a LGD was when they were baby calves. The heifers and the young dogs often form quite strong bonds.

The heifers are later integrated back into the cow herd, once the herd heads off to pasture. We will usually only allow a 2 year old dog in with the calving cows, this is when the dog has mentally matured, physically matured and knows the routine. It is also old enough, to handle any possible predators it may encounter. The young dog always has back up of a few older adults in this time. If the dog is too young, or mentally not ready to deal with the mother cows being super aggressive towards them, this can really intimidate the dog. The older dogs can better deal with a wild, aggressive cow than a younger dog. Our older dogs understand the need to give the cow with a newborn calf space, not interfere and not to rush in to sniff or lick the calf.

The initial bonding period to all the different livestock, and horses ensures that the pups grow up well rounded, they understand the different behavior patterns of the different livestock.  We will often find the dog laying with a weak calf, or watching over one that is sleeping in the bush. Some of our dogs do try and break up any bull fights. The cows soon learn to trust the dogs babysitting the calves.

I believe the important part of integrating a livestock guardian dog with cattle is to have initially quiet, non-aggressive cattle for the young dog to bond with and learn to “read” the behavior of the stock. As the dog matures, he is then introduced to cattle who are more playful, and curious. The dog needs to be calm enough not to chase any of the cattle through fences or upset them. The dogs must remain calm and steady. Only when the dogs is mentally and physically mature do we allow them to go in with the cows who are calving.

Introducing new bulls is usually a stressful situation as these bulls fight and push and shove. It is good for the young dogs to learn this behavior and as our dogs they will often intervene and try to separate bulls who are fighting.



Thursday, 27 April 2017

Upcoming seminar

Jess and I, are off to Williams Lake ,BC for a seminar on Wildlife Interactions,
primarily on non lethal methods to mitigate conflicts between predators and livestock.
It should be fun and I am super excited to meet Joe and Sadie again.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Our Calf Catcher

We have great cows,
but occasionally one will be overcome with the "crazy momma cow syndrome", and she will do everything in her power to stop you touching her calf.

These antics keep you on your toes,  sometimes it entails diving behind a tree, or playing
 ring-a-rosies around a bale or even, if the tractor is handy, diving under to avoid being stomped on.
All good fun, until the day you get caught.

So, Eric ( he is an insurance agent) decided instead of doing disability insurance on me, he decided that a calf catcher would be the solution, as most of the time it is just me alone working with these new born calves and dealing with their moms.

The calf catcher is designed to catch the calf, contain it, so that you can safely work on the calf (tagging, vaccinating, castrating etc) without momma trying to kill you.

So, here are some pictures and videos to highlight how it works. This is our first design, and having used it a few times, I can see where a few improvements can be made. 

The front end.
The gate opens in the front and you can guide the calf in. Once the calf is in, stomp on the brakes and close the door.

 The gate works best with newborn calves, the quad just  chases older speedier calves away. As we tag within 2 days this works pretty well.

The other side.

The back side has a release gate. So, once you have done all you need to do with the calf, you can
"eject" him out the back, and he can go back to his momma.

This is the gate at the back that flaps open to release the baby beast.

The"box" area. Onece the calf is inside the catcher, you can place him in this back are to help confine him while you tag or vaccinate. It is also super handy if you need to transport baby and the mom. If the calf is in this box, the mom can see, hear and smell the baby and as you slowly drive off she will follow. We moved a cow and calf this way a quart mile from the calving pasture to the barn.

From the quad, you can step directly into the catch are, keeping you safe from the mom.

Here are a few video clips that Eric took of us using the catcher.




Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Calving time

It was a beautiful spring day, sun shining and most of the snow gone.
It was a lovely day to head outside and get some photo's taken.
This past winter I have not had much desire to take photo's but today I felt like it again.

The cows are calving, and cute calves are always fun to take pictures of.

Vuk has calving duty. He is amazing around the cows and knows how to calm a mad momma cow. He is calm and respectful and yet very watchful.
He takes no unwarranted chasing by the cows.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Part 2: Looking for the good signs

In last month’s article, I wrote about the behaviour of a “naughty” dog, I touched on what motivates the dog and listed some warning signs to watch out for. 

Remember, a warning sign is indicative to what is going on in his mind, sometimes a sharp “no” is enough to convince the dog that he should change his behaviour. To be successful in correcting a dog, the dog must be caught “in the act” but preferably, a warning before he acts. The signs are subtle, it could be the start of a “play bow”, or a hard stare, or a short quick movement directed at the stock. Correcting at that moment, will do wonders in stopping the immature dog’s behaviour. He will think you are a mind reader, and that is exactly what you want him to think! 

To get that timely correction, you must be able to observe and supervise the young dog. If he is stuck on the “back forty” with no supervision, you will have no influence on his behaviour and will be unable to correct unwanted behaviour. Adolescent dogs are best kept in a pasture with livestock that can be seen and monitored by you. Remember, your stock will give you indications if the dog is being trustworthy or not. 

Every time the dog gets to play and chase, it reinforces his desire to do so, it becomes harder and harder to correct. If you come to the pasture and see that he has rough housed your stock, the first thing to do is to tether or place him on a zipline, kennel him or remove him from that pasture. He needs to be stopped immediately and prevented from reinforcing his own behaviour. By removing him from the livestock, you know that he cannot get into any more trouble and the stock is safe.  Once he is on lockdown, you can form a plan of action on how to move forward. Most young dogs can be corrected for naughty behaviour, and many go on to became fantastic guardian dogs. 

I like to “change things up” with a naughty adolescent dog. This means change the dog’s life completely; moving him to a different pasture, or give him a larger area to work in, or place him in with another type of livestock, place him with a grumpy older dog, or a bigger flock, or on a zipline, or even for a while in the barn.  This change in environment, will take him out of his comfort zone and will force a change of behaviour and attitude.  This change can be like a reset for him. We have multiple groups and livestock in various pastures. We have a bull pen, a draft horse pen, a ram pen, we have various pastures adjoining where the flock grazes, we can place a dog with the cows or even in the barn where we always have some livestock inside.

All these animals are used to dogs and not easily intimidated by them. My favorite spot for the adolescent dog who needs a lesson in humility, is in the bull, ram, and stud horse pasture.  These animals do not run, play, and bounce away from a dog, they do very little to encourage play behaviour and are big and strong enough to stand up to a young foolish dog.

As we are a “hands on” operation (meaning we touch and handle) our dogs, I will also expect/demand more compliance from a naughty dog. I will be stricter on everything I do with him. I require him to wait calmly while I set his food down, I will reinforce that more. If I need to open a gate, and do not want him to dive out of the gate, I will be strict on him backing off and only be allowed through the gate when invited. He will need to move around in calm manner. If he comes to greet me, he had better do it with respect and have a quiet approach. There will be no “holding” my hand in his mouth, or bumping into me, or super excited behaviour.  I normally reinforce this type of behaviour in a younger pup, but I will be stricter in enforcing calm and respectful behaviour with a naughty adolescent. 
So, being vigilant to warning signs, and acting directly, is perhaps the biggest factor to preventing unwanted behaviour. 

Changing things around, and preventing a continuation of bad behaviour for an extended time, supervision, demanding calm behaviour and, a timely correction do wonders to the attitude of a young naughty dog.

Looking for the good signs is also very important, they too reflect what is going on in the mind of the young dog. Good signs will tell you about the trustworthiness of the dog and its attentiveness to the livestock:

Some signs to watch out for are:
Calmness around the stock

A quiet demeanor, (head low, tail low)

Treading lightly around the stock (I wrote a blog about this and you can see it here:

Moving out of the way of the stock
soft eyes
Looking away ( so glancing away, to not intimidate the stock)

A lower tail carriage, with a soft slow wag when meeting or greeting a sheep
Ear carriage is relaxed
Laying next to the stock without being intrusive in the space of the stock

Butt sniffing and licking, 
some ear licking, as long as it is cleaning and not obsessive

Walking around the stock rather than barging through

Content and comfortable to hang out with the stock, stock is content and comfortable with the dog

“Reading stock”, if the sheep are uncomfortable with the dog too close, the dog will move away, or turn its back and give the sheep more space.

Following the stock out while grazing

Happy to return back to the stock, greets the sheep

 The dog and sheep have a trust relationship

Some dogs really value their own personal space and may not be super tight with the sheep and yet, are still attentive and trustworthy. Some sheep also prefer more space from the dog than others. All of them are individuals. A dog who has a bigger personal bubble, will simply give the sheep more space, he will still show all the good signs. A trustworthy and attentive dog does not necessarily have to be all cozy and snuggled up with the stock. 

The role the stock play in the development of the young dog, is also important to consider. I have seen rams trying to mount a dog, I have seen: some goats that will butt a young dog continuously, bouncy lambs and kids may encourage a dog who has more chase tendencies, flapping chickens are irresistible to some dogs and young dogs being bullied away from their food can all result in the dog showing inappropriate behaviour.
A young dog who is bullied away from his food might learn to lunge and bite the stock, a pup getting hurt by goats might become fearful and want to escape the pasture.  

Careful consideration of the age of the dog, its temperament and the type of livestock can play an important role in preventing problems. I am all for preventing potential problems before they start, and that requires me to be flexible in my approach and a willingness to facilitate the young livestock guardian dog during its journey to becoming a reliable adult.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Part 1: Warning signs, play behaviour, hunting sequences and the young LGD

This article appeared in the Shepherds Magazine

©Louise Liebenberg 2017

Let me paint a picture for you; the owner walks outside to go and check on the livestock, do chores, feed, and water.  As the owner approaches the area where the livestock and their now adolescent LGD reside, the owner see’s that the livestock have tufts of wool pulled out, the ear of a sheep is bloody, the stock is standing tightly in the corner of the pasture and are they are panting. Further away, the LGD is standing guard over one animal.  The owner looks around and immediately thinks that perhaps coyotes paid the flock a visit. The LGD comes up to meet him, the dog is a little excited but nothing really concerning. The owner is concerned for his flock, and while checking the animals over is somewhat relieved that at least the young dog was “guarding” or protecting the one animal further away. Except for the bloody ear and the few tufts of wool, everything is okay. 

A few days later, the owner once again notices the dog sort of “herding” the sheep together. Nothing concerning, just an observation. The owner wonders if the dog is herding the sheep to keep them safe.
A day later, the owner catches the young dog standing over the same individual animal, the sheep is separated from the others, is not hurt, but is wet from slobber from the dog. Another few days’ pass, and the owner comes to the livestock and see’s that all the wool has been plucked off that animal, it has scratch and bite marks, the sheep is badly hurt.  

The owner is in total disbelief as this dog has been so good, and why now, is the dog suddenly harassing the animals it is supposed to protect? Is the dog ruined for life? What is happening?

The scenario I have sketched has many variations, however most of what I have described are typical of a young adolescent dog harassing the livestock.  

Understanding this behaviour and, learning what the warning signs are, may help you stop this behaviour before it escalates and the dog becomes a stock killer. Just this past week, I spoke with someone who had a similar build up of events, the result was dead livestock, and the dog being shot. A tragedy that could have been prevented had the owner been more aware of what was going on.

Most LGD pups show excellent behaviour around the livestock; they sleep with the stock, are respectful and the young pup seems to be bonding well to the animals it will guard in the future. The owner is thinking that they have hit the jackpot regarding LGD, until the above scenario starts to play out. The owner is most times caught off guard and is devastated to find that the dog has turned “rogue”.

It is hard to say why this behaviour occurs with some LGD, it could be poor breeding, or it could be hormonal (the teenage phase), or be triggered by new animals being brought on to the farm, even a change of events (lambing time), sometimes we just do not know why the dog goes from being good one day to being rough with the stock the next day. Understanding the behaviour, and having the ability to recognize the warning signs may prevent damage to the livestock and by intervening earlier, may prevent the dog from escalating this behaviour.

Unfortunately, when this type of behaviour happens, it is unexpected. Most owners have missed some of the subtle “warning signs” indicating what is going on in the dog’s mind.  Some people are initially in denial, that their guardian dog would do such a thing, they discount the warning signs.
Unfortunately, some owners will dismiss the behaviour (he is just playing, he is guarding just the one animal, he is “hugging” the stock, he is herding them to safety), and this dismissal is the start of a cycle of problems. Most young LGD do not go from zero to killing stock overnight. The dog does give clear signals in his behaviour what is going on in his mind.

All stock worrying starts off as play behaviour. To understand play behaviour, we need to take a step back, and look at predatory behaviour. 

What is prey drive? Well, simply put it is the driving instinct in any predator to hunt down, catch and consume its prey. It is an instinct in every single predator, including our dogs. Dogs, with a high prey drive are easily stimulated to chase after and catch their prey. It is an instinct that is often used in the regular dog training world as it is highly rewarding for the dog to do. Usually the “prey” is a toy, ball, or a tug of war game. The reward for fetching the ball, or finding the “lost” person, is for the dog, getting to play ball. Dog trainers capitalize on this instinct to motivate and reward the dog.  For some other high drive breeds, this instinct is “modified” to become a useful tool, the border collie utilizes this same instinct to herd sheep. 

Prey drive is a not just a single action, it is a chain reaction, with the following elements; search (see, hear, smell), stalk, chase, bite hold, kill bite, dissection and then consuming. 

Watching nature films with lions hunting on the savannah, we see this sequence in action. With the border collie, we can clearly see the dog gathering the livestock, then it uses its “eye” to stalk, herding the stock to the handler (chase), and it will do hold type bites if needs be. For most border collies, the sequence is ended at this point. 
Selective breeding in border collies is focussed on optimizing this part of the sequence, to have a great working dog.  

As LGD are bred to have a very low prey drive, their reactivity to wanting to chase after things that are moving is low. Most LGD will watch you throw a ball away, but very few will be motivated to go and fetch it. 

To perfect the whole prey drive sequence, predator babies need to play. Through play they learn to initiate the game, they learn how to stalk, how to pounce, how to chase. Playing is very important in all predators, play teaches a myriad of lessons such as how social structure works, team work and of course, ultimately how to hunt. Play behaviour is the precursor to the prey drive sequence. 

One needs to understand how stimulating this behaviour is in predators,  it is the driving force for its survival (it needs to eat).  It is what is called a “self rewarding behaviour”, by doing these actions, it is rewarded by being able to eat.
Self rewarding behaviours are the hardest behaviours to change or modify.

Back to the original example, at some point the young LGD does become stimulated by the livestock, initially it might have started off with a play bow to the livestock. The dog wanting to initiate play with the stock. As sheep, generally do not respond to this, they might have moved away, triggering the young dog to maybe chase a little. This of course is fun and stimulates the dog, as this is a self rewarding behaviour,  the dog will often toss in a bark or two towards the livestock to get things moving. The dog then starts to escalate his game, to the point where he is showing elements of the prey drive sequence. He will stalk, corner, chase, nip, pull wool, separate his prey, harass. The escalation from a simple play bow to harassing or even wounding the livestock, can be very rapid, as the dog is getting self rewarded for what he is doing.

An owner may wake up one day and see the consequences of what started out as seemingly innocent play behaviour, to finding hurt and injured stock.

Here is a list of some of the warning signs.
Remember, warning signs are indicative of what is going on in the dog’s head. 

1. An overly  playful/immature dog, ( even older dogs)
2. The dog that play bows to the livestock, trying to initiate a game.
3. Dog likes to mouth your hand, and or the stock 
4. Chasing the livestock
5. Nipping at the legs.
6. Standing on, mounting the stock.
7. “Holding the stock” either with its paws or mouth.

This is not cute! Goat is wide eyed and stressed.

8. Herding or pushing the stock around.
9. Keeping them cornered, or in a group or not letting them move about freely.
10. Controlling/dominant behaviour, not allowing stock close to "resources, such as feeders, water etc)
11. Staring, stalking, hard focused looks, lower head and staring.
12. Pulling wool.
13. Scratching or pawing the stock.
14. Disrespectful or rude behaviour, barging through the stock, bumping them.
15. Stock that is tired, panting, restless, uncomfortable when the dog approaches.
16. Running and nipping at tails, and ears.
17. If the dog is excited, stimulated, hyper-attentive when the stock move around.
18. Separating one individual, standing over it, often the same animal.
19. Barking at the stock.
20. Humping the stock.

Thank you to Novelty Farms for allowing me to share these pictures.  I appreciate you allowing me to post these pictures as it is not often people want to show the bad things.
This dog never worked out as  a LGD.

Being attentive and giving a timely correction for any of these warning signs may mean the difference between a successful LGD or one who becomes a stock killer.

Part 2, will focus on the good behaviours!

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