Friday, 1 September 2017

Policing ourselves

This article appeared in the Shepherds Magazine 
©Louise Liebenberg 2017

I am a firm believer that each group or organization needs to police its self. For example, I believe that ethical hunters should always report poachers and should ensure that poachers do not get a ‘free ride”. Similarly, I believe that the sheep organizations must police their own members when it comes to issues such as animal welfare or other industry concerns.  The actions of a few “bad ones” can have great ramifications to the entire industry, which could result in new laws, possible bans, more monitoring and public backlash. I further believe, that it is also vitally important to listen to the murmurs and comments of the public and, possibly even groups who are known activists, as you will hear what the concerns and issues are and what they are focussing on. Being aware of what the public finds concerning early on will allow time to either address, educate or explain the situation or possibly change questionable practices. So, by now you are probably wondering what this all has to do with livestock guardian dogs?

On many of the social media sites one can regular hear concerns about LGD use, some people are concerned about the large numbers of cross bred Pyrenees ( or other LGDs ) ending up in shelters, they are concerned about general welfare issues such as cold or snow ( campaigns to bring them all inside when the weather is cold), people are concerned about range dogs being forgotten after the grazing season,  others ( non dogs people) are concerned about aggressive dogs on public lands and some people are concerned that the USDA are testing super killer dogs in their research project, to name a few. Some concerns are legitimate, while others may be a little off track, but hearing them and acknowledging them is something we all need to do when it comes down to protecting our sheep industry and the dogs who protect our stock.

If we, as an industry, do not police ourselves on these issues, other organizations will step up and lobby for measures that might be detrimental to us. It is better to be proactive in these matters than wait until the use of LGD is banned. In a few European countries breed bans already exist, and quite a few of the LGD breeds are on these lists. In some areas, certain by-laws are already in place where no dogs can be outside in the cold or snow or no tethering is allowed, or a maximum number of dogs are allowed on the property. These laws are placed to ensure a better high welfare standard for the dogs, or to prevent human/ dog conflicts. For many ranchers who use LGD, these laws limit the way the LGD can be utilised or are so restrictive that it makes it working with these dogs impossible. It is imperative that we acknowledge these concerns and start working towards resolutions.

So, what can we do to ensure that decades down the road, we can still use LGD in their traditional way, living out with the sheep and protecting the livestock from predators?
We need to ensure that the guardian dogs working for us, have a high level of care and attention is paid to their welfare. The dogs need to be in a good physical condition, healthy and strong. If Joe Public goes hiking on a Sunday afternoon on public lands, the dogs he see’s and photographs should be healthy and fit. Old, sick, and injured dogs need to be cared for at home.  Perception is everything, if the public perceives the dogs are not well cared for, it reflects on the industry. Even though all of us know that most LGD will not utilise a shelter while out with the flock, it does not mean that we should not be offering some access to shelter.

A big concern on public lands is dog aggression towards hikers and bikers. Here education goes a long way. Sign post that sheep, shepherd and dogs are in the area, educate how to behave around the dogs, possible be prepared to move the flock to an area with less human traffic are ways to alert the public of the dogs and the role these dogs play in protecting our herds. I think a big part of this concern can also be mitigated through correct socialization of the dogs. LGD who are accustomed to being handled, who see people regularly and who are not fearful of people tend to behave calmer in situations where they meet strangers. Semi-feral dogs are fearful, the stand with their tail between their legs and bark excessively at strangers. They are unpredictable and nervous, which can escalate quickly to a bite situation with people who do not understand dogs. Dogs who are fearful of people, look like dogs who are beaten as they cower, are nervous, tail tucked under the belly and nervous when approached. The public might perceive abuse in such a situation.

 Semi feral dogs or dogs who are raised “hands off”, can also not be handled appropriately when it comes to veterinary treatments, or simply leashing them if the situation arises, transporting these dogs is often a huge issue. This situation is concerning from both a animal welfare and public safety point of view. It is time to put the “never touch the LGDs” myth to bed, and we need to start rearing LGD pups in a way that is more socially appropriate, better for the rancher, the dog, and the public.

We need to be cognizant of the fact that there are many unwanted LGD crosses ending up in shelters. We need to ensure our non-breeding working dogs are spayed or neutered to prevent accidental breeding’s between the herding (or, any other breed) and the LGD. The world does not need more unwanted pups. We need to ensure that we do our part and not add to the problem by having litters of pups that have no homes.  Perhaps, it is an idea for local sheep groups to approach a veterinarian and see if they could negotiate group rates for working LGD spay and neuters. We need to focus on breeding the best LGD to the best, and ensure that good working homes are available for these pups. We need to be as vigilant in breeding our LGD as we are in breeding our livestock.

It is always makes the headline and social media, when LGD are forgotten on the range. It is reports such as this that paints our industry in a bad light. I get that LGD sometimes roam, and I get that some disappear and reappear later, however we need to try to the best of our abilities to find any lost dogs, we need to try to get them back. Micro-chipping, or even a contact number tattooed on the dog, or a name and phone number on the collar of the dog will help with this. 

Having dogs who are human social will certainly help when trying to locate a missing dog.
We need to dispel misinformation in a professional way, if some environmental groups of people are having concerns that the USDA are breeding a breed of super wildlife killing dogs, we need educate and inform them what is the reality. Even though the issue may seem absurd, these rumors soon have a life of their own. Giving out clear, easy to understand, factual information, will help relieve some of these concerns, rather than dismissing them as garbage.

So, that brings me back to the beginning, as a sheep rancher or an industry organization, we must listen and acknowledge concerns people have with regards to the welfare of our sheep and our working dogs (herding and livestock protection), we need to police ourselves and do all we can to prevent topics of concern becoming major issues down the road. We need to aspire to higher welfare standards for our working dogs, better rearing practices, appropriate socialization, and more education to the public, if we don’t do this, other groups will lobby governments for more restrictive laws, and more controls and this maybe be so restrictive that using LGD may becomes impossible.

1 comment:

  1. As an animal lover & a farmer, I appreciate this post quite well. I see (through your blog) how you socialize and train your pups, and that your goal is proper, that LGD have a very special role to play.
    I also lament the public who clamour for what seems exotic or rare -- is it from they that LGD end up in shelters? Is it that breeders are not placing their pups properly in some cases? I ask, because I do not understand.

    We have a neighbour with sheep who employs a pair of LGD -- I fear their dogs have not been raised and trained as you are advocating. I say this because he told me himself that they cannot touch the dogs and that when one really needed a vet, the vet had to dart it with a tranq gun before she could get near it (he said with some pride).
    Education takes so much time & effort, but it's vital to the survival of this method of animal husbandry. On behalf of the ignorant public, and the dogs, Thank You.


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