Livestock guardian dogs are valuable employees
David Brennan with Alberta Agriculture Predator Management control offered some useful insights into reducing lamb losses due to coyotes in the Nov. 20 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator. However, although Brennan described the coyote's hunting style, he did not include that a coyote can, if calm enough, sidle up into the midst of a flock of sheep and quietly grab a sleeping new lamb. This lamb will not make a sound until it is set down. There is no excitement to warn the rest of the sheep or the shepherd.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs), work best in pairs, which give them the ability to corner or trap a predator. I have heard stories of people trying to sneak up on them where one appears to be sleeping and the other suddenly has the person trapped between them. I have also witnessed them using the sheep as a cover ? such as when a border collie is gathering the herd with an LGD on her tail. The second LGD runs with the sheep but moves himself through the middle of the flock by allowing the sheep to overtake him. As the last of the sheep move past him he turns on the border collie, which is now caught between the two LGDs. In this instance, this particular pair of LGDs respected the border collie. Plus, I yelled. She passed unscathed but there was a moment of panic on my part. With our pair, only one usually leaves the sheep to go after a threat, the other positions himself between the threat and the sheep.
LGDs need to bond well to the flock or what-ever you need them to guard. This is best done during lambing time where they can be with small lambs at weaning (six weeks) and learn that they are his/her family. They cannot be with the farm family at the house and should not be able to leave the area where their bonding mates are, but they do need to have some basic commands for their own safety.
One trick I found worked was locking them in a lambing jug with several bottle lambs when I fed the lambs so they did not associate being penned as a bad or terrifying thing. When all the lambs had been moved out after being fed then I gave the pups a cookie (treat). Now I can move them into any enclosure, small or large and even have them "kenneled" for a few days if necessary. This is important for providing safety or medical treatments. Each evening when I feed them I call them by name and after they have eaten, I give them a cookie. This solidifies the fact that if I call they should come as that is a good experience. Now if I need to retrieve them from some area they will come to or with me. They still need to respond to basic commands: "Back to your sheep" "come" "out" and "no."
LGDs are just like children and go through all the same stages. If they are alone then the required response is not always there. If they are too rough another dog will bite back ? a sheep or goat or calf cannot. Sheep "mauling" may happen when a female is in heat; she will often pick one animal and can cause it great distress. The Shepherd's Journal had a very good article that explained the stages of development that really helps prevent mishaps with the LGD by helping you know what to watch for ahead of time. LGDs come in several breeds with very different guarding styles. Some are perimeter guards, some are just right wherever the flock is, and others clear an area around their home pasture. We employ two Akbash males who basically stay with the sheep, but will push any predators away from the livestock for approximately four miles. They have no issue with border collies in the house yard, but stray or unattended dogs are not tolerated in the sheep pens or pastures.
Treat LGDs with respect. They have the ability to hurt you. They need to know that you are the boss. Do not hit or otherwise abuse them to chastise or put them in their place, but rather use the lowest growling noise that you can make and tell them that you are not pleased with them.
Never let them jump on you as you could be hurt. These dogs grow to a standing height of over six feet and weigh in the range of 150 lbs. For your safety if you are going to have to "wrestle" with a difficult sheep in a way that appears to the dog that you are being aggressive to the sheep ? then remove the dog first. I have found during lambing that they keep other sheep away from a lambing in progress and also tend to move between you and the sheep, which can make checking the sheep difficult. So putting the dog in with a different group of sheep may be necessary. A good dog will stay with a sick or injured sheep until you come to provide assistance. They will not chew on a carcass unless you tell them they can have it. They are unlikely to kill for themselves unless you are not providing any food.
Know your dog. Only buy a pup from working parents. Keep a good relationship with your dog so that they work for you not against you. And remember to provide rabies vaccinations for these gentle guardians.
Pete and Lorna Wall raise white dorper, black dorper and katahadin sheep as well as border collies in Poplarfield, MB
Printed in the Manitoba Co-Operator Newspaper December 4th, 2008.
Reprinted in the Sheep Shape [Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board] October 2009.