Monday, January 12, 2015
Livestock Guardian Dog Abuse: Tackling a Taboo Topic - Responsibly owning and using LGDs is not a spectator sport.
Livestock Guardian Dog Abuse:
Tackling a Taboo Topic
Responsibly owning and using LGDs is not a spectator sport
Brenda M. Negri
Cinco Deseos Ranch
Livestock Guardian Dogs
All rights reserved
This is a paper I’ve had boiling inside of me for years. I’m publishing it on my website and on Facebook, because I don’t think there is a magazine in this country who’d print it. They’d be too afraid of affronting or insulting too many of their readers, advertisers and subscribers. No one wants to touch this topic even though everyone sees it, hears about it, and knows its going on.
I was recently retained as an LGD Expert Witness in a very high profile litigation matter involving the mismanagement of LGDs on public lands. It gave me the added incentive to finally put these words down in print. If you think you might recognize someone in this paper, perhaps you do.
For all I know, you might recognize yourself.
A few years ago, the American Sheep Industry came out with a paper titled American Sheep Industry Association’s Recommended Best Management Practices for Livestock Protection Dogs, prepared by Bryce Reece and Bonnie Brown. This paper can be accessed online here: http://amhealthmaster.http.internapcdn.net/AMHealthMaster/DOCUMENT/SheepUSA/recommended-management-practices-dogs.pdf
A notable effort to call for better management of Livestock Guardian Dogs on the part of producers who are using LGDs to guard their flocks on public lands, where increased recreational use has now brought on different situations and issues for ranchers, this paper was met with mixed reviews in the shepherd community. Many scoffed or bristled at any attempt to regulate or dictate to them their use of LGDs. Although labeled by some an attempt to play “Big Brother”, it was lauded by others as, at the least, a needed call for accountability on the part of sheepmen. In essence, this paper promoted the responsible use of these dogs to minimize chances that there would be negative or dangerous interactions with LGDs and those recreating on public lands. In calling for such recommended practices, the paper struck out at what I call LGD abuse.
LGD abuse. Whether people like to hear this or not, the fact is the abuse of Livestock Guardian Dogs in America is rampant.
Abuse is a harsh term. But yes, I’m calling it abuse. I’m not tip toeing around and playing politically correct word games when it comes to labeling what some people do to their LGDs. There are too many lazy shepherds, mediocre stockmen, ranchers, commercial producers and farmers who, either out of ignorance, maliciousness or who are bottom line driven tightwads, who regularly mistreat, abuse and refuse to properly care for, use and/or feed their working guardian dogs.
Most shepherds in Europe and middle Eastern countries who live a transhumance lifestyle, live much closer with their livestock and the dogs that guard them. The dogs that came from these countries to America were never meant to be disconnected from their owners and dismissed as mere tools, but sadly that is what too many people have done in the quest to automate their livestock business. They have no connection to their LGDs or for that matter in many cases, their own livestock. This disconnect runs deep.
Some of these stockmen and women are well known public ag industry figures. Sadly, some have even been invited by their local state woolgrowers organizations to publicly speak in presentations on the “correct use” of LGDs where they further perpetuate rearing and running LGDs in a fear based and abusive environment over one based on sensitive compassion, respect and mutual trust.
LGD abuse. What is it?
Here are just a few examples of the many I could cite:
In Wyoming one large commercial producer forces LGD bitches to whelp out in the brush in any and all kind of weather. If the dog dies having birth, he has been quoted as saying its considered ‘survival of the fittest’. Another producer of like mind calls this “a culling process”.
One Montana LGD breeder brags about rearing her LGDs with “little or no human contact or socializing allowed” and advises shooting puppies with pellet guns to correct them if they chase stock. Speaking on a woolgrowers panel, a cohort of this person claims that the “average life span of a working LGD in Montana is 3 years”.
In Northern Nevada a commercial sheep producer runs a semi-feral pack of LGDs that are barely fed and never kept apart when bitches come into heat. Subsequently the dogs inbreed causing genetic issues to crop up repeatedly. The dogs live 24/7 with the sheep herd and cannot be caught, touched or approached unless subdued with a tranquilizer gun.
In Oregon, LGDs are shot and killed, mistaken for wild dogs, when hunters come across them chasing a herd of elk, far from their band of sheep. No sheep herder is present managing these dogs who were obviously not staying with their flock and doing their jobs, and paid the ultimate price for what was actually human error, mismanagement and irresponsibility on the part of the sheep operator.
In another highly publicized Northern Nevada incident, a professional marksman was hired to be flown in a plane in order to hunt down and shoot a large pack of mostly Great Pyrenees LGDs who were left behind when a sheep producer sold out his sheep, returned to California, and never bothered to bring in the dogs. The LGDs subsequently began to starve, hunt down and kill wild game and cattle to survive, inbred amongst themselves, became entirely feral, and occasionally charged and tried to attack horseback buckaroos riding in the vicinity looking after cattle.
A woman in Colorado confided to me a story of a regular winter occurrence of LGDs showing up at her small ranch and of her finding one hiding inside a pick up truck, exhausted and starving to death, because a local high profile sheep producer only fed his LGDs occasionally by shooting an old ewe and letting the dogs eat her. The dogs were literally left alone to live with the sheep with no care at all.
A small backyard hobby farmer keeps a bitch and stud dog and litter in a filthy tiny pen with frozen water and little if no food available. The stud dog is forced to drag a heavy chain and tire around his neck 24/7.
Not far from my Northern Nevada ranch is a river bottom area where I have been told by eyewitnesses a small family of former livestock guardian dogs lives in a riverbank cave, wild and feral, because the sheep producer left them behind when the band of sheep was moved.
Years ago when I went to pick up an LGD pup off a large commercial sheep outfit, the litter scurried out from under a shed to greet me. Food and water bowls were empty. The mother dog was already back in the band of sheep leaving the litter alone. The owner/operator proceeded to kick the pups back away from us, claiming if a person showed them any attention, “they would never guard”. I was so affronted, I took two pups instead of only one home to rescue them from that treatment.
What are some of the hallmarks of what I call an LGD abuser?
The size of the operation can vary, but often it is a medium to large scale commercial sheep or goat operation who has BLM or USFS allotments and grants (i.e. runs their stock on public as well as private lands), who is bottom line driven and considers his / her LGDs to be just tools, much like hammers or saws, used to get the job done. Not to just point the finger at the “big guys”, likewise you can find plenty of examples of LGD abuse in smaller hobby farms and homesteads.
I previously used the word “disconnect”. These people are what I term, disconnected from their working dogs. They are typically less sensitive to a dogs needs and place often outrageous expectations on the dog’s ability to protect and function on minimal care, food and interaction. They typically are not what you’d call “dog people” to begin with, and use LGDs only because its been a proven method to deter predation on livestock, or in the more less educated instances, because they’ve read or heard that “they need to”, yet have no real grasp or understanding of what is involved in successfully running LGDs in a humane manner.
These people typically give little research or thought to who or where they buy their dogs from, usually paying less than the going rate for good pups or dogs. Once they bring the pup or pups home, its tossed out with livestock and the owner walks away. There is no interaction with the pup, no introductions to fellow family members or hired help. They expect the pup to “just do its job”. It might be put in with other dogs on a range operation and expected at too tender of an age to “fend for itself”, which might even include figuring out where its next meal is supposed to come from.
The typical LGD abuser does not touch or interact much with the LGD because he feels the dog must fear them and/or stay away from them in order to function in its role.
LGD abusers typically underdog their operation, running less than the needed number of dogs to be able to keep predators away from their livestock. Their dogs are overworked, rarely get good or enough sleep, are stressed and tired, and typically burn out and die at abnormally young ages. If one is injured and removed from duty, the few remaining carry an even heavier load, further stressing them. Sometimes these dogs out of desperation, “abandon ship” and run away. Some take to chasing and killing wildlife or other livestock in order to survive.
An LGD abuser typically deems a majority if not all of the guarding to be the dog’s sole responsibility, while hardly putting out any effort themselves to back the dog up with range riders, herders, increased human presence, fladry, or other predator deterrents.
This type of LGD owner operates as if his LGD has endless energy and zero or no calorie and sleep requirements, and feeds the bare minimum to keep the dog healthy and alive. Often only a ewe is shot on site for the dogs to eat (a practice roundly discouraged by ASI and conservationist and co-existence proponents, as it usually brings in predators closer to flocks).
An LGD abuser runs dogs who are never vaccinated against parvo, distemper and rabies, nor are they ever de-wormed, resulting in parasite ridden dogs of poor health and lower stamina and vigor. Dew claws are never trimmed, sometimes growing into the dog’s flesh, causing great pain and discomfort. Coats are never maintained or brushed out, often resulting in huge mats and foxtails being lodged in toes, ears, eyes and sensitive areas.
Worst case scenarios as cited above include operators who run intact dogs together with no effort made to control breeding, thus resulting in inbred litters of inferior pups with defects - both psychological and physical. The misguided owner claims this sort of scenario is “more natural and promotes survival of the fittest”, when in reality it is anything but.
An LGD abuser subscribes to the misguided theory that “hands off” is the “only way” to raise a working LGD. An abuser’s LGDs are typically not touched or handled from birth; they are skittish, fearful, suspicious of all humans, lacking calm and stable minds; prone to aggressive behaviors in effort to protect themselves and their livestock from harm, both real and perceived. They are generally sad, untrusting dogs, used to being kicked and pushed away from humans since puppyhood.
LGDs raised by people who abuse them by no connection, interaction or socialization have been force bonded to livestock, never knowing a kind word or gesture from a human. They are devoted to their stock out of necessity, not love, because the stock is the only thing that has accepted them and does not harm them. Because the instinct to guard is so strong in good LGDs, they will stay with the stock in all weather, good and bad, and in spite of hunger and deprivation, because they have never been shown anything but pain and suffering at the hands of a human.
LGD breeds this devoted with such unfailing dedication to duty are too easy to abuse by lazy, uncaring and mercenary minded owners, who take full advantage of the dog’s nature and predisposition, and exploit it to the point of harming the dog’s health and mental welfare. If the dog dies needlessly sick or too young, what do they care? They just toss another hapless pup out there to take its place, and the sick pattern of abuse is repeated once again.
LGD abuse fallout is seen in shelters and rescues across the country. Abandoned, sickly, sometimes injured LGDs who have been raised the “hands off” way and suffered abuse, are nearly impossible to re-home, and are often put down. Some have collars on them that were never adjusted as they grew, and thus their skin grew around the collar. Some have mats a foot across hanging off their hides. Others, have dewclaws grown into their flesh from never being trimmed. Rotten teeth, massive ear infections, an eye swollen shut from a bite or sting that was never doctored; the list can go on.
Sadly, abusive, irresponsible ownership and use of LGDs shows no signs of stopping. And people who don’t speak out against it when they see it or hear people on Internet forums promoting it, or listen to it in a public presentation, only enable it to continue.
Responsibly owning and using LGDs is not a spectator sport. It requires your total commitment and participation in a compassionate and responsible manner.
Shame needs to be heaped upon those people who perpetuate the myths that LGDs can do everything alone without human intervention or socialization. The original researchers who did the first testing programs and placements with LGDs in this country are partially to blame, in that they regularly advocated minimal human interaction with the dogs.
But in their defense, even they could have never foreseen the sometimes horrific extremes that many lazy, uncaring and irresponsible shepherds took their words to in this country.
Help stamp out the misuse of these great breeds by speaking up and out against LGD abuse when you see it and hear about it. Don’t just shrug and turn away. Don’t stand by and accept it as “the way things are”. As the public’s use of public lands increases with every year, LGDs guarding flocks in such areas will be placed in situations where cool heads and reasonable reactions must prevail, not over aggressive responses, fearful biting and attacks by unmanaged dogs run by irresponsible owners. The very future of the use of these incredible guardian dogs depends on this.