Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Protect Your Poultry with Livestock Guardian Dogs

Protect Your Poultry
With Livestock Guardian Dogs
by
Brenda M. Negri

Copyright 2015 Countryside Magazine
November/December 2015
Photos courtesy of 
Barbara Judd, Froghaven Farm, WA





Free-ranging poultry is all the rage these days as cage-free eggs from “happier, healthier hens” bring premium market value, and undisputed health benefits for the consumer.  With this freedom however, comes risk: free-ranging fowl is a predator magnet, often drawing in foxes, raccoons, feral dog packs, coyotes, birds of prey, and in some areas even mountain lion, bear and wolves.  Many of these predators have a beneficial place in our ecosystem and are “here to stay”.  So what is the homesteader to do when they are attracted to your flock for their next meal?

Enter the Livestock Guardian Dog, or as they are commonly referred to as, LGDs.  These breeds from the Old Country are highly coveted for their instinct to guard livestock from depredation.  Breeds such as the Great Pyrenees, Kuvasz, Maremma, Pyrenean Mastiff, Anatolian, Spanish Mastiff, Polish Tatra and others, have for centuries protected sheep, cattle, horses, swine and goats in their native countries of Spain, Poland, Italy, France and Turkey.  Now a regular sight on many family farms, with proper selection, care and training, LGDs can also keep prized hens, guineas, turkeys and other fowl safe from predators.



Washington State hobby farmer and heritage Buckeye chicken producer Barbara Judd was a first time LGD prospective buyer and owner when she contacted me at my Cinco Deseos Ranch LGDs in Nevada, querying about the availability of pups.  My Italian import Pyrenean Mastiff female Atena had just produced a whopping 16 puppy litter out of my Great Pyrenees male, Peso.  In this colorful batch of pups were two small females I affectionately dubbed “the Pockets” whom Barbara immediately fell in love with and named Lucy and Patty.  When she explained to me what her goal was – rearing these pups to protect chickens – I cautioned her, as fowl is typically the most difficult to train LGDs on.  Clucking and flapping and fussing hens present a temptation few pups can resist chasing!  But luckily for Barbara, I’d started introducing this litter to my flock of 40 layers and roosters, so the prospect of her plan, although a challenge, was one I was up to and excited to see how the pups would fare.

The eventual outcome, neither of us saw coming.  Once Barbara took home her pups at about 10 weeks of age, she continued Patty and Lucy’s training.  She fine-tuned and in all honesty surpassed me in Chicken Guarding 101 for those pups.  What made it so incredible was the fact that she was a first time LGD owner with zero exposure to LGDs – breeds who are entirely different than pet breeds in their make up, instincts and behaviors.  She became a beacon of hope and a shining example of what a person can accomplish if they follow some basic rules.  I tapped into her expertise to share with readers, and following are some key points to follow and remember.

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Buy healthy, vaccinated and de-wormed LGD pups from proven, working parents.  Make sure parents are both recognized LGD breeds; crosses with non-LGD breeds are high risk and unpredictable.

Breeder track record and credibility are important for future support and advice. You want pups with early exposure to fowl before you take them home at 10 weeks or older.

Count on this process to take several weeks, into months. 

Plan on daily “Chicken 101” training for your pups.  Make it a “reward” time with positive reinforcement – Judd typically gave her pups a treat before every “class”, and soon, they were reminding her it was time for school.

Get the pups tired out with activity such as a perimeter walk of your barnyard or active play before you engage them in training.  This takes the “edge” off a rambunctious pup.

Use older, less flighty hens for training.  Keep chickens and pups in a small area while you sit with them. 

Aim for the pups to ignore the chickens.  If you catch them staring at chickens, turn their heads or put your hand briefly over their eyes.

Discipline any inappropriate behavior from the start with a consistent noise you make to show dissatisfaction.  Don’t tie a dead chicken around a pup’s neck as punishment: this is confusing to the pup and does not discourage or accomplish anything.

Make the chicken area a calm, quiet area.  This means no yapping pet dogs, no screaming toddlers during training time.  Keep distractions to a minimum.

Positive reinforce their good behavior by giving them big soup bones to chew on while they lay quietly in the coop area with their charges.

Do not force the class for a given period of time.  10-15 minute classes are best.

End on a positive note.  If the pups appear to be getting tired, irritated or annoyed, END the session BEFORE anything “awful” happens.

Don’t let misbehavior discourage you. Mistakes are part of the process.

Expect these to be somewhat intense but short training sessions where you are right there, not yards away.  This is YOU participating, hands on.  Take a chair, sit down, observe, correct, praise.

As the pups progress you will be able to extend the time they are inside with the chickens.  But do so slowly.  If you have a day of setbacks, give them the rest of the day off, and start fresh in the morning.

Weather changes can affect pups’ activity: if it’s been hot and suddenly turns cold, they may be more rambunctious. Keep that in mind when you train.

If you have pet dogs regularly harassing your fowl, don’t let them mingle with your LGDs as they’ll impart bad habits.  Keep the pet dogs away from the fowl at all times.

With consistency and patience, Barbara Judd has helped Patty and Lucy reach an impressive level of success as solid chicken guardians.  They now keep predators from her precious flock and she has never lost any fowl since bringing in her “dynamic duo”.