In North America and many other countries, with the arrival of Autumn and Winter seasons come many holidays, and with holidays, typically family, loved ones and friends coming to visit, sometimes in droves, and all at once or over a short period of days or weeks. Many Livestock Guardian Dog owners have concerns about how to handle their guardian dogs around guests and visitors to their ranch or farm or estate.
This post will be a quick introduction to what I've found works best for peaceful introductions that reduce stress for guests and dogs. It's a topic I will be going into much more depth and detail in my forthcoming book, The Way of The Pack: Understanding and Living With Livestock Guardian Dogs (Copyright Brenda M. Negri).
Recently a customer of mine in Minnesota contacted me prior to having family visitors to his 40 acre farm where he and his wife raise goats. Chuck Avila recently added two of my 'retired' adult Spanish Mastiffs to his family farm, Zaca and Pia. Both of these girls had a history on my ranch of being decidedly aloof towards anyone they were not familiar with, or saw on a irregular basis. Pia in particular, could be unpredictable in her response to guests, even protective to the point of lunging at strangers and growling, especially if they came into my house, where she "ruled the roost" and had low tolerance for people coming inside. A responsible and compassionate owner, understandably, Chuck was concerned how to best handle his young nieces and family coming to his farm around these two older, territorial and very large Spanish Mastiffs, and contacted me on how to best to handle the visit around Pia and Zaca. I offered him tips, some of which follow, that enabled him to have a stress-free, non-eventful visit from his young guests and kept his two protective LGDs at ease.
1. Keep in mind, your visitors are just that: guests on your farm or ranch. They need to respect your rules and your animals, and understand that they are the ones who are to comply to your wishes, not the other way around. In particular, toddlers and young tots should never be allowed to "run the place" when they show up, and their parents should be made to understand that they should keep control of their children. This is your place. Set the rules and insist people follow them.
2. Your Livestock Guardian Dogs are part of your life, and are doing an incredibly important job for you, which is to keep your flocks, herds, property, you and your possessions, safe from harm. When strangers show up, your dogs are within their rights to view the newcomers as potential threats to what they consider theirs. It is up to you and your guests to put the dogs at ease and take away the tension and potential for threats, so that the dogs remain calm and understand this is not a potential threat.
3. Body language is a powerful communicator to your dogs. I regularly insist my customers purchase all the books/and or CD's written by the noted, world famous European dog behaviorist and trainer, Turid Rugaas. Links to her books and website are on my website's Resources Page. It does not matter if you are a backyard farmer with a couple of pigs, some pygmy goats and a cow, or a huge commercial operator with bands of sheep or 100's of head of mother cows - understanding how to better communicate with all dogs can only be a win-win for you, so get these books - super affordable and easy to read - and read them, and start seeing the difference immediately. They are not full of hard to understand concepts, vague theories or are they some arrogant treatise put out by some blowhard PhD trying to look important and be famous. No, instead, these are simple yet phenomenally powerful books. Rugaas truly loves and respects all dogs, and is a humble, compassionate and gifted woman who can help you better live with your dogs.
4. Keep in mind, no two set ups will be alike. Some people's LGDs are in stock 24/7. Some are in half and half; others get house time, have full access to the entire property. But even the commercial sheepman, running wagons and herders with LGDs living in their flocks, has the time or situation where the BLM or forest ranger or lamb buyer shows up to his band. Or the cowman has shipping day, and truckers and big rigs arrive on the ranch. Shearing time is another example when strangers and workers arrive and your dogs must adapt.
5. Meaner is not better. I am regularly shocked at the idiots on many Internet forums bragging on how aggressive their dogs behave when guests arrive. Obviously these people have never been on the receiving end of a dog bite lawsuit, but the day will probably come, and maybe (and maybe not…) that will be their badly needed wake up call. Having LGDs you can control is paramount, and running half feral, frightened or uber-aggressive LGDs who are afraid of their own shadows and will fear bite or attack someone, has been falling out of favor now for years. Don't advocate this kind of bad working dog management, don't buy from LGD breeders who raise pups hands off with no or minimal socialization, or else, win the lottery - because you'll need it to hire the huge law firm it will take to defend you if your dogs bite or attack someone. It is the clarion call of the American Sheep Industry owned insurance companies and ASI, and why they also hired me as a consultant to help create and form their working dog insurance program, and why I - and not some advocate for non-handled dogs - was contracted to write their Loss Prevention Manuals. Calm, confident, handled dogs are safer dogs and less risk. Period.
On my ranch I have infrequent visitors but have never, in 7 years, had a single incident, because my dogs are socialized, stable minded, confident and 'read' my guests and my reactions to ascertain that all is, after all, well, and they need not over-react or bite someone. It has never impacted their guarding ability, and trust me, no one dares come on my place without my permission.
6. In Chuck's situation, I told him to first, bring in his young visitors away from his LGDs, and have them all sit down. Although he didn't set them up this way the first time, I advised him later to place chairs for the guests in an open area, not forming a dead end or up against a wall or blocked area. What is key is that the dogs do not feel like they are walking into a situation or a trap where they cannot escape or back away from if needed. Open areas are best. If you are at a sheep camp, you can do this too - set up your folding chairs in a loose half circle away from bawling sheep and lambs. Have your guests sit down for a bit - no one ever says no to a cup of hot coffee or chocolate on a brisk fall or winter day!
7. Once people are seated, let your dogs enter the area. Advise your guests to not make any sudden moves or eye contact initially. Be low key, relaxed, almost ignoring the dogs. By doing this, your guests are removing many threat signals your dogs could interpret. Instead, they are posing no threat. If dogs approach and sniff, let them! Yawning (again, read Rugass' books) is a powerful calming signal. Have your guests do it. See the results yourself! Ideally, what you're after here is calm. It is not necessary that the LGDs bond with these people for life - they may never see them again, or it may be another full year before they come back. The whole goal here is just to make this a non-event, a calm, no-threats, no sweat time for all. Some dogs may warm up to guests. If you're a small farm having family over, you may find your dogs readily accept them and soon are taking them on the farm tour! And that's okay. Remember, you set the tone! If you are calm and relaxed, your LGDs will be. They look to YOU for the signals and the signs. If you are nervous, they'll be nervous.
Again, I'm going to go into this in much more detail and spell out several detailed scenarios in my forthcoming book. But I hope this short post can give you some ideas on how to make the coming holiday visits from friends and family and others, a less stressful event on your ranch or farm for you, your LGDs and your visitors and guests.