Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Fire and Disaster Prepping your Livestock Guardian Dogs

Sheep! Magazine's January/February 2018 issue has my article on fire and disaster prep for your Livestock Guardian Dogs. Get your copy today: 

Fire and Disaster Prep
Your Livestock Guardian Dogs

Brenda M. Negri
Copyright 2017

The recent raging California wine country fires of 2017 have brought a sobering death toll that, at the time of this writing, is over 40. Losses and damages are in the multi-millions of dollars. Many homes, businesses, schools, small farms, homesteads and ranches have been consumed and lost to flames, and with those losses, untold loss of life in livestock, pets and wildlife.

A disturbing news article on the Internet showing the miraculous survival of a Livestock Guardian Dog and it’s eight goats in California after the owners abandoned them to oncoming raging flames, created heated debate and outrage on both sides, with supporters and critics alike arguing the right and wrong of the owner’s actions – and inactions. While the victims were praised by many and a crowd funding set up to help them rebuild, just as many if not more people questioned their lack of preparation and most of all, the fact that they literally left their animals behind to die a horrible death – understandably sparking outrage and disbelief. Regardless of one’s position on that incident, the article showed what happens when people don’t plan ahead wisely, and how important it is for livestock owners to have a solid plan of escape should fire threaten their property. This preparation needs to include not just humans, but livestock and the animals that guard and protect that livestock – whether they are dogs, llamas or donkeys. Leaving them behind to die an agonizing death in flames is NOT an option that moral, caring and responsible owners exercise.

In 2014, Countryside Magazine published a wonderful educational short article by Mary Wilson titled Fire Evacuation Procedures for Your Livestock: Packed with sound advice, it included a pertinent list of five “must do’s” in the event of a fire on one’s ranch, farm or homestead:

The 5 P’s of Executing Immediate Fire Evacuation Procedures:

    People, pets, and livestock
    Papers—important documents
    Prescriptions—medications, eyeglasses, hearing aids
    Pictures—Irreplaceable memories
    Personal computer

Where I live in Northern Nevada open range country, range fires are fast moving, deadly, and feared above all else. I have had several range fires come dangerously close to my ranch and on each occasion, along with my neighbors, had essentials packed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice, and spent many sleepless nights on fire watch. Ranchers in my country have evacuation plans and are prepared to fight then flee when the time comes. Many new hobby farmers however, do not think about fire prevention and preparation tips until it’s too late. The mindset is often more of “oh, it can’t happen to me,” when in fact, it very well could. Living here with a huge pack of Livestock Guardian Dogs means I must think about how I will get them – and my sheep and cattle – to safety when the time comes. Leaving them behind to die is of course, out of the question!

Part of responsibly owning and using LGDs goes far beyond them just keeping your livestock free from harm year in and year out. It means YOU, the owner, have a plan in place to keep your LGDs safe and alive in the time of a fire, too.

Livestock Guardian Dog Preparation

Importance of Socialization and Handling: In the case of the above-cited California fire where the LGD was left behind with goats to die, the argument many cited was that “the dog refused to leave his goats,” inferring that this was the reason the dog was left behind. The fact that a LGD wants to stay with the stock it is protecting is never a reason or an excuse to leave behind a LGD! Responsible LGD owners know this, and have a plan in place to move dog and stock out of the way of dangerous flames.

If there ever was an argument for rearing LGD pups hands on with daily human interaction and socialization, this is it. I live with a large pack of LGDs, many of whom weigh well in excess of 200 pounds. I am able to safely leash or halter all of my dogs, and have them come with me calmly and quietly. No “hands off, don’t ever touch” methods here, and safe evacuation during a fire is just one of a plethora of reasons why. How could anyone expect to shepherd their dogs and flocks out of the path of oncoming fires, when their LGDs run or flee at the sight of a human because they are afraid of them, because they’ve never been handled or barely touched by man?

As inconceivable as it may be to some, there are still many LGD owners (and breeders) who still subscribe to this sorely outdated practice. Promoted by early LGD researcher, the late Ray Coppinger, who claimed touching or handling LGDs would somehow diminish or “ruin” their guarding instincts, sadly this much ballyhooed and disproved bad “science” went on to become mantra in the USA. Strongly discouraged now by respected authorities and organizations such as the American Sheep Industry, thankfully the past several years have seen a complete reversal of this theory as most LGD owners realize, the ability to handle a guardian dog safely is paramount to safe, responsible ownership and use. It’s been shown time and again that regular handling, socialization and kindness from owners in no way shape or form, diminishes a good guardian dog’s protective instincts. Be smart – buy and use only safe, socialized and handled LGDs. Keep them that way by regular interaction with them! You need not turn them into obedience champs who’ll sit, lie down or do tricks on command, either. Simply having a dog that can be safely approached, collared and/or leashed or harnessed and led, is enough. Why?

An LGD who can be caught, leashed and/or harnessed by it’s owner, can be safely led out of a field, paddock or corral by the owner, while others can get behind the flock of sheep or goatherd, and shepherd them along as the LGD and owner lead the way out of the endangered area either to a waiting trailer. By doing this, the dog is still with his charges. He’s happy – he’s still with his flock and does not stress out over being separated from them. You bring both dogs and livestock to safety. Assuming the owner owns a stock trailer, the dog and sheep or goats can be loaded up in the trailer together and hauled away from the approaching fire.

Chuck Avila, above with his Spanish Mastiff Zaca modeling a humane,
easy to use halter. If your LGD is "collar and leash shy", consider trying a halter such as Chuck uses here. This way you have a method to be able to bring your dog along in the event of a disaster or fire.

Practice Makes Perfect: Trailering up LGDs and stock need not be a chaotic and stressful event. Some dry practice runs can make it routine. Bring your stock trailer close to the paddock where your livestock is. Collar and/or harness up your LGD and lead him into the trailer and then once inside, give him a treat – I mean a real treat too, like a raw chicken leg, a chunk of beef heart or his favorite edible reward, what ever it may be. Lots of praise and calming talk will add to the dog’s comfort and he’ll soon associate going into the trailer with a positive – not negative – experience. Shepherd in a few sheep or goats as you do this so that they learn to trailer as well. If you take them off feed for several hours before doing this, by placing some grain or a flake of hay in the trailer, you can more easily entice the sheep or goats to jump in and dine. By doing this you also make trailering a treat for them, too. Stay calm and relaxed, make it a “fun” time and include all family members in this prep work so anyone is able to do this. By making it routine, it’ll be less stressful when the time comes for real evacuation, and everyone will be less stressed because they’ve done this many times. Advance preparation like this a few times a year can make all the difference in the time of a crisis and help things to run much more smoothly. Proactive planning aces panicked reaction every time!

No Stock Trailer? No Problem: What if you don’t own a stock trailer or means to haul your dog and livestock? Well, think about investing in one; even if it is a used “old banger” that can still provide safe transportation. But if even that is not on the radar for you financially, there are other options: neighbors with trailers may be able to loan you one, or you can set up an evacuation plan that includes them swinging by your farm or homestead to pick up your stock after theirs are safely trailered up. I know this is part of my evacuation plan after I had to disburse of my gooseneck trailer – I have options.

But say that isn’t an option in your case, either. This is where some smart planning and preparation come in. By drawing up a map of your property with it’s gates and surrounding roads, you can draw up evacuation plans that can immediately be put into action in the event of a fire. Review it at least once a year to keep it fresh in your mind, and implement any changes that may come up with new fencing or construction. Depending on what direction the fire is approaching from, you can draw up an evacuation plan of safely bringing your LGDs and stock out of outer fields, into smaller corrals or barns, and then shepherded out of a gate into the open or roads that will lead away from the fire.

Where I live the country is huge and there are large tracts of unfenced land that are Bureau of Land Management or US Forest Service. In the event of a range fire, many ranchers here are unable to load up their large number of cattle or sheep in trailers fast enough to get them out of the path of oncoming flames. So the “open the gates and let them out” plan is what is used. Ranchers in my area will throw open all the gates, and if time allows, push stock out into the open range or roads where the stock can then move out of the way of the fire.

Typically in my area, many roads are lined with fences of adjoining properties so stock can be easily and safely driven down the road without scattering to the four winds. But even if these were not present, the main goal is still met; as the stock will by nature, want to go in the direction that is away from the flames. By doing this a large band of sheep or commercial goat herd and its guardian dogs can be shepherded to safety by herders; cattle can be moved by buckaroos on horseback to a safer area. In many cases, barbed wire fences are cut and pulled down so stock is never trapped against a fence line in front of advancing flames. In other words, if we can’t get all the stock out, we set it up so the stock can at the very least, get themselves out to safety. It’s considered common sense in my neck of the woods – and compassionate and responsible. No leaving behind to die!

Be Proactive and Pay Attention

In this electronic age where even ranchers, homesteaders and hobby farmers are seemingly glued to televisions, computers and smart phones, many “pre-Internet dinosaur” folks in the agriculture arena shake their heads at the seeming increase in lack of common sense amongst many people who are new to ranching and farming. Don’t become a “cyber shepherd” who is too busy posting to Facebook to pay attention what’s going on around them in the real world. Don’t depend on social media to keep you safe! Use your eyes, ears and nose – you know, the “pre Internet” tools your body was equipped with to keep you alive. Watch the horizon, take note of wind shifts and follow your nose when you smell smoke. Watch your animals. Are they telling you something by the way they are suddenly acting strangely? Do they smell smoke when you don’t?

Establish a network with your neighbors and a phone tree and keep tabs on where fires are. Only foolish farmers have the attitude that “it won’t come this far” or, “I don’t need to worry.” Always plan for the worst. Never assume you’ll be safe, never procrastinate and never use the excuse that “well, it just came up on us too fast” to cruelly abandon animals behind to die horrific deaths. Be proactive and creative in your plans. Create defensible space around buildings, barns, haystacks, outbuildings, homes. Make sure waterlines are operational and always have your stock tanks topped off with water. Make sure your Livestock Guardian Dogs can be safely handled, collared and leashed or harnessed, to lead to safety along with your livestock. Unplug from Internet farming and get in touch with the real world around you and plan for the worst so when it happens, you, your loved ones, your livestock and your precious four legged protectors will live through a crisis. It takes some planning, some common sense and work but it will repay you in the end with precious lives saved.


Tools of the Trade: the Shepherd’s Crook or Staff

Ancient in it’s origin and use, the humble wooden shepherd’s crook or staff is typically found in the hand of shepherds in the Old World as they trail along their flocks in the age old practice of transhumance – moving huge bands of sheep across mountains and plains in seasonal search for grazing and food. Crooks now come in a variety of sizes and shapes and can be metal or wood. Every shepherd and sheep owner should have one. Besides giving you support as you stand and walk, they come in handy when it’s time to catch or drive sheep into a chute or trailer. During an emergency evacuation, a crook can help you catch and move sheep when it matters most. They can be bought in some feed stores and online by such companies as Premier 1 Supplies. Here is an informative article about the many types and uses for shepherds crooks:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Livestock Guardian Dogs and California Goat Operation Buck the Odds in Large Predator Country

Bears, Lions and Goats: Oh My!
California Goat Operation
Bucks the Odds in Large Predator Country
© 2017 Brenda M. Negri
and ACRES USA Magazine. 

Above: Bigfoot? No, just one of the very large bears in the neighborhood…
Below: The Shields departing my ranch with a sibling pair of Spanish Mastiff pups.

What’s the daily grind like for a commercial goat grazier or weed control operation sitting thick in the middle of extreme-predator load country, where each day is a test of mettle, endurance and smarts of man, goats, and Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs)?

Friends and LGD customers Roberta and JR Shields who live and ranch in the historic Gold Rush country in Columbia, California, are achieving what some would say is impossible: zero losses of stock to predators – in a heavier than usual predator load arena - with the use of LGDs and other non-lethal predator control.

The Shields goatherd consists of 200 head of a mix of purebred registered and commercial Boer and Boer and Nubian cross goats who live full time in the middle of a predator load that reads like a multi-course menu of potential death and destruction: black bear, mountain lion, coyote, feral and domestic dog packs, bobcats, foxes, rattlesnakes and birds of prey (Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles and ravens.)

Tough Country Not for Faint of Heart

Former cattle ranchers for 20 years; 10 years owning goats; for the past twelve months the Shields have had a contract grazing goats on 1200 acres of brush on a mine operation in the steep, rough Stanislaus River canyon. “Of the 1200 acres, probably only 20% of it is flat and/or clear,” Roberta says. Chock full of Manzanita, oaks, and the invasive Himalayan blackberry, this rough, daunting landscape is not for the faint of heart rancher. It’s not just the terrain and predators that’s a killer, either: the area is loaded with poisonous plants such as nightshade, hemlock, buckeyes and oleanders. The goats provide fuel reduction for the mine in an area that’s suffered many huge, devastating fires. Blue Mountain Minerals produces limestone and dolomite for the agriculture industry on 300 acres of the property and recognize the value of grazing the goats on their property in terms of safety. Less brush is less fuel for fires.

The Shields sell their wethers to a commercial facility in the central valley for meat. They kid out their breeding does in March. “We source our goats from local (Northern California) breeders,” Roberta says. “We have three large sales in close proximity to us that sell very well bred, nice breeding stock.”

Above: Some of the dog crew. Quality makes a difference: the Shields have purchased seven LGDs from me over the years. My unique LGD breeding program which is founded on pack rearing of litters, breeding only top genetics and proven purebred lines have paid off with success. 

Packing Up With LGDs

The Shields first came to my Nevada ranch several years ago to buy LGD pups to add to their existing LGD pack. They took home two sibling pups and returned for several more sets of sibling pairs and adult dogs over the years - a whopping total of seven dogs from me (!) including others. The breeds they have run and/or run currently include purebred Kuvasz, Maremma, and Anatolians; two purebred Spanish Mastiffs, four Spanish Mastiff x Maremma x Anatolian crosses, a purebred Pyrenean Mastiff, and two Border Collie herding dogs. They appreciate the variety of breeds and what each breed or cross brings to the table in terms of guarding style, unique individual temperaments and travelling ability. They also know the sensibility of running enough LGDs to do the job right.

“The lighter breeds and crosses we run can cover more ground in this very steep country, and typically work the perimeters and patrol farther out,” Roberta says, “while the heavier mastiff breeds stick closer to the herd, bedding down with them. I like this because it means the goats are covered both from afar and up close. If a predator breaks through the first line of defense, they then have to contend with some even bigger dogs waiting for them with the goats.”

In addition to guarding goats, the Shields LGDs also guard 300 beehives that winter over from Gillette Wyoming, before going into the valley to be placed in almond groves. The mine property sits above fog line, and is much warmer than the Wyoming winters. The dogs keep the hives – which are big money, Roberta says – safe from marauding bears.

By running a large and diverse pack, the Shields claim it’s allowed them to suffer zero goat losses. In a country rife with large predators now moving in closer because of several years of bad fires, this feat is indeed rare, but not impossible. It takes planning and a lot of work, but can be done.

“Neighbors near us who do not run LGDs suffer regular, sometimes catastrophic losses of sheep, cattle and goats,” Roberta states. “You can’t bring pups into a situation where you are already losing livestock – it’s too late for that. You need grown, broke dogs. Too many people make that mistake.”

Indeed, a recurring theme I see in the LGD scene lately are people who are losing livestock and, in a panic, buy usually one, solo pup thinking somehow it’ll perform miracles. It won’t, and will most likely end up an easy meal for a large predator. The time to buy LGDs is before you need them, not when you are suffering losses. It is a long-term commitment that pays off later – not right away. Dogs, being by nature pack animals, should be run together in pairs, trios or more, especially in situations such as the Shields live in and face.

Roberta further states: “Predators are unique to each place we graze. Most numbers are cyclic. Bear numbers have been increasing since hunting them with dogs became illegal and they have not had a disease outbreak to decrease the population.” When bigger predators increase, it also means the smaller predators decrease, as they are pressured out by the competition for food. “The drought California experienced in the last couple of years caused the bears not to hibernate which put increased pressure on food sources,” Shields adds.

Above: Bear feasting on game.

Opening Cars Like Tin Cans

Lately bears have been breaking into Gold Country homes, crashing through sliding glass doors and ripping out metal garage doors to get to food. Bears often associate cars with food, and “open them like tin cans,” Roberta muses. “A lot of people feed deer around here. They buy grain with molasses and voila, there’s your bear magnet.” Meanwhile, when they feed “Bambi,” this in turn attracts the lions. Roberta further states, “At some point, the deer stop migrating and stay with the food source – the grain – and so do the lions. People then wonder why the big cats come in to their yard. They don’t get that they’ve actually created their own problem.”

Lions now regularly venture into foothill towns and kill pet dogs and cats, and have even been caught stalking people as they jogged or walked on roads. It’s not just lions and bears, either that threaten the Shield’s goatherd. A huge rattlesnake recently showed up in their kidding pen, and had it not been the frantic alert barking of her LGDs, could have struck and bitten newborn kids and would have probably killed them. “Those good dogs got extra juicy bones that night!” Roberta chuckles.

“California banned Mountain Lion hunting in 1990,” Roberta says. “No longer do we have wild herds of Elk or Antelope, and with a declining deer population, food sources can become extremely scarce for large predators, whose population is on the increase. There is only so much native habitat, and it’s decreasing with more and more development. This in turn pushes big predators closer to humans living in rural small acreage hobby farms and in foothill towns.”

When that happens, livestock losses skyrocket. Long time Tuolumne County Wildlife Specialist Ron Anderson has seen an explosion in livestock deaths as people move out in the rough and steep country to “get back to the farm,” yet don’t prepare, or worse, are seemingly clueless about the predator situation and don’t set their places up to protect their herds and flocks. Ron regularly offers exclusion methods to farmers on how to protect goats against large predators. That includes the use of guardian dogs and electric fence, but they don’t always listen, or when they finally do, sometimes it’s already too late.

Above: A bob cat comes to a lion kill.

When Guardian Dogs Fail

In the lower elevations where the bigger predators are not as populous, coyotes are the main problem. Anderson has literally sat in a field and watched packs of coyotes bait guardian dogs. “They get some coyote pups to start yelping off behind some brush. The LGDs run to the sound of that,” he says, “while the rest of the coyote pack circles around, kills the sheep or goat, and drags it off even before the guardian dogs can come back and see what has happened. Yes, they are that smart.” This is why it is so important to run enough LGDs to do the job, not just the minimum – and stagger them in ages so mature dogs are there to show adolescents and pups the ropes and back them up. Puppies cannot do the job of an adult dog – so don’t expect them to, or prepare to lose some goats.

But how to explain livestock losses when LGDs are there on guard duty? Ron recently went to a small hobby ranch that lost several goats to a Mountain Lion. They were running a couple of LGDs, yet still lost several goats. The area was not prone to lion attacks, and Ron thinks that the lack of regular predator presence, i.e., threat pressure, may have contributed to the dog’s inability or refusal to effectively stop the lion. “They weren’t up to practice, or lacked confidence they needed to stop the lion,” he muses. “Maybe it’s because they don’t engage with enough threats; maybe they lose their boldness or become confused or afraid, I don’t know. But I often see this out here, LGDs who don’t cut the grade, and you wonder if it’s not due to a combination of bad management, inexperienced owners, poor breeding and a lack of practice or exposure to threats.”

I’m willing to take it even further than that: I think Roberta’s LGD use has been to date, 100% effective, while others there have failed, for a reason that transcends predator pressure and even the use of the right number of proven working LGDs out of good bloodlines. Each dog she purchased from me was raised in a huge pack of LGDs that has numbered from eleven to twenty-five dogs on my ranch. My LGDs that she owns learned to work as a team and a fluid, cooperative pack from puppyhood; they were immersed in pack life since birth. That in turn made them able to effectively and confidently work side by side with other dogs, and back each other up; in doing so, they are more willing to go the extra mile to guard stock and confront predators. It gives them the added self-confidence they need. I’ve long argued that pack raised LGDs are more self assured and savvy than those who are not reared up in a pack, and the Shields’ dogs may be my star proof of that theory.

And in big predator country, forget using donkeys or llamas to keep livestock safe because they are just another meal for a big bruin, a pack of wolves or ravenous cat. “Ron said just two farms down from where the goats were killed by the lion, two guardian llamas were killed. The sheep they were guarding weren’t touched, but the llamas paid the ultimate price,” Roberta adds.

Above: Forget using guardian donkeys or llamas here….

Words of Wisdom

I asked Roberta if she could share some tips with readers running goats in large predator country.

LGDs: “Even if you buy two LGD puppies, with big predators its not going to work,” Roberta adds. “You have to start before you have predators because it takes time for the goats and pups to bond, and for the pups to mature.”

“But LGDs are not for everyone,” Roberta says, and truly, they are not. Some people are not “dog people” or lack the time, patience and resources to raise, train, feed and keep healthy an adequate number of guardian dogs to do the job right, and should consider other means to keep their goats safe. If the goat operator does use LGDs, “Invest time in getting a working relationship with the dogs and get them bonded to your goats well. In the long run it will be a huge savings of time and money if your dogs work,” she says.

Fencing: “Too many people try to put goats in places that are fenced with old cattle wood or metal “T” posts and barbed wire type fences. It’s bad for both goats and LGDs. Dogs will push through and run amok and so will the goats. You must have good fences to contain goats and dogs both or it’s a waste of time.” She is a big fan of electric net fencing as it keeps predators out and goats in. “For our night pen, we double net in bad locations for Mountain Lions. We use tall horse net, then goat net, three feet part. A double barrier – and it works.”

Good Shepherding: Roberta goes on to say “People must be vigilant and pay attention to what is happening. Being successful here is not easy and we often literally sleep out with the goats in tents when we have to. We are always here, watching, checking, aware of where our goats and our LGDs are. I see way too many people blaming goats escaping on their LGDs when it is in fact, their own poor or total lack of shepherding, and/or incomplete or bad fences that are the cause of the problem.”

“Use everything you can to mitigate for livestock losses. It is something that is preventable. Electric fence, flagging or fladry, LGDs, full time herders, patrols, game cameras – before and during the introduction of goats; use night pens that are ‘bullet proof.’”

Goats Are Like Potato Chips: Roberta recommends, “Do not let your goatherd become a food source because, just like potato chips, a predator won’t stop at just one. Once they have a taste of tame game they’ll be there for good. They will return time and again to dine on your goats while ignoring wild game like deer. Keep those predators wild and depending on wild food sources, not your goats. Don’t put sweet grain out for deer or other small wildlife and invite them to stay because the predators seeking them as a food source, will be right behind them.”

The Shield’s commitment to using a variety of predator deterrents, good fencing, dedicated shepherding and an investment in good LGDs over a period of several years, is now paying off in spades. All their efforts are keeping them casualty-free in a predator heavy area rife with livestock loss. If you’re running goats in big predator country, with hard work, good shepherding and a solid predator deterrent plan in place such as the Shields’, their success story could be yours, too.

Above: Puppy Training 101. Roberta is hands on, involved, and handles the pups and dogs daily.
Their LGD pack knows their owners are involved and backing them up.

Above: A lion caught on film. Night penning goats with a double set of electric hot fences and serious top-notch working LGDs has kept the Shields' extensive goat operation fatality free.
Below: LGDs alerted to this huge rattler in the kidding pen; the Shields were able to kill the snake before it could strike and injure or kill a goat kid.

Resources & References:

Adding New Dogs into an Existing Livestock Guardian Dog Pack by Brenda M. Negri, Sheep! Magazine, Nov/Dec, Vol. 38, No. 6.
Farm Show Magazine, Pack Raised Guardian Dogs Work Harder, (2012, Vol. 36, No. 4), by Brenda M. Negri A brief article about my LGD operation where pack rearing pups is stressed, and how it results in superior working LGDs.
People and Carnivores, This Bozeman, Montana based group works with ranchers, hunters, rural residents and scientists to keep large carnivores in the wild, and away from livestock and out of trouble.
Wolves on the Landscape: A Hands-on Resource Guide to Reduce Depredations. Excellent tips for stockmen in large predator country.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Dog on Duty! How to Approach a Working Livestock Guardian Dog

Dog on Duty! How to Approach
A Working Livestock Guardian Dog

Copyright © 2017 Brenda M. Negri

By using and understanding how to interpret canine body language you can mitigate, defer and/or eliminate risk and potential attacks and problems when you approach a 
working Livestock Guardian Dog on duty in his flock or herd.

My Spanish Mastiff Patron in his goats. What does this picture say? It tells you a lot.  The photo captures Patron placing himself between the photographer and his goats for protection, and he is beginning to step towards the camera (note position of right front leg.) His serious demeanor and firm stare exhibited in this photo means a person needs to stop, avert their gaze, and not come any closer.

Kangal/Anatolian/Maremma Elk placing himself between his charges and the camera. Head is lowered, tail is up, and eyes are slightly "softer" than Patron's steely gaze, above. He's flicking his tongue. He's calm, accepting - to a point. The curled up tail lets you know you should stop and assess before you come any closer.

Recently a writer affiliated with Mother Earth News put up a piece about “How to React” to a LGD; it was taken from a book she had previously written. The blogger’s choice of the word REACT in her title really put me off. It inferred fear and non-trust on the part of the writer, and implied negativity instead of positive methods and solutions. Her blog post went on to confirm that to me, she was not willing or able to try to understand what a dog is communicating via body language, in order to make wise choices. She instead advocated generalized, “one reaction fits all” kind of solutions. If you also read that article and thought the same as I do, take heart, as this paper will "go deeper" and give you the other side of the coin which is based on learning to understand what a dog is saying to you by reading and using, canine body language, and by using trust, patience and common sense. Merely "reacting" to LGDs is not how I interact with LGDs or any dog. "The Way of The Pack", which is my way with these dogs, advocates understanding LGDs on a deeper level by the use and correct interpretation of canine body language. Below, I give you real, in-depth useable tips and advice based on my own success and experience. An in-depth chapter on this subject is included in my forthcoming book, The Way of The Pack: Understanding and Living With Livestock Guardian Dogs.


When a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) is on duty guarding his flock or herd, he is to be shown respect and deference by a human when approached. This is especially important if the human is a stranger to him. This is his turf, and he’s doing his job. Recognize and respect that. Learn how to send the right signals and use the correct body language so you minimize risk of upsetting the dog and suffering an attack.

There is a way to act and respond around non-familiar LGDs working in their herds or flocks based on intelligent and calm responses instead of fear based reactions that will enable the person to have a pleasant experience instead of a dog attack. This is a way that has its basis in reading, understanding and responding to a dog’s body language. No two dogs are exactly alike. Making assumptions about LGDs is where many people go wrong. Instead of assuming a working LGD will attack or be aggressive, let’s learn how to read and understand the signals it sends us before passing judgment, so you can respond in an appropriate manner.

When will using these techniques come in handy for you? There are many potential scenarios. These are just a few:

  • Your farmer friend is in the hospital, and cannot get out to his goatherd to feed his LGDs; he asks you to feed them for him. You’ve never interacted with his dogs before.
  • You are a rescue organization that has been tasked with going in an area or flock and trying to capture a half-feral LGD that has been abandoned with no food.
  • A strange LGD shows up at your front gate. He is scared and hungry. You want to catch him to see if his collar and tag have his owner’s contact information so you can call them.
  • You are hiking on public land that is being grazed on by a large commercial flock of sheep or goats and see signs saying that Livestock Guardian Dogs are on patrol. You anticipate encountering one or more and want to do so safely and calmly so that the LGDs do not perceive you as a threat.

The list can go on. The bottom line is it will benefit you to know how to safely approach and/or interact with any strange dog that does not know or recognize you. Here is more incentive for you to learn: these methods work on non-LGD breed dogs, too.

These experience-based tips on how to safely and calmly approach and interact with an LGD on duty are ones I have learned over the years and that have worked for me. They are not fear-based techniques, but methods that are based on calm observation and responses based on canine body language. When meeting an LGD in the scenarios described, a person wants to stay calm, assess and approach, walk away or stand still. Although it may require a leap of faith on your part, the more trusting communication signals you can send to the dog, the better. They will benefit you and the dog in the encounter.

Don’t make assumptions. That means exactly what it says. Don’t assume an LGD will be aloof and unapproachable, and likewise, do not assume he will be friendly and touchable. Keep your mind open. Read the dog’s body language to get a read on him. Eyes, ears, body. Are eyes dilated? Ears pinned back? Teeth bared? Is the dog tense, tail cranked up over his back? Is he giving you a hard or soft eye? Is he soft, relaxed and loose? This is also where you put your heart on your sleeve. This is where you trust – even though your knees are trembling. Don’t be afraid. The dog will sense your fear and possibly react to it. Be almost nonchalant in your slow, casual movements and observe without being intense or threatening.

Remove hats, sunglasses. If you are wearing a hat, ball cap or any kind of head covering, take it off. A hat can look like an extension of a human’s head and also make the human look abnormal and larger. Likewise bicycle helmets can do the same. Remove your hat, cap or helmet when approaching a working dog on duty. Take off dark sunglasses. A dog cannot see your eyes when dark glasses are on, thus making it impossible for him to read your eyes and your expressions; take your dark glasses off until you have moved out of the area where the dog is working.

No dark colors: Dark colors can often set a dog off. My personal theory is that is makes the human’s silhouette more distinct in the dog’s eye, and possibly larger, and thus makes the dog more nervous. There is something about a person in black that is menacing. An example: I had a couple come to my ranch to look at a litter of LGD pups. The man arrived at my front gate wearing a black ball cap, dark glasses and a black sweatshirt topping a pair of dark blue jeans. The woman was dressed in much lighter colors: white and pale khaki, and no sunglasses or hat. At my invitation, she came through the gate and was calmly and kindly greeted by the pack without hesitation. The man? The dogs would not let him in the gate. It took some serious talking on my part to get them to back off to where he could enter, but he became extremely uncomfortable (easy to do with 15 huge dogs breathing down his neck!), and instead, chose to go back outside the gate and observe from there. The next time the couple came, he wore (at my direction) light colors: a white shirt, khaki pants, no hat, no sunglasses. Guess what? Same man, but no problems this time: the dogs let him in on the spot. I realize it is not always possible to be dressed in just light colored clothing. But if you setting out to rescue an LGD or go feed LGDs who don't know you, in other words, a pre-planned not impromptu exercise, then make the effort to wear at least a white or pale colored top with your blue jeans; leave the sunglasses and hat or helmet off. Likewise if you know your hike is taking you through a band of sheep with guardian dogs, don't put on all black hiking clothes then act shocked when the shepherd's dogs attack you. Plan ahead.

Positioning around livestock: As you approach a working LGD, never place yourself between the LGD and the livestock he is guarding. The dog will perceive this as a possible threat to his stock, and may react aggressively towards you. Move in such a way that the stock and the dog are never separated by your body.

The approach: “the backwards C.” When a person walks briskly up to a dog “full frontal”, in other words, straight on to the dog’s face and front, he is sending what the dog could construe as being an aggressive, threatening message. The dog sees this assertive approach as a potential threat, and may react accordingly. Instead of walking straight up to a dog in his face, do this. First of all, slow down. Slow movements have a strong calming effect on a dog. Pace yourself and walk to the dog in what I refer to as a “backwards C.” Walk out to your right, in a curve, and approach the dog to its side, not it’s front. When you stop, if the dog is facing you, you will be off to his left side, facing the middle of his body. While you do this, remember to keep your gaze slightly averted, passive and not “hard.”

Arms down and at your sides: Don’t approach a working LGD with an arm extended as if you are coming to him with an offering. Likewise, don’t have your arms extended reaching out on your sides like wings, or above your head. Simply keep your arms down, relaxed and hanging normally. Don’t make any quick or sudden gestures or moves. Don’t have bulky items in your hands like jackets, large cameras, backpacks, fanny packs or the like. Put them down on the ground while you engage with the dog.

Right and wrong eye contact. There is a “soft” and a “hard” way to look at a dog. I use what I call the “soft eye” with a dog, which is a half lidded look, never a wide-eyed, firm or “hard eye” (squinting with scowl lines between the eyes) stare into the dog’s eyes, which is intimidating.

Never stare directly into a dog’s eyes as you approach him. Rather, lower your gaze and use a half-lidded gaze when looking at the dog – this is the “soft” way. Turn your head to your right as you make the approach via the “backwards C.” Look downward, or off to the side. When you stop near the dog, you can then you can make “the smiley eye.” The “smiley eye” is simply crinkling up your eyes as you grin slightly, showing some teeth, still looking off to the side. This mimics a dog’s submissive “smile” that he will often give another dog or a human as a greeting, and is considered to be just that: a greeting, not a threat. I notice in my pack that when dogs greet each other using a “smiley eye,” they often gently toss their heads back and forth to each side in a rocking manner, too. I have mimicked this maneuver in greeting dogs and it shows them I am not a threat. Picture a “bobble head doll” and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. I really could care less what it may look like to other people. What matters to me is what it is communicating to the dog and that is what you must focus on. Leave your ego at the door and focus on being where you are - now.

Yawning and tongue flicking. Yawning is a recognized calming or displacement behavior signal amongst dogs. A displacement behavior is so called because it seems out of place when it occurs at an inappropriate time. Even if you have to “fake” one, yawn as you stand next to the LGD. Animals will lick their lips as a sign that they need a moment to think. It is also a sign that they are relaxing and also means the animal is “coming down”; the tension is lessening. Horses will often lick their lips after being unbridled, stroked and praised and allowed to walk off.

Sitting and/or squatting: Sitting down or squatting so that you are now at the dog’s level rather than towering over him is a strong calming signal, particularly when dealing with a strange or feral dog. It takes trust on your part, but it works. It is a strong calming signal that shows them your intention is good, not a threat. Put yourself down on his level. The dog may not come to you immediately but typically this will stop a dog from running away in the opposite direction from you. It is a settling gesture in that it takes you “down” from standing above the dog, and places you on the dog’s level. Again, this takes a lot of trust on your part but by doing so it sends a strong calming signal to the dog. Even if you don’t want him to come to you, you want to displace any possible aggressive behavior, and sitting down is a great diffusor. Don't knock it before you try it!

I have a neighbor who’s small dog escaped her property one day and was running up and down the road. Try as she could, she could not get the panicked dog to come to her. I called out to her from my property and told her to stop and squat down low, and avert her gaze as she called him. When she did this, the little dog stopped immediately, turned around and ran and jumped into her arms. She called over and shouted, “You are a dog guru,” which I’d never claim to be – gratefully loaded her pooch up and went happily home.

The stretch: When a dog stretches by extending his front legs forward and arching his back in a bow, he is sending a calming or displacement signal. You can replicate this by simply extending your arms out in front of you as you bow down. You can combine this with a yawn and some tongue flicking to further amplify the positive signals you are sending the dog. Again, don't worry about what people think this looks like. Stop caring about that. You are talking to a dog right now, not your cell phone, nor are you texting someone on Facebook, and you need to get your mind into the right place to communicate canine-way.

Ear rub: A dog loves to have the inside of its ears rubbed gently or licked by another dog. The “ear lick” is often used as a social greeting by dogs that are bonded or close to one another. If an unapproachable dog has allowed you to get close to him and actually put your hands on him, try gently rubbing the inside of his ears as it will further send signals that you can be trusted. This sends a better “peacemaker” type of signal to a dog than patting them on the flat of their skull. The dog will often groan in contented response. This is better than a bite or a growl!

These simple and subtle maneuvers and gestures can contribute to calmly meeting a dog that is on the job guarding livestock, and reducing tension and stress. It can diffuse a tense situation. The dog may still remain somewhat stiff or untrusting, circle around you sniffing and perhaps even softly growling, or letting out a bark or two, and that’s okay. But if approached and interacted with in this manner, chances are he won’t engage in a full on attack. Granted, much will depend on if the dog has been handled and socialized by his owner. If he has been socialized, you’ll have an easier time with introductions. By initially sending him signals that indicate a peaceful, non-aggressive intention on your part, you can calm the dog and reduce chances of conflict. If he is not socialized, at least using these signals will diffuse a tense situation and contribute to stopping the dog from becoming aggressive towards you. If he is a feral-acting dog, who is afraid of people, using these signals will probably calm him and he will turn and go back to his flock and ignore you so you can move on safely.

When you come across LGDs on duty in large bands of sheep or goatherds, again remember you are in their “house” as a “guest.” Whether you are there to feed them, move livestock, rescue an abandoned LGD or what ever the reason is, please stop and think, and don't simply react - use and show respect in your approach and interaction with them. Assess and respond – don’t just react in fear or uncertainty. 

Below you will find recommendations on several outstanding books on canine body language. All include illustrative photos and diagrams showing the myriad signs, signals and gestures our canine friends use to communicate with each other and to us. It is not necessary to become a canine body language expert in order to pick up a few good tips on how to read a dog’s signals he is sending you, and will deeply enhance and further improve your experience with your own LGDs, not to mention any you may come across in your travels who are working in their flocks. Stop using quick fixes or just shallow reactions and "one size fits all" solutions that too many self-appointed "LGD experts" in America continually promote. I dare you to “go deeper” as martial artist Jackie Chan quips in one of his films, and in reward, you will obtain a far better, solid grasp of LGDs and how to best communicate with them in countless situations by using simple canine communication gestures.


Recommended Reading List

Brenda Aloff, Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, Dogwise Publishing, 2005

Barbara Handelman, M.Ed, CDBC, Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook,
Dogwise, 2008

Turid Rugaas, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Dogwise Publishing, 1997, 2006

Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt, Stress in Dogs, Dogwise Publishing, 2007

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