Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Sheep! Magazine's January/February 2018 issue has my article on fire and disaster prep for your Livestock Guardian Dogs. Get your copy today:
Monday, December 25, 2017
Make 2018 the year you get serious about understanding, living with and appropriately using your Livestock Guardian Dogs. Respect and love your dogs, empty your cup, let in new knowledge, positive, intelligent, common sense ways and methods, and succeed….
Merry Christmas from Brenda M. Negri and the Cinco Deseos Ranch Pack:
Peso, Pinta, Pak, Pala, Patron, Sally, Furiano, Atena, Bobo, Gwangi and Yessi.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
A new year is almost upon us. What are you going to do in terms of your LGD ownership and use next year to make it better? Have you given this any thought? Successfully, intelligently, compassionately, seriously and responsibly owning and using Livestock Guardian Dogs is not a spectator sport. It takes work, not procrastination, bullshit, bad management and excuses.
It also is not a Disney cartoon made up of Facebook videos of Nigerian Dwarf Goat kids jumping up and down on a patient yet exhausted Great Pyrenees trying to get some badly needed sleep. Since when did that become "cute?"
It's also not pumping out back to back litters of five and six-breed cross genetic crap shoots, or calling oneself a "breeder" before you've even produced a single litter of pups.
It also isn't lauding some self-promoting LGD author setting a terrible example by cramming two grossly underaged LGD puppies into a shipping crate for a grueling multi-thousands of miles flight from a third world country, all the while pimping themselves out as a "Livestock Guardian Dog expert" to sell more books and run a wolf-hate blog.
It's also not passing yourself off as "competent" and an "expert", when you can't even cite reputable sources for an LGD breed in a generalized book quickly written to placate the masses and further perpetuate bad breed information.
Unfortunately all this and much worse, flourishes and has become the new "norm" in the American LGD community where the bar has been lowered to such lesser standards so that now, practically "anything goes." Group-think rules. Flash, cash and dash. Common sense? What's that? If you're a papered up arrogant academic at Texas A&M with no LGD experience, you can run a "research project" that turns into an epic flop, and yet you're instantly given more respect than the proficient but humble shepherd who's been successfully using the dogs his whole life. What? Since when did that become acceptable?
Connecting with your LGD and livestock in a sensitive manner? Ain't got time for it. Bad practices are promoted and hyped. The easy way out trumps the hard path of patience, commitment, compassion, and paying dues. Everyone wants it yesterday, dues free, with profuse praise and handholding. Don't preach about responsibility because that takes too long and too much work. The new hobby farmer wants it all, dues free, with icing on top. Just show them the money, fake cyber-friends and the Facebook "likes", and they're all over it.
There is enough irresponsibility in the world of Livestock Guardian Dogs being promoted on social media these days to fill up the Grand Canyon. Enough is enough. There needs to be a revolution of change for the better. That revolution can start with you. For 2018, consider including some of the following in your New Year's Resolutions:
1. Get off of all Facebook and Internet LGD groups. Facebook has done more damage to the LGD community than anything else. And the backlash against Facebook is only intensifying:
Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.
Yes, this includes the armchair hobby farmer, who has now become totally addicted to and relying on, Facebook for advice. Because why lean on reputable proven, "real" sources and people for hard facts and solid advice, when its so much more fun for lazy shepherds to spend hours trolling on Internet groups, spewing hot air, "liking", bitching, moaning, bragging, lying, exaggerating, and getting bad advice from fake Facebook accounts or ego maniacs and non-proven sources? When someone you've never heard of comes out of the woodwork claiming to have been raising LGDs "since 2010" and passes themselves off as someone experienced and competent, common sense would tell you to hold off trusting them until you'd seen some form of proof of their bonafides and claims. Gosh, that's a no-brainer in my world where you either put up or shut up. But there is no common sense left out there and the hobby farming world has become Exhibit A to that argument. People don't even bother to ask anymore. They're that lazy. Everything is taken at face value. Facebook has turned LGD ownership and use into a simple "click" for a "thumbs up", "heart this" or "cry that:"
We'll drink to that, as we've personally witnessed the "dumbing down" of the agriculture community in just the past ten years. It's beyond newbie town folks dipping toes into farming and ranching for the first time, too. Social media and the Internet are to blame. What used to be common farm sense now seems to be unattainable levels of simple intelligence for many. Scary. And the animals - livestock, poultry, guardian dogs - pay for it in the end.
When Facebook executives come out condemning what social media is doing to society, then hey, Joe Hobby Farmer and you legions of backyard LGD fad breeders: maybe it is time to come back into the real world, put your cyber-persona on the shelf, take off the rose colored glasses and get a grip on reality and start paying dues. Or prepare to fail. On a grand scale. Those of us who see the monster social media has become will step aside and let you fall down the rabbit hole, never to be seen again and bid you a fond adieu.
Is that what you want? No? Then get out of those going-nowhere online groups and forums, get your hands on good dog books to read from proven respected sources (instead of generalized regurgitated crap put out by Facebook prima donnas) and do it right. Get off your Smartphone and pay attention to your dogs, your sheep, your goats, your cattle. "Go deeper." Stop settling for mediocrity. Get re-connected with your dogs and livestock. Learn to discern bad from good. THAT alone will take some of you the rest of your lives to accomplish...
Weaning yourself off of the main source of garbage LGD information - Facebook and online LGD forums and groups - is a way to begin.
2. Realistic expectations and accepting responsibility. I had a query from a fairly intelligent sounding woman the other day wanting to get LGDs for the first time sometime in the future. She saw herself moving to a location where there'd be plenty of predators and nomadic elk herds passing through her property. She was already setting herself up for an epic fail by dictating to me that she was looking for "the perfect dog who'd keep predators away but be friendly to the elk and leave them alone." I burst her bubble and told her unless she was planning on bonding her LGDs as pups to a baby elk (good luck with that), she was already setting up ridiculous and impractical expectations for her dogs. Get real.
How many times have I seen this in groups and online, where people put out the "I want this and that and it must do this but never that," on and on and on? You may as well not bother to get out of bed. Stop setting up for failure. Be realistic. Be responsible. Stop expecting everything "out there" do do all the work, make all the changes, jump through the hoops, bend like a tree in the wind while you stand stock still and don't move an inch and don't do a thing. Look in the mirror first. Start with you.
3. Fencing. Fencing. Fencing. At this late stage in the LGD popularity game it is still shocking and disturbing to see how many newbie farmers think they can run LGDs without fence or put up three strands of barbed wire and consider it 'sufficient.' They think the dogs will never leave, never wander, never set foot on that Intestate and get pancaked by a semi truck. Don't be so stupid. Put up dog proof fencing before you get livestock and LGDs, not afterwards. Don't dump thousands of dollars into brood stock and expensive heritage rare breeds of livestock, and then have the audacity to stand there and whine about not being able to afford to build fence. That song got old a long time ago. Fence first, not last. Buy the stock and LGDs later. Period. This should not even have to be told, let alone said, but in today's new era of the dumbed down "want it all with no work" newbie hobby farmer, guess what?
4. Compassion. Dogs are not hammers, saws or nails. They are feeling, thinking, emotional beings as are all animals. You will get farther with an ounce of love and compassion that you will with shock collars, choke chains and the Louise Liebenberg yoke contraptions. Stop relying on such quick fix, painful lazy shepherd's gadgets and stop praising, promoting and following the idiots who use and recommend them.
5. Practical LGD breed choices and running enough dogs. Procrastination: you always pay for it in the end. Perusing a forum the other day, looking at the graphic photos of a "Boz Shepherd" - you know, the fake LGD breed that's actually a fighting mix from Turkey? - after a lion ripped it to shreds, brought a grin to my face as it's horrified and now suddenly humbled owner got a brutal taste of reality. The "super breed" that's supposed to be able to kill wolves with one paw tied behind it's back, ain't all that super after all, eh?
Get real, people. Don't be seduced by hype and BS. Don't expect any solo dog of any LGD breed to be able to do the work of six. Dog up before you need the protection, not after. Buy real LGD breeds from ethical breeders with proven track records, good recommendations, healthy dogs and life time support. Stop buying from fad backyard breeders, puppy mills and opportunists.
The new year approaches. What kind of year it will turn out to be for you, is up to you. Period.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Bears, Lions and Goats: Oh My!
California Goat Operation
Bucks the Odds in Large Predator Country
© 2017 Brenda M. Negri
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. 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. https://countrysidenetwork.com/topics/livestock-topics/sheep-livestock-topics/adding-new-dogs/
Farm Show Magazine, Pack Raised Guardian Dogs Work Harder, (2012, Vol. 36, No. 4), by Brenda M. Negri https://www.farmshow.com/a_article.php?aid=25763 A brief article about my LGD operation where pack rearing pups is stressed, and how it results in superior working LGDs.
People and Carnivores, www.peopleandcarnivores.org. 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
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,
Turid Rugaas, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Dogwise Publishing, 1997, 2006
Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt, Stress in Dogs, Dogwise Publishing, 2007