Saturday, February 25, 2017

Your Livestock Guardian Dog: Liability or Asset?

Your Livestock Guardian Dog: 
Liability or Asset?

Brenda M. Negri

Copyright 2015 Brenda M. Negri
and sheep! MAGAZINE 
Published May/June 2015

Do you own a Livestock Guardian Dog that was brought up “hands off”, and can’t be handled, caught or touched? 

When it comes time for annual vaccinations and periodic de-wormings, are you amongst the number of Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) owners who must resort to creative means in order to catch, hold or contain their flock guardians in order to work on them?

Once the accepted norm, rearing LGDs in a “hands off”, “don’t socialize or touch” manner is steadily falling out of favor in an age of increased public lands use by recreationalists, urbanization of farm and ranch lands and the rapid subdividing of once rural areas.  LGDs who can’t be handled or touched safely, and who are afraid of people, are nowadays turning into liabilities, not assets.

What exactly does this mean?  Those of us utilizing Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) to protect our valuable cattle, sheep, goats, horses, alpacas and fowl, have new challenges these days facing us that must be met head on and dealt with, lest we risk losing our rights to farm and use these magnificent dogs as protection for our flocks.  Running and owning skittish, half-feral, untrusting LGDs is no longer the smartest or safest way to go as increased population presses in on all sides, and more and more people venture into BLM and USFS lands where many sheep and goat operators run their stock, guarded by dogs.

Let’s examine this topic that regularly incites many online arguments and debates. 

When the first testing and use of LGDs in this country was performed in the 1970’s by government USDA researchers and sheep stations, it was decided by researchers that minimal human interaction with LGDs was the preferred method of rearing.  From that initial assumption grew an entire cadre of LGD users who took the “minimal human interaction” to extremes probably never intended by the original researchers.  Because LGDs work off of ingrained instinct - that is, good ones are born with the instinct to guard in them which does not need to be instilled by human training - some commercial sheep outfits and ranchers soon realized these dogs would work and guard for them with little or no input on their part.  They quickly classified them as a tool, much like a hammer or saw, and little else. 

The argument is presented by some - and could in a few situations hold water - that dogs who were not easy to approach served as a much stronger deterrent to potential two-legged rustlers of livestock.  And certainly, the thought of tangling with a not-so friendly 160 pd LGD would put off most would be thieves of sheep, goats or cattle.  This is the reason some people give for not handling their LGDs as pups.  They want them uber-aloof and suspicious, if not outright vicious, towards people - enough so that it discourages anyone from approaching, whether their intent is innocent curiosity or with ideas of stealing livestock.  Of course, observers can quickly point out that all the rustlers would need to do is shoot the dogs to take care of that potential roadblock.

The studies in the 1970’s and researcher’s recommendations unfortunately led to many stockmen taking their advice to a level probably never intended, which included never handling touching a litter of puppies, and tossing them into a flock at too young of an age and walking away from them - often a recipe for failure.  Shepherds in the European countries where most of these breeds originated had and have a much closer bond with their dogs and sheep, as many of them literally camp and live with their stock full time as they trail their sheep through countrysides.  Their LGDs mingle with family members and herders daily and are raised with frequent handling and interaction.  But in America, where larger commercial operations often run sheep in public lands with no human presence, the “hands off, minimal interaction” became the accepted “norm” and anyone deviating by handling or socializing their LGD litters was soon mocked and labeled a “pet breeder”.  Online forums continued to hype and promote the “hands off” rearing until it became the accepted practice in this country.  Anyone deviating from this was roundly trounced.  New LGD owners were told “don’t handle or touch your dog too much or it will never guard”, something which is not true at all.

Pups who are reared in this “hands off” manner typically only view humans with distrust and in some cases, outright fear.  As they mature, if they are never handled this distrust only deepens.  If pressed, adult LGDs who were brought up nearly feral, will stand ground or even attack humans who they perceive only as threats to their flock and importantly, to themselves.  Having never known a kind touch or encouragement from a human, LGDs raised like this ultimately can become liabilities to their owners instead of trusted and cherished assets.

Hikers, bikers and nature enthusiasts heading into back country who come upon bands of sheep being guarded by unsocialized LGDs are often at risk of attack.  The average hiker, biker, and weekend wilderness explorer is very uneducated when it comes to what those big white fluffy dogs are doing in a band of sheep.  They have either never heard of or encountered a working Livestock Guardian Dog in their lives.  Often when they see these dogs, they wrongly mistake them for wild dogs going after livestock.  Others think they need to be rescued because they are stray pets.  Add to this the often encountered lack of herders or human presence amongst the sheep, coupled with no warning signs posted, and you have the makings of a potential problem.

A good guardian dog will alert at strangers approaching his flock.  This is what LGDs do - and what they are supposed to do.  However, if he’s never been offered a kind word or touch by a human before, that alert could go to extremes of biting or attacking people who venture too close to his stock.  Add to that what can sometimes amount to blatant arrogance and an overabundance of sense of self-entitlement on the part of the hiker or biker, who feels the public lands are “his and his alone” to use as he wishes, and who often views ranchers and sheepmen as “enemies” because they are allowed to graze on public land allotments, and you see why this could turn into a wreck.  And woe to the rancher who’s LGD bites a recreationist or hiker!

Recently a wilderness biker participating in a road race sued and won a case against a Colorado sheepman because his LGDs attacked her on her bike when she passed through the middle of his flock.  Never mind the fact that she showed little understanding or respect for the situation at hand.  Unfortunately, incidents like this are only going to increase as more and more people who do not know what LGDs are, use public lands where sheep bands graze.

As responsible sheepmen it is imperative that we run stable minded LGDs who will not turn into attack dogs at the sight of a human trekking across the field near sheep. 
LGD pups should come from breeders who have handled both parent stock and pups which will allow you to rear up a pup who can be taught to respond to simple voice commands and at least be encouraged to “come back” when needed.  Having that needed minimal control over the dog may stave off an incident and prevent someone from being bitten.  That in turn may save you and your operation from a costly lawsuit.  Its been proven time and again by “hands on” LGD breeders that handling and socializing LGD pups in no way, shape or form deters from their guarding instinct or abilities. In fact I will personally attest that forming a bond with your LGD can actually enhance its desire to guard what it perceives is his or hers. 

Guardian dogs with good, stable temperaments will assess a situation, not just charge blindly into it on the attack.  LGDs must be brought up in an environment that encourages them to learn to reason and think things through, not just react aggressively from fear.  If they’ve received positive reinforcement from their breeder since puppyhood; if they’ve been taught that not all humans are to be suspected as evil or threats to their stock, then they stand a better chance on the range of being handled responsibly by their owners or herders.  This in turns lessens the chance they’ll harm users of public lands who might happen to hike or bike by your band of sheep.

Another good rule of thumb is to either micro-chip, tatoo or collar and tag your working LGDs.  Bright “day glow” colored collars or tags that stand out will show that this is not a wild or feral dog, but rather, belongs to someone.

Likewise, on larger operations, a good shepherd and manager will take steps to ensure his LGDs are safe to be around and not vicious or skittish around his hired help.  He’ll take the time to educate his herders, who are usually immigrants from another country, about the proper use and care of LGDs.  The sheepman won’t expect herders to “just know what to do” without first giving consistent and proper direction.  Likewise, LGDs should be introduced to the herders, and a relationship should develop so that they are more of a team who will be working together instead of treating the dogs like disposable tools.

The American Sheep Industry has published a document titled Best Recommended Management Practices for Livestock Protection Dogs which may be accessed on their website, here:

The same page also offers links to “Signs and brochures informing recreationalists about the presence of livestock protection dogs and grazing sheep”.  In order to further educate those who don’t recognize what your LGDs are or what their job is, these printable signs and brochures are a great way to help inform them.  Posting warning signs that alert passers by that those big dogs are actually doing a job may save you many heartaches down the road.

The ASI 2010 paper, revised in 2011, calls for the responsible use of LGDs and encourages socializing these dogs.  It was put out in order to hopefully nip a problem in the bud before it mushrooms to the degree that the government steps in and tries to regulate the use of LGDs.  No one wants to see that.  None of us wants “Big Brother” telling us how to raise our sheep and run our dogs.  But if we don’t take the steps needed to prevent more issues from arising from irresponsible use of guardian dogs, we may be facing regulations and new laws that would or could regulate or entirely eliminate the use of LGDs.  No one wants to even think about that!

Its a sore subject amongst many, but the days of running half-wild LGDs who pose threats and possible fodder for lawsuits, are going to have to come to an end.  Our cherished Right to Farm is consistently under attack these days from many sides.    I feel the proper raising and use of LGDs is one area we can all make a difference in, and give our would-be opponents one less target or excuse to try to put us out of the agriculture business. 

Its okay to give that big guardian of yours a hug and a pat for doing his good job - and rewarding him with a juicy bone won’t deter him from doing his duty, either.  He’s an investment in your flock’s life insurance.  Give him the respect he deserves.  Cherished asset or an unstable liability?  What your LGD ends up being is ultimately in your hands.