Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Aging LGD: Caring for Senior Livestock Guardian Dogs

The Aging LGD: Caring for Senior Livestock Guardian Dogs
Sept/Oct Sheep! Magazine, Vol 38, Number 5

© 2017 Brenda M. Negri

Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) research studies have shown that a working LGD often suffers a short lifespan, the average full time working flock protector dying well before it’s eighth or tenth birthday.  Those results typically came from studies done on “hard core”, large commercial livestock operations running LGDs in a 24/7, no rest, no breaks situation.  In most instances the dogs were barely handled, sometimes went without food, and were given minimal if any, vet care.  They typically worked in heavy, large predator load country and took great risks in their protective duties against predators that often ended in confrontations and death. Thus it came as no surprise that a short lifespan would be expected under such harsh circumstances. 

But on smaller specialty purebred operations, small family hobby farms or self-sustaining homesteads, and closely managed and monitored targeted grazing operations where guardian dogs are used, LGDs typically receive more, if not better, attention from their owners, regular preventative health care and live much longer – even into their ‘teens.

Aging and elderly LGDs have special needs the owner must be vigilant to and changing requirements as aging takes it’s toll.  The following are measures the owner and operator can take to ensure their “old timers” are comfortable, cared for, and rewarded for the hard work and protection they’ve provided the operator and their flocks over so many years.

What Constitutes “Old” in an LGD?

There is not pat answer for this.  A dog that has been worked hard all his years from youth may be crippled, exhausted and “done in” by the time he reaches five.  Another who lived a less stressful life will still be vibrant and active at this age and at his peak.  Although breed type and size factors in to this, what has transpired during the dog’s life will dictate how he ages – gracefully or quickly; youthful till he is gray muzzled or finished before his time.  Large and giant LGD breeds reach their zenith in life at about four to five years of age. A smaller, lighter breed may not age as soon.  By the time most LGDs with moderate work history and in good health reach seven years of age, they are beginning to slow down and show their age. Past the age of seven the aging process increases and the operator begins to see changes in their LGD.

Changes With an Aging Dog

Here are some of the signs seen in an aging dog, many of which mirror those that we humans experience:

Graying around muzzle, ears and head
Slowing down
Soreness, stiffness, aches and pains
Increased difficulty in hearing or deafness
Increasingly protective over space or food
Requires more sleep
Change in eating habits
Weight increase or loss
Digestive issues (diarrhea, constipation)
Teeth loss, plaque build up, gum issues
Eyes begin to cloud up and sight diminishes
Discernment becomes less accurate
Barks unnecessarily or excessively at perceived threats
Decreased play with other dogs
Fatigue, becomes tired or winded sooner when working

Adjusting Your Expectations

The most important steps for LGD owners of aging dogs is to adjust accordingly and change their expectations of the dog’s work output and abilities to competently do his job.  Too many LGD owners run too few of dogs, and thus put constant pressure on their senior dogs to perform.  When the dogs begin to age, instead of cutting them needed slack by lessening their work load or bringing in young LGDs to take off pressure on old dogs, they continue to expect their senior LGDs to work at the level they did when young.  This is an unrealistic and perhaps cruel expectation. 

The time to bring in replacement pups is when your LGD is in his prime, not past it.  Ideally, when they are three to five years old.  By letting the older dog teach young pups when he is at his peak performance level ensures your pups will have a better and less stressful beginning and the transition will be much smoother.  Adding new LGDs to an established pack of working LGDs is my next topic that will be covered in depth in the Nov/Dec issue of sheep! Magazine.

The owner can better assess his old dog’s condition by observation and responding to the aging dog’s needs.  Maybe his days of realistically being able to tough it out in 30 below zero temperatures are through, and the owner needs to construct a warm, safe shelter for the dog, or bring him into a barn, lean-to or inside the house in inclement weather.

Instead of expecting him to patrol a large acreage alone, pair him up with younger dogs who can back him up.  Predators can sense when a dog is failing due to his age and will target the weakened senior dog for attack.  The operator should never set their old timer up for this.  Bring him closer to the house or barn, and back him up.  If the dog does not want to leave his flock, then be creative.  Put him with bummer lambs in the barn so he is content, or with some older ewes or rams who are penned in a smaller enclosure, closer to facilitate easier observation.  As I have promoted with puppy training, a huge juicy soup bone can buy lots of mileage in terms of a dog’s contentment. By doing this, the owner provides the older dog with a mission and fulfills his need to guard, while making it easier on him and giving him needed comfort and safety.

Proactive Health and Feeding Solutions

Anyone over the age of 50 knows what comes with aging: joints, muscles and bones begin to 'speak' of more rowdy, rambunctious, tougher days of yore: and we start paying for playing in our youth.  Dogs are the same.  Thankfully there are a multitude of remedies for aches and pains for dogs.  Older dogs will slow down and suffer pain just like humans do.  When an operator sees them struggling to get up or whining in pain or showing discomfort, check them out immediately.  Take the dog into a vet for an examination and assessment.  Once a diagnosis is given, either follow the vet's advice or, obtain a second opinion, and/or seek alternative, holistic remedies to pharma-type solutions.  

The one pain medication I always keep on hand from my trusted vet is affordable Meloxicam. It is non-steroidal and an anti-inflammatory for dogs (and humans).  A bottle of 100 tabs runs me less than $10.  Ask a vet about it's proper use and dosage.  Glucosamine is another favorite addition to older dog's diets.  I also sprinkle Dr. Harvey's Golden Years - available through Chewy.com - on my older dog's food for a supplement.  Dr. Harvey produces many great dog food supplements.  Check them all out and ask your vet for recommendations.

Feeding and Food Intake

Oldster LGDs may change eating habits.  Some eat more.  Some eat less.  As they age, their teeth deteriorate and begin to fall out; gums recede and plaque builds up.  The time comes when they may have trouble eating hard kibble; it can be moistened to facilitate easier consumption and digestion.  Then there's the topic of what is best for them to eat.  Some will prefer raw food, other owners will put their old timer on a senior variety of quality dog kibble.  Senior supplements can be used.  Old dogs may show increased food protection.  Feed them apart from others in a secure area or space where they can eat at leisure and not be competing against other dogs to get their sustenance.

The Mind

Senior dementia in dogs can take on many forms and can come gradually or quickly – depending on the dog.  With my own experience one of the biggest 'starter' flags of it has been excessive barking over things that usually didn't bother the dog, and another one is food possession.  My old timer Great Pyrenees Petra is often barking at nothing these days.  Petra hyper-responds to certain vehicles that pass by that set her off.  A gentle reminder to her that all is okay, and reassurance that she's needed and doing a good job, is what she gets from me.  She also has shown increasing turf and food control and guarding.  I assure her no one is after her food, and "her space" in the dining room by my kitchen is always a safe spot for her.  Older dogs will often pick a spot to rest where they feel less threatened and safe.  Let them do this!    Don't push them out or scold for protecting their food and space.  Redirect other younger dogs to respect it in a gentle way.  

Exercise for the Senior Dog

It's still vital that an old timer gets exercise to combat obesity that can typically set in with older dogs. My Pyrenean Mastiff Sally who's coming up on 6 years of age, is a pudgy gal who I have to really make sure gets her leg stretching and calorie burning.  She's still sharp as a tack mentally but becoming "pleasingly plump" as she ages.  This brings on stiffness.  Because in my case I free choice feed my dogs, it's pretty difficult- with 12 dogs - to only feed her certain dog food that is low calorie.  But I'm going to have to attempt it so she does not fall away to a ton!   There are many senior varieties of dog food brands that have less calories for less active dogs and are easier to digest for older dogs.  Again, Chewy.com is my source of choice and has a huge variety of top quality foods for aging dogs.

Owner’s Devotion and Compassion is Key

Dogs have feelings too.  They respond to the owner’s care and love with devotion and loyalty.  How the owner treats their old timers is so important.  Do not disrespect them or dismiss their importance.  

My older dogs get the red carpet treatment here and are always placed above younger dogs in little ways that show them they are "still a part of the picture" so they don't feel abandoned emotionally. Whether backing them up in a scrap, or letting a younger dog know it's out of line pushing an oldster out of their 'favorite spot' or away from food, I am there for them.  It is the little things like this that count.  

Truly, times come when older livestock guardian dogs must die of old age, or be compassionately put down.  Don't force an older LGD to suffer needlessly; when the time comes, let him go “over the rainbow bridge”.  Until that time comes, be an appreciative, sensitive owner who shows compassion for canine partners, and make their sunset years as comfortable as possible.  After all, they have given their lives in service.  It's the least one can do for them.


Compassion – Grow Some, Show Some

Much of what makes for a successful transition into an LGD’s Golden Years is how his owner handles it.  Be patient, understanding and compassionate with your aging LGD. Reduce expectations of your aging dog and cut him slack.  An example: my 8 ½ year old Great Pyrenees Petra is showing signs of dementia and her discernment levels are becoming less accurate.  She barked aggressively at me when I came into the house, not recognizing me at first.  Instead of chastising her, I bent down and soothingly spoke to her and stroked her head and ears as she lay in the kitchen.  I calmed her and showed affection.  By being patient and understanding the owner will give the older dog reassurance that they need not be afraid or concerned.

Friday, August 25, 2017

What Is The Way of The Pack?

What Is “The Way of the Pack?”
The first chapter from my book in progress.

© Copyright 2017
Brenda M. Negri 

“If you like sweets and easy living, skip this book. It is about men tremendously…intent on enlightenment.” --- Ekai, called Mu-mon, The Gateless Gate, early 13th Century

Before I even knew enough to name it, I was living it.

In the latter 1970’s into the mid-1980’s, I was making a hardscrabble living off the back of a horse as a full time buckaroo on huge cattle and sheep ranches, scattered across the far West in remote corners most people have never heard of. Fields, Oregon. Likely, California. Battle Mountain, Nevada. Weiser, Idaho, and countless other microscopic dots on old maps – many which no longer exist. Summering for a large cow/calf operation in a flimsy cow camp cabin with hole-pocked walls, an ancient wood cook stove, a resident pack rat and no electricity or any modern conveniences, nestled within groves of quaking aspens and ponderosa pine, accessible only by a rutted dirt road in a remote corner of Modoc County in California on the Nevada border, this is where my introduction to The Way of the Pack informally began.

Basque sheep herders passed through our area with huge bands of thousands of head of sheep to stop at our cabin and rest a day, parking their creaking horse or mule drawn wooden sheep wagons with fading, cracked green paint under the shade of a tree on the only water we had: a babbling brook tumbling down out off a mountain. Greetings were made in an awkward yet musical combination of broken English, Spanish and Basque. As night fell, a fire was built, cast iron Dutch Ovens greased and readied, and huge fresh medallions and chops of lamb, coated in butter, garlic and drenched in sangria wine, were braised then tossed into the ovens and covered in a deep pit with coals. Handmade hard crust sheepherder’s bread, slathered in hand churned butter, red wine drunk from traditional Basque leather wineskin botas, and thick wedges of smoky, hard Manchego cheese accompanied a fire lit feast under a Milky Way filled expanse of endless night sky. Far off, coyotes wailed their haunting, age old songs to us while the herder’s Great Pyrenees guardian dogs came up to the circle of firelight where we were seated; heads lowered in greeting and with softened, half lidded eyes, they cautiously yet trustingly approached us, to be given greasy chunks of lamb fat, bread soaked in drippings, meat-covered bones, and a welcomed rub behind an ear.

Call it holistic, call it “eco-friendly agriculture” before the term was even coined, let alone thought of, but it was co-existence in the purest of form. This ancient ritual was in fact, The Way of the Pack.

During those many seasons, not once did I ever witness a Livestock Guardian Dog being beaten, or wearing an electric shock collar, or kicked, or pushed away from a campfire or herder. In those days the continuum of it all was the “us” of it; how humans, nature, guardian dogs, herding dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, predators, sun, snow, wind and rain were all connected. Nothing was held at arm’s length, it was a life and a way embraced in its wholeness. We lived full time with our livestock: moving it, watching it, fretting over it, admiring it, branding it, castrating it, wondering at it, occasionally cussing it, and protecting it with our own lives 24/7. It was always thought of in terms of “us” – never “them.” It wasn’t “out there” but “in here.” It was a simple way to live that embraced and demanded loyalty, back breaking work punctured with moments of rest, and our utmost attention and commitment; it was the modest, sometimes dangerous life of a shepherd and a Great Basin buckaroo, humble caretakers of beasts clad in wool berets and dirty denim cuffed pants or dirty, blood spattered leather “chink” leggings and silver spurs ringing sweet like church bells; a way of life that was pure and often tragic, harsh and unforgiving, but true, endlessly and unspeakably beautiful, an existence drenched in awe, infused with the kind of peace only a Spartan existence in the wilderness can bring, and a foundation built on simplicity. The desolate vastness of the country we lived in demanded our utmost respect or it ate us alive. Our losses of stock were minimal because of the human presence that made predators keep their savvy distance. The dogs we used to move and protect our stock were always at our sides, and never considered simply tools, but were cherished family, friends, and confidants, who ate at our table, and slept often in our bedrolls beside us when not scattering a pack of coyotes or running off a mountain lion. The trust between shepherd and dogs was earned and mutual, the bond and respect deep and lasting.

Sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, men: we were all a family in the raw, purest sense. We were a pack that transcended species. It was a way of living that was not easy, that required courage, humility, devotion, commitment and a burning desire to understand what was going on around us in a much deeper level than we’d ever experienced. It was a way that had ancient pastoralism and transhumance as its roots and a profound, never ending, eternal soul to it.

A way so simple, that it can get along without even being named. This is The Way of the Pack: a way that is based on these five core values in living with, the use and training of Livestock Guardian Dogs:

Patience do not expect too much, too soon and give the LGD pup time to mature
Compassiondo not use harsh or cruel training methods or gadgets
Respect respect shown to your LGD will be returned
Trustallow the pup or dog to show you what he is capable of doing
Consistencydogs, like people, appreciate a routine and a level of predictability

Nothing happens fast in the maturation of a LGD pup, thus, man needs patience. Cruelty towards LGDs only begets fear, anxiety and loathing. Respect of these dogs garners respect and loyalty from them in return. Trusting an LGD enables the dog to fulfill its potential and destiny. Consistency builds contentment and security and reduces fear of the unknown.

This is a way of raising, living with and training LGDs that demands the owner taking complete responsibility for their actions and inactions. It requires honest ownership of these dogs – and of livestock. It requires accurate, frank self-assessment of the owner’s abilities and shortcomings in terms of their total dog experience, ability and capabilities to own such large, powerful and historically independent breeds. It requires an unflinching open mind willing to learn a productive yet compassionate and kind way to use these working dogs to their fullest. It requires letting go of obsessive control tactics, and trusting a dog’s instinct, even above one’s own. It demands keeping eyes and ears open and developing acute and persistent observation skills of their dogs and livestock that will enable a more fulfilling and responsible ownership experience. It calls for respecting dog’s emotions and limitations. This goes hand in hand with the owner’s developing patience and modifying expectations that are more in sync with the LGD’s capacity to provide as guardians of flocks, farms, ranches, commercial operations running on open range and herds and flocks kept under fence. It also means using other methods of non-lethal predator control in conjunction with LGDs; i.e., not laying it all on the dogs.

There are no shortcuts in The Way of the Pack, nor will you find any in this book. No easy ways out, no compromise, no tolerance of any training method that is harsh, hurtful or does not adhere to common sense. Nowhere will be found advocacy of use of physically and psychologically painful “quick fix” gizmos like electric shock collars, prong collars, heavy tire drags, and grotesque inhibiting neck “yokes.” Those are gadgets used by lazy shepherds: people who have no empathy or connection with their dogs or their livestock. Those ways have no place here.

My Livestock Guardian Dog experience began out of the blocks with a pack. I brought home three Great Pyrenees siblings to protect my thirty-plus head of goats. By starting out with this family “mini-pack,” these three grew up to be staunch, dependable guardians with minimum if any behavioral issues. They never chased or worried my livestock out of boredom because they had each other to play with. They staved off attacks from predators at a much earlier age because as a trio, they together presented a much more formidable deterrent to livestock predation than only one. By running three siblings, I was fostering and encouraging the lessons and important social skills that come naturally at a pup’s mother’s side, and in a dog pack. In turn, these three Great Pyrenees went on to mentor and teach countless pups I added on to my LGD pack and program over the years. Reliable, self-confident, trustworthy, safe and sound minded guardians, they benefitted greatly from being brought up and raised as the family they were. I became the parent, and carried on the learning process.

I didn’t know it yet, but I’d just opened the door to The Way of the Pack.

Throughout this book the LGD training methods used and promoted always put the dog’s well being first, not last. The old ways that honor the pastoral history of these breeds are recognized and followed in advocating the dog be treated as part of the family. The family is The Pack, and The Pack includes the owner/user of the LGD. The dog is respected, never demeaned. I promote the LGD owner as a nurturing and parenting pack member, not a hands off, disconnected, harsh ruling “alpha”. The training methods prescribed in this book are not magic; no PhD is required to decipher canine body language and communication; the reader need not own thousands of head of livestock, or live on hundreds of acres nor face packs of wolves on a daily basis, in order to benefit from and use these techniques with their LGDs.

What I prescribe in this book is nothing new. It is ancient. It is profound in its simplicity. I am no master, no guru of new training. I’m only one who opened their eyes and emptied their cup to see and learn from my pack of LGDs an ancient, more compassionate and ultimately better way to own, train, use and live with Livestock Guardian Dogs.

Now, it’s your turn.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Adieu, Ray Coppinger and The Livestock Guardian Dog Project

We come to bury Caesar, not praise him. 

The anxious, stiff trepidation shown in this pup's face and body language mirrors that of Coppinger's.

The man who single handedly did more in America to ruin, corrupt and misdirect ranchers, farmers and LGD users by promoting the misguided and terribly wrong "hands off, don't touch, don't socialize mantra" in LGD training, died August 14, 2017.

I - and many others - shed no tears at his passing. The practices this man promoted created the Lazy Shepherd in America.

A former sled dog trainer and racer, he winnowed his way into the agriculture world by beginning studies on LGDs - the first of their kind in America. He majored in literature and philosophy - hardly the background of a working shepherd - and was a professor emeritus of biology.

In 1976 he and his wife Lorna began the Livestock Guardian Dog Project at Hampshire University. Key to his teachings was the theory that if the LGDs were interacted with too much or handled by humans, they would not guard livestock. How wrong can one be? His tenants have since been proven to be grotesquely and terribly wrong. But - at a horrible price. There is no saying how many dogs have been ruined or mistreated by ranchers using Coppinger's ballyhooed methods for decades, because "it was the only way" they knew how to do it. Only in the past several years have people such as myself begun to speak out against his outdated and wrong practices...myself, and others like French LGD expert Mathieu Mauries, have gone on to prove that socialized and handled LGDs can and will work - in fact, we will wager they work even better than those who are not touched, handled or socialized.

As LGDs segue into a fad in America, the train wrecks happen by the week with more and more novice farmers and owners screwing up dogs because they are getting bad training advice - much of it based on Coppinger's tenants, and either from his teachings or his misguided students.

Now, Coppinger is gone. I look at it as a sign that the time indeed has come to turn the tide against the bad training such as Coppinger espoused, embrace new, and more compassionate methods of training and understanding of LGDs.

French author and LGD breeder, owner and expert Mathieu Mauries, had this to say on Facebook, and I heartily agree with his astute assessment:

Ray Coppinger, famous American researcher who worked for a long time on protection dogs in the USA, died and everyone cynophile paid a tribute to him but not me.

Indeed, 25 years after the return of the wolf the situation of protection dogs in France is catastrophic. The method developed by Ray Coppinger, which consists in isolating very young puppies in a herd with little or no contact with humans for themselves claiming to promote their attachment to animals is an aberration. The basic needs of puppies (game, protection and education by adult dogs) have been totally ignored leading to dramatic situations where dogs have often been charged with a bullet in the head. The problems posed by dogs that have been given this type of education are innumerable, particularly with regard to consumers of nature who travel our mountains.

I have devoted 360 pages to this and I have been living with a pack of 20 protection dogs for many years. My dogs and puppies are perfectly sociable and excellent in their work. I'm having a respectful relationship with them. They are companions and not tools like the method, unfortunately worldwide, by r. Coppinger. I cannot pay any tribute to this person who has poisoned the world of protection dogs with a so-called science. I speak all the more easily that I also have a solid scientific career to my asset which is the basis of the work I have devoted to the mountain of the Pyrenees, which is a wonderful protection dog.

So adieu to you, Ray Coppinger, and your aberrations, your twisted training ideas, your tweaked science and soulless lack of compassion for these great dogs.

On now to kinder and better ways…ways that respect these wonderful dogs as they deserve to be….

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