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.