Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Buckeye Enthusiast Keeps Heritage Hens Safe With Livestock Guardian Dogs

Buckeye Enthusiast Keeps Heritage Hens Safe
With Livestock Guardian Dogs

Brenda M. Negri with Barbara Judd
© Copyright 2015 Backyard Poultry Magazine

You can hear the dedication and sound reasoning in Washington farmer and heritage Buckeye breeder Barbara Judd’s voice when she says why she uses Livestock Guardian Dogs to keep her rare breed of poultry safe from depredation: 

“Buckeyes were once in the Critical Category established by the Livestock Conservancy. Thanks to their Buckeye Recovery Project, the breed moved from the Critical to Threatened category on the Conservation Priority List. I am committed to always protecting all my charges, and the fact that this chicken breed is still considered “threatened” gives the importance of their protection even heavier weight.   I decided the best protection I could give them would be Livestock Guardian Dogs.”

Using Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) to keep sheep, cattle, goats, alpacas, and other mammalians safe from harm is an age-old practice, although relatively (approximately 30 years) new in North America.  Some of the more common LGD breeds in use are the ever popular Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremma, Kuvasz and Anatolian Shepherd.  Rarer breeds such as the Spanish Mastiff, Pyrenean Mastiff and Karakachan are increasing in popularity and use.  Putting LGDs to work to guard poultry, ducks, turkeys, geese and guinea fowl is more of a recent movement in line with the increased number of hobby farms, small family ranches and homesteaders.  It’s a commitment of time, patience, and more patience, but LGDs can be successfully trained to guard poultry, and many have come to depend on their dogs to keep their flocks safe from depredation.

Barbara Judd agreed to share her story as to how she came to raising Buckeyes on her Washington farm, eventually choosing two sibling LGD pups and two adult siblings from my ranch and kennel operation in Northern Nevada.

“I had decided I wanted to breed Buckeyes.  I had fallen in love with their personality, and their story is intriguing as well,” says Judd.  “Buckeyes are a notably personable breed, very active and noted for being especially vigilant in the pursuit of mice.  They also are very friendly with people and lack the tendency to feather-pick ach other.  The males emit a full range of sounds beyond those typical of many other chicken breeds, including a dinosaur-like roar!”

Judd subsequently got on a wait list for chicks from Laura Haggarty and Pathfinders Farm in Kentucky, and received her hatchlings in spring of 2014.  Recently Judd moved to a 55 acre farm she calls Froghaven near Salkum, about an hour north of Portland.  Here she plans to increase her Buckeye flock.  “My goal is to become the go-to person for Buckeye chicks and pullets in Western Washington.  I love this breed; they are a great dual-purpose chicken for homesteads and fit in well with a back-to-the-farm sentiment.”  Barbara further adds, “The cocks can grow to 8 or 9 pounds and are good meat birds.  While as layers they are not quite as productive as a White Leghorn, for example, I understand them to live and produce for a longer period of time than the breeds that were developed for their egg-laying ability alone.”

Barbara’s new farm has a host of predators and wildlife, as did her previous one.    She admits to not having given much thought to predators at first, but one day commented to a friend, “If I lose a bird to a predator, it will be that one”, pointing out one of the gold sex-links she had.  Less than a week later, she discovered a pile of gold feathers, not 20 feet from her house, in the afternoon.  Her dire prediction had come true.  She immediately began researching how to keep her chickens safe.  “My chickens were not raised to be coyote food,” she quips.

Judd read about Livestock Guardian Dogs, “But I was extremely put off by the prevalent and popular descriptions of hands-off training and minimal human interaction.  Any dog I own is a part of my family, and I felt the hands-off, do-not-touch descriptions I read just didn’t make sense for us.”

Later that summer she lost another hen to a coyote.  Now, she was determined, as well as furious, and bound to find a solution.  Judd spent the evening researching LGDs on the Internet. 

She continues: “This time, as I looked I discovered another perspective to owning LGDs, living with them and training them, one I had not run across before.  I found Brenda Negri’s website for her Cinco Deseos Ranch in Nevada where she’d been raising LGDs since 2009.  On her site were several articles she’d authored wherein she expounded at great length about socializing LGDs with people, about LGDs being part of the family, a component of a team, not just a disposable tool or something to be kept at a distance.  She reared litters in a huge pack of working LGDs and spoke of how they were mentored and shepherded along by her older, seasoned dogs, and spoke of the continuity and consistency this produced in working pups. Her website was full of information on having LGDs as part of a small farm, small acreage, as well as the rare Spanish breeds she specialized in, being more suitable for this type of duty.”

As it happened, I had a litter of LGD pups on the ground at the time, sired by my trusted old Great Pyrenees, Peso, and a rare Italian import Pyrenean Mastiff female, Atena.  Barbara sent me a puppy application, “The stars aligned,” she chuckles, and the Judds became proud new owners of Lucy and Patty, nick named “The Pockets” as they were the two smallest pups in the huge (16 puppies) litter.  As if predestined, they also hung out together and were inseparable.  Barbara took the pair home at about ten weeks, and LGD Chicken Guarding 101 began!

Patty and Lucy’s litter had already been exposed to my own mixed flock of 40 Cochin, Brahman and Polish layers, with daily visits into the coop and chicken yard.  Barbara wisely took my advice, and bought two siblings who roughhoused with one another and wore each other out playing instead of taking out their young energy on livestock and fowl.  The pups had also been exposed to neighbor children, cattle and sheep and were showing great promise as guardians.

“Which brings up another point,” Judd adds.  “The importance of selecting a knowledgeable and reputable LGD breeder.  I had always had rescues as pets….these dogs were to be working dogs, not pets.  They were to be socialized and part of the family but I needed them to be LGDs – guaranteed – not maybes.  I needed to be certain, and not risk they’d turn out to be chicken killers instead of protectors.  So I bought LGDs from a reputable breeder, who had both parents, who were working parents, descended from working lines.  And she had references, and many, many clients who came back time and again to buy dogs only from her.  That was how reliable and trustworthy her dogs were.  Actually, the price I paid was not significantly more than which the rescue organizations ask, and in the large scheme of things is an insignificant cost when you consider the lifetime cost of caring for a pet – or as I’ve heard in poultry circles, ‘It costs the same to feed a breeder’s chick as it does a feed store chick.’”

Once settled in at the new home, Patty and Lucy’s training continued with older, calm hens who were less flighty and thus, less inclined to tempt the pups into chasing.  Judd made the training time a “treat time” by positive reinforcement.  Each pup received a treat before each short, 10-15 minute “class”.  Soon, they were reminding her it was time for “school”.

“I knew this process would take weeks, if not months,” Judd adds.  She kept the chickens and pups in a small, very manageable area, and sat with them.  No distractions were allowed: no pet dogs, no children.  “We spent time just hanging out with the chickens, and always ended on a positive note before they got tired.”  As time progressed, “The Pockets” became calm and confident around the fowl, remaining alert and interested, but no inappropriate behavior.  Judd increased the time the pups were with the flock gradually. 

“I came at training the pups in a slow and systematic, careful manner.  I learned from Brenda, from previous dog trainers and read the books by noted dog behaviorist, Turid Rugaas that Brenda insisted I read.  The pups became part of the daily chicken routine.  As puppies, they needed protection too as they were far too young to fend for themselves, so they were never left alone overnight, for example.”

Judd was also learning about unique LGD behavior, which is markedly different than non-LGD breeds.  “I can say they are nothing like other dogs I have had.  They won’t fetch, they don’t play tug o’ war.  They DO seem to notice every detail around them.”

Judd’ observations are accurate.  LGD breeds guard on ingrained instinct, not so much training, although the owner will enable, foster and encourage that guarding instinct with positive reinforcement and gentle reprimands when a pup makes a mistake.  Tying a dead chicken around a pup’s neck is an oft-quoted “solution” for problems but only encourages confusion and distrust in the pup and shouldn’t be done.  There are no short cuts to doing  “Chicken 101” with LGD pups, and the owner has to commit to the time and patience it takes.

One night, Judd woke to one of the pups barking at a bookcase.  “I had moved a large photo onto that bookcase, and Lucy noticed – something’s not where it belongs!”

A more telling incident happened a week or so after Barbara brought The Pockets home:

“We’d spent a lot of time around the chickens, in their run or out foraging.  One early evening we walked by the run and no chickens were in sight.  Patty was immediately stressed!  She sat down, whining at the run.  The chickens had simply put themselves in the coop for the night, so when the hens poked their heads back out to see what the commotion was about, Patty relaxed and was immediately satisfied.”  Judd continues, “You could see the wheels turning in Patty’s head – ‘Oh that’s where they are.  OK, everything is fine now!’  I was amazed and impressed.  These were certainly the right dogs to protect my chickens.”

From the time I began raising and using LGDs, I have always understood the importance of running these dogs in the right numbers – just as they are in Spain and other countries where the pastoral life is still alive and very much a fabric of their society.  I’ve continually lectured my clients about the advantages of running enough LGDs to properly cover the acreage, terrain, predator load and stock they have.

Dogs, like humans, must sleep and rest too, and one LGD cannot last long if it is expected to carry the load of three or four dogs.  In addition, should one dog become ill or injured, by removing him from duty, an operator’s flock or herd becomes immediately more vulnerable to attack. Where predators can easily take down one LGD, a pack of three or four dogs will present a much more serious deterrent to threats.  On my ranch, my several dogs work in  “shifts”, so there is always coverage, 24/7.  Some dogs may do a “perimeter patrol” farther out at the edge of my 5 acres while the others stay closer to the flock, barns, and my house.  Although my closest neighbors continually lose goats, sheep, horses, calves, pet cats and chickens to packs of coyotes, feral dogs, mountain lions and birds of prey, I have never suffered a single loss here.

Barbara Judd was a willing and capable pupil and took my advice about “enough dogs” to heart.  A few short weeks after the move to the larger farm, Barbara brought in two young adult Spanish Mastiffs I had bred who had to be rehomed due the owner’s relocation.  Agostin and Argenta were from my first purebred Spanish Mastiff litter, who had been guarding horses and chickens in Montana.  When she got wind of the pair being up for rehoming, and their proven experience as fowl guardians, Judd seized the opportunity to add two “chicken broke”, mature guardians, dubbed “The A Team”, to her larger acreage with its more serious predator load.

“My plan is to eventually add a small herd of goats to forage the brush and weeds, and perhaps a heritage breed of wool sheep,” Judd says.  “I knew with the larger farm acreage and more livestock, that I needed more protection than just two dogs, and the sibling pair Agostin and Argenta fit the bill to a “T”.” 

As introductions currently progress at Froghaven Farm,  “The A Team” is getting to know “The Pockets” and all is going well.  The Judds will keep their heritage flock of Buckeyes safe and sound from depredation with four very devoted Livestock Guardian Dogs.  “Since we brought Lucy and Patty we have never lost a single bird,” Judd says, and with the addition of two more dogs, they won’t be losing anything in the future, either.


"Must Do's" and Tips

·      ⤷Buy pups who are only purebred or crosses of purebred, recognized LGD breeds.  LGD breeds crossed on non-LGD breeds are unpredictable and high risk.
·      ⤷Buy from established breeders who will give references, customer support and have a proven track record of producing good guardian dogs. 
·      ⤷You get what you pay for. Quality LGD pups typically start at $500 and go up from there.  Quality going adults can cost $1,000 on up.
·      ⤷Never bring a pup home younger than 8 weeks of age and make sure all puppy vaccinations are complete, as well as several de-wormings.
·     ⤷ If possible buy pups that have been started on and exposed to poultry and fowl.  Make sure they have been regularly handled and socialized with people and are not skittish or frightened when approached.
·      ⤷Make sure your fencing is puppy escape-proof and secure.
·     ⤷ Remember that rearing LGDs to guard poultry is a labor-intensive endeavor with no magical short cuts.  Patience, time and persistence are key to success.
·      ⤷LGD pups take up to two years or more to fully mature.  Don’t expect adult work from an immature dog.

Recommended reading and related Internet links:

The Livestock Conservancy: http://livestockconservancy.org

American Buckeye Poultry Club: http://www.americanbuckeyepoultryclub.com 

Protect Your Poultry With Livestock Guardian Dogs, by Brenda M. Negri, Nov/Dec 2015 issue of Countryside Magazine

Sibling Success!  Advantages of Littermate Guardian Dogs, by Brenda M. Negri, Sept/Oct 2015 issue of sheep! Magazine

On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas, Copyright 2006 by Dogwise Publishing

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