Friday, November 3, 2017

Dog on Duty! How to Approach a Working Livestock Guardian Dog

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,
Dogwise, 2008

Turid Rugaas, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Dogwise Publishing, 1997, 2006

Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt, Stress in Dogs, Dogwise Publishing, 2007

Search This Blog