Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Fire and Disaster Prepping your Livestock Guardian Dogs

Sheep! Magazine's January/February 2018 issue has my article on fire and disaster prep for your Livestock Guardian Dogs. Get your copy today: 

Fire and Disaster Prep
Your Livestock Guardian Dogs

Brenda M. Negri
Copyright 2017

The recent raging California wine country fires of 2017 have brought a sobering death toll that, at the time of this writing, is over 40. Losses and damages are in the multi-millions of dollars. Many homes, businesses, schools, small farms, homesteads and ranches have been consumed and lost to flames, and with those losses, untold loss of life in livestock, pets and wildlife.

A disturbing news article on the Internet showing the miraculous survival of a Livestock Guardian Dog and it’s eight goats in California after the owners abandoned them to oncoming raging flames, created heated debate and outrage on both sides, with supporters and critics alike arguing the right and wrong of the owner’s actions – and inactions. While the victims were praised by many and a crowd funding set up to help them rebuild, just as many if not more people questioned their lack of preparation and most of all, the fact that they literally left their animals behind to die a horrible death – understandably sparking outrage and disbelief. Regardless of one’s position on that incident, the article showed what happens when people don’t plan ahead wisely, and how important it is for livestock owners to have a solid plan of escape should fire threaten their property. This preparation needs to include not just humans, but livestock and the animals that guard and protect that livestock – whether they are dogs, llamas or donkeys. Leaving them behind to die an agonizing death in flames is NOT an option that moral, caring and responsible owners exercise.

In 2014, Countryside Magazine published a wonderful educational short article by Mary Wilson titled Fire Evacuation Procedures for Your Livestock: Packed with sound advice, it included a pertinent list of five “must do’s” in the event of a fire on one’s ranch, farm or homestead:

The 5 P’s of Executing Immediate Fire Evacuation Procedures:

    People, pets, and livestock
    Papers—important documents
    Prescriptions—medications, eyeglasses, hearing aids
    Pictures—Irreplaceable memories
    Personal computer

Where I live in Northern Nevada open range country, range fires are fast moving, deadly, and feared above all else. I have had several range fires come dangerously close to my ranch and on each occasion, along with my neighbors, had essentials packed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice, and spent many sleepless nights on fire watch. Ranchers in my country have evacuation plans and are prepared to fight then flee when the time comes. Many new hobby farmers however, do not think about fire prevention and preparation tips until it’s too late. The mindset is often more of “oh, it can’t happen to me,” when in fact, it very well could. Living here with a huge pack of Livestock Guardian Dogs means I must think about how I will get them – and my sheep and cattle – to safety when the time comes. Leaving them behind to die is of course, out of the question!

Part of responsibly owning and using LGDs goes far beyond them just keeping your livestock free from harm year in and year out. It means YOU, the owner, have a plan in place to keep your LGDs safe and alive in the time of a fire, too.

Livestock Guardian Dog Preparation

Importance of Socialization and Handling: In the case of the above-cited California fire where the LGD was left behind with goats to die, the argument many cited was that “the dog refused to leave his goats,” inferring that this was the reason the dog was left behind. The fact that a LGD wants to stay with the stock it is protecting is never a reason or an excuse to leave behind a LGD! Responsible LGD owners know this, and have a plan in place to move dog and stock out of the way of dangerous flames.

If there ever was an argument for rearing LGD pups hands on with daily human interaction and socialization, this is it. I live with a large pack of LGDs, many of whom weigh well in excess of 200 pounds. I am able to safely leash or halter all of my dogs, and have them come with me calmly and quietly. No “hands off, don’t ever touch” methods here, and safe evacuation during a fire is just one of a plethora of reasons why. How could anyone expect to shepherd their dogs and flocks out of the path of oncoming fires, when their LGDs run or flee at the sight of a human because they are afraid of them, because they’ve never been handled or barely touched by man?

As inconceivable as it may be to some, there are still many LGD owners (and breeders) who still subscribe to this sorely outdated practice. Promoted by early LGD researcher, the late Ray Coppinger, who claimed touching or handling LGDs would somehow diminish or “ruin” their guarding instincts, sadly this much ballyhooed and disproved bad “science” went on to become mantra in the USA. Strongly discouraged now by respected authorities and organizations such as the American Sheep Industry, thankfully the past several years have seen a complete reversal of this theory as most LGD owners realize, the ability to handle a guardian dog safely is paramount to safe, responsible ownership and use. It’s been shown time and again that regular handling, socialization and kindness from owners in no way shape or form, diminishes a good guardian dog’s protective instincts. Be smart – buy and use only safe, socialized and handled LGDs. Keep them that way by regular interaction with them! You need not turn them into obedience champs who’ll sit, lie down or do tricks on command, either. Simply having a dog that can be safely approached, collared and/or leashed or harnessed and led, is enough. Why?

An LGD who can be caught, leashed and/or harnessed by it’s owner, can be safely led out of a field, paddock or corral by the owner, while others can get behind the flock of sheep or goatherd, and shepherd them along as the LGD and owner lead the way out of the endangered area either to a waiting trailer. By doing this, the dog is still with his charges. He’s happy – he’s still with his flock and does not stress out over being separated from them. You bring both dogs and livestock to safety. Assuming the owner owns a stock trailer, the dog and sheep or goats can be loaded up in the trailer together and hauled away from the approaching fire.

Chuck Avila, above with his Spanish Mastiff Zaca modeling a humane,
easy to use halter. If your LGD is "collar and leash shy", consider trying a halter such as Chuck uses here. This way you have a method to be able to bring your dog along in the event of a disaster or fire.

Practice Makes Perfect: Trailering up LGDs and stock need not be a chaotic and stressful event. Some dry practice runs can make it routine. Bring your stock trailer close to the paddock where your livestock is. Collar and/or harness up your LGD and lead him into the trailer and then once inside, give him a treat – I mean a real treat too, like a raw chicken leg, a chunk of beef heart or his favorite edible reward, what ever it may be. Lots of praise and calming talk will add to the dog’s comfort and he’ll soon associate going into the trailer with a positive – not negative – experience. Shepherd in a few sheep or goats as you do this so that they learn to trailer as well. If you take them off feed for several hours before doing this, by placing some grain or a flake of hay in the trailer, you can more easily entice the sheep or goats to jump in and dine. By doing this you also make trailering a treat for them, too. Stay calm and relaxed, make it a “fun” time and include all family members in this prep work so anyone is able to do this. By making it routine, it’ll be less stressful when the time comes for real evacuation, and everyone will be less stressed because they’ve done this many times. Advance preparation like this a few times a year can make all the difference in the time of a crisis and help things to run much more smoothly. Proactive planning aces panicked reaction every time!

No Stock Trailer? No Problem: What if you don’t own a stock trailer or means to haul your dog and livestock? Well, think about investing in one; even if it is a used “old banger” that can still provide safe transportation. But if even that is not on the radar for you financially, there are other options: neighbors with trailers may be able to loan you one, or you can set up an evacuation plan that includes them swinging by your farm or homestead to pick up your stock after theirs are safely trailered up. I know this is part of my evacuation plan after I had to disburse of my gooseneck trailer – I have options.

But say that isn’t an option in your case, either. This is where some smart planning and preparation come in. By drawing up a map of your property with it’s gates and surrounding roads, you can draw up evacuation plans that can immediately be put into action in the event of a fire. Review it at least once a year to keep it fresh in your mind, and implement any changes that may come up with new fencing or construction. Depending on what direction the fire is approaching from, you can draw up an evacuation plan of safely bringing your LGDs and stock out of outer fields, into smaller corrals or barns, and then shepherded out of a gate into the open or roads that will lead away from the fire.

Where I live the country is huge and there are large tracts of unfenced land that are Bureau of Land Management or US Forest Service. In the event of a range fire, many ranchers here are unable to load up their large number of cattle or sheep in trailers fast enough to get them out of the path of oncoming flames. So the “open the gates and let them out” plan is what is used. Ranchers in my area will throw open all the gates, and if time allows, push stock out into the open range or roads where the stock can then move out of the way of the fire.

Typically in my area, many roads are lined with fences of adjoining properties so stock can be easily and safely driven down the road without scattering to the four winds. But even if these were not present, the main goal is still met; as the stock will by nature, want to go in the direction that is away from the flames. By doing this a large band of sheep or commercial goat herd and its guardian dogs can be shepherded to safety by herders; cattle can be moved by buckaroos on horseback to a safer area. In many cases, barbed wire fences are cut and pulled down so stock is never trapped against a fence line in front of advancing flames. In other words, if we can’t get all the stock out, we set it up so the stock can at the very least, get themselves out to safety. It’s considered common sense in my neck of the woods – and compassionate and responsible. No leaving behind to die!

Be Proactive and Pay Attention

In this electronic age where even ranchers, homesteaders and hobby farmers are seemingly glued to televisions, computers and smart phones, many “pre-Internet dinosaur” folks in the agriculture arena shake their heads at the seeming increase in lack of common sense amongst many people who are new to ranching and farming. Don’t become a “cyber shepherd” who is too busy posting to Facebook to pay attention what’s going on around them in the real world. Don’t depend on social media to keep you safe! Use your eyes, ears and nose – you know, the “pre Internet” tools your body was equipped with to keep you alive. Watch the horizon, take note of wind shifts and follow your nose when you smell smoke. Watch your animals. Are they telling you something by the way they are suddenly acting strangely? Do they smell smoke when you don’t?

Establish a network with your neighbors and a phone tree and keep tabs on where fires are. Only foolish farmers have the attitude that “it won’t come this far” or, “I don’t need to worry.” Always plan for the worst. Never assume you’ll be safe, never procrastinate and never use the excuse that “well, it just came up on us too fast” to cruelly abandon animals behind to die horrific deaths. Be proactive and creative in your plans. Create defensible space around buildings, barns, haystacks, outbuildings, homes. Make sure waterlines are operational and always have your stock tanks topped off with water. Make sure your Livestock Guardian Dogs can be safely handled, collared and leashed or harnessed, to lead to safety along with your livestock. Unplug from Internet farming and get in touch with the real world around you and plan for the worst so when it happens, you, your loved ones, your livestock and your precious four legged protectors will live through a crisis. It takes some planning, some common sense and work but it will repay you in the end with precious lives saved.


Tools of the Trade: the Shepherd’s Crook or Staff

Ancient in it’s origin and use, the humble wooden shepherd’s crook or staff is typically found in the hand of shepherds in the Old World as they trail along their flocks in the age old practice of transhumance – moving huge bands of sheep across mountains and plains in seasonal search for grazing and food. Crooks now come in a variety of sizes and shapes and can be metal or wood. Every shepherd and sheep owner should have one. Besides giving you support as you stand and walk, they come in handy when it’s time to catch or drive sheep into a chute or trailer. During an emergency evacuation, a crook can help you catch and move sheep when it matters most. They can be bought in some feed stores and online by such companies as Premier 1 Supplies. Here is an informative article about the many types and uses for shepherds crooks:

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