Our dogs have been bred for generations to maintain a level of autonomy while guarding and are quite capable of making decisions based on their own knowledge and experience. Some puppies, especially if left to their own devices will practice play behaviors with their livestock. This behavior must be discouraged, as it can cause further aggression issues, and injury or death if it continues to escalate, an experienced adult guardian should never do this. I’ve included two videos of Hoss, our wise and mature livestock guardian dog exhibiting correct behaviors.To help our puppies reach this level of expertise, we provide daily guidance and reinforce lessons modeled and taught by the older dogs in the pack.
Basically, the older dogs model appropriate behavior, and both they and we humans redirect puppy behavior that is less optimal. It is this sort of partnership, along with great instincts, that allowed Hoss to reach the outstanding level of guardian skill that he displays in these clips.
In the first video, our 7 month old Nubian buck Gambit has just been turned out of his pen to move to the buck pasture. You will see that Hoss, who is with me observing, becomes the target of Gambit’s play drive. Hoss’s behavior here is very appropriate: he refuses to engage in play with Gambit.
In this second video taken the same day, Gambit has now decided to tease an older Nigerian buck. At this point, the play is getting out of hand and Hoss intervenes.
But Hoss was not always a mature livestock guardian. We raised him and worked with him (and all our dogs!) to cultivate guarding instincts.
One of the most important elements of raising and working with livestock guardian dogs is learning which interactions with livestock are acceptable and which are not. And as with humans, appropriate behavior depends on the animal’s age. When introducing puppies to livestock, move slowly, speak softly, and give the impression that this perfectly natural. Nothing extraordinary is happening. Livestock guardian puppies are intended to meet livestock, so it is important to avoid communicating any concern or anxiety to the puppies. When you first introduce the puppies to livestock, it is normal to see puppies who are curious and approach the animals. It is acceptable for them to walk around, sniff and wag their tails as long as they keep calm. One of the best ways to do this, if you can, is to introduce puppies to older, more experienced livestock who are accustomed to having dogs around. Unacceptable behaviors include jumping around, barking and, of course, biting or mouthing the other animal. If unacceptable behaviors occur, you need to gently intervene and distract the puppy from unwanted behavior. In some cases the livestock will put a stop to unwanted behavior by gently butting the puppy away. (Of course, you need to be ready to step in if the animal’s reprimand is not gentle.)
Another important element, because dogs are individuals, is being around to observe behaviors from the very beginning. If you are a small sustainable farm and you have the luxury of spending time outside observing both dogs and livestock, take advantage! It is important for several reasons to get to know your animals. All animals that live in family groups such as packs, herds and flocks have a hierarchy and it is important for you to know each animal’s role. In addition, you will likely see when dynamics within the group are changing. You will already know which animals are laid back, which are higher energy, and how they interact with each other. These important factors, which start out as fun facts about life on your land may eventually also be clues to changes. Observation time will often allow you to notice early alerts that something is not right. This extra sensitivity and time may someday save the life of an animal or save you from an expensive veterinary visit, or both!
When you get to know your animals, and have shaped appropriate puppy behavior, you will see the young dogs mature into the guardians they are born and bred to be. Livestock guardian dog owners have, for generations, marveled and documented the wisdom and kindness of these breeds. Our two video clips are brief examples, and exist alongside countless other examples known and unknown. With time and patience, you will have your own stories to add to the legacy.
Puppies and litter mates Jubilee and Chimera (5 months old) already exhibit the benefits of raising siblings together. Notice how they prefer to play with each other, rather than with the sheep. Also, as they get too close to the sheep, they stop and turn away from them. This is a direct result of two factors. First, they were born and started in a pack environment. This makes for calm, adaptable and confident puppies who leave their pack with foundational LGD behaviors already well-shaped. No one speaks the language of dog as well as another dog! Second, raising siblings together allows the pups to maintain a pack dynamic in which they can rehearse and reinforce their new LGD skills. As these siblings grow, they will develop more sophisticated skills and function as a true team to protect their herds and flocks. Jubilee and Chi are now building their livestock guarding skills at Bridget and Ben Piccioni’s Heritage Forks Farm in Veneta OR.