Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dog Days (of Autumn)

Last weekend, we hosted a two-day sheep dog clinic with our friend Ellen Skillings.  In the midst of the weekend (during which we learned a tremendous amount), our livestock guardian dog, Vegas, gave birth to 8 puppies.  What a weekend!

I've written before about my amazement with abilities and intelligence of border collies.  I find livestock guardian dogs to be equally amazing, but for different reasons.  Vegas, who is an Akbash-Anatolian cross dog, is proving to be a wonderful mother.  Our guardian dogs (we have four adult dogs) live with our sheep around the clock.  Since we've had guard dogs, we've not lost a single animal to a predator (provided the sheep were with the dogs).

Guardian dogs use a strategy of escalating aggressiveness to ward off predators, which in our neighborhood include coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and domestic dogs (the latter are often the biggest threat).  Our guardian dogs will first bark to warn a predator not to come any closer.  If the predator persists, the dogs will bristle and snarl.  The third and final stage of defense is for the guardian dog to attack the predator.  To my knowledge, none of our dogs has ever reached this third stage, probably because the first two are incredibly intimidating.

Guardian dogs must be bonded with the animals they are to protect.  This means that puppies are socialized with sheep or goats rather than people.  For me, this is the most difficult part of rearing guardian dog puppies - they are amazingly cute and cuddly, but cuddling spoils them for their life's work.  Vegas' pups were whelped in our barn.  We have a handful of ewe lambs at home, and while we haven't allowed them into the stall with the puppies, the pups will be able smell, hear and eventually see them from the start.

I joke with school kids that one of the best parts of my job is the fact that I get to go to work with my dogs everyday.  The more I think about it, the less I believe it's a joke - I love to work with my dogs.  I've always had dogs as pets, but working dogs - both herders and guardians - make incredible partners.

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