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Some Observations on Guard Dog Behavior

On my lunch hour today, I let sheep into a new paddock that I had constructed before work this morning.  This new paddock is bounded on three sides by electric fencing, and on the remaining side by an existing field fence.  On the other side of this field fence is my landlords' vegetable garden and back yard.  While they love having the sheep "mow" their irrigated pasture, they're not wild about having sheep in the garden or the yard.  That said, they would like the sheep to graze right up to the field fence - grazing the weeds helps keep garden pests like squash bugs at bay.

I'm always a little nervous about relying on a fence that isn't my own electric fence.  Old field fence, especially, often has gaps where wires have broken - gaps that are big enough for an ambitious lamb to squeeze through.  I always check these fences carefully, but I'll often miss holes that the sheep eventually notice.  Or maybe the guard dog - and that's what happened today.

First a note about guard dog behavior.  Our livestock guardian dogs live with the sheep around the clock.  Their job is to protect the sheep from threats - mostly other critters (in area, these include coyotes, mountain lions, neighbor dogs, owls, and the occasional eagle).  There are other threats - people, wildfire, floods, etc. - with which we've had little experience (thankfully).  I have heard stories of guardian dogs leading sheep or goats to safety in the midst of a wildfire.  Our dogs receive very little training - mostly because I want them to bond with our livestock, not with me.  I want them to know their names, to at least look at me when I call to them and to allow me to attend to their general health (apply flea/tick control, check feet for foxtails, etc.).  Anything beyond these basics, and I've found that a dog wants to spend more time with me than with the sheep.  In essence, we're training these dogs that they are the alpha in a pack of very wooly, fangless dogs.

Our dogs seem to respond to threats with a series of potentially escalating actions.  When they first perceive a threat, they will place themselves between the sheep and the threat and evaluate the need for further response.  Last week, a magazine photographer wanted to shoot some photos of our ewes.  When we arrived, I fed Reno (a 4-year-old Anatolian) before inviting the photographer into the paddock.  She began taking pictures, and asked me to herd the flock towards her for some up-close action shots.  She crouched down to snap pictures, and Reno was instantly on hand - standing between her and the sheep.  He never barked or acted aggressively, but it was clear that he was concerned about what she was doing - and a 100+ pound dog doesn't have to bark to be intimidating!  If physical presence doesn't suffice, our dogs will begin to bark - and they have impressive barks.  If additional deterrence is necessary, guard dogs will attack a predator.  I've never observed this in our own dogs - I'm pretty sure their size and their bark usually work!

Guard dogs also work in an ecological sense - that is, they seem to fill the niche in our environment that must be filled by a large canine (typically a coyote).  They fill this niche by exhibiting typical large canine behaviors.  For example, when we let a flock into a new pasture, the dog will walk the entire perimeter of the field sniffing and marking its territory (by urinating and defecating along the fenceline).  If their happens to be a dead rabbit or other small animal in the paddock, they will eat it (they typically aren't fast enough to catch these animals, but they will scavenge).

And this brings me back to the story I started to tell!  As I was getting ready to leave, Rosie greeted me at the truck - outside the new paddock she'd just gone into.  Rather than get upset with her, I just called to her and then watched.  She went back to the hole she'd found and crawled back into the paddock.  I patched up the hole and thanked Rosie for her help!

Like any system, it takes time to learn how to work with guard dogs.  When we got our first dog, Scarlet, I would have spent all afternoon trying to catch her and put her back with the sheep.  Today I watched and waited (and not for very long).  I guess that's one of the things I like about the way we raise sheep!


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