Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Using Livestock Guardian Dogs in a Small-Scale Commercial Sheep Operation: One Ranch's Approach

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.

We operate a small scale (approximately 150 ewe) commercial sheep operation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  We've used livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in our operation as part of our predator protection strategy since 2005.  Through trial and error - and through learning from other producers and published research - we seem to have arrived at a management system with our LGDs that has resulted in a pack of dogs that fits our system quite well.  I should add that this last statement - "fits our system" - is critical!  Our approach seems to result in dogs that work for us; our system won't likely work in every circumstance.

Overview of Flying Mule Farm

Rosie with the sheep during lambing season.
We operate a "nomadic", grass-based system - we lease or get paid to graze on approximately 400 acres of annual rangeland and 20-25 acres of irrigated pasture.  Our sheep are only at our home place for 7 days out of the year - during shearing.  Since none of our pastures are fenced, we rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep - more on this later.  We lamb on pasture in the late winter and early spring, weaning our lambs in early June.  The ewes run on dry rangeland pastures until late summer, when we put them on irrigated pasture in preparation for breeding.

While our sheep operation is part-time, we do treat it as a business, keeping a close eye on economics.  Our revenue sources include the sale of feeder lambs (sold at weaning), the sale of meat (lamb and mutton), the sale of wool and wool products, the sale of cull ewes and rams, and targeted grazing services.  Depending on the lamb market, our ewes generate total revenue of $20,000-25,000 annually.  Our expenses are divided into direct costs (expenses that vary directly with the number of sheep - supplemental feed, vet costs, shearing, etc.) and overhead costs (mostly land and labor costs that we incur regardless of the number of sheep).  Our dogs - LGDs and herding dogs - are an overhead expense (essentially labor).  Dog expenses include vet costs, feed costs and depreciation (that is, we budget a small amount annually towards replacing our current dogs).

Our Approach to Preventing Predatation

The main predators in our environment, in order of importance (at least in my opinion) are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, eagles and great horned owls.  This hierarchy may change if wolves come back to our part of the state - we'll cross that bridge if we come to it!  We also worry about feral pigs in some areas - not as a predation threat but as a problem for our electric fences.

We use an integrated approach for preventing predator losses.  First, our electric fences are a deterrent to most canine predators (domestic and wild) - they don't do much to stop a mountain lion, and they just piss off the black bears.  Second, we use guardian animals (singly and in combination) to convince predators to look elsewhere for a meal.

Occasionally, we'll use a guardian llama with a group of sheep.  Our current llama is an older female.  She's very alert, especially to dogs she doesn't know.  My theory is that llamas smell and look so different than any other animal our native predators have seen that they are not quite sure how to approach them.  We will typically use a llama in a situation where a barking dog might cause problems for landowners or neighbors - but we only use a llama when we're fairly certain we won't have problems with mountain lions.  Our joke is that a llama's strategy for dealing with a lion is to stand in the middle of the sheep and point out the slow ones!

The mainstay of our predator protection strategy is our LGDs.  Over the years, we've used a variety of breeds - Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd and Maremma (and various crosses of these breeds).  While there are some behavioral differences between breeds, we've had good success with most of them.

We try to incorporate dogs into our system as if they were the large canine predator in their environment.  Rather expecting them to fight off predators, we hope that they will displace predators from our rangeland ecosystem.  I think they do this through normal canine behaviors - marking territory and protecting their "pack" (the sheep).  We've never had to shoot a predator where we've had LGDs with the sheep.  In fact, I believe that our dogs come to an "understanding" with the predators in their neighborhood - the predators know the sheep are off limits.  I would worry that killing a predator would encourage new predators (who don't understand our "system") to fill that niche.

For the most part, we find that the combination of a single dog and our electric fence is sufficient protection for the sheep.  In some situations when we've been grazing in large paddocks (>5 acres) in brushy terrain, we'll use two dogs together.  We would use more dogs if we started having a predation problem, but so far this system seems to be working.  I'll admit - this is an economic consideration for us.  A single LGD costs about $500 per year to keep.  Unless we start having a significant economic loss due to predators, I'm not inclined to increase our LGD numbers.

Socialization and Bonding with the Sheep

Over my 47 years, I've probably raised 15-20 dogs from puppy to adulthood.  Until I started raising LGDs, however, I didn't really think much about socializing puppies - I figured all dogs needed to socialize with humans extensively.  Consequently, the first two LGDs we purchased as puppies were failures as guardians - they were/are great pets, but they ultimately decided that they'd rather be with humans than with sheep.

We purchased our first LGD, Scarlet, from a rather reclusive goat rancher in eastern Yuba County.  Scarlet, an Akbash x Pyrenees cross, was approximately 6-months old when we purchased her.  We immediately put her to work with our ewes, which were grazing on leased property near Grass Valley.  Despite a few problems caused by her overly developed maternal instinct during her first lambing season, Scarlet did quite well.  Our mistake was in showing her a good deal of affection in all situations - if she got out, I tried to make coming to me a pleasant experience.  I used a soft voice and a great deal of praise to get her to come to me - which I think she eventually craved more than being with her sheep.  By the time she was 3 years old, she wouldn't stay in our electric fence - she decided she'd rather hang out in the yard of the folks who lived on the property.  We ultimately gave her to a friend in Colfax, where she's made a great pet on a large (500+ acre) property.

Fast-forward to today.  We currently use two LGDs with our sheep - Rosie and Reno.  Rosie is an Akbash x Anatolian from a litter born at our home place in 2011.  Both parents were outstanding working dogs, and Rosie has proven to be one of our best.  The litter was whelped in our barn where they could hear and smell sheep from birth.  Our interaction with the puppies was limited to giving them vaccinations, trimming their toenails, and eventually feeding them.  We tried not to overly socialize them - we wanted them to bond from an early age with their "pack" - the sheep.  From the outset, Rosie was the shyest pup in the litter.  We sold her to a large operation in the Delta, where they kept her initially with the bummer lambs in the lambing barn.  Later, when they tried to move her out into larger pastures (200-300 acre), she kept returning to the barn.  We decided to swap her for her father (who is an incredibly athletic dog).  Boise adapted to the larger rangeland environment quite well, and Rosie did equally well in our electric fencing.  She's still quite shy, but she's our most trustworthy dog (by far) in terms of staying with the sheep in all circumstances.  When we move sheep from one property to another, I can trust her to stay with the sheep while we're herding them with our border collies.  If she gets out for some reason, she'll usually lay by the fence until we arrive to let her back in.
Reno with his girls.

All of this is not to say that I will tolerate a dog that is aggressive with people.  I think there's a balance in the socialization process - our dogs need to be comfortable with people but not so attached that they'll leave our sheep.  And every dog - like every person - is different.  The training approach we used with Rosie might not have worked with Scarlet.

I've recently heard from several people who assert that a dog will only bond with livestock if he's neglected or even abused by his owner or shepherd.  That has certainly not been my experience.  Rosie, who has never been mistreated, would much prefer to be with sheep than with people. I do think it's possible to be kind to a dog without being overly affectionate.
Rosie - on one of the rare occasions in which she
wants to be petted!

Finally, I think the animal behavior principles we try to use with sheep dogs, livestock and horses also apply to LGDs.  We use a system of pressure and release from pressure to help shape behavior.  Applied correctly, a pressure-release system mimics the way that animals teach behavior norms in a pack or herd situation.  For example, a mother dog will growl at her puppies if they are doing something she doesn't want them to do.  Similarly, I'll use a gruff voice and displeased body language if I'm trying to help a dog understand that it's current behavior is undesirable.  Once the dog changes its behavior (even if the new behavior isn't exactly what I'm looking for), I'll immediately shift to a kind voice - a reward for trying something different.  We apply this to our LGDs by reserving a soft voice for the times that the dogs are behaving well - staying with stock, etc.  If a dog misbehaves - chases stock, plays with a lamb, or gets out of the paddock, for example  - I'll use a gruff voice and a hard look.  If the dog persists in the undesirable behavior and looks for approval, I'll refuse to look at it or face it.  In an extreme case, where a dog might play with a lamb to the point of injuring or killing it, I'll grab it by the ruff and pin it to the ground - just as an alpha dog might do.

LGDs in Retirement

Sometimes, Buck will hop in the truck to go see the sheep
(and his buddy, Reno)
Buck is enjoying his retirement!
We've recently retired Buck, our oldest LGD.  Buck was an outstanding lambing dog for many years - we called him Uncle Buck because he would lay in the paddock during the day and let the lambs climb on him.  Despite is calm demeanor with the sheep, he was always on guard.  I've watched at night sit beneath a tree in a pen of lambing ewes and bark at the great horned owl in the treetop until it left.  About a year ago, though, Buck started growing senile (we think he's currently 11 or 12 years old).  The first time we noticed it was when we had him at home protecting a small group of lambs.  One morning we noticed he was gone.  I drove the neighborhood looking for him without success.  I'd just given up when a neighbor who has sheep called - they live about a mile away as the crow flies, or about 2.5 miles away by road.  Buck had shown up at their place and jumped in with their sheep (their guard dog, apparently figuring it was vacation time, retired to the front porch).  Buck refused to let the neighbor's husband into the pasture to feed the sheep.  Over the next 2-3 months, Buck wandered off with increasing frequency - often forgetting where his own sheep were.  We brought him home to stay last summer.  He's still in good shape physically (good enough shape to clime a 42" fence), but he's not all there mentally.  We figure he's earned a comfortable retirement - and we hope he dies of natural causes.


One of the things I like most about raising livestock and using dogs (LGDs and herding dogs) is the constant learning.  I'm always learning new things - if I'm paying attention!  I think one of the most important things I've learned is that every dog - and every sheep - is different, as is every situation and environment.  We need dogs that are closely bonded with sheep, that are able to think for themselves, and that are comfortable without a lot of human interaction.  This type of dog doesn't fit every situation - if we lived on the property where we raise sheep, I'd need/want a different type of dog.  Similarly, not every dog will thrive in a situation like ours.  Perhaps the key to using LGDs is matching the dog to the job and vice versa.

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