“Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up”

Our brave livestock guardian dog.
Our brave livestock guardian dog.

I spoke with a neighbor this weekend who said she is having a terrible time with domestic dogs chasing and/or killing her livestock. So, she’s been shooting them (this is entirely legal, btw). I don’t blame her, this kind of predation is perhaps the most frustrating of all, because it doesn’t need to happen. These dogs have kibble at home, they aren’t trying to make a living like a wild predator, they are just out having a good time! Continue reading ““Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up””

The Odd Couple: Ears, Eyes, Bark and Bite

lgsHere is our livestock guardian pair, displaying their somewhat adversarial relationship. Neither one is really afraid of the other, and they haven’t thus far hurt each other and don’t seem to have intent to. But, the dog enjoys getting some sport out of hassling the llama by barking at her, and leaping up to air-snap at her head. This annoys the llama to no end, and she swings her long neck around with flattened ears, trying to communicate her irritation. Sometimes she even spits at the dog, but the dog doesn’t mind and keeps at her lively sport. ūüôā Continue reading “The Odd Couple: Ears, Eyes, Bark and Bite”

Living With Coyotes: Part 2

yingyang1How¬†to¬†live in¬†balance with your local coyote population? Here’s some of my thinking and learning thus far.

Of course the first¬†temptation is to shoot at them, there is a very alluring¬†promise of an immediate sense of “justice” and relief¬†of seeing that thief dead!¬†Removing certain animals from the population is a valid part of predator management. But, only a part. Continue reading “Living With Coyotes: Part 2”

Herding Mayhem

herdingmayhemWhen we got Bronte the LGD, I was a bit worried about how things would go when she was first introduced to the Border Collies. While she was penned with the sheep in the small pen, if the Border Collies passed by outside the pen, she would snarl and threaten them. Which is good, it’s her job to deter strange dogs that look like they want to eat the sheep. But, clearly it would be ideal if the Border Collies could work without having to to lock up the LGD.

It turns out, there was nothing to worry about. When I first moved the sheep down to the pasture, a few times I had to work them, to get them into their Electronet pen. So, I just did it, to see how it would go. And Bronte was OK with it. The only annoying thing is she definitely gets in the mix. She is curious about the Border Collies, and wishes they would play. But, they ignore her, like she is a gnat flying around in their field of view, not a nearly 100 pound pup trying to pounce on them! They have zero interest in play or fraternizing with other dogs when there are sheep to work.

So, it makes for challenging herding. Bronte switches between getting in the way of the collies and getting in the middle of the sheep, and then sometimes throws in some llama-hassling for fun, too. It’s good practice for the collies, they really have to handle a lot of different pressure points when there is a dog running randomly through the sheep, the llama is sparring with the dog, and then the ewes are all stubborn and protective of their lambs and don’t want to move.

In this photo, you can see Maggie way in the back, behind the llama (who is showing her Angry Ears at this process). Maggie is trying to get this crowd bunched together and moving towards me. But Bronte is strolling through the middle, with her tail high in delight over the mayhem. The ewes are all spread out, and they turn on Maggie and stomp if she pushes too hard. But, she is able to get the job done, with some patience and an occassional, warranted grip.

I haven’t been working Gene as much, because this is very difficult for her and takes more time. Gene will feel too much pressure and kick out “into orbit,” and it’s hard for me to call her in to work the sheep consistently with all this chaos, she doesn’t like it. And, if she is off contact, the sheep spread too much, Bronte starts pulling on lamb tails and legs, and I start to yell! Hopefully a little later in the summer Gene will get some more chances to work, once Maggie has the lambs all dog broke.

Maggie is also the best tempered for the chore I am doing every three days now: moving the Electronet “square.” Maggie is “sticky” – she loves nothing more than to get sucked into the sheep, using her eye, and get them in a deadlock where nobody is moving. This is a very annoying trait when I want her to move them and she is frozen¬†in space and time, and no amount of verbal commanding can un-stick her.¬†But, it comes in handy when I need her to hold! I can park her anywhere holding the sheep and leave her, and she’ll keep them there.

So, when I’m ready to move the square, I park Maggie in the sheep in one corner of it. I move the other corner, then move Maggie and the sheep into it. Then I move the other half and box them all back in, and call Maggie off. I find that having Maggie hold the sheep in a tight bunch makes things less risky while Bronte has access to the sheep. She is less stimulated by that, versus having the sheep spread out in the pasture, where she can start to chase them and get to tugging on the lambs. I don’t want her to get in the habit of this, so I try to keep things very boring for her when she has a few minutes “in” with the sheep.

Shedding Sheep

shedderOur Katahdins are all in various states of shedding off their winter hair coats. This is #10 and her ram lamb. You can see her winter coat peeling off her shoulders. Once they are done shedding, they look so clean and trim!

The birds have been appreciating the wool in the field, we often see them carrying it off for nesting material.

A few days ago, when I was out in the field moving fencing, a woman stopped by. She asked if I would move the dog house to be closerto the sheep, so that Bronte would be more likely to use it (she hasn’t gone near it that I know of).¬† The woman and I talked for a while, I told her a bit about the Maremma breed, and about Bronte and her life as a livestock guardian. In the end, she said, “ok, thank you, I feel better now.” I guess it’ll just take a lot of education to convince people that Bronte’s life isn’t so horrible after all!

Bronte Has a House

doghouseI built this for our constituents, so they’ll feel happy that Bronte has a proper house. So far, she seems pretty disinterested in it, even in the rain. We’ll see if she feels like she needs it!

A few days ago, we looked out the kitchen window to see a tall man hopping over the locked gate in the pasture. I tell ya, people just seem to think they’re alone out there, and free to do whatever they want. I trotted down there, unnoticed by him, caught his attention as he was coaxing the dog (who was having nothing to do with him). I said, “excuse me, sir,¬†would you like to¬†tell me what you’re doing in our pasture?”

He suddenly became awkward and embarrassed. He claimed he was from the Sheriff’s office (shoot, later I wish I would have demanded to see his ID so I could have ratted him out for searching without a warrant!). He said was having dinner at a nearby restaurant when a woman talked him into checking up on the dog. She told him there was a puppy tied up in an abandoned field with no food, water or shelter.

He acknowledged that what she described was not at all what he saw, that he was picturing a tiny puppy tied on a short rope in squalid conditions. Not an 80-pound, woolly, well-fed guard dog in a 4-acre green pasture. He confirmed the dog looked healthy and not in conditions that are anywhere near what would be legally concerning. He groaned that people often call the Sheriff over supposed animal abuse cases that turn out to be false alarms, wasting their time that could be better spent on real crimes.

I offered to give him my phone number to pass on to the concerned citizen, if she wanted to talk. But he shook his head, and said he’s straighten her out. He apologized for trespassing, made his excuses and quickly skedaddled.

What to Feed the LGD

dogfoodI have not fed commercial kibble to my dogs in over a decade; I had long ago convinced myself from much reading and research that the ingredients in commercial food cannot be trusted. I enjoy making homemade food for my dogs, and my dogs seem very healthy for the effort.

So, when we got Bronte, the Livestock Guardian Dog, I was torn. How much homemade food would she eat, and how much work would it be to deliver her a fresh bowl of food every day? I decided to keep her on dog food at first, to be consistent with what she was eating before, and then ponder the question.

But, right away, I noticed she picked at her food, one kibble at a time. I always feel this is a sign that the dog’s body is complaining that the food is not right for the dog, and they are only driven to eat it when they are truly very hungry. Whereas, when you are eating things that are exactly what your body needs, generally they taste delicious. So, after a few days, I broke down and offered her a collie-style dinner. She gobbled it up.

So, now I’m compromising: I make her the same amount of raw food as the collies get, and then I back-fill with about another 5-6 cups of kibble. I’ve heard that LGDs don’t really eat that much, since they are generally lazy and have a slow metabolism. But, thus far, she is eating a lot! Hopefully it’s because she’s growing. The only saving grace is, at least she is tax deductible as a farm expense!

For the kibble, I’m trying to stick with the “better” brands.¬†I have a lot of concerns about the massive and rapid growth stages the “giant” breeds go through, and feel that good nutrition is critical to weathering them through these stressful phases, to prevent lameness and permanent damage to their bones and joints. So, though I think it might be tempting to buy the “cheap stuff” for a dog that eats so much, I think this may be a financial disadvantage in the long run, if the dog ends up incurring a lot of health problems or has a shortened working life.

One challenge I’ve found when the dog is housed with the ram, he will eat her kibble, which is not desirable. So, I’ve found that putting it in water deters him, and renders the food still edible to the dog. If he ever learns to eat soggy kibble, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Knowing that Bronte loves the raw¬†food has¬†been useful in training her to come to me as well. I have not found treats which will lure her, and she is going through a long and drawn out keepaway teenage phase. My longline idea helped some, but she keeps breaking it (or chewing it?). All she wants to do is dance and bounce around and woof at me, trying to enlist me in¬†a game of chase and silliness. So,¬†I give her about two minutes morning and evening to get her butt over to me and start eating her food, close enough for me to touch her. If she doesn’t, I take the food away with me, and try again later. She has skipped some meals, but I think she is getting the idea. Life is tough, but it’s imperative that she become more tame, and this is the only way I see to get that done!

City Meets Country and No-Bed Bronte

dogabuseA sneaky person posted this, and another similar homemade sign, out by our pasture this week. My favorite part is the one about the bed. ūüôā Seriously, it is a double-edged sword living on a well traveled road, with our pasture visible to passers-by. On one hand, we can sell as much lamb as we could ever produce, and we’ve made a lot of new friends.

On the other hand, we get a lot of interruptions from people stopping by to ask questions about the sheep, or to let us know there is a dog in our field! :-0 This can get annoying, but I try to be polite to these well-meaning folks, since they might want to buy lamb from us.

We are blessed to live in a region where there are many well-off, well-educated¬†city folks who make it a priority to purchase meat and produce¬†from local farms and natural or organic sources. And they are willing and able¬†to pay top dollar. The flip side is, these people don’t always realize how farms work, even good farms, and they can stir up trouble for farmers.

The anonymous signs raise an interesting question- is the life of a livestock guardian dog abusive? Is being out in the rain and snow with no shelter detrimental to our dog’s well-being? Well, to be fair, there are meager shelters in our pasture, so she’s not quite shelter-less (but I’ll tell ya: she’s never going to get a bed!) She doesn’t choose to use the shelters, however, she seems happy to be near her sheep, and indifferent to the weather, gleefully rolling about in the mud and getting filthy.

She is a Maremma, after all, this breed has been developed for centuries to do this very job. They are equipped with a double coat, which keeps them quite warm and dry at the skin (even when they appear drenched on the exterior). They are generally a very lazy dog, Bronte sleeps most of the day, and entertains herself by digging holes and wandering about the rest of the time. She is not terribly interested in people or other dogs, other than to try to shoo them away from her territory. She enjoys hassling the llama. She likes her homemade dinners I bring ever day. When I leave the pasture, she doesn’t pine after me like a regular dog would. She seems, well, pretty happy, in her own, simple world.

And, for the record, actually she is wild- I have a hard time catching her without mechanical means or food bribery! Really, these LGDs are just not like a regular domestic pet breed of dog.

I, myself, have reflected on this subject of her welfare, because part of me considers an LGD’s life to be pathetic, compared to my perception of what a competition dog’s life can be. But, is that perception accurate? Our Border Collies live in the house and have a dog door that accesses a small potty area outside. So their environment is pretty constrained, unless we take them out for walks or to work sheep. And that’s better than most working Border Collies, who live in 8×10 kennels except at times when they are at work.

Our dogs can sleep on the couch and on the bed. Sleep is a common theme amongst all dogs, so no matter where they live, they usually snooze much of the day. Just as often as I see our dogs asleep on the couch, I see them asleep on the wood floor, or out in the dirt in the rain. So they don’t seem to care that much about bedding, or about rain. I think because we are bare-skinned and wimpy about rain, we assume animals are as well. But actually, animals stay pretty comfortable in most weather, if they are equipped with an outdoor coat and proper nutrition.

The Border Collies get to work sheep, and they are very enthusiastic about that. But, it’s not all fun- it’s hard work, they get yelled at when they make a mistake, they get hurt, and I often require them to do jobs that they don’t¬†prefer. I flatter myself to think they enjoy my company in the house, but would they trade that for 24/7 freedom in a pasture? I don’t know.

I have a friend who owns a Chihuahua, and that poor dog is always being  stepped on, scooped up, manhandled, and carted around. He often looks irritated and shys away from people. Who knows, maybe if he could trade his life in a jeweled handbag for a boring life in a rainy pasture, he would.

So, I guess, to manage public perception, we’ll put a dog house down in the pasture, even though Bronte will probably not use it. It’s important to me that people who drive by perceive that our animals are well-cared-for, whatever their definition of that may be. I could live without the belligerent, anonymous¬†handmade¬†signs. But, we do think these are funny. We’ve taken to calling the dog “No Bed Bronte,” because definitely, I am not getting her a mattress!

The Patty Ruzzo Sneaky Dog Long Line

bronteandhershey2First of all, we finally agreed on a name for our Maremma: “Bronte” (spelled without the umlaut- because who wants to spell a dog’s name with an umlaut?). Here is a photo of her with the ram, taken by our neighbor Marla. She and the ram get on pretty well. If she tries to tug at his ears too much and gets on his nerves, he pushes her down and hurts her. So, they have their relationship sorted out! ūüôā

You’ll note the¬†long-line she’s wearing. This is a¬† great secret I learned long ago from Patty Ruzzo in a seminar. Patty is now passed on, but she was a well-known dog trainer who was highly successful in Obedience competition, and I learned many valuable things from her and think of her often.

We all know that puppies usually go through a “keep-away” age, where they start to learn they can run faster than we can, and that being caught is not fun. But, traditional store-bought dog long-lines used for controlling keep-away dogs¬†are heavy and cumbersome. If you are training a dog to jump or herd, regular long-lines can get dangerously tangled on things. So this was Patty’s solution: grosgrain ribbon. This is a special kind of ribbed ribbon you can buy at a fabric store- it is quite strong, and inexpensive. Tie 10 yards of it to a brass clip, and you have a fabulous, lightweight long-line that “floats” along as the dog runs. It’s slippery so it rarely tangles with solid objects. And, if a dog really hits it hard, it breaks, saving their neck from serious injury.

This long-line is so lightweight the dog forgets he is wearing it. And, the best part is that you can step on it when you are calling him, and then just stand their casually like you haven’t done anything at all.¬†He has¬†no idea what has just occurred, and he starts to develop a superstitious belief that you are God-like, and can stop him in his tracks when you call him. Much better than stooping to pick up a heavy long-line, so the dog figures out “oh, if I run fast enough to get that long-line out of your reach, I’m home-free!” Instead, with this long-line, the dog starts to believe¬†that when you call, there is no choice but to come.

So, this is what Bronte is wearing most of the time. She is still at a very silly age, and is easily intimidated by us, so when we are out in the pasture, she bounces around and woofs, trying to initiate the keepaway game, half afraid of being snagged. When she does this, I¬†ingore it, and¬†now and then, step on the long-line, catch her, pet and praise her then let her go. ¬†The long-line is reasonably safe for her to wear in the pasture- there is not much for it to get stuck on. She has broken (or chewed?) it a couple of times, but I just re-tie it while she’s enjoying eating her dinner, and she is rarely the wiser. Her dinner is my best puppet string: she must eat it while I pet her if she¬†wants to eat.

I used a line like this for many months on my “remedial” Border Collie, Gene. Gene was horrible about keepaway, for much of the first year of her life! Especially in a pasture with sheep. And, when Gene is frightened or upset, she flees, unlike most dogs who seek comfort from their owners when scared. I attribute this brilliant and simple invention to me eventually getting Gene under voice control, and now she has very good call-offs when she is working livestock, and will even reluctantly come to me when she is hurt or panicked.

So, I’m hoping, if it worked for Gene, it’ll work for Bronte! So far it seems to be doing the trick! Training an LGD is very different for me, as I only have a few minutes per day of interaction with her, as compared to a competition and house dog that gets many hours of intensive interaction per day. So, I have to make the most of every minute I’m in the pasture, to teach her the things she needs to know!

Sheep Are Back Out!

sheepinpastureLast weekend, we moved the sheep back down to the pasture to graze. The move almost went without mishap, except that at one point, the sheep drifted down to the end of the driveway by the road, and noticed the green alleyway by the tree farm. They decided to start strolling in that direction. I wasn’t able to get down there very fast with Maggie, and because that area is unfenced and close to the road, I didn’t want to send Maggie down there by herself.

As I carefully pursued them with Maggie, they drifted further and further, until they finally stopped, three properties down, where the properties border an elevated road. Fortunately, they stood there in indecision long enough for me to get around them with Maggie and nudge them back home. My heart was in my throat though, partly from running all that way, and partly because I feared that if they got onto the road, or Maggie disobeyed me and rushed to try to bring them, we could have had a disaster!electronet

The sheep are happily back in their graze now. The first few nights, I fence the sheep in an inner circle of hotwire, and the dog in an outer circle. The dog was very fearful about the move (Kirk actually carried her the whole way down to the field, because she cannot yet walk on a leash!). I was worried I wouldn’t be able to catch the dog once she was loose in that big area, and frightened.

But, after a few days, they all settled in. So, now the sheep are inside the hotwire, and the dog has the rest of the pasture to roam. The lambs are safe from the dog, and coyotes would have to make it past the dog, and the hotwire, to get to the sheep. Now, I have to move the hotwire rectangle every week or so to put the sheep on fresh grass, and let the worn spots rest.

This morning I moved the wire, in the photo you can see the left side is muddy and eaten down, and the right side is fresh green grass. The Premier Electronet fencing is all that it promised to be- easy to move and very effective at keeping in the sheep.