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Paying Attention

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By Keba M Hitzeman | Nov 4, 2020

Still a puppy at almost 18 months old

Not everything goes as planned when farming and working with animals, and some may say nothing ever goes as planned. With crops and equipment, it’s usually a straightforward fix – repair the broken equipment, set new fence to replace the one that’s falling down. With animals, it’s not always that simple. You’re working with living, breathing creatures that have their own particular reactions to stimuli, responses that may not make sense to us wrinkly-brained bipeds, but are natural and normal to them. When you add in a level of free-thinking and decision-making that livestock guardian dogs have, those animals can sometimes give us humans a run for our money.

Two of our Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are male, with around five years of age between them. The younger one is almost 18 months now, so still in the “big dumb puppy” phase. He has so much energy, wants to play with the other LGDs (fortunately, the sheep have cured him of wanting to play with them!), and just can’t take no for an answer. When he was smaller than the other LGDs, they would usually growl or snap at him when he was an annoyance, and he would run off for a while. As he grew, he became more rambunctious and less open to the suggestion from the other dogs that he go find something else to do. This is pretty normal in our experience, and from what I’ve heard from other people with livestock guardian dogs, so we left them to sort out the pack order, correcting him when he was getting way out of line. As this method seemed to be working, we kept an eye on them all and let them do their jobs.

We noticed something amiss when Farley’s demeanor began to change. I’ve written about Farley before – he’s the LGD with the bad leg who had been a solo guardian to yearling goats. When we brought him home, he had a kennel for a few nights while he got used to the new situation, and puppy had a separate kennel because he was too young to be left out on his own overnight. Farley and our other Pyr did the guarding, and the puppy did LGD puppy things. Eventually, puppy got to be the same size as Farley, and while Farley mostly wanted to be left alone, puppy was still all play, all the time. Farley began to go off away from everyone else, and avoiding puppy, who of course followed him around the pastures. That started to get annoying, and the grumbling, growling, and snapping began. That progressed to puppy getting up in Farley’s face, seeking him out to pester, and play-fighting that started crossing the line into real fighting. This couldn’t continue, but how do we split them up? The logical option was to remove Farley from the situation, but now that we had a “pack,” we were loathe to separate them.

Farley is much less stressed now that he has his own space and flock

After one fight that was all teeth and no play, the decision was made to put Farley in with the flock of under one year old sheep and goats. Hindsight being what it is, this should have been done when the grumbling turned into teeth-baring. Puppy was old enough to guard (as an aside, LGDs are not considered fully trustworthy to guard stock until they are at least two years old and have gotten all the puppy silliness out of their system. He is not guarding on his own, and the sheep and goats have made it clear they will not stand for any shenanigans.), and the U1 flock could use a guardian. We need not have worried about “what if Farley gets lonely?” because he has never been so animated and lively. In fact, all of the Pyrs’ attitudes have improved. Now that we’ve made the change, it makes sense to me that Farley is doing ok by himself because that’s what he had been doing before we got him and that’s what he was used to. He still has a job to do, his injured leg has improved dramatically (doggy acupuncture – highly recommend it!), and he’s not getting hassled by a now 17-month-old pup.

Moral of the story? Pay attention to your animals! Watch them closely to get a baseline for their typical behavior, which can make it easier to notice when things “seem off” and help you determine the best course of action. I was focused on Farley being part of the pack instead of specific behaviors that showed the pack dynamic had changed. Star Trek told us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, but putting the welfare of the individual animal first, be it cow, chicken, sheep, or dog, can lead to improving the welfare of the entire herd, flock, or pack.

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