Do You Speak the Language?
If you are a long-time reader of this column, you’ll likely know that I am a strong proponent of Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD). These dogs can be a game changer for mitigating predation of sheep and goats but admittedly, implementation of a successful LGD program is much easier said than done. Some people seem to be great at it, while others seem to have one problem after another.
Since 2015, we have been actively conducting research and educational programs to help farmers and ranchers with LGD management. Over the years, I’ve read literature, studied the animals, and observed management practices that people use to make LGD programs work. To be honest, it confuses me at times when I try to apply the scientific process to rule out what should or shouldn’t be done.
What we often take for granted in livestock research is behavior of ruminants within a flock or herd does not vary a whole lot. Sure, there are some nuanced cases of sheep or goats having individual personalities (the ex-bottle lamb definitely comes to mind), but “personalities” takes on a whole new meaning when discussing dogs. Each dog is absolutely different, which makes applying a stepwise scientific process to development a challenge.
As I have ruminated on the topic for years, there tends to be one major trend that seems to be consistent amongst those who raise successful LGDs. People who are successful have a natural gift to work with animals. These individuals are the same type of folks that train their own horses and working dogs, as well. In essence, they speak the language!
My father is one of those types of people. I highly doubt he ever read a book on it. Rather, he learned from experience and sought advice from others in the community. Growing up on the ranch, I can always recall that he was training a horse for one purpose or another–a passion that he passed on to my brother. As sheep and goats became more of a focus at the ranch, he transitioned to training working dogs and developing LGDs. This became a passion of mine.
Over the years, I have tried to immolate his process to train working dogs but I inevitably adjust to what fits my style. When we talk, our conversations are typically dominated by discussions around a working dog in training. We have a friendly debate on who’s dog is better but I have to acknowledge he usually has the advantage. Please don’t tell him I said that!
The point of my rambling about working dogs is that my family has successfully used LGD to protect sheep and goats for several decades. A big part of this success is having good dogs, which are a result of having someone who can speak the language to make it work.
This begs the question. Do you need to speak the language to have LGDs? I would argue that you do not have to, but it helps if you do. If you are not a gifted animal trainer, then you may look into purchasing a bonded LGD, similar to how people buy horses that are trained for a particular purpose. With that said, LGDs that are bonded and raised on the ranch tend to have a higher success rate than those bonded elsewhere. Depending on the situation, it may be best to bond freshly weaned LGDs at the ranch but to work closely with someone who speaks the language during the first year. Working with someone who has been successful will also allow you to pick up on some of the subtleties of dog training that are not always noticeable at first glance, but make a huge difference. Think of this as taking a canine language arts course!
Whatever your plan, it is imperative to remember that developing LGDs is a long term investment of time and money. Having the patience to see the process through will almost always allow you to come out ahead in the long run.
For more information about the Texas A&M AgriLife Livestock Guardian Dog program, visit our website (sanangelo.tamu.edu/research/lgd/) or contact Bill Costanzo (325- 657-7311). We also want to express appreciation to the Sheep and Goat Predator Management Board for their support of the program.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.