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January 18, 2012

More on Dogs and Livestock

THANKS, everyone, for all the great comments on our post about having big dogs! Great feedback and thoughts from everyone. A couple questions and comments came up several times so I thought I'd tackle them all here, if that's ok?

How do you train a hard workin' farm dog? Run right out and get the book, How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend: The Classic Training Manual for Dog Owners (Revised & Updated Edition). The book is by the Monks of New Skete who raise and train German Shepherds and is a great resource. Follow it to the letter and you'll be just fine. Then go and watch about 100 hours of Cesar Millan on Hulu. You'll remember that the bad owners are too much for us to watch, but wow, I learned a lot from his book, Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar's Way to Transform Your Dog . . . and Your Life.  And for folks who want to train their herding dogs, well The farmer's dog is a classic.

One thing to remember, tho, is that managing big dogs is a lot of work. And not everyone has the personality for it. Or the time that it takes to train a big, hard workin' farm dog. So if its not your thing than that's just fine - there's nothing wrong with a good ol' family dog.


Luckily for me, I'm naturally bossy and believe in hard work and discipline. And it doesn't hurt that I'm a kind of a bad ass with zero tolerance for shenanigans.

We had a funny conversation the other day with someone who was interested in our curly tailed bear killer pups, Zander and Kai, and was gently trying to figure out if we had "too much dog." He looked up at The Big Man who answered that he'd always had big dogs and had been known to make big dogs pee their pants with his voice, so no problem. Then our friend turned to me and asked if I probably had problems managing the dogs? Because I'm a small person with a not deep voice?

"Nope," I said and looked straight at our friend, "I am one bad mutha-fu$!%*er."  For his part, The Big Man just nodded and said something about how dogs three counties over cringe when I get cranking if there is naughtiness going on. You have to be the boss of your dog and definitely the leader of your pack.


What about dogs and livestock?  I think DOC said it best... with a lot of work and the right handler it works. To be sure the biggest threat to your livestock is a dog running loose. To make sure its not YOUR dog that is the threat you need to persistently, continually, relentlessly reinforce to your dog that you "own" all the livestock.  And its on you to make sure that you organize your barnyard so that success is possible.

Put your critters behind fences, teach your dog not follow you thru a gate (unless invited), show your dog the livestock and tell them, "This is mine." Teach your dog "leave it." Encourage your dog to help you round up the critters but not in some crazed, wild eyed chase.  Hold your dog by the collar (or harness which works best) and slowly walk him with you while you round up the hens saying "bring them in." We have a command that means, "keep doing what you are doing but slow down" so there isn't a prey-driven chase. Be enthusiastic with your praise when your dog performs well. Provide the right correction when he doesn't. Many big dogs like to work and all dogs love having a job.


But don't forget for one minute that wrapped in whatever packaging that defines your dog's breed - at his heart he is a prey seeking, blood lusting, killing machine. You can shape it. You can command it. You can give it a job. But at his heart your dog is a wolf. Several dogs working together is a pack and all they want to do is kill something. Your ordinarily reserved, good natured dog will be very happy to be out there killing all your chickens if egged on by his brother dogs. Or even if one chicken looks at him funny. So supervise your dog at all times.

The exception to this are livestock guardian dogs - which are so hardwired to guard flocks of whatever you've got that they really don't need training. But we don't have those so we manage with training and supervision.

But what about the danger of mixing dogs and livestock? I'm willing to take that chance especially since, in my case, its more about the danger of livestock to me. Don't fool yourself, friend. The barnyard is a dangerous place especially if you aren't a particularly big person. As our livestock gets bigger so grows the danger to yours truly.

My city friends are convinced its all a big petting zoo out there but I'm here to tell you that's just not the way of things. Even the most docile goat can have a bad day and all bets are off when any of the critters are in rut. I like having Dog#1 sitting at the gate waiting for my signal to run to my rescue, if required.


Remember when poor Jenna got run over my her sheep? (See "Ten Horns 9/19/11) I can tell you for a fact that there is no way my dogs would let a bunch of stupid sheep run me down. And if they did, the dogs wouldn't leave me lying out there in the field. I know this because I've fallen before, one time badly, and Dog#1 rushed over and used his huge head to lift me up. And he let me put all my weight on him so I could stand.

As for rampaging flocks, the dogs tend to act differently if there is cause for alarm and I've learned to listen to them.  More than once the dogs have been at my side before I even knew there was malfeasance occurring. They've also learned that a sharp breath in (that precedes my scream) is the signal to come charging my way.

What if the dogs aren't around? They're always around - the only time they aren't is if they are intentionally gated in up on the deck. We always hold a proximity. We even have a command that means 'stay where I can see you' so that all the dogs kept are nearby. Its good for my safety and its good for me to supervise them.

It may seem like a big responsibility for your dog to protect you, but that's what they do. And inevitably someone will get mad and say, "Oh YEAH? Well. My goat could kill your dog!"  Beggin' your pardon, but your goat may kill your dog. But not mine. Could a goats get in a few good hits? Maybe a lucky blow? Sure. But we chose our dogs to be sturdy enough to stand their ground when necessary.  I've seen, and commanded, our dogs to stand their ground with the goats. I'm here to tell you that its not even a fair fight.  

Another someone was wondering why we chose these curly tailed bear killers when we have stock?  Remember that I'm out there alone most of the time. So I need my defensive team to be pretty big and burly. A couple of hundred pound bear killers are just the ticket. An unconventional choice for farming? Sure. But that's how we get 'er done around here.

We also need hunters. The shepherds (Ti and Lucky) aren't natural hunters at all. With fox central just on the other side of the goat yard, and the coyotes getting closer each season, we need to make sure we have some natural born killers out there. So Kai and Zander's job #1 will be to work as a team to clear out the varmints and keep the predators at bay. They probably will not develop the herding qualities that the shepherds have. But Kai is starting to get the hang of bringing in the chickens.

So that's the rest of the story on dogs and livestock.  The next time you are out in your barnyard go and look at your goat. See that her eyes are on the sides of her head? That's so she can see behind her when something is chasing her. Now go look at your dog. Forward facing binocular vision. Predator. Prey. That's the way of things. If you work hard you can get that wolf not to kill your prey. But it takes persistence. Supervision. Hard work. Discipline. That's our way of things.

Now whatcha waiting for? Get out there and teach that dog to herd up all them chickens and bring them in.

Happy Wednesday everyone!