05 December 2006

Guardian Dog Training

Training a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) is a real challenge.

First, you have to leave the puppy out there with the sheep so that he learns the sheep are his best friends in the world. You can't bring him in the house and love him there, because he will think you are more fun than the sheep, and you need him to love his sheep more than he loves you. He's adorable and tiny and cute, but you have to pet him only near the sheep, feed him only near the sheep, and make it so that his sheep are his pack. This requires significant willpower.

Then, when he finally gets that all figured out, you have to teach him that although he believes the sheep are his best friends, his pack, they really aren't other dogs and they cannot tolerate the kind of play that other puppies could tolerate!

Mckenzie has bonded very successfully to his sheep, and loves to play with them. The problem is that they are sheep, not puppies, and so they don't wrestle back. Once we realized what was going on, the puppy acquired a muzzle, and we fenced him in with the horned Icelandic sheep. These bigger, tougher sheep seemed to have remained unscathed by the whole fleece pulling adventure, and I did witness Brownie, the big Icelandic ewe, tossing her horns in Mckenzie's direction when he seemed interested in playing. He promptly went somewhere else.

It soon became obvious, however, that my fencing skills are no match for a Great Pyrenees pup's escape artist tricks. Mckenzie got out of that fenced area no matter what I tried. He went under. I patched. He went under again. I patched again. He went over. I tightened and added more fencing. He cried and bawled, and finally just went over the fence again. In the end I gave up, muzzled him, and put all the sheep and dogs back together again. Everyone seems to be managing this new arrangement fairly well, all things considered. I think Mckenzie believes a muzzle to be a reasonable price to pay for his freedom.

Yes, Mckenzie can eat and drink with the muzzle on. He can still get a little bit of fleece between his teeth and pull it out, too, if he really tries, but he isn't doing that very often anymore. When we are outside we leave him unmuzzled and provide instant correction should he attempt to play with his charges: he gets growled at, rolled on his back, and told in no uncertain terms NO PLAYING!

Of course, this behaviour is a normal part of the development of a guardian dog puppy, but it is hard work for the humans! Jack, our ram, has infected bite wounds on his neck that we've been irrigating with iodine and treating with pennicillin injections ... Banana Split is wearing P-nut's old wool coat, as she's missing half her fleece and seemed cold ... Baby has one bare leg, but seems relatively unaffected ... and honestly, none of this is a huge surprise.

Even with all this trouble, I love the dogs and think they do a wonderful job of keeping the coyotes away from our sheep. I know that getting a pup through this learning phase is very hard and that some damage is likely to be done as he learns, but in the end it is worth the effort. We will have to watch very closely during lambing season to ensure that he doesn't tussle with the tiny newborns, and some additional fencing is likely to be required to keep everyone separated during that crucial time.

I'm sure you'll all wonder why I like being a shepherd when there is so much heartache involved. I wonder sometimes, too, but I cannot argue the comfortable happy feeling I have when I watch the sheep.

Today, I looked out at my tiny flock and thought how wonderful it is to see them out there, munching on hay and meandering around the pasture. I can't wait to work with Bruce's fleece - he's a Suffolk/Icelandic cross with the most gloriously soft long white wool. I wonder which of the ewes are pregnant already, and which have yet to be tupped. (Jack was chasing Baby around and around the shelter's center support post today: clearly neither of their injuries are *that* significant, I noticed he rarely left her side today.) I wonder when we'll get lambs, if I'll get to see any of them being born, if we'll lose any of them. I wonder how long it'll take for Mckenzie to turn into the staunch protector Pyrs raised with sheep generally are, and I wonder how he will react to lambs (there are many tales of Pyr guardians rescuing chilled lambs by lying next to them to keep them warm, or licking them clean after birth if the mama will permit).

Living here is such an adventure. I can't wait to see what comes next!

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