Here we have a growing, learning livestock protection dog pup. A big, growing, learning pup. At first, she was not interested in the sheep. Slowly she started to notice them. Then she started experimenting with interacting with them. This, naturally, is going to manifest in exhibiting puppy-like socialization behavior towards peers: play invites, and attempts to initiate chasing and wrestling. All of which are completely predictable, but obviously not ideal. As you can see, I’ve added some accessories to her wardrobe which help give her feedback that sprinting after sheep is not desirable behavior. One is a 10 foot long heavy drag chain. The other is an 18 inch long stick “dongle”; both attached to her collar.
I worried that these items might cause her too much mental distress. You know how, when you try to put a pair of shoes on a dog, he’ll act like you amputated his feet for two hours? I wasn’t sure if I should start off “lighter” to acclimate her to these concepts before ramping up to the full meal deal. But no, she adjusted to them right away. The stick took a few trial-and-error iterations: I attached it with two different clips/clasps which she was able to unclip almost immediately. The third try worked: a threaded C-shaped clasp that can only be detached by someone with opposable thumbs.
Here is a video showing how she moves with these curtailments. It’s clear they do cause her to adjust her movements. Running fast is uncomfortable, so she has to slow down and account for the random movement of the stick and to step over the chain getting in the way of her feet. But, it doesn’t stop her silliness at all! She almost seems to dance around with these noise makers on…
I’ve been keeping an eye out, and have been satisfied that she’s not able to really get a good chase on a sheep now that she’s wearing these. Most of the adult ewes are pretty experienced with reading dogs, and they are able to tell she’s somewhat tentative and non-serious, so they refuse to engage her. I’ve seen a few bolder ewes chasing her, which causes her to retreat in fear. Like many slow-maturing, big breeds, she is slow to gain confidence; and the wise older sheep can see it in her body language.
But…. I also have ewelambs from last spring, a few of which are still rather small. Every year I wind up with a few “dinks”: triplet lambs that are limited in growth by competing for milk supply. Maybe they are destined to be smaller-framed adults anyway, and on top of it, some of them show less parasite resistance (maybe from genetics, maybe from less colostrum, maybe from spitting out a dose of dewormer, or some combo of all three). These little lambs are behind developmentally, physically weaker, less experienced with dogs, more fearful, and they may have some sense of their own frailty. Of course I don’t like these little waifs, but there is nothing to do with them but let them hang out here and grow, until they either find a pet home or finally get big enough to butcher.
It was one of these lambs, a little dark chocolate brown Barbados Blackbelly-looking throwback, that I spotted laying in the dirt on Sunday morning. Things that catch your eye: a sheep laying down alone in a location where the sheep don’t normally bed down. The pup was lingering near, with a deflated tail wag, like she sensed something was not working out well. She woofed at me a little bit, almost soliciting my attention, milling around the lamb with body language that there was a problem. Sure enough, I walked down to find this lamb down and bloody, chewed up all over her back end. I pondered for a moment whether there could have been any other cause, like a coyote or a raptor. But judging by the scenario, I’m pretty sure this was the handiwork of the pup. Getting carried away trying to get a sheep to wrestle, when it went down in submission, she poked and prodded to try to re-initiate the game; some prey drive creeping in, but ultimately, rendered disappointment that her playmate became inanimate, and a helpless “what now?” hovering behavior.
I didn’t have time to consider correction or punishment, it’s hard to issue that to outsdie dogs anyway, as they don’t have much grasp of the word “no”. Minutes spent trying to communicate “bad” to a fractious pup seemed wasted minutes letting a sheep suffer awaiting treatment. Instead I just wordlessly scooped up the lamb and carried her into the barn.
She has a lot of puncture wounds and skin tears. I gave her some Banamine for pain, waited for that to kick in, then shaved her, cleaned the site, and sewed up the worst of the holes. Many of the injuries are skin abrasions- too much material gone to sew, and shallow; they are like road burns that just have to fill in with scabs and heal gradually. The good news is, I think she will survive. She is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping- those are the main things! If I lift her, she can stand, unsteadily, but does not want to. She can move her back legs and bear weight, so I think it’s just pain that’s limiting her, not a spinal cord injury. Not great, but recoverable. I’ll give her loads of antibiotics, of course, and continued Banamine, to help with healing and pain management.
I feel relatively pragmatic about it. When I was training Bronte, our first LPD, I was more distressed by the physical damage she did to some lambs while I was working out training approaches with her. But now, I view it as part of the deal. Many, if not most, LPDs are going to make mistakes like this, as they learn how to interact with the sheep as peers, but not quite peers. They are peers for company, but not for wrestling. You do your best to manage their access until they are ready, but they can’t be ready without taking some risks and letting them try and fail. I do think she showed some reluctance for how this event turned out, so hopefully she had some learning that being too rough ends the game and removes the peer. She did not get the positive interactive feedback she was seeking. Plan B, if she continues to show this behavior, is to fence her out of the sheep until she’s more mature. I will be doing this soon anyway, as we get closer to lambing. I don’t intend for her to be unsupervised with the lambs in her first year.
LPDs protect the flock from serious losses due to predation from coyotes and raptors. While they’re being trained, a few lambs or even adults may be injured or killed. But it’s sacrificing the one for the many. Just as a vaccine protocol may do the same, we have to balance the needs of the group with the benefits to the individual, and sometimes those conflict. As it is, I’ll do everything I can to keep the lamb comfortable, help her heal, and find her a nice pet home when she’s recovered. It’s just an incident on the way to investing in and growing a reliable guardian dog.