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Stories from the valley

The Newest Member of our Security Team

Contributed by Dan Macon

As you might imagine, sheep are vulnerable to a variety of predators in the Sierra foothills. Coyotes and mountain lions come to mind for most; free-roaming pet dogs are the most pernicious predator in our operation. Other carnivores that we worry about include black bears, foxes, great horned owls, golden eagles, bobcats, and (potentially in the future) gray wolves. Since we have a small-scale, part-time operation, we can’t be with the sheep around the clock; instead, we rely on a variety of livestock protection tools. The keystone of our system are our livestock guardian dogs. These dogs, which are bred specifically for this purpose, live with the sheep around the clock. This week, we added a new pup to our security team!

Elko, as our daughter Emma named him, comes to us from a fellow sheep producer in Petaluma. As with any working dog, genetics and environment are both critical. Elko’s parents are both working livestock guardian dogs. He was whelped where he could hear and smell sheep before his eyes opened. He’s a cross between the Great Pyrenees breed from the Basque region of France and Spain and the Akbash breed from Turkey. He’s currently housed with a handful of old ewes and ewe lambs at our home place.

Given the size of our operation at the moment, we try to have at least two dogs of working age at all times. Our oldest dog is 9 – probably nearing the end of his working life. We have a younger dog who is just about ready to be trusted with lambing ewes (the most challenging time for shepherd and dog alike). Since our old dog is nearing retirement age, it’s time to start training his replacement.

Training a pup to guard sheep or goats is a bit different than training a herding dog (or any other working dog, for that matter). Our training consists of making sure the dog bonds to the livestock he/she will live with (rather than with other dogs or with us). This means we place the pup with sheep during a critical phase of brain development (between 10 and 20 weeks of age) when social bonds are forming. We also need our dogs to stay in our electric fences (since we often graze sheep in neighborhoods where a free-roaming dog would not be welcome). Overly socialized livestock guardian dogs, in our experience, do anything they can to be with people – and so we try not to be too affectionate with these puppies. For me, this is the most difficult part of training – these fuzzy white puppies are so cute!

Other sheep-raising countries – especially in Eurasia – have a long tradition of using livestock guardian dogs. In North America, shepherds have only rediscovered these dogs relatively recently (within the last 40-50 years). Not every dog will work in every situation – we find that about 1/3 of the puppies we start end up working in our specific management system. In addition, we don’t know much about how they interact with predators – some researchers suggest that they displace predators in a specific location, while others indicate that they actively fight off these predators. Because of this, my personal avocation and my professional interests are overlapping. As the livestock farm advisor in Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties, I’m starting a research and demonstration project focused on livestock guardian dog behavior. I’ll be placing GPS collars on dogs and sheep to track behavior patterns. I’ll also be using our efforts to raise and train Elko as a case study. You can follow my project on my UCCE blog at http://ucanr.edu/blogs/RanchingintheFoothills/.

And finally, a note about how we name our livestock guardian dogs. Our current guardians include Reno (who is 9), Bodie (1.5) and Elko. In the past, we’ve also had Vegas and Boise. A student of western U.S. geography might note that our dogs are named after western towns. Many years ago, when our youngest daughter, Emma, was 3, she wanted to name one of our pups Daisy. I told her, “But he’s a boy dog.” Unfazed, Emma replied, “Okay – how about Boise?” The name – and the naming convention – stuck. Every dog we’ve named from that point forward was named for a western town.