Rescue and the Working Pyrenees

by Catherine de la Cruz

First printed in Rocky Mtn Livestock Journal, all rights reserved

RESCUE: As used by pure-breed clubs, this term applies to the placement of a dog by a third party in a new home. A "Rescued" dog is generally unwanted by its original owner, who is unable to sell it, and either gives it to a Rescue organization or sends it to a pound or shelter where - if it is lucky - it is accepted for foster care by a Rescue organization. Rescued dogs range in age from puppies to seniors. The process of placing a "rescued" dog is also called "re-homing".

Who can resist a puppy of any breed? A Great Pyrenees puppy resembles a living Teddy Bear but in a very few months, the cuddly puppy will grow into a digging, barking, shedding, drooling DOG - and a big dog, at that. For the family pet, that often means being relegated to the back yard, never to be allowed inside again. For the ranch dog, it often means that the transition from pampered pet to one expected to work for a living is made at the worst possible time.

A Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) should be allowed to remain with its mother and litter until eight or nine weeks of age, so it learns the rudiments of canine social behavior. Between nine and twelve weeks, it should begin its bonding with the species it will live with - humans, sheep or goats or other livestock. If the pup is brought into the house and made a pet for the first few weeks in its new home, bonding to livestock may not take place. When finally placed with the livestock, it will be less likely to accept them as its pack and will continue to attempt to get back to the house.

Great Pyrenees, like all LGDs, have little prey-drive. That means they are unlikely to want to chase a ball, and on the farm are not likely to chase livestock once they are out of the puppy stage. However, a pup that is initially raised in a home may well be expected to "fetch" and play "catch". Children encourage chase behavior in running games, and the pup learns behavior that will be unacceptable as a working dog. As the pup grows larger, and more powerful, his chasing and nipping endangers the livestock; his desire to return to the house makes him unreliable as a guardian. Finally, around the age of one year, the un-bonded pup becomes more of a liability than as asset and the decision is made to get rid of him.

Placing the failed Livestock Guardian Dog:

The average failed LGD has few social skills; he is unlikely to be house-broken, obedience trained or even leash broken. If not already neutered, his adolescent hormones create additional behavior problems related to aggression and dominance. Many shelters routinely euthanize all such dogs rather than risk the liability of placing them. The opportunities for placement of such a dog are few and its future is bleak.

In a Rescue foster home, the failed LGD may have the opportunity to learn new behaviors. If the foster home is experienced in rehabilitating dogs with poor social skills, the dog may learn to walk quietly on a leash, to obey simple commands and even to become housebroken. His bark pattern - established between six and nine months of age - may prove to be still another barrier if placement in an urban setting is being considered. Great Pyrenees have been called "Industrial-strength barkers" with some justification. A dog that has learned to bark at every change in his environment may have to be debarked to live comfortably in town.

A dominant, independent dog may not be able to make the transition to family pet; without either social or livestock skills, the only alternative may be euthanasia. A more submissive, social dog may make the transition easily and adapt quickly to the new environment. The care and patience of the transition foster home may provide the edge both types of dogs need to make the transition from farm to family.

Re-placing the successful dog:

What about the successful LGD whose livestock are sold out from under him? This is a reliable and protective dog with strong livestock skills that needs help only in making the transition to another owner and flock, not to a new lifestyle. If the dog is a dominant, independent range dog, he should be placed in a similar situation. If the dog can't be sold along with his sheep, contact the APHIS-ADC office in Denver (address below) for referrals to ranchers who need this kind of dog. The mature dog accustomed to protecting livestock in fenced pastures is also in great demand and the local Breed Rescue will most likely have referrals to homes waiting for this special dog. Since the range dog and the fenced-pasture dog need different skills and temperaments, it is generally not a good idea to substitute one working condition for the other.

If the range dog is to be introduced to a new flock, it should be at a time the flock is penned near the home ranch, at lambing or at shearing time. The dog should be placed in fenced pens with the sheep or goats. Once sheep or goats and dog are accustomed to each others' presence, they can be turned out on the range as usual. The dog needs to have his care and feeding routine established immediately so he and the shepherd establish a working relationship.

The fenced-pasture dog should be introduced to his new pasture on a leash and encouraged to walk the boundaries, scent-marking as he goes. Once he has established the territory as "his", introduce the sheep or goats through a narrow runway or door so he can check out each animal that enters. Supervise his interaction with the livestock for a few days until you, he and the livestock are comfortable with each other. Be particularly aware that he will "push" his boundaries, often trying to protect more territory than you actually want him to. Correct each instance of fence jumping by putting him back where you want him. A hot wire may be needed for a while to remind him to stay put.

The Family Dog Comes to the Farm:

Rescue organizations are frequently asked by desperate stock growers for a dog to prevent further predation, being told "Any dog will do." Unfortunately, not any dog will do the job. The family pet cannot become a range dog. However, given the right combination of dog and farm conditions, a family pet might make the transition to family-farm dog.

The first variable is the dog itself. A mature dog, over the age of two, has the best chance of making the change. The dog should already be accustomed to living out of doors and should exhibit interest, but neither fear nor aggression, when confronted with new situations. A dog that is comfortable around people, but does not constantly solicit attention may be willing to adapt its social response to include other species. Above all, it should be a dog that has not exhibited tendencies to be either an "escape artist" nor a cat chaser in its previous home.

The second variable is the farm family. Someone must be available to spend an hour or more each day for the first two months closely supervising the dog's behavior. The children must understand that the dog is not a playmate, but a working member of the farm and is to be left to its job. The family should be made aware that livestock may be injured while the dog is learning its job.

The final variable is the farm itself. Is the fencing sufficient to contain the dog? Are creeks and canyons fenced in such a way that the dog can't crawl under the fence? Are there boulders, logs or other high places the dog can use to get over the fence? Most Pyrs kept as family pets don't consider four-foot field fencing worthy of respect. It will probably take a "hot wire" both top and bottom to change the dog's mind. Is the livestock kept close enough to the house that a human can keep an eye on dog-livestock interaction? If the livestock in question are other than sheep or goats, be aware that a natural interaction may not be possible.

Finally, a pen of cyclone or no-climb wire should be prepared in a field near the livestock and visible from the house. The dog will spend her first few days here, becoming accustomed to the sights and smells of the livestock and will return there for the first few weeks when she can't be supervised, and later as a "time-out" pen for punishment for unacceptable behavior.

On the new dog's first day, give her water, a small amount of dry feed, and leave her alone in the pen near the livestock. Observe her reaction. After initially barking at the stock, she should settle down and just watch them. On the second day, put the dog on a leash and walk the fencelines with her. Allow her to sniff and wander, praising her when she urinates or "marks" the fenceline. If she wants to investigate the livestock, let her do so only if the stock don't run. If they do, don't allow her to follow them, as it will encourage chasing.

After the boundary walk, allow her to drink from the stock waterer if she wants to, then return her to the pen. Repeat this walk two or more times a day for the first week. When she has shown no inclination to chase the stock for a couple days, replace her leash with a 30-ft nylon longe line (available from horse-supply stores) and gradually allow her to wander the length of the line. If she still shows no inclination to chase, allow her to drag the line as she investigates her territory. Allow her an hour or more with the stock, under constant supervision, then water her and put her in her pen. Repeat this again later in the day and again the following day. If no chase behavior occurs, allow her longer periods with the stock, without the line, but still under supervision. Continue to pen her at night or when you are not there to supervise her for at least the first two weeks.

If the livestock in question are ratites, then the dog should be walked around the outside of the pens and not exposed directly to the birds. Dairy cattle are often surprisingly at home with LGDs, but beef cattle and exotics may be too aggressive for the dog's safety. Llamas develop individual preferences and the dog should be walked among them only on a leash until all of the herd accepts her. Male llamas occasionally develop such an antipathy toward a dog that they can't be trusted around one.

Don't expect immediate success, and don't be surprised if the first dog doesn't work out. The change from unwanted family pet to working farm partner is a difficult one that few dogs can make. The ideal Livestock Guardian Dog is one bred for the purpose and raised from a young age with its livestock. The ideal family companion is one of gentle disposition who has lived with a family since leaving its litter. However, when circumstances require that a Great Pyrenees change its living conditions, they often surprise us with their adaptability.

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