We have a pack of large Livestock Guardian Dogs also known as LGDs. They keep down the pests by hunting and eating the local wild life including mice, snakes, coon, coyotes, etc. The dogs keep the larger predators out of the fields like the bear, cougar, hunting dogs and two leggers. Marking the boundaries is part of how they do that, both with their scent, their voice and their visible presence when they’re not blending.
The dogs herd the livestock, moving them to new pasture and away from danger. If a pig or sheep gets out of the designated pasture, the dogs put it back in or hold it and call us to come help with the gate. They also clean up after births which keeps down the temptation to predators.
The dogs announce delivery men and visitors at the front gate. Once we show up everything’s cool and they’re friendly with strangers as long as the visitors don’t go off by themselves. People routinely comment how good the dogs are – as if they’re surprised given the initial greeting.
In at least one case the dogs have kept a burglar out of the house who tried seriously to do harm. Dealing with a large number of large dogs is not a peaceful process for an intruder.
I’ve trained the dogs to alert me to the coming of specific people or vehicle types which they do based on the sounds of the engines. I say that is how they do it since they will announce snow mobiles, dirt bikes and ATVs while they’re still a mile from our house. Those engines make a particular whine. I had to train them not to announce small airplanes which sound similar. The reason this matters is none of those vehicles are legally allowed on our town roads and certainly not on our logging roads where they have destroyed gates, damaged buildings and rutted water bars in the past which then destroyed roads which cost big dollars and time to fix. The dog’s warning gives me time to get out there with the camera – something the police have asked for.
I also taught the dogs that speeding cars should get a bark and that the mailman should be announced. It’s interesting to see just how much they’ll learn and how finely they’ll discriminate on stimuli. A fascinating thing with the mailman is they recognize both of the two mail vehicles and also give the same announcement for a neighbor’s son’s vehicle, which has the mail logo and yellow light, but who does not deliver ever in our area. Apparently the dogs are picking up on the light top of the vehicle or the logo and writing. Not sure which. Note that I’m not claiming they can read!
Speaking of reading, we have to be careful spelling around the dogs just like with little children they’ll pick it up. The dogs are already trained to whistles, hand signs and spoken voice so they understand these things have meanings. At one point Holly and I resorted to spelling to talk around the dogs without them catching on. That only worked for a while. Spelling is just another funny sound pattern. Once they had heard us enough times they picked up on what we were communicating. Not that they can spell, they just recognized the new cue pattern although it looks to strangers like the dogs can spell.
Another little trick is the dogs pickup trash. We have lots of thoughtful people who drive on our road and throw us returnable beer cans, soda bottles and the like. Some times it is right on our driveway where they’re easy to gather up to take in for the cash. Unfortunately the driver’s aim is bad often bad and much of the trash ends up in the bushes all along the road. The dogs do a wonderful job of leaping the ditches, darting into the brush and retrieving the cans. They only want to bring back the returnable ones, preferring cans over glass, but I’ve insisted they must also bring back the worthless plastic water bottles in the interest of keeping the roads cleaner.
Teaching this is actually very easy. Keep some small treats in your pocket. Kick a can, say “Trash!” and give the “Please/Bring/Want” hand sign (palm up and open then fingers curl) – if the dog goes for it, reward them with the treat and praise. Later point and if they go they get treated. When they pick up they get treated. Later when they hand you a can they get the reward. Later when they do it themselves they get rewarded. I’m still working on getting them to put it in the trash cans. So far I end up with pockets filled with trash.
Now I finally get to the point of today’s post: discrimination and managing the farm when I’m gone. Last year we began getting regular deliveries of organic goats milk whey for the pigs from Vermont Butter and Cheese. I have wondered if the three times per week visits by Brent, the delivery man, would breed familiarity such that the dogs would no longer do their job and give him free run of the place. Not that it was bad – Brent’s a good guy – but it was an interesting question. This week we got the answer. The dogs have a very precise, and correct, understanding of what Brent is allowed to do, what he may not do and where he is allowed to be. They also enforce their understanding without being too aggressive.
The other morning Holly and I needed to go to a meeting. We left the front gate open for Brent with his whey delivery. He came, drove in, parked up by the whey tank, got out of his truck and began pumping the whey into the tank. All went smoothly. But wait, there was more to the story as we found out when, later in the day, Holly called Brent with a question. Brent told Holly that Cinnamon and Kita were initially friendly with him, as usual. But when he tried to walk toward the house to see if we were home, the dogs said “NO!” Brent said that they changed from friendly to a bit of a growl and the hair on their manes and back stood on end. They positioned themselves between him and the house and wouldn’t let him pass. He said it was obvious that it was fine for him to do his routine but that they were telling him not to deviate, not to approach the house and not to leave the area of the whey tank on foot. So he backed up and got in the truck. They calmed right down and all was well. [Update 2
010: Over the years we’ve heard almost the same story from other whey delivery people, UPS, FedEx and other visitors who told us later that the dogs in our absence are very strict about where people are allowed to be. Good to know.]
We’ve seen this before with visitors who approached the livestock too closely and one of the guardian dogs would position themselves between the person and the animals. They clearly don’t want strangers messing with their animals. Now I know it even happens in my absence and even for variations not involving the animals. The dogs have a strong sense of order and do not like things that vary from the schedule.
The dogs did not close the gate when Brent left – I know this as it was still open when we got home. With a bit more training we might be able to take a vacation to Cape Cod again. I just need to get the dogs up to the point where they can handle email, blogging, billing and other sundries. If you notice strange typoooos in the bloooog it wasn’t me!
My son Ben once asked me if dogs are actually wild farmers. After all, in the wild they could be doing the same things they do here on the farm and people might not realize it. They herd, they move animals around, they protect their territory (farm), they cull the weak, this encourages selective breeding for stronger wild livestock. Perhaps Ben has a point. It might explain why dogs fit in with domestic livestock agriculture so smoothly and easily. They’re naturals.
What do they get out of all this hard work? Cradle to grave security. Long lazy days in the sun, challenging fun work, the occasional thrill of dealing with the local large predators, companionship, all the pork, chicken and mutton they can eat, a soft bed in the hay or snow – their choice. Guaranteed life time social security and retirement. The healthcare plan is rather limited but then so is it for the pigs and I. It’s Communism on the Farm. Sorry pigs, but in this version of “Animal Farm” the pigs don’t get to sleep in the house – Dogs rule!
Outdoors: 14°F/10°F Mostly Sunny
Farm House: 57°F/48°F four logs
Tiny Cottage: 48°F/36°F bathroom