Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guard dogs under threat

Sensing mounting pressure to restrict or eliminate the use of livestock guardian dogs on federal grazing allotments, the American Sheep Industry has proposed a set of guidelines and best management practices for their use.

Perhaps the most high-profile case was that of a mountain biker in Colorado who was taking part in a race that went through a grazing area where sheep were protected by dogs. She had mechanical problems, was delayed, and ended up coming upon the flock of grazing sheep at dusk. She rode through the flock screaming, and was mauled by a guard dog. She and her husband attempted to sue the owner in civil court, but discovered that there was a law specifically protecting livestock guard dog owners against such suits.

However, they were able to pressure the local prosecutor into pursuing a criminal complaint against the sheep producer for owning vicious dogs. He lost and was convicted.

While I can understand and appreciate that the ASI is trying to take a pro-active stand, I believe that its proposal will do more harm than good. You can read it for yourself here. ASI is seeking input, and I believe that every sheep producer who uses livestock guardian dogs should read the document carefully and comment extensively.

Here is my commentary on the draft.

Hello Ms. Jensen,

Thank you for taking the time to read and review comments on this topic. I am a sheep producer in New England in an area where the primary threats to my sheep are Eastern coyotes (which are much more like red wolves than Western coyotes, and indeed may be hybrids) and stray domestic dogs. We also have some smaller amounts of depredation by eagles and owls.

I've raised my own sheep for 20 years, and have also worked as a hired shepherd on vegetation management projects. I've worked with livestock guardian dogs for 10 of those years, and my experience encompasses about 30 individual dogs between the dogs that I have owned personally and the dogs that I have used and cared for as part of my employment. I currently own three guard dogs.

The first question posed on the website is whether I agree that these guidelines are needed. I would answer that they are not needed, and in fact could do more harm than good. Plaintiffs attorneys will seize on them and will probably nearly always be able to find one or more areas where they could argue that a producer is not in compliance. For instance, is a dog that runs along a fence barking behaving aggressively? Some would say it is, even though there is no danger to those on the other side of the fence. Moreover, if these guidelines are adopted by the industry, all producers will be expected to adhere to them, whether they make sense on a particular operation or not.

All that said, I am not familiar with the challenges being faced by western producers on grazing allotments. If they believe these guidelines will help them, then perhaps they could be crafted and presented as best management practices for livestock guard dogs used on federal grazing allotments, and have a preamble that specifically states that these guidelines do not apply to all situations, that many sheep operations will deviate from them, and that any deviation does not necessarily constitute negligence.

Here are some other global concerns about the document:

You'll notice that I have rejected the term Livestock Protection Dog that the ASI has started to use for these animals. I gather that there is some pejorative connotation associated with the term "guard dog," but that is what I have called them for the last 10 years, and it is what every producer I know of who uses them calls them. Trying to change that smacks of phoney PR and will be seen as such as we all stumble over our tongues trying to appease some suburban sensibility.

I am also concerned that the document refers to "herding dogs" but makes no mention of the distinctive concerns and requirements of that very different type of sheepdog. By including herding dogs in the title of the document, it would appear that ASI is suggesting that a Border collie and a Maremma should be managed according to the same standards and practices. This is certainly not the case. The term "herding dogs" should be removed from the document wherever it is used.

In general, I believe that these guidelines place too many obligations on the sheep producer, and not enough on the others who seek to share federal lands. Event organizers should be required to notify producers if there is going to be a large contingent of mountain bikers, ATV riders, hikers, etc., moving through an allotment, and a system should be created to let the producer know when all is clear.

And here is a listing of point-by point comments:

Guideline: Food and water available at all times
Comment: This can be construed to mean that if a guard dog does not have 24/7 access to food, the owner is negligent, even if the dog is fed daily and is in good body condition. Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Police (who are deputized as State Police Troopers, carry sidearms, and have arrest powers) have claimed that a similar rule meant that Border collies awaiting trial runs had to have a bowl of food in their crates at all times. This is not healthy, good practice, or even sensible. If nutrition is a concern, then the standard should be body condition scoring by a qualified veterinarian.

Guideline: Sexually intact males will not be used on federal land.
Comment: This is a bad guideline for at several reasons. First is effectiveness. Canid predators are much more respectful of the territories of mated pairs than they are of unmated groups or single canines. There are going to be situations where an entire dog is needed to ensure safety of sheep against wolves in particular.

Second, it flows from the assumption that entire dogs are more aggressive than neutered dogs or bitches. While this may be generally true, it does not warrant a blanket exclusion of entire males from the range.

Third, working dogs are proven in the field. If only cut dogs are allowed to prove themselves, the future generations of guard dogs will be denied the genetic material we want and need.

Fouth, research is showing that the early spaying and neutering of dogs -- especially large breed dogs -- can be a contributing factor in the development of musculo-skeletal disorders such as hip dysplasia. Many veterinarians are now recommending that sexual altering of dogs be delayed until they are fully grown, which in the case of most guard dog breeds would mean nearly three years of age. Given that most guard dogs have a useful life of less than 10 years, this guideline would prohibit dogs from working on federal land for about a third of their lives.

Guideline: Owners should spay females unless they are used for breeding purposes.
Comment: The same objections as above. I realize that the word "should" is used, but as soon as you say something "should" be done, the assumption is that failure to do so is negligent.

Guideline: Shearing/clipping should be done to prevent matted coats and to prevent overheating in the summer.
Comment: a healthy coat will actually prevent overheating by keeping the sun off the dog's skin.

Guideline: Sheep producers should not breed guard dogs ...
Comment: Who should then? People who trot them around breed rings? There is no substitute for breeding working dogs from working stock, and if we want sheep dogs to work for sheep producers, then sheep producers must breed them.

Guideline: Dogs that show aggression towards people or other restrained (leashed) dogs will not be allowed to work ...
Comment: This is one that plaintiff's attorneys will have a field day with. "Aggressive behavior" can mean as little as barking or charging with the hackles up, even where no harm is done. All that would be needed is for one incident to be documented and the owner would be considered negligent.

Guideline: Dogs that cannot be controlled by voice commands will not be allowed to work on federal land.
Comment: Again, what constitutes control, and how much control do we really want on these dogs? They are independent thinkers who have been bred for centuries to read, react to, and mitigate threats to grazing livestock. Do we suddenly want to start breeding them away from that and towards obedience to human command? I think not. And make no mistake, we will not breed dogs that obey without losing some or all of the independence that makes them effective.

Guideline: Dogs tied up when herder is not present
Comment: I have grazed federal land for vegetation management. I used guard dogs and portable electrified netting. There were no herders present, nor could the wages of one be justified. The potential always exists for conflict between the public and guard dogs. People cross fences, fences fail, guard dogs scare a pet dog. If I had been required to tie up my guard dogs in these circumstances, I might as well not have had them on the projects.

Guideline: discussion of breed traits
Comment: I have worked with five different breeds and crosses of them. I have seen more variability among individuals than among breeds. There is no need to get into the myths and generalities of the working styles of various breeds, particularly if the breed traits are going to be used as a weapon against particular breeds and crosses. We live in a world where dogs can be put to death for no reason other than that someone thinks they look like a pit bull.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.


Bill Fosher
Edgefield Farm
Westmoreland, NH