Saturday, June 05, 2010

Guardian behavior

As we finish up week five of sheep camp, I’m going to share some livestock protection dog (LPD) behavior that I find fascinating. I’ve been out in camp amid western Wyoming’s sagebrush sea with the lambing herd since May 1, with three LPDs, two guardian burros, and a herding dog. Every two weeks we move my camp, and last week we migrated about five miles from the last camp, into new territory with a new water source.

Two nights ago, Rant the Aziat was having a wild night, and at 2:30 a.m. a fight broke out just outside my camp window. I stepped out the door to find Rant brawling with another male LPD – it was his brother Turk, who he hadn’t seen since they were five months old. Rant would not let Turk into the camp, or near the orphan lamb pen, and would attack Turk to force his brother to back off. Turk was submissive, but persistent, and I left them alone and went back to bed.

The next morning, Turk’s two hunting partners arrived. One was his adolescent daughter, which remained at a distance and wanted no part in the conflict, and the other was another adult male dog, Bernard.

Rant and Turk were littermates, living together for their first five months of life, but Rant and Bernard had shared a kennel together for two weeks while they were three months old and getting bonded to orphan lambs. Rant had not encountered either of these two male dogs since that time – at least a year and a half. The dogs are all the same age – two years old, all un-neutered males. They are all about the same size (28 inches at the shoulder), and when the three visiting dogs came to my camp on a night hunt, Rant faced them all down, and he did it alone.

The visiting dogs had come from two different sheep herds miles away, in two different directions. A wild animal was “screaming” near the closest ranch during the night, and the dogs all went nuts that night. A mountain lion had killed a calf above the ranch the week before, consuming about half the carcass and pealing the hide off, and everyone assumed it was the lion that set off the dogs again during the night. My visiting pack of dogs had joined together and were traveling across the landscape in a hunt, much as a pack of wolves would do. My herd was the third herd it visited, with their jaunt to my camp ranging from three to 10 miles. Needless to say, my herd was well guarded.

Turk came back to camp and tried to get over to the lamb pen, and was promptly attacked by Rant. I inspected him later, once Rant had completed the lesson in manners, and found both of Turk’s front legs had puncture wounds, his ribs had been raked on one side, and one side of his face had been bitten by Rant. None of the wounds were severe. Turk did not initially fight back, but submitted, acknowledging this was Rant’s camp, that Rant was the boss.

Bernard came to the camp again, and Rant attacked him as well, doing no harm as Bernard quickly backed down. Bernard laid down, and Rant laid down very close to him, keeping his body between Bernard and my camp.

When I went to feed my lambs in the evening, the visiting pack took the chance to try to invade camp. I turned around to see Rant and Turk rise on their back feet at each other, open-mouthed roaring and front legs grappling, while Rena took Bernard to the ground and mauled him into submission as well. This was the first time Turk had fought back, and Rant finished the match with a sore front shoulder, but the visitors once again had to back off and retreat to the sagebrush below camp.

The constant body language and posturing during this dog meeting was very dramatic and exaggerated, both Rant’s aggressive stances, and Turk’s submissive behavior. I laughed to see all three big dogs moving slowly, stiff-legged, tails up, showing off their maleness as they walked away. You could almost smell the testosterone in the air. My apologies if this seems vulgar, but these dogs have balls. If a wolf had showed up at my herd that night, it wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Since the visiting dogs did not return to their own herds last night, they will be transported back today. LPDs traveling and interchanging happens in range herds and is really not a big deal. Sometimes the dogs fight for dominance and breeding rights and the result is genetic interchange in a fairly natural dog population. The dogs you see in these photos are very similar to dogs produced in similar systems in their countries of origin, especially in Central Asia.

As we have been told by friends in Turkey, LPDs fight to establish dominance, but serious injuries rarely occur.

These last two photos show Rant sticking close to Turk, escorting him away, and Turk as he walked away alone.


Matt Mullenix said...

Cat, the mentions of hunts and raids has me confused---were the neighboring dogs come to harm your lambs? Seems improbable, yet I can imagine that raising one up with a flock doesn't necessarily prevent their thinking other flocks are fair game? How does that work?

Heather Houlahan said...

When the LGDs are out on walkabout, who is minding their sheep back home?

Anonymous said...

And yet another question---if your dog Bernard ever gets canonized, won't that make him a Saint Bernard????? Can a Saint make a good LPD? Or do they become interested in only non-wordly things?(okay, that's really 3 questions, and no, I don't expect you to really answer any of them!)....L.B.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Matt, Sorry for the confusion. The dogs were out hunting predators, not sheep. All the sheep were safe at all times.

The conflict came because of the orphan lambs. Rant has an obsession with babies, and no other dog can come near the orphans without going through him first.

Heather, the other herds have other LPDs as well. Most herds around me have 4-5 LPDs. BTW, Turk and his pup left on their own, leaving only Bernard with my herd.

Lane, oh Lane ...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Cat, for photos and story! Rant is almost the size of a Turk, and looks even heavier on photos. Are there any photos of Turk's daughter? how do you found her behavior, how old is she?
When they "fight" (though it was not a real fight, I understand) how long did it take - from the initial growling and agressive posturing to final leaving the place of encounter? how long did they stay on back legs, mouth to mouth? (in Russian tradition this is called "svechka"-candle)
You are so lucky to have this dogs around you, I am really jealous... do you need some more herders? :)