The value of a livestock guardian dog’s intelligence
Meet Maya. She is 2 years old, a Kangal, and, frankly, I think she is the better version of me, in most things. If she had opposable thumbs, there’s no question she would be, in all things.
She has always been an old soul. Loving, loyal, fierce when necessary and un-swervingly steady in every situation. Whether it’s maneuvering through a crowded barn full of ewes with tiny lambs, protecting our commercial sheep flock in the Appalachian foothills or being a good citizen, off leash, at a friend’s barbecue.
I see a lot of people lauding stock “stickiness” and posting photos of LGDs snuggling with calves or lambs or letting goat kids stomp all over them. That’s all well and good, but, in my experience, even as limited as it’s been, it’s just a piece of a much more nuanced puzzle.
There is also a lot of talk of intelligence with LGDs. I’m not sure how often people consider the value of discernment and ethics, within that intelligence. Maya has taught me that value.
Discernment and ethics
What do I mean by discernment and ethics? Discernment is the ability to judge well, the ability to grasp or comprehend what is obscure. Ethics is a set or system of moral values.
What does that look like in an LGD? I mean that, as a pup, Maya was a natural with stock. At the same time, she knew exactly how much force to exercise with sheep and other animals, to teach them to respect her, just as she respected and cared for them. I backed her up on occasion, but she did it on her own mostly.
Her message was always appropriate to the situation. If a tiny lamb tottered into her space while she ate a discarded afterbirth, she wouldn’t move a muscle and would ignore the inquisitive nose poking into her face. If it was a teenage punk lamb trying to chew on her ear and climb all over her, she’d firmly tell it to step off.
Some call it aggression. I call it common sense. While we give infants and toddlers certain allowances, would you want a teenager or adult hovering over you at the dinner table or pulling your hair constantly?
It has been a partnership with her from day one. She has been with me through the departure of two other guardians, one of old age and the other too young. She is my right hand gal. Her breeder talks of how her aunt and her sister have a deep sense of their own worth. I see that same understanding of self-value in Maya.
On my farm, it’s not the ewes and lambs that are most vulnerable to predators. Historically, it has been our main flock. I do work with my LGDs as pups, in regards to etiquette around ewes and lambs, though. I expect complete trustworthiness, regardless of their ultimate role.
As a result, I trust Maya 100% with the ewes and lambs — always have — but the bulk of her job is to hold the front lines against constant coyote pressure from the west and north. She has been exceptional with little ones, but as she’s matured, she’s asked to be able to focus on the front lines and I’ve tried to listen. Now, she’s got her eyes and ears everywhere. She’s not human aggressive or roaming. But at the same time, she has become very aware of the human goings on outside the farm and, just …. everything.
She is one place one minute, and a mile away, the next. She does all of that and is spending countless hours patrolling and defending the flock. Some might dismiss that. It might not be “stock sticky” enough for them, but it’s been a privilege to watch her define her role.
It’s like she has learned to put everything in context. She figured out how her skills and capabilities apply, on the farm, and in the big picture.
I can’t take any credit for that. That was all Maya.
This winter, there was a guy clearing invasive grapevines from our wooded acreage. Occasionally, we’d hear his chainsaw as he worked. He said he was in the woods one day, when he sensed a presence and looked up. A big, wolf-like dog stood just outside of his work area, silently observing him.
Slowly, he put down the chain saw. The dog advanced. Her tail was wagging, but he wasn’t taking any chances, he said. After she’d checked things out, which, knowing Maya, would have included some serious sniffing, she left him to do his thing.
Now, Maya will stay inside a foot-tall boundary if I ask. The fact that she slipped through the perimeter says something. She was still on our property, and as far as I know, came right back inside the fence, once she confirmed he was a friend and not a foe.
Which is why I wanted to share this video. It might not seem to be much. But, as Maya has reached adult maturity, she’s been clear in what she wants to do. She still likes wee lambs and handles lambing with poise. She wants to be able to focus elsewhere though.
So, she visits when she wants. In this case, pay particular attention to the black-headed Suffolk ewe. It might not look like much, but this is progress.
Last year, I had a problem. That ewe was a head-hunter. She had lambs and turned into a pillaging warrior woman, bent on destroying any and all canines. Nothing was safe, including the humans, because she would just plow right through whatever was in front of her, even if she was half way across the barn. I nearly got injured more than once. She was a safety risk. The dogs handled it well, but still.
It didn’t go on long, but it was long enough. One day, I gave Maya a look and the go-ahead. She darted up to the ewe, stood on her hind legs, wrapped her front legs around the ewe’s neck, looked her right in the eye and gave her a big ol’ bear hug. No teeth. No claws. No sound.
I probably had my phone on me, but was too amazed at what was happening to think to pull it out. Trust me though. It was the exact wake-up call that ewe needed. She staggered back and beat a hasty retreat, unharmed but thoroughly abashed.
I have a strong relationship with Maya. That was something I focused on when she was a pup. The trust goes both ways. In situations like this, it paid off.
When she scanned pregnant again, I took a deep breath. Here we go. I didn’t have any young pups in training this time, thankfully.
First clue was that Pili, our border collie, could navigate the barn and pasture outside without issue. The next was this video. This is the first time Maya had gone into the twins pen with this ewe during this lambing. While the ewe isn’t comfortable, she doesn’t advance and Maya ignores her.
I think the hard part is learning to listen to these guys. And not letting our human get in the way.