Catherine de la Cruz

Livestock Guardian pups are most often purchased during lambing season so there are young lambs for the pup to grow up with. So the first time she is left alone with lambing ewes is around the age of a year - a time when her own development is still incomplete. The following story is common.

The sheep grower comes out to the pasture and finds a ewe who has recently lambed. Her nose and ears are torn and bleeding, and the rancher's first thought is "dog attack!" The livestock guardian dog is found, often with blood on her fur and an uninjured lamb nearby. The rancher's first thought is usually that the dog has "smelled blood and gone crazy." Many potentially good livestock guardian dogs have their careers cut short at this point. However, had the sheep grower witnessed the "attack," this is the most likely scenario.

A ewe - usually a yearling at her first lambing - gives birth to a lamb. Confused, she wanders away to give birth to its twin. The livestock guardian dog finds the apparently abandoned lamb, licks it clean and begins to treat it like a puppy. (This is true whether the livestock guardian dog is a male or a female.) Something about "motherhood" gets through the dim processes of the ewe's brain and she decides to take care of the second lamb. Shortly afterwards, she vaguely remembers she has another one around somewhere and goes to look for it.

At this point, the young dog, not sure of its responsibilities, decides to "protect" its lamb against the pushy ewe who seems to think it belongs to her. In the unequal struggle, the ewe butts the dog and the dog retaliates with her teeth. The ewe is injured, and the sheep grower now has several problems on her hands - new lambs, an injured ewe and a confused dog.

It is of little comfort to learn that many young livestock guardian dogs go through this stage; it is probably more reassuring to learn that almost all of them outgrow it and it never recurs. The most immediate problem is how to deal with the dog's behavior.

Lock the dog up alone until ewe and lamb are cared for and penned together. Then plan to watch the ewes closely for the next birth, hoping to correct the dog's behavior before more damage occurs. When you see a ewe about to give birth, put the dog on a leash and allow her to watch from a distance comfortable for the ewe. (Some experienced ewes actually seek out the dog's protection when they lamb; others want the dog as far away as possible.) Before the lamb is on its feet, lead the dog around the ewe, keeping the ewe between the dog and the lamb. The dog needs to learn here not to separate the ewe and lamb. If the ewe charges, let her hit the dog, if she can do so without hitting you as well. Correct the dog sharply if she attempts to retaliate.

Repeat this supervision as often as possible during the lambing season; learning when not to interfere, and when to care for a lamb that has actually been abandoned, takes experience. See to it that the dog has the chance to learn this during her first lambing season. Encourage her to spend time with the "bummers" - lambs that are being bottle fed - as this will satisfy some of her curiosity about the newborns. Teach her, by physical restraint, not to get between a ewe and her lamb. If a ewe butts her, forestall retaliation with a sharp "No!"

Once she is through her adolescent period, your livestock guardian dog will be a calm and reliable guardian, even for lambing ewes. The "episode of the bloody ear" will be turned into a positive learning experience for both of you. One day, when your livestock guardian dog is older, experienced and sedate, content to sleep in the sun, you will see the old torn-eared ewe and remember when you were all younger and still had a lot to learn. And you will be grateful you had a chance to learn it together - you and your reliable old dog.

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