This is the first of four LGD articles I made mention of a couple weeks back. I am writing these for our local sheep agency who wishes to encourage and educate about these dogs.
"Upon our arrival home I set the pair of pups into a dog run, knowing that after such a long drive they will appreciate stretching their legs and sniffing about to learn where they are, without any extra fuss from me.
A few hours later I walk them around to where some sheep are. There is a wonderfully short lived period of puppy-hood where the little creatures willingly follow you as the two rascals are doing now.
At the barn paddock I remove the door from an extra large size dog crate and set the crate indoors with the open mouth facing a narrow opening into the building. Inside, surrounding the crate is a small portable exercise pen. The pups can come and go as they please, and inside the building they can either pop into the crate to sleep or hang out in the exercise area.
This will provide shelter but not allow the pups to run amuck in the building. This set up won't last too long as the pups will outgrow it soon enough but it provides a den for pups to go until they're firmly settled.
At the front of the building is a 50 foot pen that opens to a larger 15 acre paddock. Each night I will move the sheep up to the pen so the pups and sheep sleep in close proximity.
There are half a dozen schooling sheep for stock dog training here. These girls have the upper hand being they are at home and relaxed and familiar with dogs.
I walk around the paddock, letting the pups follow as they will. With any new pup or dog I always stay long enough to witness the first encounters with the sheep and see that everyone is relatively settled.
Having sheep who are familiar with guardian dogs gives these pups a leg up. The yearling sheep approach gingerly but are very curious.
The dark pup keeps a wide enough berth around the sheep and I notice that the sheep greet the tan fellow first. The tan pup is worried and he lowers his head and makes himself smaller. He doesn't flee though, and the sheep get their first sniff of the newcomers. The little tan pup has just earned one notch in my books.
For the next several months the pups will stay here, in the barn paddock. This paddock is a short distance from the yard but with the hill and bush terrain it is completely out of sight and fenced off from the yard. Since these pups will work with a flock that is very seldom situated near a yard they will grow up out of sight from us and the yard, right from the start. There are various ways to start livestock guardian pups, what is important when starting a pup, is creating an environment that will closely resemble his life's work.
While the pups will be away from the yard and out of sight, they won't be left completely on their own. Over the next several months they will be handled and supervised and an adult dog will move in with them.
The downside of a set up with the pups out of sight is that constant supervision is not possible. I am not able to watch sheep or dogs from my kitchen window. This means I have to dedicate time to spend with the pups and to sit out back and watch.
It is late evening now and with their bellies full the pups have tucked themselves into the dog crate to sleep.
I arrive early the next morning to feed the pups. I will feed again at noon and at night. I spend time with them at each feeding and occasionally, in between, I make a point of sneaking up to spend some time watching unnoticed, before they know I am there.
When I am in the paddock with them the pups follow me everywhere. Some days we walk around the paddock, some days we walk near and through the sheep. Some days I come and go quickly. The main point is that the pups remain with the sheep when I leave and my input with them is minimal but enough to develop a relationship and understanding of each other.
I don't talk a lot or make a big fuss over the pups. I don't encourage them to follow but I don't correct puppies for being puppies either. Everything is very matter of fact and if they wish to follow me at this stage then I'll lead them to sheep. The one thing they are not allowed to do is follow me out of the paddock.
The other thing I do regularly is handle the pups. I pick up their feet and hold them. I gently tug on their ears and tail. I look into their ears, examine their eyes. I hold the mouth and look at teeth. As long as the pups are of size to pick up I will pick them up. The goal is to pick them up matter of factly, hold them briefly until they settle and set them down again, but not to coddle them. This gets them used to being lifted into vehicles and carried, if need be, when injured. Most injuries to the dogs are going to occur on the head/shoulders and the hind end. Having a dog used to being touched in these areas will help when tending to later injuries.
Pups at this young age are strongly influenced. Following is very natural to them, but if I gush and fuss over the pups at this stage it will encourage them to seek out my attention and that's another matter. If I stay very matter of fact and even boring they'll soon move on to more interesting things in their world.
I decide to hold off on leash training because I don't wish to encourage any further bonding to me via training them to follow on lead. Although more difficult to do later on, leash training will wait.
All of this handling and observation will continue over the next several months. This isn't much time spent with pups in the grand scheme of things. It does not take long and it shouldn't. I am not there for hours handling pups but rather each time I go out I run my hands over the pups, gently pulling an ear, picking up a foot, lifting the lip on the muzzle. It is pretty quick and that's it, I'm done, the pups can go on their way.
Since I can easily fall into the trap of gushing over puppies, I say little with my voice and a lot with my body. Pups get bored easily and if there is no interaction from you for a length of time they quickly move off to do other things. This is the exact time to slip out of the paddock unnoticed."