Meela is an amazing dog and I could tell you many things about her- for instance, she has two coats of hair, one long for winter and one so short and thin I imagine it must feel as cool as wearing linen- but I will try to maintain some focus here. She is supposed to be a livestock guardian dog. Problem is, we do not know how best to bring out her guarding instincts.
In the last week or so we have been increasing her amount of freedom- leaving her off her rope all day and letting her wander beyond where we can see her. Being off her rope allows her to patrol the area, which is obviously crucial to her function. We have been mostly happy with the results and have seen a lot of progress in her ability to obey simple commands.
Just yesterday, however, we noticed that she has started to harass the chickens. I was down behind the barn and when I looked over, Meela was laying down beside a limp chicken. It looked as though she had killed it. I yelled but she just nudged the chicken, which then twitched its legs. I went over. The chicken was soaking wet as though it had been caught out in the recent rain. A small patch of feathers was missing from its left wing. It was completely docile and let me pick it up. There were no feathers or blood on Meela. Had she been saving it from wherever it had been caught or had she caused the problem in the first place? It was impossible to say.
Later that day I saw her go into the chicken coop and chase the chickens inside. She mouthed them but did not pull any feathers or draw any blood. I pulled her out of the coop by the scruff. Down she went into her submissive position and I squeezed at her scruff, imitating the corrective bite of an alpha dog. Yet, later still that day, we saw her carrying a chicken around by its foot for no good reason.
This small problem of ours reflects the larger problem of loss of continuity in specialized branches of knowledge related to farming. Formerly, parents would have passed the knowledge on to the next generation. Now the flow of knowledge is disjointed.
When looking for a second dog to be a companion to Meela, we encountered a man who breeds livestock guardian dogs and also uses them to protect his herd of sheep. He told DH about how he trained one of his dogs; he fashioned a sturdy house out of a barrel and then put both house and puppy into the sheep enclosure. For five days and nights, rams battered the house and the puppy did not come out. (Food and water were put into the house for it, safely away from the sheep). After that, the puppy emerged and began to learn how to get along among the sheep. He grew up into a model guardian. This man claims that he never loses a sheep to coyotes and, in fact, if he puts a dead carcass out back, it takes days for the coyotes to come and get it.
For those of us used to understanding dogs as little persons, this technique is shocking. The main tenant is that you are not allowed to touch or talk to the dog often because you want it to be bonded to the livestock, not to you. More shocking still is the advice given to this man by a person he called an 'old-timer'. The old-timer told him that if one of your dogs kills a lamb, you have to beat the dog with that dead lamb.
Definitely not PC. However, I don't think what that old-timer suggested is what comes to mind when you picture a dog-beater. It is not an un-leashing of pent-up rage. It is a controlled, unemotional method of letting your dog know its limits. It requires a completely different philosophy of the man-dog relationship than what is currently popular.
Could I beat Meela with a dead chicken? Not with any conviction. Despite myself, I humanize her. I feel guilty at night when she howls for us. I love seeing her fuzzy tail wagging in pleasure when I come down to the barn. It makes me feel good to have her follow me around. When I'm sad, I admit, I fantasize about pulling her into big hug and letting her lick my face (I have resisted this temptation so far). Unfortunately this kind of love is something that meets my needs but not hers. Her over-arching need is to act out the instincts for guarding that she was born with. This will fulfill her intellectually and emotionally because she will always be busy and she will be bonded with the animals she spends every night and day with. Furthermore, if she progresses to killing chickens, we will re-home her if we cannot correct the behaviour. My enthusiastic love could actually take her away from me.
The saga is not over yet. We will continue to gather information and we also plan on experimenting with putting her in with the new piglets. As with everything we do, it is a matter of trial and error.