Building healthy livestock guardian dog pack hierarchy

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bridger and tanaka
A solid working pack functions best when dogs understand where they fit. When Tanaka, left, realized her place one day, her mother, Bridger, center, looked at her as if to say, "It's about time." (Courtesy of Farei Kennels)

Most of our pet dog breeds either live solitary lives or have had the instincts for pack hierarchy bred out of them. Livestock guardian dogs, on the other hand, were made to work in groups, and it’s an interesting process watching them mature into working pack members.

Tanaka, 2 1/2 years old, has been an especially interesting one to watch. She is quite submissive by nature, and has been generally happy, no matter who she is working with. Starting his summer, she began working the big pasture, on night shift, with my young male, Fitz. Because I use poultry as natural pest control methods, even when the hooved stock and their dogs exit an area, guardians must stay behind to protect the birds.

So, I have started a rotation of shift work with the dogs — an experiment I started perfecting this fall when we pulled back from rotational grazing areas into the winter holding pens.

Rotation

Bridger and Sakura guard the farm proper and the free range poultry I have at the house for meat and eggs. Seven and Colter stay with the sheep. This means they are up at the house with them when they are in the night corral. Every morning, the sheep and two dogs pass through Bridger’s “territory” and take the sheep down to the feeding area in the big pasture, starting their day shift.

Fitz and Tanaka are already there, and, for a bit during chores, I have four or five dogs with me. Once I’m done feeding, they end their shift and come back up to the house with me to sleep in the empty night corral until it’s time to go to work again.

So, twice daily there are smaller units of the larger pack moving about through each other’s areas, switching shifts and taking breaks. Everyone must get along and maintain a solid working relationship with not only their working partners, but within the pack, as a whole.

The youngest member, Punica, is currently learning the ropes of this arrangement as she moves back and forth with the sheep, learning to show respect when moving through an adult’s “territory.”

Puppy license

Tanaka started out as any youngster does, bouncing through life with what I call the “puppy license.” A pass that allows most behaviors, short of biting, to be overlooked with nary an eye roll. Somewhere around four or five months old, that pass starts to run out.

Adults start expecting better things — less bouncing and more focus — and are stern in their reprimands for things like high energy around stock and general blundering about. Pups generally move through this time learning to lower their heads and ask for permission for things like play and the sharing of food and beds.

As they approach their first birthdays, most young dogs will still sporadically attempt puppy things and their response to reprimand turns to a bouncing playful “you can’t be serious” technique that usually gets them run off in disgust.

Tanaka gets her groove

Tanaka never went through the bouncy stage, really. She has always been head down respectful, until recently. It’s like she woke up one morning and decided she was a full time member of the pack and deserved the same respect as everyone else.

Unlike most people’s expectations, this has been done with little fanfare — no muss, no fuss. Hierarchy is not about fighting or alpha. In a solid pack environment, it’s about leadership and respect. The first morning she met Bridger at the farm proper with her confidence mustered, Bridger sniffed her over, almost as if to say, “it’s about time,” and we continued on with our daily chores as if nothing had changed.

For Tanaka though, everything had. She spends most of her time with her “tail on high” now. I see new confidence, not only in her relationship with me, but in the way she treats younger pack members, Fitz and Punica, as well.

The biggest change has been with her half sister, Sakura, who is the same age but has an iron will that went straight from “puppy license” to “hell on wheels,” with nothing in between. Tanaka demanded respect when Sakura entered “her space” the other morning, which turned into a bit of a tussle and ended with the first “head duck” I’ve ever seen Sakura grace her with.

Tanaka’s still riding high on that one, without excess or attitude. She’s just thrilled with her place in the universe, her pack and the family that loves her.

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