Practical learning key to livestock guardian dog seminar

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tents in a pasture
Tents filled the open pasture, at Farei Kennels, in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of Farei Kennels)

With lambing and kidding finally finished, I am preparing for the second annual shepherds’ seminar, at Farei Kennels. During the three-day event, I welcome aspiring shepherds onto the farm to learn about how I train and work my dogs. Those attending are a very diverse group of farmers and homesteaders, with varying degrees of experience, but we all share an enthusiasm for learning how to do things better.

The versatility and intelligence I have selected and bred for were proved last year when the winter holding area was invaded by 35 strangers setting up tents and helping with farm chores — and my dogs handled it with poise, even with the hustle and bustle.

Judging from the number of repeat attendees, as well as newcomers from far and wide, it’s a well received event.

Learning curve

Having livestock guardian dogs as a part of your operation can be a steep learning curve for aspiring shepherds. New owners often struggle with the idea of a working dog when they’ve spent a lifetime being inundated by societal views of canine ownership.

One of the most important things I like to point out to new owners is that I don’t ask my dogs to do anything I wouldn’t or haven’t done. They work in the same environment I do, out in the elements.

At one time, I owned a shih tzu. She slept on the couch most days while I sat behind a desk in a climate controlled office. Now, I am an aspiring shepherdess, and the dogs I have fit that new lifestyle. We work the same job, the dogs and I. Rain, snow, mud and bugs, we all work together for a common goal.

Working with LGDs

Teaching people how to work with their dogs, instead of just owning them, is another key piece for aspiring shepherds. When my dogs are young, we spend a lot of time together. I teach them how to be good citizens, how to behave in the house and in public.

They go with me for chores and farm work in a limited capacity, much like small children. As their skills improve they are asked to do small temporary jobs, overseen by an adult, as we progress towards full time work. Most accomplish this goal before they are 1 year old, taking their cue from myself and the other working members of this farm.

I try to observe where and with whom they excel and place them in roles, accordingly. I know if I need them to, they will work any job I ask, because the relationship we have built allows for communication.

With pack building, I encourage owners to have enough dogs to do the job, plus one. This offers the flexibility to provide breaks and allows for ample time to heal in the case of an injury, without putting stock in danger. I like that my dogs understand “break time” and will happily pass out on the kitchen floor for a four- to six-hour “death nap.” They are comfortable in the knowledge that their stock is safe, and they will go back to work rested and ready to go.

Teaching shepherding

I’m really looking forward to the event this year. Although it’s a working weekend for me, the dogs get a break from the daily routine, something I know they enjoy. We keep the stock in closer where it’s safe and concentrate on shepherd skills, obedience and working with herding dogs.

I won’t have my males in the pasture during the event. Although they are good at not marking things that are mine — I’m a stickler about not getting my truck tires marked — tents in the pasture are just too much. I have five females who will be in the pasture with us, varying in age from 6 years old to 3, all with very different personalities, as well as two young pups.

Each of my dogs has its individual traits that makes them an endearing part of our working team. This diversity is some of what I enjoy most about working with them and a facet I love sharing with farm visitors. Their ability to go from frolicking yard dog to fierce protector — and back again — is simply amazing to watch.

We expect similar numbers this year, and we are looking forward to another successful seminar. I’m sure the dogs will remember, and I will be interested to see how they respond when the activities start again.

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Tarma Shena is an accountant, a certified dog trainer and behaviorist, as well as owner of Farei Kennels. She raises Turkish Kangals, Jacob and Navajo-Churro sheep.

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