Pack Conflicts: Causes and Solutions
Restoring Peace and Health to Your LGDs
By Brenda M. Negri, Cinco Deseos Ranch LGD’s – Running a very large (20+) pack of livestock guardian dDogs (LGD) for several years now, I’ve observed and learned what can cause conflict between individual dogs in a pack environment, upsetting an otherwise calm state of affairs. Addressing these issues in practical terms, LGD owners can enhance their own flock protection experience. Better assessing the dogs and their situation brings more peace and health to the dogs, which improves performance and versatility.
Conflicts between livestock guardian dogs can usually if not always, be attributed to one or more of these issues:
• Physical pain
• Food and/or water deprivation
• Lack of “personal” space
• Lack of purpose, mission, or duty
• Fear or psychological trauma
• Lack of compatibility between individuals or bloodlines
• Hierarchy changes, addition(s) to pack or death of pack members
• Estrous cycles
Any time a dog is in pain, it’s not its usual self. Just like humans, no dog likes to feel pain. Whether it be a bruised shoulder from a ram butting it, a stone bruise on a foot pad, a collar that’s too tight and digging into the dog’s skin, an untreated cut or sore, a rotted tooth, chronic pain from an injury, painful diseases such as cancer, or a genetic defect like hip or elbow dysplasia, pain can definitely make your dog uncomfortable, grumpy, and vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable, a dog may become more defensive of his food, surly, or edgy.
You may notice a dog’s bristling at other dogs over food or an area that it previously didn’t try to “claim” as its own.
Such a dog’s patience around young pups may be tested or completely gone, even taking to snapping at them, despite previously tolerating their gentle play at its side.
Regular inspection of your LGD from head to toe need not be a major effort. Take a quick look at the eyes, inner ears, gums, and teeth; run your hands over the dog’s body, legs, and feet, inspect for signs of blood or pus. This will usually tell you where the source of pain may be. Take the dog’s temperature if necessary, to assess if there’s a fever. Of course, vet care is recommended for maladies beyond home remedies and first aid.
Usually, once the pain subsides, or the ailment is cured, you can see a marked improvement in the dog’s demeanor as it returns to its normal self, and is now less inclined to pick fights with other dogs due to anguish and pain.
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Food, Water Deprivation
Lack of adequate nutrition or water can drive any living being to do things it normally wouldn’t; your LGD is no exception. In a dog pack, it’s extremely important that each individual dog can eat while relaxed and calm, and not have to be looking over its back every other second to make sure it’s not going to get jumped for taking its time to eat or drink what it needs.
Many people fail to realize that dogs, like people, don’t appreciate being rushed to eat. It’s not normal for a dog to gulp down its food out of fear it’ll disappear into the jaws of another dog.
To facilitate a more relaxed food and water consumption environment, I always free choice feed my pack of dogs so no one is ever deprived of food or the time to relax and eat it.
• Preventing livestock from getting the dog food ahead of the dog.
• Placing many food bowls around, spread apart from one another, so multiple dogs can eat without conflict.
• Having copious amounts of clean, cool (not tepid or scum filled) water available at all times for the pack.
• Water and food bowls being at a height accessible to young, up-and-coming pups that can’t reach the tops of high-sided stock water troughs.
• Keeping an eye on dogs that might try to run other dogs off of their own food, and restraining them or moving them to another area so they alone aren’t causing food based conflicts.
A full dog is a content dog, much less likely to pick needless fights with workmates.
Lack of “Personal” Space
I have a saying, learned the hard way from personal experience: Don’t run a 100-acre dog on 10 acres.
Some LGD breeds are more content with smaller areas to roam and work on than others: The more “hyper,” high strung or nervous the breed, the better chance the dog will require more physical space for contentment. Heavier, more lethargic, calmer breeds can get by on less land and still stay contented.
Any time two or more dogs meet in a confined area, there’s chance for confrontation. This sometimes manifests itself in fence fighting — where two dogs that normally get along well suddenly run and charge a fence that separates them, barking and snarling at one another.
A constricted area, say between two buildings, a breezeway between house and garage, a livestock working alley or chute, or a small pen can cause a lack of personal space for any dog.
One may successfully reduce the space the dogs have between one another, up to the point where one of them begins to feel crowded or cornered, or that it couldn’t escape from a threat or danger. Then it’ll be on guard, nervous, and if things escalate, act in a negative fashion out of frustration and fear.
If LGDs aren’t used to being handled much, they should never be cornered in order to catch them without giving them a way to get out of the situation; they could turn on you, and pack mates.
Dogs running together that have enough space to get away from one another for naps in the warm sun or “quiet time,” co-exist better. The space can be in the form of a separate field, a barn, or the front yard. If dogs each have enough space to call their own, they won’t feel crowded: Lack of space won’t cause conflicts among them. Adequate room also ensures your dogs are able to exercise enough to “blow off steam.”
Lack of Purpose/Mission/Duty
Many LGD breeds may be found throughout the world being used as pets and companions. Unfortunately, many as well can be increasingly found in animal shelters and rescues because they didn’t “fit” their home situation.
LGD breeds have been bred for hundreds of years to guard livestock against predators. This inherited trait, plus their drive, aren’t things that can be denied them without paying a price. LGDs without stock to guard can many times be turned into pets, but I for one am not a proponent of this unless the dogs get enough physical exercise and mental stimulation to make up for not fulfilling their genetic path.
Contrary to some people’s opinions, it isn’t necessary to own thousands of acres and hundreds of head of livestock in order to keep an LGD content with its duties. One can accomplish it with far less if the dog is raised up knowing his job, and encouraged in its guarding duties — on a daily basis, not just once a month.
An LGD with no purpose will become bored, restless and/or depressed. The dog may try to dig out or escape its confines to venture elsewhere where there is stock to guard. Feeling frustrated with no purpose, a dog may lash out at fellow pack members or otherwise act negatively to compensate for its absence of a mission or purpose. Making sure your LGD has work and purpose in life is paramount for a happy dog, one that’s less likely to cause conflicts with its pack members.
Abject and constant fear of humans, loud noises, vehicles, an animal, or an object, can be a source of great stress and trauma to livestock guardian dogs and in turn, cause them to misplace their frustrations and fear by attacking other dogs and humans.
Particularly if your LGDs weren’t handled much as pups, they can grow up with a marked distrust of human contact and consider such a threat to their well-being, let alone the livestock they’re guarding.
Likewise, if an LGD has been subjected to injury, humiliation, or trauma at the hands of its owner or other persons, the damage can be terrific, causing the dog enough angst and psychological disturbance that it then turns on its fellow pack mates and takes it out on them.
The owner must always discern what’s the root cause of the LGD fear or trauma, then work to eliminate it, so the dog is calmed and focused once again.
It’s common knowledge that some large commercial operators and ranchers run nearly feral LGDs with large bands of sheep or goats. These dogs, having never been shown any positive treatment or reinforcement from humans, observe them only as a threat, danger, or source of pain, confusion, and/or trauma. A socialized LGD — handled from birth — of course eliminates this problem. The American Sheep Industry recommends as good practice raising socialized LGDs — that can be handled safely. I know from experience that the handling of pups in no way, shape, or form “ruins” or lessens their guarding abilities. Self-assured, confident dogs that aren’t “afraid of their own shadows” (skittish or continuously nervous and afraid) are safer around humans and fellow working LGDs as well.
Lack of Compatibility Between Individuals/Breeds
Every now and then a pair of dogs just don’t like each other, much as with some pairings of humans. I’ve known two sets of dogs that just didn’t want to get along no matter what was done to accommodate their needs.
In my case, I have a male Pyrenees that can’t stand one Maremma/Anatolian male, resulting in fights; the two must stay separate.
The worst case of hate between dogs I had was a female Kangal and a female Pyrenees; the latter was nearly killed by the Kangal in a gruesome fight once, which involved me and two of the Pyrenees’ siblings trying to pull, force, and otherwise get the Kangal off of the failing female Pyrenees. The fight was so intense, that the Kangal drove one of her canine teeth through her own upper lip, yet was oblivious to the pain.
Rivalry cases between two dogs like this are more common than most people know, or in some cases, care to admit.
Also, dogs (like sheep and goats!) can be “racist” to a degree, and breeds (more times than not) prefer the company of their own kind. I have seen it here, where my Spanish Mastiffs hang out together, my Pyrenean Mastiffs hang out together, and my Pyrenees do the same. The crossbreds seem to find a niche of their own and much of this segregation seems to be color based (i.e., white dogs will hang out with white dogs, dark colored dogs, with dark dogs).
The best one can do in these “Hatfield vs. McCoy” LGD situations is to keep the conflict from damaging the whole pack dynamic, by always making sure the two dogs with an intense dislike for one another aren’t allowed to be in the same space at the same time, so there’s no fighting. In worst case situations, you may find, as I have, that you must either put down (euthanize) or “re-home” one of the dogs in order to re-establish continuity and peace in the dog pack.
In another environment the repeat offender may become a model of calmness and teamwork with others; I’ve seen this in many situations, so there’s certainly hope for a dog like this. The fact is that some dogs just don’t fit well with certain other dogs: Responsible LGD owners keep that in mind in preventing rivalries between two dogs upsetting their whole guarding team.
Like all dogs, LGDs prefer to live in a pack and thrive as pack dwellers. The depth and complexity in relationships between a pack family is staggering and profoundly touching in its devotion and duration.
When a pack member dies from illness, accident, or is euthanized, fellow pack members immediately respond: A pack mourns. Some dogs mourn longer and more intensely than others, depending on their relationship with the deceased dog. The owner should be sensitive to this and never pressure a mourning dog into doing more than it can handle until it has healed, which will come in due time. The gap left by the dead LGD now must be filled by another pack member, and this could involve conflicts if two dogs are intent on being the pack’s new leader (“alpha”).
Likewise, additions of newer dogs to a pack can be the source of great conflict if not managed properly or if it’s done in a cavalier, hasty manner, particularly if the addition is an older dog (past its puppyhood). Usually, pups can be added to a pack easily, with no strife or issues past a few quick lessons on which will be the new boss.
Older dogs, however, carry their own past, baggage, mindsets, and “rules,” which may not blend with the existing pack’s idea of what’s acceptable. Being alert, perceptive, and responsible when adding another dog to your group is mandatory for success.
The urgency of procreation can surpass even an empty stomach in dogs. If you run females and intact males together, soon enough (by seven to 18 months of age) the females will come into heat and the males will know it.
All forms of friendship and affable teamwork between the males will very quickly go out the window at the first inkling of a female’s “coming in season” (estrus). The situation must be responsibly dealt with by keepers of dogs, lest there be a bloodbath.
Females can stay in heat for as long as six weeks at a time, and unless breeding plans are afoot, they should be securely “put up” (quarantined) as far from your working males as possible to lessen fights and conflicts. Even then, you may be looking at moping male LGDs parked in front of the stock trailer or barn where the female is sequestered during her cycle.
Remember: Not spaying your female keeps her going through heat cycles, with a lot of downtime for your LGD pack: Their minds are on “things” rather than guarding your flock.
Fights between males over bitches in heat can be particularly vicious and bloody, involving serious and even life-threatening injuries, often running up huge vet bills.
Responsible LGD owners either spay their female dogs (leaving dog-breeding to pros set up to manage estrous bitches efficiently and completely eliminating that cause of conflict) or not run females at all in their working pack.
Reducing conflicts between LGDs takes effort and dedication but is possible with patience, understanding, observation, and responsive and sensitive ownership.
Originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.