More and more people start to understand that the best results with livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are obtained by running a pack of good LGDs in the right way. In my article ‘The pack will prevail’ I talked about specific details regarding hierarchy, age difference, the interspecies human/dog relation and real life reports from three shepherds who work with packs of Romanian Carpathian Shepherd dogs (Ciobănesc Românesc Carpatin). But now a question I ask myself many times when reading other articles and viewing video’s and pictures. Is your pack really a pack?
The pack: collaboration between several individuals (canines) with the mutual target to increase chances of successful survival.
There are many different packs, not one is the same. There is no ready to go classification for canine packs, not even if they’re from the same specie (wolf, coyote, dog, etc). People like to put everything in boxes, supported by a universal user manual, but that very fact is blocking the real knowledge and experience development when it comes to LGDs.
When someone owns multiple dogs they’re often called ‘pack’. We have 6 dogs at home, which can all get along, but only 4 of them are (becoming) a pack. These 4 are Carpatins; one adult male, a semi adult female, an adult female and a male pup. The adult male is teaching the younger ones all he knows and is shaping them into worthy pack members. A bunch of dogs living together, which socially interact and tolerate each other aren't automatically a pack. In fact the ‘pack title’ is too much credit for many dog situations.
A pack intensively collaborates to obtain and maintain their goals. In case of LGDs that’s a threat-free and stable territory, of which the size and borders are determined and known by the LGDs, in which their livestock, pack members and people are safe. For that they must really collaborate. This is no game. There are always risks present. Each (individual) mistake can lead to big problems and even injury or death of livestock or pack members. Good adult, experienced, confident and stable dogs with leading abilities are of vital importance in a LGD pack. Too many high ranked, or dominant individuals of the same strength aren’t desirable. What you want is long term stability, thus a tactical age and sex build up. There are various options, and publications, to start and continue a good pack of LGDs, however I want to return to the question I wrote earlier: Is your (LGD) pack really a pack?
In the Romanian Carpathian Mountains (Transylvania) ‘we’ have the highest number of free roaming sheep flocks, with shepherd and LGDs, of Europe (probably even the highest number of the world) in predator territory. Romania has the highest wolf numbers and density of Europe and the highest brown bear density of the world. LGDs which aren’t good, or which don’t have a good pack, have short lives here. Wild Nature will take care of lacking LGD quality. My examples of course are Carpatins, because this is the LGD breed I work with and am convinced of. I am not going to compare different breeds here, although I saw many different working LGD breeds and crosses.
In this hostile environment only the best thrive and survive. When the Carpatins are out with the shepherd and grazing flock you often don’t see them at first sight and surely you will not see the whole pack together on one position in or next to the flock. Individuals will spread to tactical, secure positions. There are dogs at the front, back, center and sometimes inside the flock. Dogs will position themselves between the flock and potential ambush vegetation. With their keen sense of smell, hearing and even sight they will notice potential danger at an early stage. All pack members, on all positions must poses a high quality set of skills and senses. (click on the picture to enlarge)
Carpatins are very natural, tough and hard dogs, also in the pack. The harsh working environment demands this type of character to shape successful guardians and to be taken serious by predators. You will rarely see a whole pack of working Carpatins close together during grazing. Some examples of when you can see this are:
· When they’re fed
· When they’re called by the shepherd
· When the sheep are in the pen with the shepherds present (milking, shaving)
· Among puppies and juveniles
Today, around the world, many LGDs are working in a different setup (fenced) compared to their original, traditional setup (free roaming in nature areas). This isn’t a problem for Carpatins since they are very versatile and highly adaptable. Our Carpatins at home are also within fences and this gives us the opportunity to observe and study their behavior and interactions rather easy, compared to studying the dogs out in the mountains.
Our male (Iezer) is a true leader and very confident. We don’t take him out of his territory in the direct neighborhood. If we would do that he would instantly enlarge his territory borders and become more vigilant to occurrences further away in the village. The pups are taken out at times to socialize them. Our semi adult female was also socialized like that, but is now at the same level as our male; no outside walks in the direct environment. When doing it like this, the dogs respect the fence rather well and don’t overreact to activities further away, unless there is a really serious threat.
As for positions and hierarchy among the dogs; Iezer is the boss. He determines what is tolerated and what’s not. Only during heat of a female this changes. Puppies are not allowed at the front line when there is a potential threat because they’re too young and still need protection and to teach them not to clinch together on one location. How is this taught to the youngsters? Very tough and convincing. He will physically correct them when they clinch together at the (his) frontline position. After one or two such lessons the rules are clear very quickly. Lately Suna is allowed to ‘handle’ certain cases herself. Cases for which she is strong enough and which are not risky, according to Iezer. All these pack details are handled by the dogs. It is of great importance that we understand that and recognize who is who and what is what. The wrong approach, or interference, from us can cause problems, just as other happenings. Iezer obtained and maintained a stable situation very quickly, but recently had to do it all over again. A recent story from our personal life which shows how certain things can affect the daily routine.
Some time ago we took Iezer to the vet to remove a small abscess on his elbow. It was harmless, but a little inconvenient. We doubted quite some time to have it removed or not, because we hate modern medicines and especially anesthesia. I saw many anesthesia dramas as K9 handler and I knew with a strong dog like Iezer it wouldn’t be easy. Like all our dogs, Iezer is socialized and well behaved away from home. At the vet we weighed him without problems, the vet gave him a pet on the head and the anesthetic injection. When the drugs started to work, Iezer’s fight began. He eventually lay down, but wasn’t going to sleep. Other people walked in and out and he started to be aggressive, because his senses were switching off. It took two more injections to have him kind of KO, at least drugged enough to not bite the vet. On the table, during the operation he was maybe ‘out’ for two minutes, but quickly started barking again while the vet was doing the surgery. He couldn’t do more than that because of the drugs, but he sure was experiencing this. At the moment it was finished we carried him to the car, where he relaxed a bit. When we got to the pharmacy to pick up additional prescribed antibiotics he was already trying to get up and not long after during the ride he got up and started to fight against the drugs again. At this moment part of the Carpatin description from Dr. Moldoveanu in Carpatii Magazine 1932 appeared in my head: “Its eyes and attitude, in moments of fury, have something in common with that of a wild beast.” I could calm him down and when we got home he finally relaxed a bit and went to sleep in the car. All the time I stayed with him. He slept for an hour before a snarling cat woke him up. He wanted out of the car, still dizzy from the drugs. “What have I done to my best friend”, I asked myself repeatedly.
Our powerful Iezer was stripped from all his senses for a while and even though I brought this to him, he put all his trust in me. After a while I decided to let the other Carpatins see him again. They saw he was weak and attempted to seriously harass him. He could handle it, but I didn’t want him to this day. It was my responsibility, so I told them to back off. We took him inside with us (which he normally hates) and there he slept and slept and slept. Later at night I took him out to do his thing. He followed me out and back in like a puppy. The others kept their distance with me leading the way. That night he slept in our bedroom. In the morning, at my first move he got up from the floor signaling me he had been inside long enough. I took him out and no dog tried to harass him, he again was impressive enough to respect. Suna however, had enjoyed her day and night as leader. For several days Iezer had to re-teach the rules to her. With this behavior Suna showed at a very young age the strength, determination and character a good LGD must poses. With Iezer leading, life is much easier for the rest since he does all the ‘hard work’. But with or without him, or any other dog, life goes on. No time for a time out. The work continues.
A good pack consists out of strong, intelligent and sophisticated individuals which can all stand their ground. All members have their tasks, positions and skills. When one individual is absent, the rest must and will do more. A combination of that, joined in a pack is what we call canine (LGD) efficiency and it is available for those who need it.
A vital feature for good LGDs is connection with their original environment. The environment where they shaped and evolved for centuries to become what they are now. Lately several people ask me for Carpatin breeders outside Romania, closer to their home, for their convenience. I always tell them the best Carpatins are from Romania, especially the dogs that are born and growing up in nature, which from the very first moments of their life are imprinted with the presence of wildlife and adult teachers to develop their skills. All of the dogs we work with and also the dogs at our home were born there.