The pack will prevail

Realization of effective conflict prevention through implementation of good livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) is the subject I often talk about. In this article I will focus on a specific and very important condition on how to achieve the ideal situation: the pack.

Canines are pack animals. Their success, and survival abilities, top when they work and live in a pack. The first collaboration between humans and canines (‘Man’s best friend ') is due to the social character and qualities of canines being pack animals. For humans, to successfully work with dogs, it is necessary to understand, speak and read their language and behavior. One should be able to work together as a team to achieve the desired result. A collaboration between two species, because dogs are well aware that we are not one of them. The most intelligent specie is responsible for the correct execution and a relation that’s fair and understandable for the dogs.

Although the old (outdated) alpha theory determination of canine pack hierarchy is reviewed and relabeled, structures in many working LGD packs still show a role based hierarchy. In some packs better than in others, but the roles and ranks are for sure there. I observed these structures among hundreds of working LGD packs. That being said, outstanding leaders who are qualified to be called alpha are not so numerous. By far not every pack has outstanding leaders. The same we can observe among people managers; only a few are outstanding and naturally skilled to lead. When I say alpha I talk about an outstanding and natural leader. In the article 'Alpha Dog: Not a leader', but THE leader' I explain more about this.

The leading dogs often have a right hand, an assistant: a beta dog. One of the beta’s tasks, for example, is scouting new areas and situations. This is not without risk which is why a qualified animal should do this. Beta animals posses certain qualities and characteristics, more about that later, they rarely are potential alpha’s.  Of course the alpha is also qualified, but being pack leader means alpha’s don’t expose themselves to unnecessary risks. Again: dogs know we do not belong to their specie. The human-dog relation may (carefully) be described as an inter-species alpha - beta relation. That does not mean that the particular dog is a natural beta or capable of becoming one, nor does this mean the human is a good leader. The relationship between man and dog is quite complicated and our knowledge and insights are needed to ensure that everything is as clear for the dog.

The pack: a collaboration between several individuals (canines) with the mutual target to increase chances of successful survival. Catching large prey, defending the territory against stronger and competitive opponents are just some benefits of a pack. A pack will only work if each member executes its role in perfection and knows its place. Therefore there is a strict hierarchy in a pack which will lead to stability and clarity, so that all targets can be achieved. Domesticated dog pack hierarchy is not quite the same as it is with wild canines. Just the fact that there usually are humans involved with domestic dogs, results into differences. Another important fact is that domestic dogs, unlike wild canines, never completely mentally mature. Additionally most domestic dog packs are not family packs compared to how it is with many wild canines, although in traditional working LGD packs we do often see family packs.

For humans to be able to efficiently collaborate with dogs,  talent, knowledge and experience are needed. We must understand, the mostly non verbal, language of dogs. ‘Reading the dog’ is what it’s often called. Working with a pack of dogs requires pack behavior knowledge, especially when it comes to pack hierarchy! Often said is that humans must be pack leader, but that’s not the best explanation. The dogs form the pack and all members have their place in the pack hierarchy. The pack leader is also a dog. The human owner (master) is not the pack leader, because he is not a dog. He can however lead the pack of dogs. Are you still with me? With the right approach and constant efforts, dogs (being a pack) will let humans lead them in certain specific situations. When you master this you can count on a fantastic inter-species collaboration which leads to achieving results that cannot be achieved individually.

To get back to the subject of conflict prevention with LGDs and the pack principles, I will take you with me to the Romanian Carpathian mountains. To a location where two shepherd camps, with Carpatins as LGDs, are based. Two very experienced  shepherds have chosen a fantastic location for their flocks. These shepherds are Ionas Banc and Vasile Vostinar and they built their shepherd camps in the foothills just outside the city of Bistrita. The area consists out of grass hills and is surrounded by forest areas on all sides. Both shepherds employ staff who herd their flocks, milk the sheep, make cheese, shave the wool, etc. Every day both shepherds attend the shepherd camps to see how things are going, to bring supplies to the staff, monitor their livestock and most important; to take care of their dogs.

This area is wolf territory and occasionally a brown bear shows up too. It is of great importance to protect the flocks thoroughly, and here it is done by Carpatins as LGDs. During our last visit I observed the situation on this location from inside and I can conclude that both shepherds have a good thing going. Herding and managing sheep flocks in large predator territory is not suited for everyone. The ‘game of chess’ that is played between predator and shepherd (with LGDs) reaches high levels. Ionas Banc and Vasile Vostinar both set up their camps in a valley between the grass hills. Actually they are neighbors and their camps are only separated by one hill. One camp is right and the other one left from the hill. Both shepherd camps are guarded by 5-6 adult Carpatins. Both packs have experienced members and they form very functional packs. The period in which this all takes place is May 2013 (spring). The location (territory) of these shepherd camps are marked and guarded so well that wolf presence inside the territory borders is absent for quite a while now. The experienced and very capable Carpatins rule this area, their presence alone is enough to prevent conflicts with predators. Due to the fact that both shepherd camps are next to each other, the complete area is guarded by 10 Carpatins. Neighboring conflicts are absent because LGDs have a moving territory (the flock). Therefore it is relatively easy to run two packs of dogs close to each other without conflicts. When autumn arrives, predator activity increases and to maintain security both shepherds sometimes add even more Carpatins to the pack, resulting in an impressive defense system of LGDs during the most dangerous times of year. Shepherd camps in the Romanian Carpathian mountains usually are located in, or close to remote wilderness areas. There are wooden fences on shepherd camps, but they only serve as flock gathering point for milking and night penning. During the free grazing there is no protection for the flock, except for the LGDs.

In the summer of 2011 we also were at the shepherd camps of Ionas Banc and Vasile Vostinar. Their shepherd camps were on different locations back then. Ionas Banc shared his location with several shepherds and together they ran a large pack of Carpatins. The leading males from Ionas Banc and Vasile Vostinar were 5 years old in 2011 and they are brothers: Arab de Pe Somes (Vostinar) and Aspru de Pe Somes (Banc). Both bred by Canisa (kennel) de Pe Somes, owned by Ionas Banc. Arab and Aspru are impressive and experienced dogs and being the alpha they were found close to the shepherd and in the flock most of the time.

During our 2011 visit we also made an info videoclip about the Carpatin. Back then I observed tension in the pack of Vasile Vostinar. There was an upcoming conflict at hand regarding the alpha position.Traian (2 years old back then) tried to achieve top position some time after we were gone, resulting into a fierce and serious battle. Both Arab and Traian ended up in the infirmary and that resulted into serious consequences regarding the safety of the flock. To make it even worse autumn was arriving and with that the increase of wolf activity. Wolves prey on livestock more often in autumn and winter because their natural prey scatter over large distances due to the decreasing vegetation they feed on. In the autumn of 2011 I returned to Vasile Vostinar and due to the absence of Traian and Arab the pack now consisted out of 4 Carpatins; three females and one young (1 year old) male named Arcan. Arcan normally always hung out with Traian and he followed Traian everywhere. Efforts were needed here regarding the efficiency of the Carpatin pack. If one wants to achieve good results, stability and clarity in the pack are a must. Only than the maximum protection of the flock can be achieved. The pack must operate as one team, a well oiled machine. 

Today, May 2013, Traian is the leading male (4 years old) in Vasile Vostinars pack. Balance has returned and it’s obvious. Arab, now 7 years old, guards Vasile Vostinars farm and no longer the flock. During our presence at Vasile Vostinars shepherd camp it is clear that Arcan (now 3 years old) is still looking up to and stays close to Traian. The minor age difference doesn’t lead to problems (yet). Arcan is beta male.

The pack of Ionas Banc is almost unchanged. Aspru tops his brother for this matter, because he still is the alpha male. However Strajeru (number 3 male) is arriving. Ionas Banc is well aware of it and observes the matter well. Ionas Banc talks about the hierarchy in his pack, a couple of things were already obvious while we were walking from the territory borders to the camp and from earlier visits. He pointed out all members and their positions: Ancuta de Pe Somes (10 years old and mother of Aspru, Arab and Strajeru) and regardless of her age still top female; Aspru de Pe Somes (7 years old) alpha male; Strajeru de Pe Somes (4 years old) potential leading male; Tibles de Pe Somes (2 years old) beta male and a cheerful, energetic dog who stays close to Aspru most of the time; and Vultur de Pe Somes ( 4 year old male),the lowest ranked dog.

During our presence, Ionas Banc opens the trunk of his trusty, old Dacia and he hauls a supply of meat out of it. It’s feeding time for the dogs. The herding shepherds and the flock are nearing their lunch break and they gather around the camp to seek a shadow spot. Ionas Banc starts to cut portions of meat and his dogs gather around him. Aspru, Ancuta and Strajeru calmly await the moment when they get their share, but Tibles urges, waggling his tale and sniffing Ionas Bancs’ hair, impatiently. The cheerful and abundant body language of Tibles, who receives a few corrections from Ionas Banc for his impatience, remains unattended by the other dogs. Characters like Tibles are often seen among canine packs. Their cheerful and non aggressive attitude results in getting away with expressive behavior without being corrected. Canines like this are very important in a pack. They help to maintain balance in the pack because their characteristics take away tensions between pack members and decrease the chance of an explosive conflict.They are capable to manoeuvre between some rules and they enjoy a certain freedom within the hierarchy. These types of characters can be uncomfortable for humans. They often need multiple commands or corrections before they execute orders or cease their abundant behavior. These canines can be called beta’s and they often are the right hand of the alpha. Vultur, the fifth and lowest ranked animal, nervously awaits his share on a safe distance of several meters. These low ranked dogs are often target of frustration for the other pack members. These animals are very alert, tensed and submissive. An ungrateful role? No, these animals often are the first to notice and alarm to ‘danger’ which results in swift reactions from the rest of the pack. The submissive characteristics result in minimal damage when being harassed and the tension that is taken out on them also secures the pack balance and it prevents tensions and fights between higher ranked animals. When Ionas Banc has finished the meat preparation, each dog gets its share. Aspru, Ancuta and Tibles eat their share on the spot, Strajeru and Vultur however take their share to a safe spot further away, each in different directions. Vultur starts to eat rapidly, but Strajeru places his share at a safe spot and then runs towards Vultur trying to steal his food. Ionas Banc interferes: No! He shouts. And that is enough for Strajeru to cease his effort and he returns to his own share.

The importance of the human leading role is clearly visible here; humans supply  food to the pack and partly because of that the pack collaborates with and for humans. Understanding and reading dogs is extremely important to be successful. When the moment arrives where leading position conflict arrives, the human leading role becomes crucial. Swift recognizing who the (new) top dog is, prevents serious damage. Effective livestock protection and preserving all dogs is the main target and top position conflicts and tension won’t contribute to that. Ionas Banc is well capable to manage his pack of dogs thanks to his knowledge and experience.

As you can see there is a lot to it when it comes to the actual performance of efficient conflict prevention with LGDs. The advantages and results however, are more than worth it! The shepherd’s way of life and working with LGDs isn’t suited for everyone. For the ones that do lead this life, and are good at it, there isn’t much else that is more satisfying. Ionas Banc and Vasile Vostinar are examples when it comes to efficient shepherding and conflict prevention. Like few others they know how important it is to remain focused and concentrated. Working and living in natural wilderness is very dynamic and when changes are at hand swift adaptation is required. Running enough LGDs in a stable pack is essential. A pack of Carpatins requires a certain build up. When one arranges the ages of the males to differ by at least two years it will prevent a lot of hierarchy conflicts. An age difference of at least two years leads to a rather smooth transfer of the male’s physical and mental phases, resulting in less complicated hierarchy changes without too much conflicts. When predator numbers in the area increase it automatically means that the number of LGDs has to be amended too. When one adapts on time and in the right way, one can really achieve (non lethal) conflict prevention, thus coexistence of man and predator. Working and living in nature brings peace to a man’s life. Every day brings new natural beauty to enjoy, a reward for all the hard work. The way of life and work of shepherds in the Romanian Carpathian mountains benefits nature and that’s good for all of us!

Internal pack affairs  are managed by the Carpatins themselves. They each play their own role and tasks to secure the flocks and they do this together with their human leader. Every pack member has its specialism and talents are used efficiently. They all have their own tactical positions under the various circumstances. The fact that Carpatins are close to their natural origins plus their intelligence makes them very complete LGDs. They operate from different positions to maximize flock security; some stay close by and in the flock and others guard the flock from higher positions to oversee the whole area. Every dangerous situation asks for a different approach to reach the desired result. When a hungry brown bear is the opponent, dogs face a serious challenge. A hungry bear is very determined and much effort is needed to keep him away from its target. No individual dog can handle a brown bear, but a well collaborating pack sure can. Carpatins sense an approaching predator in an early stage thanks to their extraordinary senses. Because of that they have time to analyze what is coming and from where. If a hungry brown bear succeeds to come very close to a shepherd camp he won’t be stopped. It is of vital importance that a brown bear is confronted in time.

The following passage is from a shepherd's report and it describes the attacks of one single brown bear in the wilderness of Muntii Rodnei, Romanian Carpathian mountains.

“The bear had come and attempted to inflict great losses to us. During the attack we had the opportunity to see our beautiful Carpathian dogs doing what they are made for. You could see them raising their noses in the air, sniffing the scent of wild animals and after that going to face the bear. These things show the difference between other Romanian shepherd dogs and Carpathian dogs. The Carpathian dogs can sense the bear from great distance and they don’t even let it get near, because they go for the confrontation. If the bear enters the fold it’s almost unstoppable. Driven by hunger it will lose its sense of preservation and will be ferocious if it feels threatened. At that point the bear will operate with an unbelievable anger, throwing with everything that comes at hand such as barn doors, stones and even captured sheep. In such a situation it will very likely kill you. With this in mind it is very important that the dogs sense it from great distance and to work as a team to face the bear away from the fold. One single dog is not able to chase the bear away but 2 or 3 determined and agile dogs can surround the bear and attack it, taking turns. Carpathian dogs are very vigilant and fierce fighters, above all they work like a very professional team where there is no room for lazy, too heavy, coward or weak pack members, this because one mistake can cost them their lives. When a bear aims for a dog, another one attacks it and they continue this until the bear is exhausted and chooses to go away, maybe trying it again another time. That summer, at Cobaselu Spring, dogs and humans were tested through the continuous attacks of bear for several times at night. In this fight the best, the most capable, the most resistant was about to win. The dogs were doing their jobs as they should, every time again, but the people were exhausted. Shepherd Iustin felt like giving up at that moment: “I can’t go on too much longer, it is too much  for me to handle. Overnight I have to encourage the dogs and during the day I have to do my work at the fold”. After two weeks of continuous attacks the bear saw that it was useless to try, without any result, at our fold so it went away to attack our neighbors fold on the other side of the stream.”

Wolves also opposed the flock at Cobaselu Spring in Muntii Rodnei.

“During the summer some packs of wolves also decided to attack our fold. The way in which wolves operate is quite different from that of the bear and the damages they can cause are worse. A bear can be satisfied with one or maybe two sheep, but when it comes to the wolves this often is not the case. When they attack a fold, wolves often kill everything that is alive, more than they can eat. Under these circumstances the ability of the Carpathian dogs not to let the wolves get close to the sheep is of vital importance. On the other hand wolves usually have various kinds of strategies; such as sending a scout which will try to attract the attention. In the meantime while the dogs are chasing it away the other members of the pack will strike. This strategy of wolves may sometimes work when dealing with young dogs which are lacking experience. But our Carpathians knew what they had to do; they spread out to all directions the wolves could attack and did not allow them to get near the fold from any direction. After those exciting and at the same time exhausting weeks the rest of the summer was as quiet as it should be!”

Guarding the flock in wilderness areas, operating in a pack and collaborating with the shepherd is in the Carpatins blood. Sharing space with these dogs and witnessing their ancient utility purpose is amazing.

Coming at the end of this article, I will describe what happens when we enter the domain of a Carpatin pack. Not many people approach shepherd camps with LGDs, which is a good thing. When one doesn’t know what one’s doing, then definitely don’t do it. Then dogs are there to keep intruders away from the flock. While doing my work I have to enter their domain and I like doing it. My situation, however, is different than of most others. The dogs, the shepherd and me are on the same level, we understand each other.

We drive our car down over a sand road, towards the valley where Ionas Bancs’ shepherd camp is located. We park the car far away from the camp and continue on foot. After several meters of walking, a dog starts barking in the distance. It is Vultur (omega) who is the first to notice the approaching visitors. Not much later we see two grey silhouettes approaching in swift and self assured pace. They are Aspru and Tibles (up front) (alpha and beta). When they arrive at us, we let them investigate and smell us. It doesn’t take long before we pass the security check. The two males walk to the car and start to mark the car by urinating on the cars wheels, it is their domain; that’s clear. We let the dogs approach us again and walk towards the shepherd camp, the two calmly accompanying us. Close by the shepherd camp the flock is grazing with Strajeru in the frontline. Ancuta is located  close by, just in front of Strajeru and she barks a couple of times to show her presence. Vultur is circling us and the flock from a distance, barking, until we are ‘inside’ and start a conversation with the shepherd.

After being in Ionas Banc’s shepherd camp for a while we decide to go to Vasile Vostinar’s camp and start climbing the hill. We pass the territory border and venture down, towards the camp. Vasile Vostinar is shaving his sheep together with his staff, his Carpatins are resting in the shade. An alert reaction is displayed none the less, the youngest dogs of the pack (3 and 7 months) start barking when they notice us. Traian and Arcan (alpha and beta) approach us to check us out. Vasile Vostinar calls out to his dogs: it’s ok! I speak out the dogs names and soon after the piece returns. Carpatins are good at many things and their intelligence and memory are extraordinary. Arcan and Traian recognized me, while it had been a long time since they last met me.

It is fantastic to spend time with these dogs, every time again. Unfortunately I can’t  always visit all dogs but I won’t complain. The safety, that’s secured on these shepherd camps, is an example for others. Because not everyone has the experience and tools, there is help and advice available. Help from Canine Efficiency and several others.