My first litter of Great Pyrenees pups was born in 2006. Over the years I have discovered, with wonderment, the full potential of our dogs, especially when working with a flock. My Great Pyrenees work daily with my goats and my sheep. In the past they have also protected a herd of alpacas, going from one species to another without any difficulty.
Having never used herding dogs with my goat herd, I discovered guard dogs without having any prior knowledge of their education. Living daily with a pack of Great Pyrenees and a herd has been my teacher. My dogs have taught me everything. For example, the importance of territorial marking by both males and females. By recording my observations, I could verify these observations were reproducible within the pack. I learned from my experience how to best prepare my pups for their future life as livestock guardian dogs.
The role of the breeder is an influencing factor in the success of the establishment of a dog for herd protection. This role is always underestimated and oversimplified in the current discourse on guard dogs. Thus it is absolutely recommended that puppies are from working parents, that they are born into sheep flocks and that they spend all their time in the flock with very little human contact. When I started farming, this type of advice led me to failures rather than successes. As with all my suggestions, this text is not definitive because my ideas do change with time and experience. It takes stock of my farming practices at this time.
This breeding method is aimed at both the puppies for the protection of herds and for companionship since in a litter my puppies leave for either one or the other of these purposes. Companion puppies can benefit from the multiple stimuli offered by life on a farm. They fit in very well to their new life.
The relationship I develop with my puppies begins very early. In fact I talk to them while still in the womb during walks in the morning and evening with the whole pack. The pregnant mothers-to-be are always very close to me at this time.
After letting my bitches give birth in the goat barn for several years, I realized that I have consistently lost puppies. Every time they were crushed to death at night in their first week of life. Conversely, I never had any infection in puppies in the litter born in goat herds and I have not had to disinfect the umbilical cord. Even in winter I never put a heat lamp on litters and puppies have always survived. Bitches that whelp on straw tend to dig a bowl-shaped nest in the manure. The puppies are then left piled on each other. When the dog gets up to eat, drink or defecate, and if she goes back to bed without much care, the puppies can be trapped beneath her. Without a quick intervention, they suffocate. Consequently, I decided to change this first step by allowing the birth in the barn or even in the pasture. But then I get the puppies and the mother moved to within sight of my bed in my living area.
I use a whelping box of 1.60 m x 1.40 m with anti-crush bars. I remain present throughout the duration of birth. Most of my bitches look for me when the birth starts. For her second litter, Dune, pregnant with 10 puppies, jumped the pasture fence - something she never does - to find me in my house. She had had her first litter in the goat barn, and within the first two days crushed 6 of her 10 puppies. For the second litter, all 10 puppies survived but only with multiple interventions on my part. The mother was totally lacking in sensitivity toward her litter.
The puppies are under constant day and night surveillance for about 10 days. When I must leave to take care of other farm animals, I take the mother with me aware that she must feed her babies about every two hours. I ensure that feeding is completed before going out with her. This poses no problem to the mother who stays close to or joins her pack and herd before I return her to her puppies.
To have the puppies inside also has the advantage in summer to protect them from flies that are very numerous at this season. Flies are very aggressive on the mothers after the birth as the flies lay eggs on the slightest trace of blood. Maggots then develop within 24 hours on the genital area causing deep lesions. Constant monitoring is required to limit these problems, which affect my sheep and my goats throughout the entire period of hot weather. In summer, keeping the dogs in the house just after birth can greatly reduce these problems.
During the guard season, after a few days, nursing mothers leave their litter to return to the pack and the herd. They are absent for three hours and on their return they immediately feed their young.
After 2 weeks, the puppies are big enough and mobile enough that the risk of crushing is virtually eliminated. They then join a box close to the barn with their mother in order to smell and feel the mood of the herd (bleating, sound of bells, barking of other dogs, noises and smells different from the farm). They begin to eat dry food as early as three weeks. They also consume fresh milk from goat when goats are lactating. I usually put my hand in the bowl at the beginning of their meal to show them that I can approach food without actually removing it. Weaning by the mother varies from mother to mother and litter to litter and is between 3 and 8 weeks.
During their third week, an area of the farm, the “Discovery Park” (20 m²), allows the still clumsy puppies to get acquainted safely with all other farm animals. After 4 weeks, the puppies move freely in the farmyard in the middle of the pack. Between 4 and 8 weeks the puppies discover by themselves at their own pace, the flock, passing under the fences, and joining the goats and sheep.
Between 8 and 12 weeks, playing and chasing are very important for puppies from a single litter, as well as the experience of submission to adults. It is essential that pups are not deprived of these confrontations within their own species. It was during this time that puppies learn to walk on a leash and to be chained. For those born in the grazing season, it is at this time they naturally begin to follow the flock in the mountains surrounded by the adult dogs. Those born in winter spend much of their time within the fold while having free access to the farmyard. They are never forced to stay in the herd.
In this phase of development, puppies are often tempted to run after the poultry that roam freely on the farm. I must therefore be vigilant and stop these attempts to chase. Young dogs will understand very quickly what they do not have the right to do. The presence of a male, whether a father or not, is important because he plays a role in educating the pup on the hierarchy of the pack. Mothers are often very permissive with their young while a male lets nothing pass. Living among adults allows puppies to experience and acquire self-control as well as language and social codes that will make them balanced dogs.
Meals are held twice daily, morning and evening at fixed times in the presence of the whole pack. I have my bowls on a straight line that crosses the courtyard of my farm. Dogs and puppies distribute themselves without any need that I intervene.
Before leaving for their new herd, the puppies are tested in order to measure their work aptitude with the method I have developed. They leave the farm when they are at least 12 weeks old. Companion pups leave at 10 weeks.
Do not ask nor expect too much from a puppy when he arrives in his new herd. He is still a baby who just yesterday was playing with his brothers and sisters with reckless abandon. The situation is a radical change for him. Suddenly he finds himself in an unfamiliar place with strangers and a new flock. This great source of stress for puppies will be quickly overcome when they are well prepared. We cannot expect a puppy to have adult dog behaviour overnight. The education of the shepherd is as important as the puppy!
Educating the puppy is done in stages and over time. One does not want to go too fast. A puppy of 5 months cannot effectively protect a herd. Learning is, of course, greatly facilitated if the young dog is in contact with adult dogs. Puppies need to have contact with other dogs in their new environment whether they are guard dogs, herding dogs, or pets. It is important that they play regularly with their species in order to eliminate their excess energy that would otherwise be used to do silly things like playing with ears and tails of the lambs! In well-balanced puppies, the game phase, however, remain short and the puppy asks spontaneously to join his flock.
The description of young dogs from the Norwegian behaviorist Turid Rugaas http://www.canis.no/rugaas/ was extremely informative for me and has modified my approach considerably. She explains that young dogs:
It is therefore necessary to observe the evolution of the puppy to adult dog while responding to their needs, especially to play. Most of the time the Great Pyrenees puppies are little unruly and adapt easily to new environments.
Of course it is essential to avoid placing the puppy in situations in which he cannot manage. So I strongly oppose integrating a puppy under 6 months in a flock of ewes at parturition. The sheep are likely to be aggressive towards the puppy in order to protect their offspring and the puppy will be strongly tempted to consider the young lambs as playmates like his brothers and sisters. Although puppies know how to regulate themselves while playing together, a lamb does not have the codes and signals to warn the puppy who can go too far in the play and can cause injury.
I personally have never noticed any real adolescent crisis in my young Great Pyrenees.
In terms of workability of the dog, everything depends on the pup’s first month with the new herd. It is particularly important during this period to strengthen the relationship "puppy-shepherd-flock" through simple and rapid twice-a-day exercises. It is also important that the shepherd takes the time to walk their pup on a leash even if it is only to get it out of the fold and to discover the limits of its territory. The walk on a leash, experienced as a moment of relaxation, is also an excellent opportunity to strengthen the link between the shepherd and his dog without it being at the expense of the flock.
I advise the shepherds to let their dogs eat the placentas and stillbirths during lambing. Adult dogs guard the bodies by partially consuming them. Great Pyrenees also lick the newborns lambs or kids at birth. All these behaviours are normal. Above all, do not prohibit or, ever worse, punish. However, the young dog must be supervised during the first experiences.
Physical violence should never be used to correct bad behaviour of the puppy. Indicating displeasure and ignoring the puppy by turning your back and leaving will be more effective such as a compliment when he behaves well. At this level of "human-dog" understanding, I can only recommend the wonderful book by Turid Rugaas' “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals”.
Raising Great Pyrenees puppies for flock protection is ultimately not that complicated. The environment in which they grow must be filled with all kinds of stimuli. Many behavioural problems encountered in the adult dog would be avoided if the puppies were better prepared for their new life and better socialized. It goes without saying that genetics is just as important as education. Encouraging the return of registered dogs into herds would undoubtedly be the best demonstration of the immense potential of our Great Pyrenees dogs regardless of their destination, work or companionship.Mathieu Mauriès