It didn’t start yesterday.
Every day, owners contact me, seeking to resolve unwanted behavior. They all have a common theme. Their frustrations are the same. “It was unprovoked.” Or “He came out of nowhere.” Or “He’s never done that before”. No matter the end result, I tell them all the same thing: it didn’t start yesterday.
I missed it
You missed the first steps, I tell them. There was communication long before the behavior you see today. You just missed it. Body language is universally understood. Except by humans. We have abandoned most of it in favor of verbal communication. What little is left is subconscious, and most people don’t even realize they are doing it. If you’ve ever taken a good course in people management, you’ve probably covered some of them.
Animals do it without thinking. It is their first form of communication. If you expect to be an effective owner, you will have to learn that too. Really learn it.
It means to pay attention. Be there, watch and not get involved. This is the hardest part for most people — they have to get involved. It’s part of the human condition.
I had Reina, a young herding dog, who did chores with me recently. She followed me into the horse pasture as I handed out hay, sniffling, until she found a frozen cobblestone of choice. Our newest addition, a pony, has only been here a short time and is still unsure about dogs.
The pony came forward, head down. Reina watched her approach and stood up as she approached. When the mare pinned her ears, Reina lowered her head and dropped the horse pebble. Slowly backing away, all of her body language said she understood and had no intention of being a threat.
She backed up nicely, until the mare’s body relaxed again. Reina quickly collapsed and sighed, over her lost treat I’m sure. Even though I kept an eye on them to make sure everyone was successful, they didn’t need me. I trust Reina’s common sense. The mare is also a balanced person. They worked.
comes to blows
When you tell me something happened “out of the blue”, I would say that you missed those early conversations where it didn’t work out. Now it has come to blows. Aggression towards their livestock is the most common theme.
“My young dog attacked a goat, without any provocation.” Oh good? Forgive my skepticism. Something along the way led to this altercation. It may be an older doe that had no experience with livestock guarding dogs and is overreacting. Livestock guard dogs can grow weary of the pot shots and eventually fight back.
Young dogs can sometimes use guard litter, food that doesn’t belong to them, or prime sleeping places. If you’re not there, you’ll miss those early signs of inappropriate behavior. It may be a new addition still trying to find its place in the herd. If you’re not there, you’ll miss the interventions when they try to interact. The tough guy watches the queen of the herd assert her position.
Young dogs may misinterpret normal herd maneuvers as hostile and take action to protect “their” herd from new members. The same goes for the breeding season. A new male or ram can be seen as hostile and aggressive.
Then there is the flip side. I saw animals that were just mean to dogs. I know putting a young pup with mothers to teach them good manners is an accepted practice, but stocks aren’t always reasonable. Young dogs who are bullied grow up learning the golden rule: always bully those who are smaller than you.
Domestic dogs are another common theme. I hear of cattle dogs attacking them “out of the blue” on a fairly regular basis. On one side we have those who only have a relationship through the fence or from afar. The house dog comes and goes, barking at cattle and dogs, threatening to show everyone who’s boss. When the inevitable encounter occurs, the only reasonable conclusion is a fight. Finally, the livestock guardian dog can have his say.
On the other side are the house dogs guarding the new puppy from its owner, bed, food and growling and growling whenever the puppy comes near. It’s always a surprise when the cattle dog grows up and eventually plows the house dogs into the dirt.
These are just simple examples of complex relationship failures. Miscommunication that leads to behaviors that are considered “unprovoked”. But, in any case, the underlying theme is the same: it didn’t start yesterday.
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