When we first started raising working Great Pyrenees puppies, our dogs went almost exclusively to sheep and goat farms or occasionally to guard cattle herds. But initially, we fielded no requests at all for poultry dogs.
Fast forward to today, and sometimes as many as half the pups in a single Uptown Farms litter are being sent to farms to actively guard birds. Below are some considerations we share with our customers who are looking for poultry or small animal guardians. Please note, we do currently have birds at Uptown Farms, but this is a combination of advice and tips from our customers through the years who have successfully developed poultry dogs. For information on bringing home a livestock guardian, please refer here.
1. Start with a working dog. Starting with a working pup is the most important step for whatever type of working dog you are needing. A working pup is one that comes from actively working parents, not just parents who have “working lines”. If the parents are not actively working, and the pup is not exposed from birth to livestock, the chances of developing a reliable working dog are much, much slimmer. Although there’s some important steps a working dog owner must take, a working dog is not trained to guard, that is instinct and is already there. A working dog owner simple assists in the development of that instinct. Working pups should have been born and raised outside or in barns with livestock, not in houses or garages. The parents should be with livestock, working as well. Many working pups, including those at Uptown Farms, are raised with minimized human interaction – they are comfortable with humans, but they do not seek out people for attention. Instead, they are more interested in their mother, littermates and their livestock. More human socialization will occur as the pup gets a bit older.
Poultry dogs should come to their farms as close to 8 weeks as possible. We fully understand you will have breeders placing older pups and some breeders may argue that is best, but in our experience most poultry dogs need to be taught that birds are not dinner and if they stick too close to mom for too long, they will learn to hunt. They will also learn more aggressive play behavior with their littermates the older they get, and this will be replicated on the birds.
2. Tell the breeder you are looking for a poultry dog. Almost everyone who contacts us for the first time reaches out with a request for a certain size or colored puppy. Although we fully understand people have certain ideals in their mind when looking for a working dog, you will be much better served to pay attention to things like sociability, temperament towards litter mates , interest in livestock.
Ideally, you will inform your breeder some of the key things about your farm or ranch, and the breeder will assist in that decision. At Uptown Farms, we sort which pups go where closer to 8 weeks of age. This isn’t a science, but it does serve our customers much better in the long run than having people attempt to pick a puppy out from a photo of a litter of puppies that are 2 weeks old.
We try to avoid placing the alfa females on poultry farms and any pups that play more aggressively with their litter mates. When a pup is first placed around birds, they often see the birds as litter mates and will replicate behavior exhibited with their siblings. A pup that was aggressive with litter mates is more likely to exhibit the same behavior towards birds, and that can be time consuming to correct. However, even pups who were not aggressive with litter mates may become more rambunctious in their play with birds. This behavior should be corrected immediately.
3. Establish home base before pup arrives. Home base is our term for where the dog will eat, rest and consider his home. For a successful bonding, home base should be as close to the animals as possible. However, unlike with other types of livestock, we do not recommend direct access to the birds for the pup. (A livestock dog will need direct access to his animals upon arriving at his farm). We recommend setting up a small crate that the pup can be housed in at night for the first few evenings at home. The crate will provide additional security as well as direction on where home base is. Working pups will take great comfort being near their animals, even if the birds are a different type of stock than what he was used to before.
The most common mistake people make when bringing home their pup is thinking the puppy is too small to be left at his home base. Instead, they bring the pup to the house or garage. This makes it difficult to transition the pup to where he belongs and impedes the bonding process. You are actually putting a puppy under more stress moving him into an unfamiliar area like a garage or house as compared to putting him into a barn that has sights, sounds and smells much more familiar to him. The cold is not an issue for a Pyrenees pup as long as he can get out of the wind.
4. Make arrangements for food and water. We recommend free choice food and water for working dogs and always away from where livestock or birds can access it. If a working dog thinks they have to protect their food from their flock, it will alter the relationship between dog and stock. On our farm, we keep self feeders in the aisles that always have dog food in them.
5. Start to work on the bonding process. In addition to the dog not having direct access to his flock, developing the bond is the next biggest difference between poultry guardians and livestock guardians. You will start the process of bringing the pup to the birds supervised only. Most producers start supervised, on leash visits. Any sign of mouthing or playing with birds needs to be sternly corrected. This is expected behavior – because of the size of the birds, pups will most often associate them more with their litter mates than their livestock. They will learn quickly though and the more supervised time they spend with the birds the more they will understand correct interaction with them.
Discourage any bad behavior with scolding and encourage behavior such as ignoring the birds, calmly walking among the birds, or lying down in the pen and ignoring the birds, with rewards and praise.
Eventually, people remove the leash but continue supervised visits with the birds. Most poultry producers do not recommend unsupervised access to the birds until the pup is 18 – 24 months of age. This does mean your birds have no protection until that point. Most poultry farms are small enough acreage that the scent and sound of the dog offers ample protection. The dog should still be guarding outside the bird areas and is only limited in direct, unsupervised access to the birds.
6.Human socialization begins within a few days of bringing a pup home. Poultry dogs, by nature of their development, tend to have more frequent human interaction than many of their livestock guarding counterparts. We still encourage all early interactions (before 6 months of age) to happen near home base or in with the birds to allow bonding to happen with the animals. If human interaction happens away from home base and the birds, the dog is likely to bond more strongly to his human companions and in the absence of his humans, wander off looking for them or become very nervous when he cannot see them. Instead, by properly allowing him to bond to his animals, he will be very happy to see his humans, but his guarding instincts will be reflected onto the animals, and he will not be under stress when he cannot see his people.
Ultimately, developing a working dog into a reliable poultry guardian takes a few key things - start with a dog bred and started right, supervise the dog with the birds well past his puppy stages, and give yourself and him plenty of grace and patience. Guarding poultry is not as natural to the Pyrenees as other types of livestock, but if you understand the dog’s instincts and work with them, you’ll have yourself a guardian worth his weight in gold. 🐓
Kate Lambert grew up in northern Illinois, not on a farm but active in FFA and showing livestock.
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