The parter from South Tyrol, together with the Salern competence centre, organised the two first trainings on the topic of livestock guarding and herding dogs. The courses were a part of the shepherding course that Salern is leading and is responsible for a few of the LIFEstockProtect modules.
At the end of March the course was centred on herding dogs. Anita Gnigler and Thomas Schranz, experienced practitioners and herding dog owners themselves, guided participants through the day. Throughout the morning, different aspects of keeping and training herding dogs were presented. Using a waddling of drakes, Anita demonstrated how she trained her dog Karo to guide the grazing animals. The ducks and dog know each other well, and so the birds moved solidly and calmly in the direction indicated to Karo by Anita. They communicate using body language as well as various commands and whistles.
In contrast, guiding sheep which had had no contact to dogs did not go smoothly at all. They struggled against having to change direction. Training was completely new to them. In practice, herding dogs and livestock have to know each other before they can take action. Anita and Thomas made suggestions on how to make the moving of livestock on mountain pastures as smooth as possible. The animals shy away from dogs if they are not acccustomed to their presence. In sports competitions, dogs are not allowed to touch the sheep. However, herding dogs also have to peacefully guide stubborn animals to wherever the shepherds want, although nudges can be used. The training of a good herding dog requires the right place and time, as well as intuition. The drakes are therefore a practical alternative for the Wanderschäferei Tiroler Oberland.
The course participants, composed of experienced shepherds and shepherdesses as well as beginners, wanted to learn much more and also asked very specific questions such as: how do Anita and Thomas feed the dogs? How much does a trained herding dog cost?
Livestock guarding dogs
One week later, livestock guarding dogs were on the agenda. Meet Alberto Stern, veterinarian and breeder of sheep (for mutton) and herding dogs (for training). He has also kept livestock guarding dogs since 2001, as he had been looking for a way to let his sheep graze safely since wolves started returning to Switzerland. Livestock guarding dogs are, according to his experience, the best solution. Today he is a member of an organisation in Graubünden responsible for the implementation and certification of livestock guarding dogs. He talked about his career and the difficulties he faced in his first years with the dogs. He emphasised that, when it comes to breeding and selling, puppies have to be at least 3 months old, as familiar surroundings are essential for their development up to this point. The new owners will be prepared for the dogs on his farm and at other locations in Switzerland, only then will they be granted financial support for the upkeep, as well as the initial price, of the dogs. Alberto pointed out that the family history of the dog is more important than their breed: their parents should also be livestock guarding dogs that work very well with the herd. Pedigree and proof of breed is unimportant. Before their transfer, the dogs’ health is checked; sometimes pelvic misalignment is detected. Before their implementation in Switzerland, livestock guarding dogs have to pass a test: can they work with all animals, not just with their trusty companion? Can they remain calm in a crisis? They should defend the herd by barking and positioning themselves in front, but should never approach people or their pet dogs if they pass by the herd on a hiking trail. The test is very challenging, and only a few dogs reach this level of perfection: energetic defense of wolves and bears, as well as calm, confident companionship of livestock within a heavily used area.
Some sheep and goat farmers in South Tyrol also keep livestock guarding dogs; one, Philipp Bertagnolli, talked about his experience of the last three years. It takes a lot of knowledge, as well as drive and courage for the first steps, he elaborated convincingly.