I’ve mentioned before that I live next to my in-law’s cow farm, and mostly my dogs have no problems ignoring the cows. This year we’ve run into some problems and we’re having to work on livestock harassment.
The problem is three yearling calves. They’re still small and spook easily, but they should be locked up safe with their moms and easy to avoid. Unfortunately, they keep escaping and can pop up basically anywhere we walk. When startled, they make noise and take off for their moms’ pasture, which is enough to trigger chasing in many dogs. Even though my dogs are used to ignoring cows, they’re not used to ignoring tiny, fleeing, mooing cows.
Thankfully, there are options for dealing with livestock harassment that don’t involve a shock collar or other potentially problematic training methods. The root problem is that calves are so interesting that the dogs can’t think around them. The solution is socialization, building impulse control, and strict control of their behavior when they could run into the calves.
Controlling all access your dog has to something that’s triggering their prey drive is key. Even if you work on socialization when you’re present, if they’re still able to harass, chase, or otherwise self-reward themselves for bad behavior you’re not going to solve the problem. You also need to be realistic about the severity of your problem. Hunting is a mix of instinct and learned behavior in dogs. I’m dealing with chasing and nipping, not more “serious” hunting behavior, and I haven’t allowed it to become a habit. The more experienced your dog becomes at hunting, the less reliable training will be.
I’m currently only walking my dogs when my husband is also available so I can manage the two hounds and he can focus on Biscotti, who is the main problem. If they were all very focused on chasing the calves, I would need to start with individual walks and avoid having them in a group until they were all reliable as individuals. Anyone with multiple dogs can tell you that they’ll work each other up, and sometimes they’ll follow each other into trouble, so dealing with a crowd is harder and can cause backsliding.
Like all training, we started at a lower difficulty than our problem situation. A lone, jumpy calf in a field is too tempting. To start with, we took the dogs to a gated area where there would be calves and adults, and worked on simple obedience until they could be right at the gate, next to the calves, and still maintain focus on us and consistently obey commands. The calves were calm and curious about the dogs because they were in a group and with adult cows. Honestly, the dogs were a little intimidated that close to the herd, but reducing fear is actually an important component of eliminating livestock chasing. Things that make us fearful are much more interesting and difficult to think clearly around, and it’s the same for dogs.
As a precaution, the dogs are wearing long drag lines. These are useful for several reasons. They can be used as a leash very quickly if necessary. They’re much longer than a normal leash so they give the dog an intermediate step between listening right next to you and listening off leash, and in a real emergency, they make your dog easier to catch. Once they were comfortable and focused on us by the gate we started finding places they could see the escaped calves briefly from a distance, and we’re gradually moving closer.
At home I’m using a flirt pole to build impulse control. Any game your dog finds incredibly exciting will work, as long as you build in rules and require them to listen to commands while they’re very excited. I’ve done much more of this type of work with my hounds because of their prey drive and it’s paying off now because they were already primed for listening around livestock.
After only a few weeks of training, Biscotti is still very interested in the calves, but is able to walk on a loose line past them and come back to me reliably. We still exist when he sees them and that’s the biggest hurdle for these types of problems.
It can be hard not to assume harsh punishments are required to stop this type of behavior, but it’s easily solved once you look at the problem from your dog’s point of view and work on his motivations.