By Kate Russell
A review of your local municipal canine control bylaw may be in order if you plan to use working dogs for herding or guarding livestock on your farm.
Despite the advice of Ontario Sheep Farmers (OSF) in correspondence sent to municipalities across the province last fall, many municipal rules do offer special provisions for working dogs.
“The happiest dog you’ll ever see is a dog with a job,” says sheep farmer Mike Swidersky of Riverview Ranch Meat Co. near Shelburne, who has guardian dogs living full time with his flock and herding dogs he uses when he moves his sheep from pasture to pasture. ‘It’s like having an employee, you are always trying to set them up for success.”
But not all municipalities set up sheep farmers for success, with many canine control bylaws defining “working dogs” as livestock protection animals, but not providing exceptions to rules appropriate for livestock guardian dogs.
“My dogs can run at large but the dogs are still supposed to be under one roll number,” explained Swidersky of the challenges he finds with the local bylaw in Melancthon, where an exception is provided to let his dogs live with the flock, but has not kept up with the times. He pastures his sheep on multiple properties, so can’t meet the provisions even with an exception. “My sheep graze on at least three properties, I can’t come close to that rule.”
In reviewing bylaws, OSF’s letter to municipalities notes the organization found multiple concerns, which apply to livestock guardian dogs. These include the prohibition for “running at large”, proper definitions of livestock guardian and herding dogs, license and kennel fees, requirements for dog tags, restrictions to numbers of dogs allowed per property, barking restrictions and aggressive dog designations.
OSF offered suggestions and is willing to work with municipalities to develop better bylaws. It said dog collars and tags can get snagged on branches or fences and become a skin irritant for outside dogs in hot or wet weather.
“We suggest that municipal bylaws allow owners to remove the collar and license tag (if applicable) from a guardian or herding dog while the dog is being actively used in farming practices,” the letter reads, “provided that the owner uses an alternative means of identification linking the animal to the name and address of the owner, e.g. either a tattoo or microchip containing the required information.”
The letter also notes guardian dogs bark as part of keeping predators off and may appear aggressive when they sense a threat to the herd or flock they are protecting. In a fact sheet on barking, OSF suggests the use of livestock guardian dogs is a “normal farm practice” and as such falls under Farm and Food Production Protection Act as administered by Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Old Penny gives direction through her barks,” explained Swidersky, pointing to the leader of his livestock guardian dogs. “They set up a bit of a community amongst them. Their presence and barking keeps the coyotes off most of the time. Everything works well until it doesn’t.”
About six years ago, Swidersky lost 12 lambs to coyotes. He said those coyotes jumped the fence, even with the dogs in there. He said sometimes predators adapt a special skill set, wait for the dogs to be sleeping or coax the dogs away from the sheep while other coyotes raid the flock.
This is why the OSF correspondence suggests multiple dogs are often required as livestock guardians, as one may repel predators while the other stays with the flock. Many bylaws require kennel licenses for multiple dogs, but those require restrictions sheep farmers can’t meet.
“I went to council a few years ago about that,” said Swidersky, who was concerned about the rising costs of his dog licenses, which basically scale up per dog. He said the municipality suggested he get a kennel license, but he can’t meet the criteria which say the dogs must be kept enclosed. “It’s basically a tax on a farmer. If we didn’t have predators it would be a whole lot cheaper and easier.”
While he may have reached a compromise with his local municipality, Swidersky admits keeping livestock guardian dogs is still expensive. With the cost of the dogs themselves, their vet care and the dog food he buys by the pallet, his livestock guardian and herding dogs are a cost of doing business, so he needs them working.
“The larger the farm the more of those assets you’re going to need,” he said, adding he also ensures he has multiple generations of dogs on the farm, so they are always available. “These are large breed dogs. They don’t have long life expectancy. In eight to 12 years they will be senior citizens and retire.”
Swidersky grew up in the Alliston area and had sheep as a teenager. Some 19 years ago, he and his wife Amber bought their farm in Melancthon. They began with cattle then brought in sheep to add value to the use of their pasture land.
“They eat different things,” he explained during a walk through his abundant grassland. He also manages the Grey Dufferin Community Pasture, so knows about managing livestock on the land. “Having cattle and sheep brings different benefits to grazing.”
With his flocks of sheep always outdoors, Swidersky relies on his Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherd-cross guardian dogs to protect his sheep from predators. His dogs then live full time outdoors with the flock, to watch over them.
“I want these dogs to be bonded with the sheep,” he said, noting a couple of young puppies in the field, which are learning their role from his adult working dogs. “We want it so they want to stay with the sheep. I don’t want them to run to the house or run all over the township.”
The puppies are not handled a lot, are fed and told they are good dogs, but are not treated like pets as they are working dogs. Petting guardian dogs is frowned upon as this can “wreck” the dog for his intended purpose.
“I want them to not have a fear of humans,” he suggested, so his guardian dogs can receive veterinary attention and their required vaccinations, castration and neutering, but they bond with the sheep, not with the farmer. “You don’t want them overly adjusted to people or they won’t succeed as a sheep dog.”
Swidersky raises a mixed bunch of sheep for meat production, including Dorset, Texel, North Country Cheviot and Ile-de-France, with flocks on his own and nearby leased property. They are always in the pasture and were actively lambing during a recent interview.
“Some lambed this morning,” he said, pointing out a few very young lambs, watched over patiently by his guardian dogs as the mother ewes headed out to a newly-opened pasture area. “We lamb right out by the road, so our neighbours are used to seeing our dogs.”
Mostly, Swidersky has good relations with his neighbours about his dogs. They understand the bark of a working dog in the field is warding off predators. But still, some people think all dogs should be pets and kept inside.
“Our dogs are raised with outdoor conditions, they are used to living outdoors,” he explained, pointing out his “old girl” Penny, who barks the orders for the other guardian dogs and always stays with the flock. The adult male, Willie Jack, keeps a close watch and will chase away predators. The puppies are yet to be named. They come from a nearby farm from other experienced Great Pyrenees guardian dogs. “Depending on the predator pressure, you need to have more than one dog. Some dogs like a companion. Sometimes they will be single, some dogs don’t mind being on their own.”
He also uses herding dogs, collies who he gives jobs to every day.
“I keep the border collies tied up or they will get into trouble,” he said of his active herding dogs who help him move his flocks every day. “Most farmers are doing a lot of things to take care of their livestock: fences, dogs, general management. My dogs are my staff. They need something for their brains.”
Swidersky hopes municipalities will give due consideration to their bylaws and seek assistance from the OSF when modifying them to suit local sheep and livestock farmers who use livestock guardian and herding dogs.
“For some municipalities this is kind of a new thing so they’re not sure how to handle them,” he suggested, knowing not all areas will have sheep farmers with guardian dogs. “I’ve got these guardian dogs and they’re doing what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. They have that natural instinct. I could not do what I do without these dogs.” ◊