The Care of Aging Guardian Dogs
The Average Full-Time Working Flock Protector Dies Well Before its Eighth to Tenth Birthday
Reading Time: 7 minutes
By Brenda M. Negri
Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) research studies have shown that a working LGD often suffers a short lifespan, the average full time working flock protector dying well before its eighth to tenth birthday. Those results typically came from studies done on “hard core,” large commercial livestock operations, running LGDs in a 24/7, no-rest, no-breaks situation. In most instances the dogs were barely handled, sometimes went without food, and were given minimal if any vet care. They typically worked in heavily large-predator loaded country, taking great risks in their protective duties against predators, risks that often ended in confrontations and death.
Under such harsh circumstances, it comes as no surprise that a short lifespan is expected.
But on smaller, specialty and purebred operations, on small family hobby farms, or on self-sustaining homesteads and on closely managed and monitored “targeted grazing” operations where guardian dogs are used, LGDs typically receive more, if not better, attention from their owners, regular preventive health care and live much longer—even into their teens.
Aging and elderly LGDs have special needs and changing requirements, for which the owner must be vigilant as aging takes its toll. Here are some measures the owner and operator can take to ensure their “old timers” are comfortable, cared for and rewarded for the hard work and protection they’ve provided over so many years.
What Constitutes “Old” in an LGD?
There is no “pat answer” for this. A dog that’s been worked hard all his years from youth may be crippled, exhausted and “done in” by the time he reaches five. Another, that lived a less stressful life will still be vibrant and active at this age, even at its peak.
Although breed type and size do factor into this, what transpired during the dog’s life will dictate how it ages: Gracefully, or quickly? Youthful till gray-muzzled, or finished before its time?
Large and giant LGD breeds reach their zenith in life at about four to five years of age. A smaller, lighter breed may not age as soon.
By the time most LGDs with moderate work history and in good health reach seven years of age, they are beginning to slow down and show their age. Past the age of seven the aging process increases and the operator begins to see changes.
Changes With Aging
Here are some of the signs seen in an aging dog, many of which mirror those that we humans experience:
• Graying around muzzle, ears and head• Slowing down
• Slowing down
• Soreness, stiffness, aches and pains
• Increased difficulty in hearing or deafness
• Increasingly protective over space or food
• Requires more sleep
• Change in eating habits
• Weight increase, or loss
• Digestive issues (diarrhea, constipation)
• Teeth loss, plaque build up, gum issues
• Eyes begin to cloud up and sight diminishes
• Discernment becomes less accurate
• Barks unnecessarily or excessively at perceived threats
• Decreased play with other dogs
• Fatigue, becomes tired or winded sooner when working
The most important steps for owners of aging LGDs are to adjust accordingly and change expectations of a dog’s work output and ability to competently do its job. Too many LGD owners run too few dogs, which constantly pressures senior dogs to perform. When the dogs begin to age, instead of giving needed slack by lessening their workload, or bringing in young LGDs to take pressure off the old dogs, they continue to expect their senior LGDs to work at the level they did when young. This is an unrealistic and perhaps cruel expectation.
The time to bring in replacement pups is when an LGD is in its prime, not past it: Ideally, when it’s three to five years old. Letting the older dog teach young pups while at its peak performance level ensures the pups a better and less stressful beginning: The transition will be much smoother. (Adding new dogs to an established pack of working LGDs will be covered more fully in a future issue of sheep!)
An owner can better assess his old dog’s condition by observation, then responding to the aging dog’s needs. Maybe the days of realistically being able to “tough it out” in 30 below zero temperatures are through—the owner needs to construct a warm, safe shelter for the dog. Or bring it into a barn, a lean-to, or inside the house in inclement weather.
Instead of expecting old dogs to patrol a large acreage alone, pair them up with younger dogs that can back them up. Predators can sense when a dog is failing due to its age; they’ll target the weakened senior dog for attack. An operator should never set their old timers up for this. Bring them closer to the house or barn, and back them up.
If a dog doesn’t want to leave its flock, then be creative: Put it with bum lambs in the barn, so it’s content, or with some older ewes or rams that are penned in a smaller enclosure. Keep them closer to facilitate easier observation. By doing one or more of these things, the owner provides the older dog with a mission and fulfills its need to guard, while making it easier on the dog and giving it needed comfort and safety.
And just as with puppy training, a huge juicy soup bone can buy lots of mileage in terms of a dog’s contentment.
Proactive Health & Feeding
Anyone over the age of 50 knows what comes with aging: Joints, muscles and bones begin to “speak” of more rowdy, rambunctious, tougher days of yore. We start “paying for the playing” of our youth.
Dogs are the same: Older dogs slow down and suffer pain just like humans do. When an operator sees them struggling to get up, or whining in pain, or showing discomfort, check them out immediately. Take the dog into a vet for an examination and assessment. Once a diagnosis is given, either follow the vet’s advice or obtain a second opinion. One may also seek alternative, holistic remedies to “pharma” type solutions.
One pain medication I always keep on hand from my trusted vet is affordable Meloxicam. It’s a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for dogs (and humans). A bottle of 100 tabs runs less than $10. Ask a vet about its proper use and dosage.
Glucosamine is another favorite addition to older dogs’ diets.
I also sprinkle Dr. Harvey’s Golden Years (available online from Chewy.com) on my older dog’s food, as a supplement.
Feeding & Food Intake
Oldster LGDs may change eating habits. Some eat more; some eat less. As they age, their teeth deteriorate and begin to fall out; gums recede and plaque builds up.
The time may come when they have trouble eating hard kibble. It can be moistened to facilitate easier consumption and digestion.
Then there’s the topic of what is best for them to eat.
Some prefer to feed raw foods, other owners will put their old timer on a senior variety of quality dog kibble.
Senior supplements can be used.
Old dogs may show increased food protection: Feed them apart from others in a secure area or space, where they can eat at leisure and not be competing against other dogs to get their sustenance.
Senior dementia in dogs can take on many forms. It can come on gradually or quickly.
In my experience, one of the biggest “starter flags” has been excessive barking over things that formerly didn’t bother the dog. Another flag is food possession. My old-timer Great Pyrenees Petra is often barking at nothing these days.
Petra “hyper-responds” to certain passing vehicles. They set her off. A gentle reminder to her that all is okay, reassurance that she’s needed and doing a good job, is what she gets from me.
The dog also has shown increasing control and guarding of “turf” and food. I work to assure her no one’s after her food: “Her space” near my kitchen is always a safe spot for her. Older dogs often pick a spot to rest where they feel less threatened and safe. Let them do this! Don’t push them out; don’t scold for protecting their food and space. Gently redirect the younger dogs to respect it.
Exercise for the Senior Dog
It’s still vital that an old timer gets exercise to combat obesity, which typically sets in with older dogs.
My Pyrenean Mastiff Sally is coming up on six years of age. She’s a pudgy gal. I have to really make sure she gets her “leg-stretching” and calorie-burning. She’s still sharp as a tack mentally, just getting “pleasingly plump” as she ages. This brings on stiffness. Because my dogs feed ad lib, it’s pretty difficult with 12 of them to only feed one certain dog a low calorie diet. But I’m going to have to attempt it so she doesn’t “fall away to a ton!”
There are many “senior dog food” brands that have fewer calories, for less active dogs. They’re also easier for older dogs to digest. Again, the online supplier Chewy.com is my source of choice, with a huge variety of top quality foods for aging dogs.
Devotion & Compassion
Dogs have feelings. They respond to care and love with devotion and loyalty. How owners treat their old timers is so vital. Don’t disrespect them or dismiss their importance.
My older dogs get “the red carpet treatment” here. They’re always placed above younger dogs in little ways that show them they’re “still part of the picture.” They never feel abandoned. Whether backing them up in a scrap, or letting a younger dog know it’s out of line pushing an oldster out of its “favorite spot” or away from food, I’m there for them. It’s little things like this that count.
Times come when older livestock guardian dogs must die of old age, or be compassionately put down. Don’t force an old LGD to suffer needlessly; when the time comes, let it “go over the rainbow bridge.”
Until that time comes, be an appreciative, sensitive owner who shows compassion for canine partners. Please make their sunset years as comfortable as possible. After all, they’ve hazarded their lives in our service.
Compassion: Grow Some, Show Some
Much of what makes for a successful transition into a livestock guardian dog’s golden years is how its owner handles it.
For example: My 8-year-old Great Pyrenees, Petra, is showing signs of dementia and her discernment levels are becoming less accurate.
She has recently barked aggressively at me when I’ve come into the house, not recognizing me at first.
Instead of chastising her, I bent down and soothingly spoke to her and stroked her head and ears, as she lay in the kitchen. I calmed her and showed affection.
By being patient and understanding, owners can give the older dog reassurance that it need not be afraid or concerned.
©2017 by Brenda M. Negri, a life-long rancher who raises and trains Livestock Guardia n Dogs on her Cinco Deseos Ranch in Northern Nevada.
Originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of sheep!.