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Techniques for the breeding and the management of the working Abruzzese Shepherd dog

The basics

The first element of fundamental importance is the birthplace of the puppies. It is desirable that the bitch gives birth close to or better still amidst the sheep. This is crucial so that the newborn puppies can olfactorally perceive the sheep, even before opening their eyes. This is the first step of the imprinting phase. The imprinting occurs in different periods during the developmental stage, where some details are permanently stored in memory. The puppy must perceive the sheep as conspecifics, feel secure and at ease with them. Let us now talk about the famous condition recreated by Konrad Lorenz, who demonstrated that chicks shortly after hatching would imprint on yellow wading boots (worn by Lorenz himself) therefore recognizing the boots as their mother. It is equally important that the puppies, in the same period, olfactorally perceive man in order not to consider man as a stranger to be treated with mistrust. It is advisable that the puppies are picked up at least three of four times at different instants, but at the same time not too frequently, to avoid creating a too close bond. Even in the future, the relationship between man and dog has to be limited to primary needs such as
nutrition and care.

Important elements

If it was not possible to start with such favourable assumptions, it does not mean that everything has been already compromised. In the vast majority of dogs of this breed, the bond with the sheep has been genetically imprinted through the centuries. Thus, the operation described above serves to further strengthen such predisposition, so that the results obtained in this way continue to be transmitted to future generations. It could therefore be enough that the puppies coming from rustic extraction (intended as coming from the working world with the herd at a distance of no more than two generations) be inserted in the herd as soon as possible, that is as soon as they are weaned. This is done in order to facilitate a faster and better adaptation to the new environment, so that the puppy binds the presence of the sheep to its own territory.

Collocation of the puppies

The puppies should be always collocated in pairs of siblings of the same sex. Such a foresight serves to promote the integration, not to feel alone and to make courage to each other. Even during the period of growth and training, a sort of complicity will be created and enhanced between them that will increase work efficiency and making them become complementary subjects. Moreover, having the chance to play together, they will not bother the lambs and the young sheep. It is important that they are of the same sex and not more than two to avoid mating or having too many blood related species in the same herd. It is a known fact that the animals living in herds mate in a spontaneous way, it is therefore our task to keep different blood lines and possibly having origins far apart from each other. For example: who needs a pack of six or eight dogs, can begin with a pair of brothers and one of sisters coming from litters of unrelated dog pairs. All that is needed is to have a couple of old and expert dogs, that guarantee the work and the education
to the young in order to have in just one year a pretty close knit pack.

Insertion in the herd

What should be observed during the insertion of the puppies in the herd? They should be placed within the sheep fold or sheep pen, at the beginning advisably separated with structures which facilitate visual and olfactory communication. All that is needed in fact is a net or pallets arranged vertically, to create an area for the puppies which the sheep cannot reach.
Such a foresight is necessary as the sheep will need some time to adjust and accept the intruders. They could gore these little “cotton balls” hurting them so much as to undermine their future good relationship. This would create a negative imprinting. Sometimes there
is even the risk of having them suppressed. When they are older and free amidst the sheep, a head butt every now and then won’t do any harm, causing the dog to have an attitude of submission towards the sheep, which will guarantee the dog’s future respect towards the sheep. Moreover, it is crucial that the puppies get used to assimilate the same circadian sheep rhythms, going out of and going back in the fold or in the sheep pen, at the same time as them. In this way a bond in time and space is created that promotes attachment.

The relationship between man and puppy

What should be man’s attitude towards puppies? We have already mentioned that the relations have to be limited to the essential things. The instants of contact and communication are thus reduced to the time of feeding, eventual treatment and in cases where scolding is necessary.
The puppies will tend, in some cases, to fawn with the person that usually attends to their needs. This behaviour and invitations to play should be absolutely discouraged and avoided. When these manifestations of affection or play occur, the puppies must be moved away with slight kicks or slaps on the muzzle, exclaiming a command using an authoritative tone, the  most common among shepherds is “go to the sheep”. At the same way, any punitive attitudes towards them should never be carried out when they take refuge among the sheep. All this will ensure that its place among the sheep will be more appreciated, as it is perceived as the safest. The flock should become the most enjoyable place and area for the future guardians.

The education

In the paragraph on the inclusion of the puppies it has been said that putting the puppies in pairs favours among other things, play between them which limits the possibility that the puppy has playful outbursts with the lambs. Since play is a prelude to the predatory
behaviour it is easy to comprehend that it is entirely inappropriate for dogs to play with the sheep. This does not happen but it is certainly not desirable very often. It is however possible that hints of such behaviours manifest themselves, which should be held back by using a coherent and authoritative manner. It is here worth repeating that a slight slap on the muzzle is more effective than a stronger blow inflicted on any other part of the body.
The first hypothesis is much more uneasy for a dog and will be remembered. The educational phase coincides with the second period of imprinting, that usually occurs during the period of the dog’s greatest learning ability, or rather between the third and eighth month.

The training

The training is done exclusively by the other adult dogs. It is indeed inaccurate to speak of training, as they learn from the adults and become functional and useful only through the appropriate inclusion in the herd. It is therefore important to have some older and expert dogs that will guide the newcomers. In the absence of such opportunities one must not despair. However, it is better to start from scratch than keeping dogs that are not fit for the job that would only give bad examples which are counterproductive to the success of the pack. So what are the odds that a group of puppies becomes a good pack even without the guidance of a senior and experienced dog guarding the flock? The probabilities of success are however high as I will explain hereafter.
Meanwhile, growing up in the pack and each earning their role within it, the puppies create a close knit group that by instinct will tend to defend the territory and everything else related to them (the sheep). The shepherd, as much as possible, must have a natural behaviour and so the dogs will behave in consequence, beginning to perceive and interpret every human emotion. The instinct of these dogs makes them so special and so close to their opponent, par excellence, the wolf. Like the wolf, they have a strong instinctive – intuitive component and in the same way like the wolves that follow a strategy of attack, the shepherd dogs create a defense strategy which makes them so reliable and irreplaceable.

Mating management

Fact has it that mating in a pack should not be managed by man for a series of reasons. It is always convenient that the leader of the pack wins the right to mount. Regardless of any selection requirements, aimed at improving or consolidating morphological characteristics, there are however some things to observe. When we find ourselves in front of a group of dogs where most of the adult males are brothers of the same litter, it is recommended that the dominant male wins the mount, in order to provide the offspring, not only the morphological characteristics but also the dominant character. The same goes if the eldest males have different bloodlines but having the same morphological and character valence. It is here important to remove the bitch from the pack, after two or maximum four mounts. This is necessary because the dominant male shepherd dog, sometimes, after the first “sexual outlets”, shows a reduced interest in the female. This becoming less attentive and constant, may allow the other males to mount her. At that point there would not be the certainty of the paternity of the puppies; which ones are of which male and therefore the possibility to evaluate the transmission capacities of the respective males of the pack, would be lost.

Moreover, there might be the risk that the bitch be even mounted by an unknown dog, belonging to another herd or having stray origins. It is instead necessary to fully manage mating, isolating the selected pairs in the cases that:

1) the older dogs serve only to teach the younger ones, but necessary morphological characteristics that guarantee the maintenance of the standard of the breed, are lacking;
2) one needs to import new blood lines in order to enhance the healthiness of the pack, that risks an excess of consanguinity with their respective consequences (increased diseases and involution of the morphological characteristics).

DEFENCE STRATEGY

Just as the predators that work in a pack have a strategy of attack, similarly,
the shepherd dog uses a defence strategy.

“IL Comitato tecnico dell’ACGA”