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Basic Chicken Etiquette for the Family Dog - The Importance of Training

~Bella and Violet checking each other out through the safety of fencing~
When we got our first chickens several years ago, we had an aging (10 year old) German Shepherd. It never even dawned on us to worry about Sadie around the new chickens because she was naturally so intelligent and well-behaved, she seemed to instinctively know what was expected of her.  

~Sadie and our very first chickens sharing the back patio~

We were right to trust our judgment because Sadie immediately took to the hens, and they to her. They all lived in peace in our backyard.  Sadie never so much as ruffled a single feather on a single hen's head, and in fact saved one of our Rhode Island Reds from a hawk attack one day while we were all outside enjoying a sunny summer afternoon.

Sadly, we lost Sadie almost two and a half years ago to a stroke. Knowing that we could never begin to replace her, we went for some time without even entertaining the thought of getting a new puppy, but we soon realized that every farm needs a dog.

~We brought Bella home when she was just seven weeks old~

We welcomed baby Bella into our hearts and home in February of 2011.  Adorable as she was, right from the start we realized that integrating her with our flock was going to be a bit of a challenge.

~Bella didn't possess the same maternal instincts as Sadie. She was (and still is) quite the chewer~

Unfortunately Bella didn't seem to have been blessed with the same maternal instincts as had Sadie. Instead of snuggling with and nuzzling her stuffed toys like Sadie, Bella ripped off their heads and fished the squeakers out of them after chewing off their eyes. Things were not looking good on the chicken front - or the cat front for that matter! 

Although they started out about the same size, Bella quickly outgrew poor Linus!

~Bella took every opportunity to terrorize Linus~

~As Bella grew, Linus was forced to seek higher ground~

We started to wonder if this little whirlwind of barking, biting, jumping energy  who terrorized our cat every chance she got would ever be able to co-exist with our flock....

Erring on the side of caution, at first Bella was never allowed outside off the leash.  She, predictably, would lunge for the chickens and when we closed the paddock gate to keep her confined while we did chores, she would race the length of the run fencing - much to the chickens' consternation.

~Still keeping a fence in between Bella and the hens~
But time went by of course and Bella started to grow up and respond to her training.  

She learned the basic commands: sit, stay, down, come, not yours, and the all-important leave it/drop it.  

In time she seemed to even lose interest in the chickens since we spent so much time down at the barn - always keeping the fence in between her and our chickens and ducks. 

Meanwhile, I had hatched some chicks in the house and we used the opportunity to let her 'meet' them, placing them on her paws and back, even on her head. We would 'visit' the brooder each day so she got used to the chicks and how they looked, smelled, sounded and moved.

More time went by and Bella began to grow out of her 'puppy crazies'.  Finally we started to feel comfortable that she was ready to be outside off-leash when the chickens were free ranging.  At first, we used an electric collar set on the 'vibrate' setting.

Feeling like nothing more than a pager going off, it gave us the opportunity to see how she would react to not being tethered to the leash, but also kept us in control.  The vibration definitely got her attention and returned her focus to us and off the chickens.  

~At first John Quincy our rooster kept himself between Bella and the hens~
To Bella's credit, other than a few half-hearted attempts to chase a hen or two, she has behaved admirably among them, tempting as it HAS to be for her, especially when they race around the pasture.  

But she keeps her distance - largely due to once getting a bit too close to our broody Buff and Grace, being a typical grouchy broody, went at Bella in full kung fu chicken mode.  Bella immediately turned tail and ran to escape the screeching, kicking, flapping hen!

Being a shepherd, Bella does like to try and herd the chickens into a circle, but they largely ignore her and continue to go about their business scratching for bugs.  So she finally gave up and has to be content just watching them from afar. 

Bella is not allowed in the chicken run - ever. They need to know that their space is theirs. She is good about that rule and does adhere to it.  She is never allowed to chase or even touch the hens.

No batting them with her paws, no gumming them (as dogs are prone to try with soft, squishy, squeaking objects), and God forbid no trying to rip off their heads or chew out their eyes!  We have made the rules clear and she is smart enough to respect and understand them.

Nothing is more heartbreaking than hearing about a reader's flock being killed by their own family pet dog.  Despite best intentions of never allowing the dog unsupervised access to the chickens or keeping a fence in between them, invariably a door gets left ajar, a family member lets the dog out not realizing the hens are out, or the dog digs under the run.

No worries on our farm. We feel confident knowing that Bella has been trained to respect the hens, that they are part of our family and to be protected, not harmed.

We also know that Bella's presence and scent in and around the barn and around the run perimeter is a huge deterrent to predators, despite her not being technically trained as a LGD (livestock guardian dog), so having her outside while we free range the chickens - and being able to trust her with them - is such a huge plus.

Patience, repetition, training and lots of treats (along with the occasional wiggle from the vibrating collar!) go a long way towards successfully integrating your dog into your flock. But trust me, it's worth it in the long run for all involved.  Despite any early misgivings, Bella has evolved into quite the Farm Girl!

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