Almost all livestock farms have dogs and cats. In most cases, dogs are kept to boost security on the farm.
Large-scale sheep farms in Australia and New Zealand also keep dogs to shepherd the animals. Cats, on the other hand, are kept to deal with rats and pest birds.
Interestingly, these two utility animals cause problems to farmers. I have previously talked about the cycle of dangerous worms between dogs, livestock and humans.
There is also the cycle of the troublesome protozoan parasite toxoplasma gondii that circulates between rats, cats, humans and other animals, but that is a story for another day.
Dogs have another problem that mainly manifests when there is more than one of them on the farm.
The problem is likely to increase as the pack grows due to what is referred to as pack behaviour. It is equivalent to the mob behaviour in humans.
Last week, Njoroge, a manager at a farm in Naivasha, called me seeking urgent help. He said his dogs had gone mad and he wondered whether they had rabies’ attack despite having been vaccinated a month earlier.
He recounted that his neighbours’ dogs had the previous night broken into the farm at midnight and their six dogs had fought fiercely, beating them back to their territory.
Later, at some point, they encountered the two farm cats. One cat quickly sensed the danger and climbed on a pole. The other was shredded to smithereens by the now uncontrollable canines.
They then reached the goat house, broke in and mercilessly attacked the animals. The more the goats stampeded, the more aggressive the dogs appeared to be.
At the end of the fracas, two goats lay dead and three were badly mauled. Njoroge said later, the dogs appeared calm and shy. He could not believe they were the same rowdy beasts that had caused havoc.
I assured him there was no need for me to visit the farm because the case narrative did not meet rabies definition.
From the report, the dogs had started by executing their task of defending the farm, which is also their territory, from the neighbouring invaders.
The animals were victorious but changes that had occurred in their bodies magnified by pack behaviour had resulted in excessive aggression that had extended to innocent non-combatants. I explained to Njoroge the dogs had already realised their blunder as demonstrated by their calm, shy behaviour.
I advised him to organise for structured training of the dogs so that they are able to recognise the farm animals in future to avoid similar incidents.
I also advised him to ensure at night the livestock houses are well-secured because, however, well the dogs are trained, they would always be likely to attack stampeding animals.
Now, the question is: Why did the dogs behave so aggressively? To start with, dogs in packs exhibit mob behaviour when an event stimulates them.
I recall the case of a man who took one too many and was heading back home on foot when he found a pack of over 10 dogs mating near his gate one morning.
The dogs abandoned their business and attacked the staggering man when he bent down presumably to pick up a stone.
By the time the watchmen from nearby houses arrived, he was dead. When we keep dogs or encounter them, we must remember that man’s best friend still retains its wild survival instincts despite ages of domestication.
For a dog to survive, it needs to fight, flee or submit. The latter is the least preferred survival tactic while fight is the most preferred.
This is because in the wild and in a pack, standing up to an aggressor is the most viable way of getting survival resources such as food, territory and mating rights. In human beings, these instincts have been tempered by law, religion and culture.
HEALTHY COMMANDING RELATIONSHIP
If you look deeply into human behaviour, you will still detect the distilled remnants of wild survival instincts such as extreme greed and posturing, for one to get his way.
Scientifically, dog pack aggressive behaviour is controlled by hormones mainly adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone and testosterone.
The combination of these body chemicals gives dogs the extreme power to guard their resources to ensure survival.
When in this state, as were Njoroge’s dogs, the animals do not reason. They attack any perceived threat with extreme energy and ferocity.
Last year, one of my customers, who owns two breeding male dogs and one female, almost got his hand severed by one of the males when he tried to prevent it from mating the female in favour of the other dog. This is a dog that normally takes his commands obediently.
Dogs in a pack communicate wirelessly through scents produced by body chemicals called pheromones. The various scents are carried through the air, enabling each to understand the intention of the other. This explains the concerted action of the dogs with extreme cooperation and coordination.
Fortunately, the extreme activity induced by the hormones eventually fatigues the body and the animals cool down.
The activity may also be terminated by application of a superior force on the dogs and the animals will either submit or flee.
One should keep a healthy commanding relationship with dogs right from when they are puppies. Dogs should be trained from when they are young that humans are their masters by giving them name identities and training them to walk and obey commands when held by a leash.
They should be introduced to other animals on the farm and made to understand that all the creatures on the farm are friends.
Dogs have a lot of learning abilities such as memory, cognition, sight, smell, touch and taste.