Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

It shouldn’t BE this hard.

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Shortly after we got our first registered Maremma pup, I remember thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard.  She was a singleton, from an unplanned litter where the other pups died due to neglect, born to a mother who was under a year.  She’d not been socialized off the farm and showed up as a little spitfire wrapped in a coating of uncertainty.

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When we picked up our pup, her mother was confined in a small pen with wire over it.  She presented as a bundle of busy energy, wriggling in submission, looking for a release from her prison. She washed out as a guardian after more litters and before she was 3.   Her mate was the complete opposite at less than a year – trustworthy, confident, imposing, wary.  He sniffed my hand and looked me over as if to say “I’ll let you stay, for now”.  I loved him and hoped that his pup would take after her father.

The breeder had spent the money to bring one parent from the US and the other from a couple of provinces over.  She had a contract, centered mainly around breeding rights.  She looked surprised when I mentioned the importance of health testing.  Her sheep operation was well set up, clean and carefully run.  This was no puppy mill, but neither was it a place that had what it needed to choose the right dogs or do what was right for them in the end.

I sold her at near maturity to someone I trusted who promised to stay the course with her, but instead dumped her in rescue after a couple of months.  That’s a whole other story for another time – how this rescue stayed hidden and refused to return her, how her new owner had gone against our agreement… and the reason why I’ll never again sell an adult LGD who needs special handling.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t whisper an apology to her for letting her down again  Before I rehomed her, I’d cried a river of tears over her heightened prey drive, her willingness to body check anyone to get what she wanted, her unwillingness to listen when it didn’t suit her.  As a young pup, she ate – ATE – stuffed animals, toys; if it was fluffy, she’d gulp it down.  At least three times we were ready to head to the vet to open her up, one foot out the door, when she threw up the item in question.  Once, she was off food for 2 days.  When she finally threw it up, a long rag she’d found and shredded, she gobbled it down again.  I was a wreck.

She was a busy, busy dog.  I’d been led to believe that LGDs were meant to be placid and thoughtful a fair bit of the time, and that had been our experience up until then.  I was on a forum that was run in part by people who purported to have seen all and done all; they recommended I put her away when she was badly behaved and to only reward the behavior I was looking for.  She would have been put away ALL OF THE TIME.  I attached a tire to her on their advice, after trying a dangle stick that did nothing at all to stop her chasing or even slow her down.  The tire only made her more determined and she developed a bowl legged walk to compensate.  I was told not to exercise her out of the pasture, to only train her in there, to have “everything good happen in with the stock”.  Well, she was so squirrelly after a few months that the stock wanted nothing to do with her.  We didn’t have a hundred acre pastures for her to get her wiggles out.  Prolonged confinement made things worse, as it will do with a needy, active pup.  Even though she responded well to positive reinforcement training techniques, rewarding her with food in the pasture only served to make her possessive.

One day, when she was just over a year old, she launched herself at my older teenaged daughter, knocking her over to get the food bowl in her hand.  I was no slouch with this dog, we’d followed a strict protocol of waiting for meals to ensure building self control.   Clearly I was on the wrong track.  I was definitely not breeding this dog, and I was more than done with taking certain advice.

This was a registered dog.  This was what I’d been told to look for. I was finished listening to others – it was far past time that I listened to myself and what I knew to be true.

1.  No serious producer has time to hold the hand of a working guardian dog every step of the way for years.  Breeding decisions need to keep this in mind.  These are dogs with a purpose, and that purpose needs to be protected in the genetic material being used.

2.  Fair corrections ARE appropriate for working LGDs.   For some dogs this may only need to be a verbal sound and a sharp look, while others need more.  Some dogs will hardly make a mistake, while others will go through periods where they make one with every breath.   Setting out on the right foot, being crystal clear with these dogs is worth far more to them than the fallout that comes from over isolating, tethering for long periods or ignoring their clumsy attempts to interact.  Tell them what you want and tell them what you don’t want.  They’re not mind readers, after all.   Set them up for success and then expect great things of them.

3.  Don’t buy into this idea that only registered dogs are worth anything.  Papers mean nothing when it comes time to work.   Both of my full time working dogs aren’t registered and I wouldn’t trade either of them for truckloads of gold.  Take working dogs on their merits, not on their pedigreed status.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is only trying to make money from you.  Registered doesn’t mean health tested, registered doesn’t mean that the dog is more likely to work well for you – but registered always means you’ll pay more and be more financially invested in that product of untested parents who won’t guard for you.  You’re much more likely to make the decision to breed to recoup some of that investment.  This is not to say that registered dogs don’t work – but it doesn’t ensure that they will. If you go that route, read your contract carefully.  Promote health testing, temperament assessment and maturity before breeding regardless of registration – be a part of the solution for all working dogs.

By the time our Maremma girl left our place, she was well in hand and only getting better every day.  I stopped outsourcing my decisions and started giving her the feedback she needed.  It would have been a thousand times better and more fair to give it to her as a young pup, but this is all a part of the learning curve – especially in a world where we are encouraged to listen to all the “experts”.  She was spending more and more time in with the stock and behaving well.  I can only hope that wherever she’s ended up, she ends up as happy as she was before she left us.

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Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, animal rehab and behavior specialist.

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