Just like their human counterparts, dogs go through life stages. Their progression through these stages is more accelerated than humans’, however. Misunderstanding the nature of their life stages or refusing to acknowledge these stages whatsoever is a root cause of a high number of Livestock Guardian Dog failures. Unfortunately, we don’t have solid numbers on just how many fail due to this, given that many owners and producers deal with “failed” dogs by euthanizing them or passing them on to shelters or companion homes.
It’s true that no producer can afford to house and feed dogs who cannot fulfill their intended role. However, contrary to some common folk wisdom, LGDs are not born knowing how to become mature, reliable guardians without any training whatsoever. Unfortunately, the same people who understand that a herding dog needs to mature and have training before being adept at his role don’t always recognize that LGDs have similar needs.
In their countries of origin, much of this training was done traditionally by older LGDs, often multiple ones and often of a familial group. Enforcement and refuge were provided by the shepherds. Supervision was not an issue, as pups were either with the shepherd or under the view of the more experienced dogs, who didn’t hesitate to correct as they saw fit and daily set an example of desired behavior. In some countries, this is still the case. Pups are raised under influence from more experienced working dogs and humans. They are selected to be quick visual learners, able to understand the parameters of their role by watching the older dogs and the shepherds. They are also selected to be tough, yet sensitive – able to handle rough terrain, weather and life while still offering and receiving care well.
Learning on the job is a time honored tradition that has been difficult to replicate in North America and other parts of the world where the majority of stock are kept in one area all their lives and the shepherd visits infrequently. Without human oversight and often lacking crucial input from more experienced dogs, the LGDs in these areas are often put under selection pressure that may make them more apt to make it to maturity without making serious mistakes but also may make for a dog who is less likely to think for themselves and to be effective in conflicts with predators. With the more recent return of large predators to many parts of the world, it is more important than ever to ensure a peaceful coexistence between them and our stock. It’s time again to become “hands on” shepherds and to help guide our LGDs through the stages of their lives.
Dogs essentially go through 4 life stages. Puppyhood runs from birth to approximately 6 months of age, adolescence from 6 to 18/24 months (sometimes beyond), and adulthood from 2-3 years of age and up. When a dog moves from being an adult into his senior years is dependent greatly on his health and size. Large dogs, in general, mature more slowly than smaller dogs and live a shorter life span. Where a small dog may be considered a senior at 13 or 14 years, a large dog can be the equivalent at 6 or 8.
Let’s take a look at the stages individually.
Puppyhood is easily recognizable by most people. From the time a pup is born, they are learning and growing at a rapid pace, moving from a tiny slick, squiggly and blind creature with no teeth to a fully functioning animal who is most concerned with exploration. By the time pups are weaned and leave their mothers, most of their frank openness to the world is over, leaving them to balance fear and curiosity for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, apart from some brief periods known as “fear periods” (read more about them here), this balance is typically weighted in favor of curiosity through puppyhood and much of adolescence.
Puppyhood is the stage we are most enamoured with as humans; puppy breath and puppy cuddles are some of the sweetest things we can think of. Nature designed the babies of a species to have this endearing quality, encouraging the adults to care for them and excuse some of their obnoxious behaviors. This is the time when dogs have what we call a “puppy pass”, wherein the adults give them leeway to be silly and eschew the rules, when corrections are minor – laced with care and reserved for the most serious of infractions.
Babies of all kinds of species have a deep seated need to play, and puppies are no exception. Some people unfortunately feel that LGD pups shouldn’t be allowed to play past weaning; however, that view is short sighted. Play is an efficient way for pups to learn the rules of social behavior in context as well as about their environment and how to behave within it. Play teaches them to utilize and increase inhibition, a crucial part of LGD work. Play allows them to practice the motor patterns that will one day allow them to be successful in warding off and eliminating predators. Play also releases endorphins in the brain, keeping puppies buoyant and happy in a difficult and strange world.
Puppies are the babies of the dog world; before long they are free falling into adolescence. It’s the best time to teach LGDs basic obedience, manners and to socialize them well. While puppyhood remains one of the most precious and important stages of a dog’s life, it is also the shortest stage of their lives.
Adolescence is the equivalent to the pre teen and teenage stages in human children. The onset and length of this period is variable, both between breeds/types, but also individually. Some dogs simply mature faster than others. Some take more work to encourage on to the path of maturity, preferring to hang on to the fun and freedom of puppyhood. One sure indication that a LGD has moved past the puppy stage and into adolescence is the revocation of his “puppy pass”. His once tolerant older companions no longer turn a blind eye to his behavior. Some owners over react to this development, certain that something is wrong with the older dogs or that their cherished pup is no longer safe in his environment – but nothing could be further from the truth. Much like the increased expectations in the classroom for older students, puppies benefit from learning that their place in this world. The role they are intended to fulfill requires a heightened level of maturity, something that takes time and practice to master.
This is also the time when the expectations of the owner or producer often run right up against the abilities of the dog. Early on, adolescence can be readily identifiable, with gangly bodies and goofy behavior, but as it progresses and the dogs look more and more like adults, it can be difficult for an owner or producer to accept that they will still make mistakes. Even early on, the once mild mannered pup who suddenly grows an attitude and wants to rough house with stock can be difficult to understand. It seems like over night, what was simply a silly puppy has become a large, out of control dog driven by his hormones. He can push the boundaries and try some things on for size, like resource guarding. It looks sometimes like he’s forgotten everything he was taught as a pup and as though he doesn’t care much how his humans feel about that. Alternately, if he wasn’t well socialized, he can be difficult to catch and discipline or impossible to keep contained. Frustration and confusion abound on both sides.
This is far and away the most common stage when dogs are either euthanized, given up, or the owner otherwise looks for help. Unfortunately, if the stage wasn’t set in puppyhood, it can be difficult to teach all the desired behaviors during adolescence. Maintaining previously taught behaviors while increasing expectations is the name of the game for this period – encouraging maturity and self control while expecting periodic regressions in behavior. An owner or producer can never have enough patience or tools in their tool box to keep an adolescent dog between the lines until more maturity kicks in. This is, however, not the time to put the dog away and forget about him, as it is vital that he stays in the job, keeps learning what is expected and continues to be exposed to different aspects of working life.
This is also the period when the picture of the true dog emerges. Much like the butterfly developing in the chrysalis, adolescence is a time to wait, watch and hold steady. The adult dog is there, the owner just can’t see him clearly yet.
NOTE: Some concerning behaviors during adolescence shouldn’t be dismissed or otherwise ignored. A sudden onset of aggression/threat towards those he is meant to care for, or towards his owners is one such behavior. Sound sensitivity, often seen in the form of thunder phobia is another. Chasing and gripping stock, guarding the stock’s resources from them or fence breaching should never, ever be ignored, regardless of life stage.
Adulthood is the time when all the hard work by dog and human pay off. This is the stage where the LGD is fully dependable with stock of all sizes and abilities, where the partnership between he and his owner hits its stride and where the more fully informed choice can be made to pass on his genes to the next generation. This is the time where growth finishes; the dog is fully in control of his faculties and is truly able and expected to show a maximum level of appropriate decision making and self control. He starts on the path to becoming the mentor he once needed.
This is the stage where working behaviors are proofed and a dog is able to gain valuable life experiences. He becomes trustworthy enough to attend births unsupervised. All of his deduction, self control and differentiation skills become the strongest they will ever be in his life. He no longer over or under reacts, but instead operates from a place of self-assuredness. While it still remains important to keep him under control in stressful situations with new people and strange canids, his judgement can be trusted for the vast majority of things.
To me, adulthood is the real precious time of a dog’s life. It’s a stage when the trust in the relationship shifts to a more equal plane and it is no longer necessary to maximize the learning process. It’s a beautiful time of enjoyment and relaxation on both sides. A well rounded, well trained LGD with good working instincts is worth their weight in gold for any farming/ranching operation.
It is also a time when it’s important for the owner or producer to continue to check in with the working LGD, to ensure that his behavior remains steady, that he is being fed enough, that he continues in good physical and mental shape. Ongoing full time work keeping predators at bay and caring for his charges can take a toll on the best of working dogs.
Senior dogs enter into the last life stage far too quickly for our comfort. It seems as though we’ve just gotten used to their adulthood, just begun taking it for granted that they’ll always be there, when they begin displaying the effects of old age.
As I previously mentioned, the age at which a dog will enter this life phase depends on several factors, including size and health. Transitioning from adulthood into old age can be a slow or sudden. Whether it’s watching him have difficulty rising in the morning or cleaning a wound he never would have gotten a few years ago, it is can be very difficult to adjust to the new reality.
Some dogs are able to ease into retirement and others are under attack from younger dogs once they show any weakness. Some dogs go strong up until the end, and others slide into dementia, suffer from debilitating illnesses that require surgeries and treatments or render them largely immobile.
Old age is, just like for humans, an individual journey that is full of familiar comfort pricked with the pangs of heartbreak. It’s a time when the wisdom and confidence created through a lifetime of experiences creates the best mentorship for those who are up and coming guardians. Ideally, it’s a stage when LGDs who want to continue living with stock can keep doing so, supported and with a few more comforts provided. For other LGDs, it’s a time when they retire to the comforts of the house or yard and are rewarded for a lifetime of service.
Either way, the senior years are in some respects a celebration of the fact that they lived, loved and went to battle every day for many years, as they were intended to from the start. Whatever stage your working dogs are in now, one thing is for certain: their lives will pass too quickly yet impact us greatly.