Recently, in conversation with a well-regarded trainer in the US about one of his client dogs, I stopped his description of intending to train “Place” (asking the dog to stay on an object or in an area until invited off/out) with this question:
“But what do you do when you can’t use obedience training as a short cut to building relationship?”
There was a silence and then he replied that he wasn’t sure.
I continued with:
“How do you get what you need from a dog in terms of self control when you cannot use food/play/force or repetition to get there?”
He was a wonderful sport and played along, responding by asking me what I thought should be done instead.
These questions are, in my opinion, at the crux of all of the problems we run into when working with dogs who have an innately independent mindset. Ask anyone who has spent any time with a working bred aboriginal type dog, be it LGD, hound, spitz or the less common herding breeds and they’ll tell you that these dogs embody the very definition of the independent mindset. For many of them, food can be a simple way to encourage them to bond with us, but others, like LGDs and sighthounds quite often won’t be manipulated in that way. In fact, the more we insist on ‘making’ them do things, the less they respect us. This is what people are actually dealing with when they claim that certain dogs are too “stubborn” or “dumb” to train. They claim that these dogs don’t have a brain in their heads, when it’s actually the handlers who don’t know how to speak their language.
People who don’t know how to handle certain animals resorting to allegations that it’s the animal’s fault? Say it ain’t so. This is has been going on since the beginning of domestication.
You’d think it’d be obvious that the human in the equation should try a little harder and work a little smarter. If the arguments I’ve seen on social media and the conversations I’ve had with other dog people are any indication, it’s not so obvious as it should be. It’s never acceptable to ignore an entire subsection of the canine population like this. Shame on the industry for encouraging that to happen.
So what do you do with an independent dog like our LGDs? Well, for some people, their answer has been to try to breed that out of them. Their dogs and their progeny become hollow shells of what they were intended to be. While it’s true that our LGD breeds/types are all found along the spectrum of biddability (biddable: easily led, taught, or controlled :docile), they should always retain what I call a ‘split brain’. This means that a significant portion of their brain should be dedicated to autonomous, independent thought processes. We should never be able to, nor should we even want to, hijack this portion for our own ends. The retention of this precious quality is VITAL for their ability to work effectively. We have no need of a LGD who needs to look to us for every decision, for every move. How could we leave them with our precious stock then?
At the same time, we need to be able to shape their instincts and help them learn how to control themselves. This part of their brain is dedicated to relationship and is where we need to take our influence very seriously. We need to be able to step in when they get it wrong (think over-guarding with newborn babies for instance or if they decide to take matters into their own hands with a human stranger); this is especially true when we raise them outside of a familial grouping as we do so often in developed, westernized countries.
So what is the answer to this particular issue of retaining fierce independence while impacting behavior and motivation? It’s pretty simple, really. Learn. Listen to them. Up your observation skills. Increase the methods in your repertoire. Acknowledge that there is more than one kind of dog out there. Stop approaching this work from an idealized ethical standpoint or with all kinds of force. These dogs don’t care what you learned in a book or from Koehler. They care about doing what they were meant to do, and if you aren’t relevant to that, you won’t be relevant to anything. If you don’t want to get hurt, if you don’t want the dog to check out on you and you still want to get from A to B, put your ego aside. Put away any piece of you that thinks you know what these dogs are about because you’ve had x number or x other kinds of dogs all your life. Approach this as a novel experience, a learning opportunity to expand your horizons and your toolbox. Resist the temptation to extrapolate endlessly from the few experiences with LGDs you’ve had or the stories/advice you’ve heard on Facebook and in poorly written literature. Those are nothing more than interesting fairy tales. Anything you follow should be able to withstand scrutiny and be able to prove results, period.
Utilize critical thinking. If you’re not getting the results you need quickly, if you’re relying more and more on management as a way of getting where you need to go, if you can’t handle or control these dogs without all kinds of equipment/set ups, you’re on the wrong track.
Yesterday, I fed Titus and Ivy from my hand in various spots on my property. They took each piece of kibble from my hand with respect for me and for each other. Titus put himself into a “Sit” and waited patiently while I fed one first to Ivy and then to him. When a piece landed on the ground, he refrained from jumping on it. We walked from place to place without leashes, without manipulation or force. We repeated the feeding exercise. I shared with them how wonderful I thought they were for offering deference and staying engaged with me. At the end, we played together and had a few cuddles. When I fed him the rest of his meal in a dish later, he ran ahead of me and put himself in a sit, waiting patiently until the bowl hit the ground and he heard me release him to eat. When he was done, he didn’t even attempt to touch Ivy’s dish.
Last week, Titus picked a fight with Ivy because food was present. He had his ass handed to him since she is still able to do so. This was not the first time he’d picked a fight like that. He’s had trouble with self control since the get go. He’d knocked food out of people’s hands, he’d jump up and down like a pogo stick, he’d walk in front of people and throw himself at their feet to get what he wanted (whether affection or food), he’d put his face in whatever and wherever he thought appropriate without so much as a thought process. Ivy’d dealt with his obnoxiousness more than once. He wasn’t learning.
Now he is.
This is literally a dog who has outstanding LGD instincts, who has simply lacked self control. I’m not going to just manage that until he matures. That’s not sustainable and doesn’t teach him anything. The lack of self control bleeds into all kinds of areas of his life. I don’t have an older male to teach him and keep him in line, so it’s been down to me. He didn’t have that enough where he was bred either (this is quite a common thing especially with small litters and not at all criticism), so I’ve been dealing with counteracting a lifetime of reinforcement for inappropriate behavior. My life was chaotic when he first arrived and for a while afterwards, due to the move, kids, school…so I didn’t get on it quickly enough either.
The point is that it’s fixable. It’s trainable. I’m doing that, and not with rote obedience regimes. Titus is responding and we’re all getting to that place of mutualistic symbiosis we need for this farm to run smoothly. Will he get to a place where he’s the boss of all things LGD here? It’s quite possible and I fully anticipate that that will happen. Right now is not the time as he’s not mentally or physically ready for that. So he has had to learn his place, outside of the strong family pack he would have had to help teach him in his country of origin.
To his credit, he’s getting it. To mine, I know how to speak to him so he listens.