This begins a series of posts on puppy raising and selection that I believe is overdue for both owners and breeders. I find most information on this subject to be lacking in substance, with very few exceptions. Some is downright inappropriate, touting the best forgotten Coppinger methods or encouraging people to raise these dogs as you would the smallest of house pets.
I’ve written here before about the inherent problems with the old Coppinger-style method of LGD puppy rearing. It bears repeating that Ray Coppinger, while responsible for the proliferation of the working LGD in North America, also set all LGD owners off on the wrong foot by insisting that all pups are raised “hands off”, a term used to refer to methods of raising pups by touching them and interfering with them as little as possible. He is single handedly responsible for most of the problems we have here with LGDs now, both through inappropriate breeding selection criteria and the inability to meet their needs. I would go so far as to say that anyone providing guidance on raising LGDs who does not also acknowledge how Coppinger harmed the evolution of the North American LGD should not be trusted.
On to pup handling and training.
Unfortunately, we rarely have control over the first weeks of a pup’s life unless we have whelped them ourselves, so most of the advice contained herein will be focused on what to do after 8 wks of age. That is not to say that there isn’t value in pressuring breeders to do differently with their pups, nor that mistakes made either during breeding selection or the first 2 months of life won’t impact the pups into adulthood. In my opinion, (and there is good science to back this up) there is priceless value in paying better attention to both breeding selection and the early raising of LGD pups. Arguably, with better breeding selection and more thorough socialization in early life, we would have more success and less work to do with the them afterwards. Fixing early mistakes and deficient genetics is not something that the average owner is prepared to do – nor is it always successful for seasoned professionals. The early period of a pup’s life is so critical to their ability to weather the maturing phases, albeit not quite as important as resilient and appropriate genetics. For example, no matter how you treat a working bred herding dog during early time of their life, you will not turn them into a successful LGD without a fight – and it is highly unlikely to happen even then. You also cannot easily turn a timid pup into a confident guardian, nor can you easily convince an overly aggressive pup with poor self control to direct and control their instincts in a more appropriate manner.
One thing we settlers often forget here in NA, due to our shallow experience living with dogs, is how vitally important groupings (packs) are to shaping our dogs to working success. We are enamored with the solitary dog trope more often than not, romanticizing the dog as solitary creatures capable of being all things to us. Apart from hunting dogs (who are rarely required to do complex behaviors outside of periodic hunting excursions), we keep most of our dogs singularly or only in pairs . This is not reflective of how our working LGDs were raised historically, and still are quite often today in their countries of origin. The “pack” or group, typically familial, plays as vital a role in the shaping of a good working LGD: as does the shepherd, their family and sometimes the village as a whole. Coppinger himself acknowledged a few years ago that his observational skills regarding raising and training LGDs overseas were greatly lacking. He now attributes the success of the LGDs overseas to this pastorally communal influence on the pups, both in terms of genetics and environment. It’s unfortunate that he has chosen to only acknowledge this when pressured, preferring to continue the illusion that what he did for early LGDs on this continent was a good thing.
The other thing I have spoken about before in this blog is how our westernized canine handling and body language skills are not of the highest order. We struggle to relate to our dogs, as evidenced by the sheer number of failed and struggling dog/human pairings we currently have. The exception to this misunderstanding is with working herding and gun dogs, as we have a long and strong history of working with them. Outside of this sphere, however, we struggle hard to adapt our interaction and observational skills. Nowhere is this more prominent than with LGDs. I cannot count the number of times I have had to encourage owners and trainers to listen more, give more freedom and space to LGDs – our natural default is always to micromanage and to be very heavy handed. Successful relationship requires the realization that we are only one side of the equation and further, that everything we do affects the other side. In other words, everything we do – both consciously and unconsciously – affects our dogs and the ultimate satisfaction of the relationship. When we approach our dogs to work with them, it is always better to be thoughtful and to act carefully than to be rash and risk making more of a mess than is there already. With LGDs especially, as in many dog types with a longer arc of maturity, making a training plan that focuses on the long term and allows for latent learning is the way to go. Quite often, I won’t train or interfere daily, choosing to allow the times of training I do have to be very targeted, incremental and to allow for periods in between for the dog to absorb the information. This works well, as the dogs tend to make large learning leaps between sessions. This also keeps both of us from becoming frustrated with each other or bored with rote learning.
If we can start from a place where we acknowledge our inherent deficiencies when it comes to understanding and handling these dogs, we will always be in a better position to do the right thing by them. If we can open our minds to learn from those who have the historical knowledge of LGDs, we will do even better.
- Choose your pup carefully.
This is the one thing that is the most important piece advice I can offer. So many problems can be prevented by just taking the time to choose the right pup. Unlike many others, I am not a proponent of certain breeds over others, nor do I care whether a pup is from registered parents. Some of the best dogs I have encountered and owned are from cross litters of LGD breeds. Some of the worst are from registered purebred breeders. Conversely, I believe that consistent, “pure” breeding helps us to retain certain characteristics, so it is of value. After years of experience, I am thoroughly convinced that a good dog can be found in almost any circumstance, but that most people have trouble sorting out how to evaluate that. So, choose pups from working parents who themselves show good LGD characteristics. They should be stable dogs, not quick to strike at their owners. They should have been treated well, with fairness and access to all they need in terms of food/shelter/water/vet care. If they don’t receive this currently, it will have changed their character in a negative way.
Watch the parents of the pups for signs of health problems and ask a lot of questions about their character. Are they showing signs of chronic pain? Are they watchful, alert? Do they roam? Do they appear to be in general good health? Does the breeder have vet records and are they willing to share with you? Remember that dogs who live outside and defend against predators won’t look the same as pampered house pets, but they shouldn’t appear sick or emaciated.
How do the pups look? Are they also showing signs of good health? How many survived in the litter and what happened to those who didn’t? Some mortality is to be expected, but it can also indicate genetic problems such as high levels of inbreeding. Are they active and curious? Are there some who look well but others who don’t? Are some cowering in the corner? This can indicate unmitigated temperament problems.
Where are the pups kept? Coppinger-style rearing typically shows itself here first – the pups are kept in smaller areas away from people or in with the stock (with no escape) from day 1. Neither option is good and leads to insecurity in the pups. Have they been handled? If so, how much? Have they been exposed to children, cars, other people, off farm or household noises? How important are these things to you?
Have the pups had any worming or vaccinations? These are things that aren’t deal breakers necessarily, but very good information to have. Pups with heavy loads of parasites will have a “potbellied” appearance and will not look generally healthy. They can be overly hungry while still appearing undernourished. Pups with external parasites will be itchy or appear uncomfortable. Their coat will not be glossy and they may have red patches on their skin and missing hair. While these things are fixable, living like this will affect the character of the pup. Some parasites like ringworm are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmissible to humans. There are also very serious diseases that vaccinations prevent, like distemper and parvo. Parvo especially is difficult and expensive to treat and causes long term effects. It is also highly contagious.
How and what are the pups fed? While this is perhaps less important a consideration, it is good information to have. Communally fed pups, especially after weaning, tend to have more problems with resource guarding (RG) later on. Underfed pups will also tend to have problems with RG. This is not insurmountable, but it’s an important consideration. The type of food they are fed could also cause problems later on or indicate an issue; LGDs were selected to subsist on low protein, high carb food stuffs. There is evidence that too high of a protein or caloric content in food (causing pups to grow rapidly) can lead to hip dysplasia later on, as does breeding for large pups over athletically sound pups. Further, if pups or parents have to be kept on a certain restrictive diet, this can indicate allergies or intolerances, things that can become costly to maintain and ultimately undermine a dog’s working effectiveness. There is sufficient indication that allergies and intolerances have a genetic component and definitely go hand in hand with high levels of inbreeding. Take any information given to you about restrictions as a red flag that there could be costly health problems in the future. Your dog will also have a shortened working life span and perhaps a shortened life span overall.
Have the pups been exposed to livestock and if so, which kind and how? It goes without saying that if you want a working dog, ideally you should get that working dog from a place where that work is done. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find a working pup from a breeder who doesn’t work their dogs or from a rescue where the working ability can’t be tested, but those would be decisions that require extra caution and that carry more risk. Pups should be introduced to stock gradually or at least with extra forethought to ensure they cannot be harmed or harm. They should be supervised at least part of the time to ensure that their interactions are appropriate and safe. The breeder should be willing to correct overzealous pups and spend the time helping more timid pups gain confidence.
Choose the pup with the correct temperament for your needs. Sometimes breeders will insist on making this choice for you, but they should only do so if they are aware of the complexities behind puppy/owner matches and after they have asked you questions about your current situation, experience and future plans. While puppy temperament is not always predictive of the adult character of that dog, it does give a lot of information about who that pup is right now. Much will go into the shaping of that dog’s character as they grow, but their needs are evident very early on. Is the pup more timid? Then they will need to gain confidence and have patient guidance. Is the pup bold and enjoys taking risks? Then that pup will need to learn risk assessment and firmer leadership during the process of maturity. Be reasonable and practical about your abilities and your expectations when choosing.
Choose the right gender. If this is your first pup, then this choice will revolve around personal preference more so than if you already have one or more LGDs working for you. If you have other intact dogs on the property or living nearby and not contained, that may also affect your decision. If you plan to breed someday, that will also be a determining factor. Keeping an intact dog through to maturity is not without risk or extra work, and should be done with that in mind. That said, inform yourself about the risks of early spay and neuter, especially for male dogs. Males are cheaper to fix (sterilize) and do not carry the risk of turning up pregnant, but they can be the cause of unwanted litters even in your neighborhood if they wander. They can be more laid back, but often don’t coexist well with other males, especially if kept intact. Females can be more intense, but again, the individual differences of each dog are more important than gender stereotypes. Both females and males will be more distracted during times of heat and both may be less willing to get rid of any opposite sex stray that happens on to your property. They may also attract wild canines, but hybrid litters are less common than many people believe. Consider as well the eventual composition of your working LGD pairings or groupings. If you have a male already, it is wiser to get a female pup if you want them to work well together over time. The opposite is true. This is not to say that pairs of females or males don’t work out – in fact, they can be some of the best pairings if done thoughtfully. Two pups raised together or a young pup with a same sex older LGD are two of the easiest ways to accomplish this. Same sex pairings do require more hierarchy conflicts over time, as do groupings. Some breeds/types will be more prone to conflict than others. A certain amount of comfort with social conflict is required on the part of the owner.
Will the breeder provide support for you and if so, is there a laundry list of requirements that you need to follow in order to receive the support? Personally, I refuse to buy puppies from breeders who insist on a lot of control over the pup after money exchanges hands. A handful of requirements is always fine, and I prefer a breeder who stands behind what they produce, but I also believe strongly in the autonomy of an owner over their dog. In purebred breeding, the control from a breeder can be a indicator that health and temperament is a concern in the parents/lines. Do not assume that breeders will tell you all there is to know about a pup and their background. If a breeder is more concerned about telling how awful every other breeder is than about their own program, this is also a red flag. If they claim that they have never had any problems with their breeding program or with their pups, and if all faults are blamed on the owners, then this is also a good indication that not all is as it seems. Some breeders are willing to provide support only as long as you agree with them and their methods. It is wise to find other outlets for support as well as your breeder.
Most importantly when choosing a pup is to match the breed or type to your expectations and needs. Apart from the general warning to keep your expectations appropriate to life stages (do not expect a young pup to protect your animals/property from predators or an adolescent pup to get their instincts sorted on their own), it is so very important to determine what your ideal LGD would look like. What behavior appeals to you most? What sort of human traffic do you have on your property? What infrastructure does your operation have? Do you have small children and do you want them to interact with the dog? LGDs should be excellent with children of all sizes, but a rambunctious pup will struggle to behave appropriately with very small children. If a more assertive pup needs strong guidance, this will be harder to maintain with younger children. Do you have a business on your property or a large extended family? Do you want the pup to grow to protect property, livestock or a combination of both? Will wandering be a problem and if so, can you install and reinforce fencing? Some breeds/types are more likely to bond to stock over territory. Others accept strange humans on their home turf more easily than others. Some view people on the same level of threat as a wild predator. Be sure your comfort with liability matches the predisposition of the dog you buy.
(the second post in this series can be found here)