I’m going to take a moment away from working on the puppy series to address an burgeoning problem in the world of LGDs. I predicted this was coming a while ago, and just like most predictions I’ve made in the dog world, I’m sad to see it come true. Truth be told, I’m not only sad, but I’m also incredibly angry. I’m tired of watching egotistical asshats causing such distress in dogs, causing them to wash out, causing neuroses, fueling the fires of frustration in owners and ultimately causing the dogs to have to break bonds with their families or worse, lose their lives.
Let me attempt to explain.
There is a strong faction of LGD fanciers who are currently on the bandwagon of raising pups utilizing what I call the “contain, hover, avoid and praise” method. I don’t know where this method came from, but I suspect it was from someone who could not trust their dogs for whatever reason. It involves a combination of high levels of containment (typically in a pen), leash work, avoidance and positive reinforcement. These people, most widely popular on Facebook for their firm beliefs in themselves and their abilities, perpetuate the idea that this is the ONLY way to raise a LGD pup to successful working status. They employ this advice when addressing dogs who live alone, but also with pups being introduced to other LGDs. They continue to push this agenda regardless of the feedback that it isn’t working for a lot of dogs. They continue to push, regardless of how much unfeasible work this causes for people and how inappropriate it is to be so unclear with dogs about the nature of their jobs. They continue on, throwing people out of the conversation who dare to say that keeping the social LGD isolated like this causes them harm. They keep saying this, over and over, on some of the largest LGD advice groups out there. They can, because they run them.
I’m so angry about this that it’s hard for me to think straight and say these things in a professional way. All I want to do is swear uncontrollably and yell at the top of my lungs until these people listen.
STOP IT!!! STOP OVER CONTAINING THESE DOGS! STOP TELLING PEOPLE THAT CORRECTING DOGS EFFECTIVELY IS WRONG! STOP TELLING THEM THAT KEEPING LGDs ALONE AND ISOLATED IS JUST FINE! STOP SAYING THAT IF A PUP IS ANYTHING MORE THAN A LUMP ON THE GROUND, THEY DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT INSTINCTS!
STOP SAYING THINGS YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF BEING ACCOUNTABLE FOR.
STOP MISLEADING PEOPLE TO BELIEVE THAT IF THEY DON’T DO THE THINGS YOU SAY, THEY ARE ABUSIVE AND UNCARING OWNERS.
Guess what happens when you follow this contain, leash, avoid, over-react cycle? Sometimes the dogs do just fine. It’s a trait of dogs the world over that they manage to do well despite our fumbling attempts at guidance and the inappropriate ways in which we keep them. The brilliance of the human/canine coexistence, proven historically over and over, is that the canine is able to forgive our shortcomings and still grow into themselves, becoming what we need. We are far less able or willing to bridge that gap for them, resulting in a species that has been selected to adjust their behavior for us, anticipating what we need and ensuring their basic needs are met. In the case of working LGDs, their inherent needs (apart from food, water and shelter) are to be in partnership, to learn from a leader, to bond socially and to protect.
How much do we care about these dogs? So much so that we stick them away at the first sign of inappropriate behavior? So much so that we refuse to help them learn self control on the job, in with their beloved charges, in the company of other LGDs? So much so that we show them a working routine day in and day out that we do not intend for them to stick to eventually? So much that we tell them they need to behave when we show up but not on their own until they are fully mature? Not only is that pedantic, it’s incredibly infantilizing – offensive.
In canine behavioral rehabilitation, there are two vital pieces we focus most on. One is the forward and backward motion of the dog, and the other is instilling self control and resilience. The first half of the latter is what is being undermined by the aforementioned LGD “experts”. Self control is THE most important piece that determines whether a dog will behave appropriately and be able to be in partnership with humans. Secondary to that is discrimination, but that is for another day.
Instilling self control starts early in a dog’s life. Pups learn to wait their turn, to not bite hard when playing (or the play stops), to inhibit reactions/actions so they are not disciplined by mom and to wean when they don’t want to. A good mother instills begins the installation of self control in a pup by the judicious use of tough love. A recent study found that the success of guide dog pups revolved around the willingness of the mother dog to discipline and test her pups. This teaches them their innate ability to delay gratification, handle new situations, to problem solve and to withstand adversity. Just as in humans, these lessons are invaluable to the process of developing resiliency and self control into adulthood. All lessons must be tailored to the developmental stage of the youngster, but mothers instinctively understand this. It’s us humans who struggle to keep pace through the various stages. It’s much easier to contain and isolate – but these dogs are not inanimate objects that will sit unchanged on the shelf until we have time for them.
Sitting behind a fence alone, watching stock, is not going to provide the developing LGD with the teaching and life skills they need. No one does this in their countries of origin – it would be unconscionable. Keeping pups isolated in this way would be tantamount to abuse. Pups need each other, their canine pack and their people. That is not to say that we can’t use containment judiciously here, given that we don’t have the same communal way of living with our dogs that they have historically experienced. Every dog will respond to this in individual ways, however. They must be watched for signs of discomfort, psychological distress and neuroses. They must be given adequate free time to romp and play and just generally be goofy pups. They need to time to play with us and with others of their kind. Much valuable information is given to them during these times. They need time to just be, apart from being contained. They need to be able to screw up and learn from their mistakes. Learning on the job and within a social order are both vital pieces of the success of a content LGD.
Quite often, isolation will bring about the very behaviors people claim it will address! A bored, lonely pup will need an outlet for their frustrated energies. They will attempt to engage the stock, their only social group, to meet their needs. Back to confinement they go! They will attempt to escape the confinement to satisfy their need to explore and gather information about their environment. They will work hard to get away from the intense boredom of the pen. LGDs need to freely interact with their environment to learn, and confinement with alternating periods of uber control by a human with a leash will not allow them that learning experience. Frustration and hyperactivity, even aggression will follow as natural consequences of the continued denial of their needs.
How is it appropriate to show a pup a certain routine for their lives that consists of being in a pen, walked on a leash, hovered over, unable to make mistakes and get clear binary (what’s good, what’s bad) direction, and then tell them months or years later that oh, this isn’t actually what we wanted you to do!?! If the pup decides on their own that their job is actually to be with the stock or in the field and not in the pen when unsupervised, then the pen is reinforced and they are treated like they’ve done something wrong. If they do do something inappropriate like chase or mouth stock, or heaven forbid STARE at them, the pups are put in a “time out” after perhaps being tackled to the ground or dragged around on the leash. If there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand outside of an emergency, it’s dragging a dog around on a leash/line. What is a “time out” meant to teach a dog? Are these children we can talk to about their behavior afterwards? Outside of very short periods of time meant to prove that I was highly offended by behavior from a dog, I never use a pen for such a thing. The pen should be a safe place they enjoy being in; the same applies to a tether, which is much more commonly used in their countries of origin. This requires judicious use, not routine use. In fact, I go out of my way to ensure that I don’t do the same thing in this respect day after day. Adult LGDs need to be able to deal with changing circumstances and should never get the idea that their lives consist only of an outdoor version of “crate and rotate”. (Link to a video of Titus in his pen/kennel – look at his lovely self control!; below are pictures of Titus in various situations and learning different things in the past 3.5 months here)
Years ago, I bought my first kennel club registered LGD. She happened to be a Maremma, and she was a fuzzy little teddy bear with a tornado of a personality. She was cute beyond reason and pushy beyond belief and I adored her more than I could have thought possible. I spoke with the breeder several times before I went to pick her up and even though I missed a number of red flags that this woman didn’t know what she was doing, I was still in the mindset that everyone else knew better about these dogs than I could (thank you, LGD mythology). I asked to see the little fluff ball’s mother, upon which I was led to a 4 ft tall small pen in the breeder’s barn. There were heavy things piled on the top of the lid of the pen. Inside there was a young, wiggly, lanky insanely white Maremma bitch. She looked at me with pleading eyes. She could hardly contain herself, moving her body around in frantic ways. The breeder explained that she had serious doubts about the ability of this dog to be a LGD given how busy she was, how she high needs for interaction. She didn’t know what else to do with her, this woman said, other than to put her in the pen and keep her there. She hoped this dog would outgrow her “bad” behavior. God, do I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I’d been able to help and not had to leave the farm saddened beyond belief for that lost, misunderstood girl. The pup I held in my arms that day went on to have similar challenges, and unfortunately since I followed a similar (the containment routine wasn’t such popular advice then) set of largely ineffective training methods, the process to get her where she needed to be took a long time and was full of heartache for both of us.
I will never be quiet on this front or any other that is setting people and dogs for failure. I never want to have to leave a farm again or raise a pup without having the necessary tools to help or fix what is happening. Further, I don’t want to have to hold the hand of someone who has been led down the garden path by shitty advice only to find that they’ve not been given all of the information they needed – and what’s more, they’ve been pressured not to seek it. I never want to hear from someone that they believe their LGD is part herding dog (yes, this is what people are being told!) because it’s busy and has significant exercise needs. I don’t want to have to cry late at night any more because I’ve had to hold a dog while they are euthanized because they’re out of control and no one can safely reach them any more.
I’m angry. I’m sad. I want it to stop, or at the very least, I want more people to wake up and listen to their guts before things get bad. If all else fails, share this. Maybe it will give someone what they need in time to save just one dog, keep them working, keep them with their families. Thank you.
P.S. The only thing that comes out of the horrible advice these people are giving about raising LGDs is that we continue to select for dogs of only one temperament/character profile. This is becoming a serious issue as the dogs who accept such treatment without rebelling and/or becoming neurotic are very passive, yard-statue types. The rest are washed out as LGDs, killed or otherwise do not go on to work and, perhaps more importantly, contribute to our waning gene pool. These are not the dogs we need to help us with the heightened number of apex predators we are dealing with more and more. LGDs are varied: they range in approach, bonding preferences, need for human interaction, hyperactivity, predilection for independence, ability to deal with different predators. If anyone tells you differently, run, don’t walk away.