Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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LGD Puppy Skills/Manners Exercises

This post goes hand in hand with the series on Puppy Raising. These are exercises that can be executed in different ways, but I cannot overemphasize how important it is to train young pups using a positive and rewarding approach. There is enough adversity in the exercises themselves to be challenging for pups without adding any extra. We also always want to preserve the positive association with people and handling whenever possible.

Jennifer Sider Gru Mitch

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru and Mitch

These skills are non negotiable in my opinion. They set the basis for a positive relationship between dog and owner as well as the development of self control. When dogs learn early that there are fair rules to follow and that by following those rules, they can get what they want/need, it forms the foundation for the development of a confident, stable dog who trusts their owner. Just like children, dogs do best within a structure, with fair rules. Also just like children, they do best when they understand those rules well and the rules are tailored to their cognitive abilities. Remember that some puppies, just like some children, will push the boundaries harder and more often than others. Setting the rules requires being willing and able to enforce them when necessary, again with a good understanding of cognitive ability. A young pup won’t be able to meet high standards for behavior like an older pup will.

For information purposes, “backward motion” is what we see when a dog/pup is about to sit. All of their energy is moving them backward, away from you. “Forward motion” is the opposite, what we see when a dog is about to run after something or go through a door.

The training exercises should be done away from stock unless otherwise indicated. Rewarding with food should be done with the pup’s regular ration of kibble (use freeze dried meat for raw fed or bits of hot dog) if at all possible; for highly stressful situations consider using something very tasty like roast beef or chicken.

Manda

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel, CAS pup

LGD Puppy Raising Exercises

  • Make it a routine practice to handle feet, toes, ears, run your hands over all parts of their body, look in their mouths. Start slowly and gently for pups who seem disturbed by what you are doing. Do not overdo it and release the pup when they accept the handling. Praise calmly.
  • Introduce to strange children, adults, people with different clothing and hats, people of different skin color, shapes, sizes, abilities.
  • Introduce to different flooring, different obstacles (logs on the ground, gravel, rocks, tall grass, etc.). Encourage reluctant pups but allow for independent problem solving. Do not coddle.
  • Train or at the very least, expose to a crate. Crate training is easier if pups are given something very yummy to chew on such as a stuffed kong or flat rolled rawhide.
  • Place a flat (regular) collar on the pup. Wait until they are no longer bothered by the feeling of wearing a collar before going to the next step.
  • Attach and allow to drag a leash/light long line in an area of a building or on the property where they are comfortable.
  • Have pup drag a leash (or preferably a longer line/rope) and then pick it up, let it down.
  • Pick up leash and apply slight pressure, calling the pup by name or with a sound, when they turn to you, release the leash and praise.
  • Next time, pick it up, apply pressure (slight and steady, then increasing – do not yank), turn and call the pup, then take a few steps with them going in the direction of the pressure when they respond, drop leash and praise/play.
  • Follow by shortening the leash/line, but do not hold tight. Allow for slack in the line unless applying pressure to change direction or encourage a reticent pup to move forward. Do several changes in direction before releasing. Rewarding with food is appropriate if helpful, but do not do around stock.
  • Tie the pup for a brief period of time. Do not untie until relaxed.
  • Restrain the pup by hand briefly and take note of reaction. This gives you information about what kind of pup they are. Pups can be afraid of restraint, so do not assume struggling or getting upset is an indicator of issues with dominance.
  • Take note of who is bossy in the litter and who is not, and whether mom will correct the pups for pushy behavior. Make a plan to encourage timid pups and to teach bold pups to wait.
  • Practice getting in and out of a vehicle. Reward and praise heavily.
  • Take pups on a fun car ride (not to the vet), expose them to sights and sounds off the farm/homestead.
  • Take pups to the veterinary clinic. Ensure as much positivity as possible. This will be easier to do if pups are already used to being handled and restrained.
  • Feed in both separate and areas together out of individual dishes, ensuring fairness. Fairness means no stealing, no matter how “nicely” and submissively it’s done.
  • Ask pup to sit by raising food dish above their heads before feeding.
  • Do not give pups what they ask for when they ask for it – whether it’s food or attention, going through a gate (except if it is for the purposes of relieving themselves) – instead, give it to them when they show at first slight and then more patience/backward motion (settling).
  • Do not greet the pups with high amounts of enthusiasm around stock, children, people of different physical abilities or the elderly.
  • Show affection mainly after the pups have settled and have “four on the floor”. This means that all paws are in contact with the ground. This does not mean that you cannot interact with pups when they are excited and/or playing (see bullet point directly above for exceptions to this), but share affection most often when pups are displaying “four on the floor”. This means making a point of seeking out pups who aren’t naturally pestering for your attention. Remove attention and/or help to settle if the pup becomes too excited to remain in contact with the floor/ground. This will mean split seconds of patience/backward motion for enthusiastic pups. Build from the split second to longer periods in subsequent sessions.
  • Show stock affection and focus first, then pups. Do not give a pup attention who puts themselves between you and the stock when you are paying attention to stock. Place them to the side and when they relax, calmly praise. Physically block if necessary, and only show affection when you are done interacting with the stock and only if the pup is also being calm with backward motion. The same rules apply to interacting with children. All enthusiastic play/interaction should take place away from the stock/children.
  • Feed each pup some kibble in sequence by hand. Ask for some sign of engagement (looking you in the eye, responding to a sound) before giving the pup their piece. Physically block other pups or dogs from trying to take food out of turn.
  • Place pup in stall or pen and shut door briefly. When they are quiet, open the door and praise, allow them to exit. See comment above (regarding affection) about rewarding split second patience for pups who struggle with self control.
  • Once the pup is sitting reliably for their food dish (they should be able to sit until the food is on the ground), use the raising hand motion to ask them to sit before allowing them over thresholds (gates, doors). As they mature, they should wait for you to indicate whether to go in front of you or wait for you to enter/exit. Treats can be used to encourage this behavior but should only be delivered outside of the stock enclosures or at the very least, away from the stock.
  • Give pup(s) a bath. This may not be appropriate in the coldest of weather, but combined with a bit of crate training or confinement work (can be done together in a room) it can be a good exercise even then. Ensure they are well dried before returning outdoors in cold weather. Reward heavily with food/treats during this time.
gp michelle marie

Photo credit: Michelle Marie – GP litter

The only deviation from reward based methods I suggest is to begin to form the basis for appropriate corrections. Those will follow in an upcoming post.


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Your methods suck.

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.

LadieBug1

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.

 

 

 

 


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“Caucasian Sheep-Dog vs. Wolf”, Georgian National Film Center

This is one of the best videos I have seen on the subject of LGDs versus predators.  There is a lot of information packed into this hour, but the most interesting parts for me lie in the immersive experience of Georgian shepherd life.

We in North America can stand to be students much more often than we claim to be experts.  In that vein, the interactions between dogs in this video and between them and their shepherds is well worth paying attention to.

 

 


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Is Dominance a 4 letter word?

I had occasion today to think about how we working LGD owners view dominance in our dogs.  Before we get into any further conversations about training, I think we should take a closer look at what dominance is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.

While it is seldom advisable to get all or even most of your handling or training advice from social media threads, they can come in handy when you want to learn about the different ways that people operate with their dogs.  The other side of that, of course, is that it can be difficult for people who are truly struggling with their dogs to gain the perspective they need, due to the sheer distance of the advice being given.  If there is one thing I’ve learned very solidly, it’s that reports of behavior are not reliable enough to make firm decisions about their motivations. In other words, when someone reports what their dog is doing or what they are doing with their dog, seasoned trainers know how to interpret some of what is said (or not said), but it’s completely a different matter to see the behavior in person.  It’s also true that some people will always see a nail because all they have is a hammer, and that others are looking through a lens of pre-conceived ethical or moral views on dogs, no matter how impractical or inappropriate that lens may be for the situation at hand.

What I want to talk about in this post specifically, however, is how much a consideration of dominance should factor into the decisions we make regarding our working LGDs, not to debate whether dominance exists (yes, it does) or even whether we should acknowledge it (yes, we should, as it can be exacerbated or misinterpreted  which leads to serious complications) . We go forward in this post with the understanding that dominance exists, plain and simple.

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

Wolves displaying classic dominant/subordinate postures.

What is dominance?  Many people throw out the word “Alpha” or refer to Cesar Milan’s techniques when asked this question.  They talk about “alpha rolling” or “body rolling”, using physical intimidation routinely and never allowing your dog to be above you in stature, never allowing him to put his mouth on you- essentially encouraging a laundry list of forceful methods routinely done with every dog to ensure that they never gain the “upper hand” in the relationship.  I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine that type of approach garnering anything other than mistrust in both humans or dogs, given how complex and nuanced our collective social behavior is.  Approaching dogs in this way is akin to over emphasis on one conversation, on one subject in relationship.  Imagine if you wanted to tell someone that you love them, or that you’re hungry – or even that you have to go to the bathroom and all they ever said in return was “Get in line, don’t be dominant with me!”.  Imagine if you wanted to play or communicate that you are insecure about a situation, but all you were continually told was “Stop trying to control me!!!”.  Not only would it be confusing and frustrating for you, but you’d most likely tune out as you quickly learned that no one was listening to you in this particular relationship.  Further, if they continually insisted that you grovel before them, or tolerate harsh manhandling, you may even lash out or shut down completely.  Security and safety in this relationship would feel almost non existent, and it could be argued that the relationship was abusive or at minimum, neglectful.  If we don’t have a working understanding of the role that dominance plays in our relationships, of how it can be used properly and fairly (as we seem to understand instinctively with our fellow humans, for instance), we will continue to misapply and misinterpret it… or just refuse to have the conversation at all.

Living together demands a passable skill with appropriate social language.  This is why, most often, in the wild like animals live with like.  They understand how to communicate with each other and it allows them to live peacefully enough together to ensure their survival.  It’s how we came to live with canids in the first place – we were able to communicate well enough to come together for mutual benefit.  Had we had dominance as an overriding concern, or they had that as their only concern, we would not currently have hundreds of years of beneficial relationship behind us now.  It’s that simple.  The animals most concerned about inter-species dominance live mainly alone (apart from offspring at times); they lead much more isolated lives.

Dogs are, for the most part, very socially flexible.  We humans generally are as well.  We, dogs and humans, adapt well to varying groupings, despite our personal proclivities.  Animals with strict dominance hierarchies do this less well – birds are often put up as good examples of beings who live best with such a rigid construct.  They have been the focus of a lot of the research on the subject of dominance for this reason.  Their social default is to have the conversation to determine who is in charge first and often.  They do not tolerate weakness, nor do they tolerate usurpers.  There are those who are submissive and stick to that, and there are others who constantly challenge for control, or who are quick to sense an opportunity and take it.  Birds generally live in a “cut throat” world with a solid ladder of control.  This is not to say that they can’t live peaceably, but they are generally less adaptable to change.  The level of aggression displayed and the ability to be “tough” are more informative of eventual status than the body mass or size of the bird.  In other words, it’s the size of the fight in the bird as opposed to the size of the bird in the fight that determines which rung on the ladder they will occupy.

Dogs, in general, are much more willing to give and take than birds – many dogs routinely offer submission to any human they meet.  We have selected for this trait in many of our companion dogs, and indeed in many of the dogs we work with as well.  Selection for routine submission with their handlers is commonplace.  The much maligned pitbull is a good example of this – historically selected to be aggressive with other dogs but never with their people.  Simply put, this was for a practical reason: in order to pull an aggressive dog out of a fight or to train a dog selected for willingness to trip into aggression, you’d have to ensure they felt that hurting humans was forbidden.  Other dog breeds have been selected similarly, such as the herding types or even more dramatically, the gun dogs. There are breeds of LGD, such as the Armenian Gampr, who have been selected similarly; they are quite soft with people while simultaneously extremely fierce with wild apex predators.

Essentially, over the course of our history living and working with most dogs, we’ve purposefully or otherwise selected against a willingness or desire to challenge our status as leader.  We found that since we as humans have the longer view and hold the construct of what we want to accomplish, it makes much more sense to have dogs who easily agree to work with us, no matter what we ask.  While this has been done with LGDs to varying extent (the more stranger friendly types to more extent than the others), I do not believe that LGDs operate in the same way that most dogs do.  They are not complete outliers, (sharing this niche with the most serious protection and spitz dogs, for instance) but as we’ve discussed before, they do fill a unique working role and have had their maternal and aggressive tendencies exaggerated in order to be successful at it.  This lends them to behave more like a primitive social canid, thriving in familial groupings, as well as with a more rigid social hierarchy than most.  It is often noted that the working LGD learns best by watching and doing, is sensitive to subtle nuanced body communication and is quite often ahead of other dogs or even humans in terms of predicting what is going to happen next in interaction.  All of this lends itself to a highly sensitive dog who needs a solid foundation to operate from.

It is my firm belief that not only are LGDs concrete thinkers in general (like many herding dogs for instance), but they also appreciate knowing where they stand in relationship at all times.  Uncertainty does not lend itself to security.   You’ll seldom see two working LGDs meet without establishing right away who is the leader and the follower (dominant and submissive).   This doesn’t always play out in the same way with humans, but the conversation is very similar.  Knowing who is in charge doesn’t need to be, and often isn’t the result of a physical altercation, but it needs to be established just the same.  It may have to be revisited as dynamics of the relationship change (a maturing pup, for instance), but once established it remains static and doesn’t need to be proven over and over in every interaction.  Our LGDs are less interested in challenging the leadership position with us humans than they are with their canine counterparts, but they are absolutely hard wired to step into the gap if they find that we aren’t willing or able to lead.  If we are unconfident, unreliable, distant or otherwise irrelevant and untrustworthy, they will step into the void.  They will also do so if we are under threat or incapacitated, something we generally find to be a positive trait.

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LGD familial group, from coloradomountaindogs.com

Working LGDs are warriors.  They go forward into battle when other dogs would run and hide.  They do the opposite of what comes naturally to most animals; they give up self preservation to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others.  There is little time for ongoing negotiation when you’re in protection mode 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  This is one of the reasons why working LGDs always need to know where they stand, who they can trust and who will have their back… or equally who they are expected to provide back up for.  Regardless of which training methods are chosen, earning the trust of your working LGD(s) and ensuring that they are comfortable in their social interactions with both humans and each other ought to  be highest on your list of priorities.   A confident and secure dog does the best work, and in the end, we can agree that we all need dogs who work to the best of their abilities.   The lives of their charges depend on it.

 


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LGD communication.

While we are talking about canine communication, it would be a good time to go over some of what we’re looking for in terms of body language in the Livestock Guardian Dog.

As we’ve talked about before, LGDs are one of the only types of dogs developed to live with prey animals, namely livestock.  Livestock generally live in groups and are very sensitive to threatening behavior.  They respond to bodies (people and animals) that are carried with a lot of forward motion or threatening intent by running away or less commonly and/or if trapped, by threatening them back.  This is, of course, a survival mechanism common to all kinds of prey species, domestic or otherwise.  LGDs have to fit a dual job description in terms of body language requirements.  They must be threatening enough to would-be predators to drive them off (at the least) and they have to display body language that makes the livestock feel safe and secure enough to stay close to them.

As a part of fulfilling the job of driving predators away from their charges, LGDs are bred to be large or extra large in size, with deep, booming voices.  This signals to predators that they can not only be a match for any predator contemplating a meal of lamb or veal, but also that they are constantly on alert and won’t miss any such attempt.  They are, however, selected to have drop ears, “rounder” edges to their body, soft expressions and to move in a calming, slow manner around vulnerable beings.  It is not uncommon to see a LGD trot away from the stock a ways to assess and warn off a threat, head high, tail up and carrying themselves with extreme forward motion; only to return and reverse the process: slow in pace, lowering their tail and body profile as they approach the stock.  It takes a highly intelligent, thinking dog to constantly evaluate the environment/context and respond appropriately.

What follows is a series of photographs that illustrate the appropriate body language around stock.  I’ve included a picture of our 8 month old (at the time) Maremma/Great Pyr girl greeting my daughter, who came to visit in the barn in her wheelchair.  It’s important to note that since our LGD pup had not been taught not to jump up at her previous home, she was still struggling with it here these three months later.  She automatically adjusted her behavior to suit the situation with my daughter, however – a good sign of a properly maturing LGD.

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Big Mama

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What ARE you saying?

It’s been well established that no matter how we wish it were different, dogs communicate in different ways than we humans do.  Dogs sniff each other’s bums in greeting, arcing their bodies around and avoiding eye contact, whereas we look each other in the eye and shake hands.  We, as humans, tend to mistrust anyone who won’t look us in the eye, but most dogs find sustained eye contact very threatening.

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We also like to put our arms around each other for comfort and encouragement.  Dogs put their “arms” on each other to signify dominance and to stop, slow or “pause” play.

 

Comforting sidehugs

Comforting sidehugs

Pausing play

Pausing play

Establishing dominance

Communicating dominance

 

It’s true that there are some similarities in the way we communicate with our bodies, but in general, our primate language is very different from canid language.  It’s no wonder that we often have trouble understanding what our dogs are telling us.  It’s also no wonder that we inadvertently offend our dogs or are less than effective in changing their behavior and feelings towards us.  We’re simply not speaking the same language.

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With this in mind, how can we bridge that gap?  How can we translate the communication and be on the same page as our canine friends?  Thankfully a lot of the hard work has already been done for us.  So much of social canid body language is the same across species, and plenty of observational research has been done with wolves as well as dogs on this subject.  While context is of ultimate importance when reading canine body language, there are some behaviors that we can assess with good certainty the majority of the time.  Here are a few solid ones, courtesy of “Tails from the Lab”.

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One of the earliest recordings and interpretations of canine body language was published by Charles Darwin in 1872 in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”.  In it, Darwin presented a selection of drawings of humans, primates, cats and dogs (among other animals), along with their descriptions.  Here are a few, presented in the same order as in the book.  It’s well worth looking at a copy of the book to read more.

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Much after Darwin, the ethologist Roger Abrantes published “Hundesprog” in 1986 in Scandinavia, later translated into English as “Dog Language”.   A pivotal book in the understanding of social canid behavior, “Hundesprog” built on the work of Konrad Lorenz, who is widely regarded as the father of ethology.  In it, Abrantes uses illustrations to show different expressions, as well as combinations of expressions by dogs.  Here is one such set of illustrations entitled “Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines.”:

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Look familiar?  Chances are, if you’ve spent any time around dogs, you have seen one or more of these behaviors.

More recently, Patricia McConnell’s book “At the Other End Of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs”  contains many examples of the differences between canine and human body language.  A book I almost universally recommend to anyone wanting to learn how to better their relationship with dogs, “At the Other End Of the Leash” is easily understood and engaging, with stories of McConnell’s experiences throughout.

There are some newer illustration sets and blog posts that are popular now to describe dog behavior, but I find that they generally try to to distill a lot of what is complex into something overly simple.  Still, if you keep context in mind, they can be generally helpful.  Lili Chin’s illustrations of her Boston Terrier’s behavior is one such example.

Doggie-Language

However in depth you choose to get in your quest to learn more about dog body language, observing your dog more frequently is the quickest way to begin to understand his or her individual expressions.  What do they look like when it’s dinner time?  Time to play or work?  What about when they are afraid of someone or something?  No matter what a book or illustration set says, your dog will always tell you the truth and it will always be in context.  After all, observation is the tool our dogs use to learn so much about us humans and why they have lived so well with us for so long despite the fact that we continue to “talk” to them so much as if they were primates.