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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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Return of the Slovak Cuvac: a story of wildlife conservation and lost genetics.

I have succumbed to the strange dizziness of a flu that requires me to hold my head as straight as possible; any turns to the side or dips of my head bring on bouts of vertigo. As flus go, this one is quick to let go of the trademark nausea, achiness and gut troubles, but it stubbornly keeps me in the grip of slowly resolving dizzy spells. It’s tough for a busy person such as myself to have to sit still for lengths of time (and not be able to read much!), but I will say there is one silver lining in that I’ve had some time to catch up on my video watching.

I stumbled on this gem from a young British film maker, Robert Glowacky, who produced this film about the decline of the Slovak Cuvac (pronounced Chuvach), also known as the Slovensky Cuvac, the regional livestock guarding dog of Slovakia.

 

The tumultuous history of Slovakia is not unique among the countries of central Europe, nor is the history of their white guardian dog. In the University of Aberdeen’s 2002 report entitled “The use of livestock guarding dogs to protect sheep and goats from large carnivores in Slovakia”, author Robin Riggs explains the origins of the Cuvac:

“Livestock guarding dogs probably came to Slovakia from Romania and the Balkans via the Ukraine Carpathians along with other aspects of the transhumance system of intensive livestock grazing in mountainous areas during the gradual Wallachian colonisation from the 13th and 14th to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Tatranský čuvač, Lipták or valaské psi, of which until relatively recently every salaš (temporary sheep dairy farm/fold) had up to 10 for protecting livestock from predators and thieves, became the native breed of LGD. However, by the mid-1920s numbers had declined to such an extent – particularly during World War I – that systematic efforts were initiated to rescue the čuvač as a breed. With International Canine Federation (FCI) recognition in 1965/69 and the establishment of a club for the Slovenský čuvač (as dog breeders re-named the Tatranský čuvač), breeding focused on the production of show dogs, pets and property guardians…. Most salaše still have dogs (čuvač-type or other, usually the Caucasian sheepdog, Central Asian sheepdog, Polish Owczarek Podhalański and crosses thereof) for protecting livestock…”

He goes on to talk about the interesting way in which the shepherds kept their dogs, a way that is seen frequently in the film:

“…but they are almost always chained to stakes or trees around the fold and milking pen, though at some camps they are released at night. Chaining dogs alters their behaviour (I have found many at salaše to be abnormally aggressive or, when approached closer, rather timid, sometimes ecstatically playful or excessively solicitous of attention) and limits their ability to protect livestock to the length of the chain (Coppinger and Coppinger 1994) or barking to alert shepherds. Many of Slovakia’s chained dogs also suffer excessively as they are deprived of social interaction and some are left on open pastures without access to shade and water.”

Riggs goes on to explain that this was not, historically, how these dogs were kept, but that the war and changes to the number of predators in the area led to shepherds chaining the remaining Cuvac instead of allowing them freedom to patrol.

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Jan Hala, 1927

“In his illustrations accompanying the tale [Old Bodrik and the Wolf], Martin Benka (1888-1971) drew a čuvač, unchained and therefore able “to circle the sheepfold” and go out from the farm to challenge a wolf, bear and fox (Vulpes vulpes), as in the story. Jan Hála’s illustrations from the 1940s (e.g. in Hála 2001: 68, 78) and his description (p.94-97) of the čuvač guarding flocks by day and salaš by night also eloquently portray the continued traditional use of LGDs in Liptov. In 1953, however, Kováč (p.263) wrote that guarding (but not herding) dogs could be chained and some early 1960s photographs (e.g. in Podolák 1982) show LGDs chained up in the Nízke Tatry. At this time, hunting had decimated the wolf population (reviewed in Voskár 1993 and Hell et al 2001) and bears were half as numerous and more restricted in range than presently (reviewed in Janík 1997, Hell and Slamečka 1999), so it may be that there was no longer a pressing need to protect flocks effectively. Perhaps the total number of dogs was reduced to cut costs, or smaller ones favoured for the same reason (T. Krafčiková pers. comm. 2003). Remaining dogs may have been chained for convenience. Podolák (1967: 109) reported that tame LGDs were taken out to pasture but “dangerous” ones were chained near the koliba (shepherds’ hut) during the day and released at night.”

The subsequent paragraphs offer alternate explanations for the widespread use of chaining Cuvac, both gleaned from reviewing recorded 20th century history and in more recent conversation with Slovak shepherds. While I was reading it (and I greatly encourage you to as well!- page 18 and beyond), I was struck by the similarities to some of the advice encouraging people here in North America to chain their LGDs. Some of the pressures the Slovak people came under in the last century are also reminiscent of the mistrust and population increase that our dogs are currently subject to. Further, mention of the fear that the Slovak people feel when contemplating the Cuvac was evident even in the first half of the 20th century.

“Interestingly, illustrator and writer Jan Hála, who lived among rural people in the region below the Tatras from 1923 till his death in 1959, noted that “Boli to psi ani medvedina, celá dedina saich bála”, “The dogs were like bears, the whole village was afraid of them” (Hála 2001: 97).”

This fear informed some of the local laws and customs: for example, the one that allows any sheepdog more than 200 meters from a flock to be shot on sight.

Could it be that the attempt to create a more aggressive dog (by chaining) to defend against predators and strange people resulted in a dog whom no one could trust and therefore needed to be continuously chained? Riggs certainly points to this as a reasonable, albeit ironic, possibility. It would seem, too, that the handling skills of the shepherds and their employees often border on cruel, continuing the erosion of relationship between dog and man.

“I have seen several shepherds beat sheep with sticks and kick them unmercifully and suspect the same sometimes happens to their dogs; a shepherd in Horehronie needed 17 stitches after he rather unwisely hit a Caucasian sheepdog when drunk (S. Finďo pers. comm. 2001, Finďo 2001: 13) while some LGDs placed at farms in Liptov and Turiec are shy of or aggressive towards men carrying sticks. I have frequently been surprised by how little some shepherds know about dogs. Today’s shepherds also seem to be much less concerned about loss of sheep than their predecessors, who often slept by the flock to guard it (I. Zuskinová pers. comm. 2003). It may be, therefore, that a further factor in the decline of the LGD tradition has been the gradual loss of traditional skills and knowledge coupled with an increased desire to solve short term problems (e.g. a wandering dog) in the quickest and easiest way (i.e. by putting it on a chain).”

All is not lost, however, as is seen both in Glowacky’s film and in Rigg’s report. Shepherds and citizens of Slovakia alike still greatly value the Cuvac, their history, and their inborn ability to defend the defenseless. It is clear that careful breeding selection, appropriate training and working to change Slovak attitudes are all vital parts of bringing the Cuvac back to their former position of trusted, unfettered guardian – but it is also clear that they have found dedicated people to champion their cause. If the rewilding of Europe is to be successful, and harmony is to be restored to the ecosystem, the restoration of the Slovak Cuvac and others like them are the only hope for continued peace between the domestic and the wild.

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For the full text of the report, follow this link: Livestock Guarding Dogs to Protect Sheep and Goats from Large Carnivores in Slovakia (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237703700_Livestock_Guarding_Dogs_to_Protect_Sheep_and_Goats_from_Large_Carnivores_in_Slovakia 

For a brief overview of Slovakia, current and historical, follow this link: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Slovakia

If the video in this post does not load, follow this link its original home on Vimeo: Bringing Back Bodrik


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Tracing the Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network

Recently, I was doing some research and came across the website of the “Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network“.  At first glance as the listing came up in my Google search, I was excited to see that a new initiative is taking on the task of educating people about the ins and outs of LGDs. Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived, as it often is with these things.


While it’s not immediately clear who is running the LGDEN site, (the description reads “The Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network is a coalition of livestock guardian dog (LGD) owners and breeders, for the purpose of providing LGD education; as well as building relationships with livestock producers and organizations, agricultural departments, LGD breeders, breed clubs, farmers and ranchers, to promote LGD breeds, use and management, on large and small operations.”) the majority of the pictures displayed are from Louise Liebenberg of The Grazerie and the Predator Friend Ranching Blog; Erin Ingham of Ingham Farms and the president of the newly minted Armenian Gampr Club of Canada; Deborah Reid, the president of the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America and owner of Black Alder Ranch, Anna Abney of Learning About LGDs and Thunder Mountain Central Asian Shepherds and Lois Jordan , long-time breeder and exhibitor of Spanish Mastiffs who resides on her Fall Creek Farm in the US.  Apart from Louise Liebenberg, who runs a larger sheep operation in northwestern Alberta and has some longer term experience with LGDs dating back to when she lived in the Netherlands, these women do not have any significant experience with LGDs (Jordan and Abney’s experience is with one type of dog in one area in the US). These breeds: the Maremma Sheepdog, Armenian Gampr, Central Asian Shepherd and Spanish Mastiff, have all been spring boards for these women to attain the status of high volume registered show breeder and/or heads of breed organizations.  Neither Ingham nor Reid were in the breed very long before taking office and both run small boutique operations with a strong focus on “natural” raising practices. Reid’s first Maremma was bred before being successful as a full time LGD and her first litter of registered Maremmas required a lot of problem solving from others (myself included). This could have been anticipated, given the behavior issues in the mother at the time. Reid has also stated openly that it is her goal to have the AKC recognize the Maremma Sheepdog so that the dogs can be evaluated properly in the show ring. Ingham has raised one other Gampr pup to young adulthood, but could not handle the aggression that came up between that dog and her resident LGD matriarch. She consulted people (including myself), regarding what to do – ultimately settling on complete separation and eventual rehoming. She prefers heavy management regimes (6 foot fences, keeping strictly apart) and rehoming as a general rule to deal with any behavior issues that arise with LGDs. It has taken her over 4 years to raise a successful pairing.  Ingham’s first litter hit the ground in 2017, a severely inbred litter sired by a young male less than a year old. Both resulting pups have been difficult to handle and raise and yet Ingham has already repeated the breeding. These pups represent the first officially registered Canadian born Gamprs, ostensibly the foundation of the breed presence here. Ingham’s lack of understanding of what puppies need to be successful was a major catalyst for me to pen the recent Guard Dog Blog post: “LGD Puppy Skills/Manners Exercises“.

Over and over, both Ingham and Reid asked me questions via pm and then took my ideas and passed them off as their own in an attempt to prove themselves as competent for the jobs they aspired to or had appointed for themselves. I imagine they have done this with other people as well. Interestingly, the author of two of the books the LGDEN recommends is well known for doing this as well. I can attest to this first-hand.

This brings me to Anna Abney, Lois Jordan and Louise Liebenberg, who are also staunch breedists. Abney has a micro farm in the southern US where she breeds and keeps her Central Asian Shepherds (CAS). She operates an aggressive form of public LGD education,  primarily through her YouTube videos and Facebook groups. She has very limited experience with personally owning and raising working LGDs and much of her information is acquired from the others in her groups/cults. This does not allow her to “learn on the job” as it were, instead relying on the experiences of others and idealism. This is shows strongly in the content of her advice and videos online. She has also shown herself (see below) with her primary LGD bitch prominently participating in Protection Dog work, something that the LGDEN speaks out against on their site.  Jordan raises goats and breeds high volumes of the show variety of Spanish Mastiff, the larger, heavier boned version with ectropian, excess skin folds and loose, wet flews. Her success with working LGD is debatable, but, if successful, most likely lies with the fact that her dogs are so overtly show mastiff-like and carry a big bark. It is difficult for a dog of that size, burdened with substandard structure and too much loose skin to be athletic enough to get into trouble or even pursue a predator over any length of terrain.  Liebenberg runs her own version of Sharplaninecs, a Yugoslavian breed of LGD also known as Sarplaninacs. She has posted at length regarding her views on the superiority of the Sarplaninac (Sar) in her blog, Predator Friendly Ranching, famous in the community for its long posts full of heartwarming closeups of  fuzzy big-headed pups with sheep and their older counterparts on her ranch. Leveraging her ties overseas from her time living there and as a result of her relentless self promotion, she capitalizes on her travels to produce some history and her thoughts on all things LGD. Since the majority of LGD people online are not running high numbers of livestock and do not have direct ties to European countries, Liebenberg commands a certain presence just by showing up. However, things in the dog world are rarely as they seem and Liebenberg is no exception. She breeds her dogs at high rates and does not show how they are kept when not on duty, nor how many dogs she actually has at any time. She rarely answers for the consequences of her actions, online or otherwise, choosing instead to rewrite the facts of what happened to show herself in the best light possible. Initially warm and friendly, her investment does not stand the test of time or allow for questioning of the rules she has come up with for LGDs. She is also extremely against crossing LGDs as she states in the post I linked to above:

“I personally believe there are enough breeds to select from,/ to find, the right breed for your operation./I am not really a believer in cross breeding,/as I cannot understand the logic behind it,/given you have a choice and opportunity to various breeds.
If a certain breed is not suitable;/ due to its body type, or coat length or working style or aggression level,/then perhaps,/ the breed you are looking at,/ is not the right breed for you.
Cross breeding to tone up or tone down a breed is senseless./Genetics is never 50%,/you never get that perfect blend of characteristics!”

As breeds are a relatively new identifier of historically landrace populations of LGDs, I’d certainly like to know how there has come already to be a “perfect” breed for every western farming operation. Telling people who have been crossing LGDs successfully for decades as well as those who have been practicing assortative mating (described here by Jeffrey Bragg of Seppala Kennels) for generations upon generations that crossing outside of pedigrees populations is illogical or “senseless” smacks of arrogant narrow mindedness. Until the restriction of breeding choices by borders, colors, registrations and club titles became the norm through the 20th century, assortative mating was the way in which most breeding was done. It resulted in the production of the population of functional, capable dogs that was kept strong throughout the centuries, the self same dogs breedists claim their modern dogs to be. It’s only over the course of the last 100 years or so that we have seen an alarming decrease in function and health in our dog populations, due in large part to breedism. The situation has become so dire that we are looking at the inevitable decline and loss of most, if not all, of our specialized dog populations. The exceptions to this (albeit ever subject to western influence) still live as landrace populations in their countries of origin. In order to combat this decline, we must open up the genetic diversity in the working dog population. While the LGDEN claims to acknowledge the worth of crossed LGDs, the identifiable faces of the organization clearly do not. There is not a single breed club in existence that endorses the practice of cross breeding outside of their breed. It’s simply not officially done, and further results in expulsion from membership. In order to show, breed or remain in good standing as a “breed authority”, you must adhere to the practice of pure breeding only.

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Anna Abney with her CAS, Astrid, doing Personal Protection work

Even so, the largest problem I have with this organization is not to do with its membership or the faces it’s keeping hidden away. In fact, it could well be argued (and likely will be) that I have a personal vendetta against the aforementioned people, given my history with them and the fact that I, too, at times have considered being a part of the leadership of breed clubs with high pools of genetic diversity. Instead of arguing against this perceived bias, I’ll just let my work speak for itself, including my advocating, writing, rescue/rehab/training, following through on what I say and do in terms of raising/placing successful LGDs of different kinds. No, my primary problem is a lot less personal than it seems through most of this post.  It’s with this page, the core belief statement of the group as to what a working LGD is, which all else stems from. In it, the group claims a varied number of unsubstantiable rules that bear no basis in LGD history. These claims restrict anyone from claiming they have a working dog if they say, allow their dog to sleep on the porch from time to time.

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I’ve written before about the history of working LGDs in their countries of origin and how they have been selected over time to appreciate the presence of their shepherd and their families. Some of the types have worked for periods of time on their own, but for the most part they have been selected to live and work as partners in close community with humans. It’s not out of the norm for these dogs to live in a pastoral setting, where animals and humans co exist in the same living areas. Many places don’t even have fencing or physical boundaries for their livestock, although others will have night time or over wintering facilities. The dogs are not expected to live in with the stock in those cases, but to guard the area. This could include sleeping on the “porch” or “coming and going as they please”. The shepherds also provide feedback to the dogs, helping to raise all pups, settle any out of control fighting, manage social and health issues that arise, have the final say on what the dogs do. Certainly, these dogs are meant to have the capability when mature to make sound decisions on their own, but they are not meant to run their own show all their lives. Looking for “human guidance” is not a disqualifying trait in a working LGD, especially not a young one or one undergoing change. Finally, the claims that if a LGD doesn’t “live with and protect livestock night and day” and that there is an arbitrary number of livestock that a producer must own before being able to call their dog a working one fly in the face of the versatility of these dogs. It also sets up inappropriate expectations for anyone living in smaller areas or those with niche businesses/hobbies.

Is this group truly saying that only people who own purebreds who never leave their livestock can call their dogs working LGDs? Surely not. That would disqualify the vast majority of working LGDs from wearing the title of their occupation in both developed and developing countries.

As it stands, it sure seems to me that the Livestock Guardian Dog Education Network needs some education of their own.

 * It is worth noting that if you follow LGDEN’s link to their FB breeder’s group, it’s described as “an extension of [the] Learning About LGDs group”, the group responsible for most of the hive think in modern LGD breeding/keeping/training, and well known for promoting narrow minded thoughts on LGDs (eg. any dog of a certain amount of color or willingness to hunt or look at stock head on is automatically not a working LGD candidate) that they promote, along with the swift punishment of detractors. This group is also notorious for their display of the trait of overclaiming, as outlined in this article.  I have spoken out against their uninformed, irresponsible, cavalier behavior several times before on Guard Dog Blog. High ranking members of the group, many of whom I’ve spoken about today, operate their own websites -private or for their breed clubs – that prominently link to each other’s publications. These include hosting writing articles for each other, promoting each other’s books (see the link on Anna Abney’s name in the beginning of this post) and other work.


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Give to get.

It’s New Year’s Eve today. It’s a natural time in the year to reflect, and I find myself doing just that as I sit at my table in the early morning silence. Ivy is finally resting after a restless night indoors; I made her come inside due to the extreme cold we experienced last night. She’s getting to (hopefully!) just past middle age and the Lyme and Anaplasmosis she contracted during her year away aged her prematurely. Maybe some day she will forgive me for leaving Titus on his own with the stock for a night, but right now I’ll settle for her begrudging acceptance – which, quite frankly, is all I’m likely to ever get.

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Isn’t she the cutest? It does my heart good to see her get some rest. It’s been a big year for all of us: the kids, dogs and I moving out of suburbia and back to land in a new province, my partner, J, learning about small farm life after a long while in the city, Ivy leaving Manitoba after a year away from us, Titus flying from Ontario to us at Rolling Spruce Farm to begin training as Ivy’s backup. Settling in and getting our bearings has been the name of the game for most of the latter half of 2017.

Living away from the land for a year before this was brutally hard on my heart and my soul. I spent every waking moment that I could hiking in the forests or walking on the beaches – anywhere, really, where I could get some space and breathe fresh air. I missed my big dogs terribly. Thankfully, it just so happened that the sister of my Saluki boy, Sami, needed some rehab and a new home, so I ended up with two yearling (sibling!) dogs who required a great deal of exercise. It was a perfect match for my restless self. If you’ve ever been owned by serious sighthounds (the parents of these two came from families in Saudi Arabia), you’ll know that it’s not easy to give them appropriate mental and physical stimulation on leash. You’ll also know that it’s not easy to gain their focus or have them listen to you when there are a lot of other competing interests around, not to mention when they can do exactly what they were bred to do – run. Running and chasing are to Salukis what guarding and nurturing are to LGDs, so you get a good idea of how important this is to them.

Salukis sleeping, Salukis running, Salukis playing, Salukis posing… I couldn’t decide which pictures to leave out, so you get inundated with them here (click on the thumbnails to see them in bigger format if you’d like). Ara (the brindle) and Sam (the tri-color) taught me so much about dog handling and dog training during this year of suburban purgatory. They are polar opposites in personality: Ara, stranger friendly but shy and aloof in most new situations, independent and sassy with her family and Sam, stranger wary and forward with other dogs, lovey, playful and devoted with his family. Both are Salukis through and through however: picky and particular, always looking to hunt, run, chase – alert and ready to go at a moment’s notice, but calm and relaxed for the most part at home. Sighthounds embody what dog people call the “off switch”, the ability for a dog to turn off their internal drive when it’s not called for. It’s this innate ability that makes them wonderful to live with, but also a challenge out of doors.

While I still lived on the old farm, I learned a training skill from a wise young trainer friend of mine. This skill came in handy for many different dogs, but none more so than the sighthounds and the LGDs. I call it simply “Give to get”, but I’m sure there is a better technical trainer term for it that I can’t recall. In essence, the skill requires the dog handler to give the dog what they want most in exchange for a short, easily displayed behavior. In time, the dog’s behavior requirement is extended and the criteria increased, so that the handler gets more and more of what they are looking for (within the dog’s ability, of course), but what is given to the dog afterwards remains the same. Most of what we call “positive” or “reward based” training operates on this principle of giving in order to receive, most notably where the dog will comply to a request in order to receive a food or play reward.

The difference between this approach and say, giving the dog a treat or a toy after they give the handler a certain behavior is that the reward in this case requires giving the dog freedom. For instance, if I am walking a dog, I will ask them to walk beside me with a loose leash (a leash with a good amount of slack in it, not tight/taught) and then ask for a short behavior such as eye contact, short sit or down (lie down). As a “reward” for the offered behavior (I put reward in quotations because in my opinion freedom should be a given, not a special thing),  I’ll allow the dog the full extent of the leash/rope/long line to sniff or romp or do whatever their heart desires. I can then resume the more structured walk after a while and then rinse and repeat. If I am going for a walk with a dog off leash, I will ask for a similar such behavior before allowing them off the leash, or before releasing them after I’ve called them back to me. For independent minded dogs whose ultimate happiness lies in being left to their own devices, this is typically good trade-off in their minds. They rarely resent being asked for it as long as we don’t pester them too much after the routine is established. This is also a good option for dogs who don’t like to take food or engage with toys outside of the house, although I will also train dogs to take the food from me as one of the behaviors that results in achieving freedom.

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Walking Laima, a Gampr, on a loose leash along with Piper and Sami off leash

In a world where freedom for dogs is no longer a given and trainers teach highly structured walks as a matter of course, independent, unrestricted movement is hard for many dogs to come by. For many dog handlers, it can initially seem counter-intuitive to offer freedom as a reward; after all, isn’t it highly desired to keep the dog as engaged and obedient as possible? Isn’t freedom time when nothing happens for the dog? I argue exactly the opposite, that the time when we are not directly affecting every movement of our dogs is when the most growth and the most learning happens. It requires as well as fosters a great deal of trust in the dog/human relationship as well. We trust them enough to let them go, to learn from their free interactions and behaviors, to let settle what we’ve taught them, to make mistakes. They trust us enough to happily return, even out of roaring play or wild chase, safe in the knowledge that we won’t rob them of what they desire the most: independence.

For some dogs, autonomy is like breathing – it’s something they must have. For others, it’s less comfortable a notion. Regardless, it’s essential to achieving a healthy state of mind, high levels of resilience and the ability to make appropriate decisions for any situation. “Give to get” is one way we can help even the most independently minded dog stay willingly connected to us during training and free time. If all that my time away from the farm did was to hone my understanding of how important this principle is, then it was absolutely worth it.

 


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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.

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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.

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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.
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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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Selecting, raising training LGD pups, Part 2

(the first part of this series can be found here)

2. Make a plan (or more accurately, a loose framework).

Manda 2 months intro to horse

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel – CAS pup with horse

 

Making a plan, or more accurately, a loose framework for how to approach your pup(s) is a crucial step towards success. Now, I am the first to admit that I hate making concrete, set-in-stone plans about anything, let alone living beings. I know that something will come along to throw a wrench into those plans – be it a strange fear stage, complications with the stock or something that comes up in my life. I have a very busy life outside of farming and working with dogs that requires me to be flexible and to think on my feet. So, chiseling out black and white plans doesn’t work for me – and to be perfectly honest, it has never worked for me when it comes to keeping animals. I do, however, always need to know where I am going and have a general idea of steps to get there.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at what your end goal is for your pup(s). Do you intend for them to be a full time LGD who stays in one area with one type of stock? Do you want stock to move from one area to another, but also have the dog(s) go with them? Will you move the dog(s) from one area to another to guard different areas/types of stock? Do you expect your dog(s) to always stay behind fences with the stock or are you happy to have them interact with you/your family on the yard? Will you invite them into the house? There is no “one-size-fits-all” goal here. The only hard and fast rule is to set out showing the pup(s) what you want for them as the end goal and sticking with it long enough that they accept it as theirs.

In other words, if you want the pup(s) to stay behind fences 24/7 with stock as adults, do not start them out sleeping on your porch or on your bed. If you take a single pup, and even if you are raising more than one, this can mean that you have to deal with days of fighting to escape confinement, especially at night. This can mean that the pup(s) will cry for you to stay with them. You will have to be strong and refuse to bring them up to the house. You must establish the ground rules straight away, in as clear and kind a way as possible. There is enough time after they have accepted these expectations to do other things with them, such as inviting them to the house for a visit.

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Photo credit: Ingham Farms – baby Titus and Nubian goat

You must, no matter what, provide safety for the pup(s). Do not allow them to wander uninhibited.  If you are allowing for them to stay in with stock, ensure the stock is safe for the pup and conversely that they are safe FROM them. If you have mothers with babies, know that they will be overly sensitive to an inquisitive pup and may well harm them over innocent curiosity. If you have a bold pup, know that they can harm young or small stock easily. Match your stock to the nature and size of the pup. Provide an area for the pup to escape to, ideally a small pen or stall with an opening that only the pup can access. Learning to retreat from danger or when feeling overwhelmed is vital for any pup to feel like they have control over their environment and what is happening to them. This control is the basis for learning to regulate their emotions, or develop self control. Don’t put your pup(s) in situations where they cannot escape to keep themselves safe.

Conversely, some pups are too bold and active for their own good when it comes to being in with stock. These are the pups who need more active guidance from both humans and the stock they are learning on. Ideally, with older mentor LGDs to learn from, these pups will be corrected when they get out of line as well as learn appropriately from watching and interacting with them. That said, not all older LGDs have interest in correcting a rambunctious pup. One older LGD will have trouble keeping two pups in line as well. Restricting these pups to strict supervision for the early learning stages and making sure that corrections are swift and effective works well.

As with all pup raising, loving encouragement should be part and parcel of any approach. Timid, highly responsive, cautious and laid-back pups will do best with a high amount of encouragement. These pups are the equivalent to the child who beams over getting high marks or gold stars from their teachers. They may need discipline, but not very often, and they are keen to get things right. Bold, risk taking pups who charge into situations and push between you and the stock (yes, this can look like submission – groveling, flipping on to their back – too) need a different approach. They are like the children who test limits and boundaries on a regular basis to see where they stand. Both types appreciate clear communication, but the latter will require and appreciate when you enforce the boundaries swiftly and effectively. The former will require you to be cautious about your use of correction and be most responsive to verbal corrections as well as brief periods of social isolation. Neither type is “better” – and in fact, the tougher, more challenging pups typically mature into very strong, capable guardians when given the training they need.

3. Socialize, respecting stages.

Socializing (exposing animals to various new sights, sounds, experiences) LGDs after they leave their mom is a tricky business. Not only do some people firmly believe that very little socialization is required for a good LGD but if it is done incorrectly, can result in confusion for the dog and risk for humans. An understanding of the stages of puppy life is very helpful here.

Early socialization is the ideal way to produce a balanced, stable dog who is not afraid of novelty. Weeks 4-7 are when a pup’s brain is akin to a sponge, soaking up information about their world in a way that is unaffected by fear.  Unfortunately, the breeders who recognize and provide this kind of socialization are few and far between. This leaves the new owners of pup(s) with the task of negotiating socialization along with managing the onset of fear in the pup(s). The development of fear is necessary for survival in terms of risk assessment (have you ever seen a person or animal who lack risk assessment skills? They have to be protected from themselves more often than not) but it also makes introduction to new things a bit complicated. This is especially true for dogs who tend towards single-event learning (learning a lesson from one experience) like our LGDs.

In general, the more pups are exposed to when very young, the more they will be able to make appropriate, informed decisions when they are older. People who keep LGDs in more populated areas will need to be concerned about this more seriously than those who intend to keep them in remote areas. That said, we cannot always predict if a dog will need to find a new home eventually or if we will need to move, so socialization is never a wasted endeavor.

The subject of early socialization and how it pertains to LGDs specifically could take up an entire post in and of itself (which should be the case, now that I think about it), so I will just touch on some things to ensure are on the list and a couple of things to keep in mind. Do socialize to: kids, other dogs, sights and sounds of the city, cars (both inside and out), cats, the veterinary office, the house, a crate, people with hats and bundled up for winter, people of different skin color, sizes and shapes than yourselves.

Remember, socialization helps dogs recognize that what is different is not necessarily also threatening, so keep that in mind while doing it. If a pup shows a bad reaction to something new, try not to feed into it. Pause all activity and wait for the pup to recover. If it seems to be an extreme reaction, note this as an area that will need further work or to be revisited when the pup is feeling more confident. Keep things light, work at your pup’s pace, and don’t force interaction. It is enough for your pup to observe, to be curious at their own pace and to receive praise and food from you. Introducing food given by strangers is something I don’t endorse, at any stage. Affection should be only given by strangers if sought out by the pup.

4. Teach basic dog skills and manners.

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Photo credit: JJ Taylor – pup with father

Again, in a perfect world, this part would start at the breeder’s (can we be a little less concerned about whether someone breeds registered dogs or dogs of a certain color and a little more concerned about how much appropriate work they do with their dogs/pups?!?) and your job would just be to continue/maintain it. Pups would come to their new homes knowing what to do when restrained, how to give to pressure, that collars and leashes are part of normal life, that confinement isn’t forever, that sharing with other dogs is good, that being rough with humans doesn’t get you to a fun place, that people can be trusted, that food requires a bit of patience and that frustration can be managed. With breeders opting to keep LGD pups to 12 weeks now more and more, these goals should be part and parcel of the process. These outcomes can be accomplished through a set of exercises that can be replicated when the dog comes to their new home. That said, there are so many other things going on during that time that it can make it difficult to fit into the schedule. It’s also an irrefutable fact that lessons learned very early in a pup’s life are easier to retain over time.

Jennifer Sider pup Gru

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru

 

Just like with #2, it is imperative that you start out on the foot you intend to continue with over time. Do not allow inappropriate behavior (jumping up on to people, being overly enthusiastic with children, diving into a food bowl before it hits the ground, charging through gates, allowing teeth on skin, etc.) if you don’t intend for those things to continue over time. I see far too many people who continually make excuses for their small pups (“But he’s so little and cute!”, “She doesn’t mean anything by it!”) and then they turn around one day to find that that pup is no longer so small or so cute and actually has become quite the hazard. The poor pup doesn’t understand why his people are upset. He’s just doing what he’s always been allowed/encouraged to do.

I’ve detailed the exercises in a separate post. There are different ways of accomplishing the end goal of learning the above-mentioned skills, but I strongly, strongly suggest teaching them with mainly positive methods. This will again require restraint and patience. There is a time and place for more forceful methods, but it’s generally not when teaching foundation behaviors in a young pup.

 

 

 

 


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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.

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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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Selecting, raising and training LGD pups, Part 1

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.

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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.

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Two Armenian Gampr pups share the proceeds of a recent lamb slaughter by their shepherd. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer 2015

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.

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  1. 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)