Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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To correct, or not to correct, that is the question.

I’ve put off making this post for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that our current political climate does not support the judicious use of positive punishment, more commonly referred to in the dog world as “corrections”. My third and final puppy raising post relies on the clear understanding of this topic, so it’s come time to stop putting it off and jump in. I’ve done this over and over privately for people who seek out my advice, so hopefully this will be as clear and helpful for you as it has been for them.

As someone who cut her teeth in the dog world on training that consisted mainly of positive punishment (adding punishment, aka adding something that is is aversive or painful), and then moved to positive reinforcement (adding reinforcement, aka adding something that is rewarding or pleasurable) only training, finally ending up somewhat in the middle or what we call “balanced” training, I feel that I have a fairly even amount of experience to draw from. I also bring a certain amount of objectivity to the conversation, as I haven’t been married to one form of training over another. I see the undeniable benefits of using reward based training. I also see how stopping behavior through the use of punishment is critical as well. As an aside, I also tend to believe that making an animal do something for either our comfort or amusement only is a fairly unethical approach to living with our beautiful friends.

I won’t talk here about how positive punishment relates to the training of the average pet dog, as that is beyond the scope of our focus on LGDs. That said, I do believe that there is a larger picture that ought to be addressed, specifically in terms of how the obsession with rewarding our human children has been taken up wholeheartedly by dog people, much to the detriment of our furry companions. This is a conversation that I show up to have in person or online, time and again – that’s how strongly I feel about it.

The main reason I’ve wanted to write on this topic relates specifically to training LGDs, simply because I believe that these dogs are one of the types suffering the most due to the evolution of the positive only movement. This current trend started with good intentions, as a badly needed push back against the heavy handed training of yesteryear. It was, quite frankly, at the time quite radical to say that dogs could be trained without the use of “alpha” dominance – both radical and timely. Dogs, including our LGDs, continue to benefit from the work of the brave men and women who stepped out of their comfort zones to ask the hard questions. What does a dog feel? How does a dog perceive the world? What do they need? How can we change what we do to meet those needs better? WHY do we have to do things as they have always been done?

Like so many reactionary movements, though, certain people in it were not satisfied with the general acceptance that training needed a kinder approach. They wanted it all to be what they perceive as the best form of communication with other species: reward them. The works of B.F. Skinner, (a psychologist who spent time researching the effects of different types of input on animals) became the basis for what these people call “science based training”. B.F. Skinner is most famous for developing the four quadrants of operant conditioning, a structure that developed from his work attempting to effect behavioral change with animals kept in a perpetual state of neediness. These animals were then placed in an isolation chamber, known as a “Skinner Box” and subjected to experiments that measured their responsiveness to positive and negative stimuli. It is with the information that Dr. Skinner recorded from observing the response of these animals that he formed the diagram that we know of as the four quadrants of operant behavior or “Skinner’s Quadrants”.

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The four quadrants of operant conditioning

In 1938, Skinner’s first book, “The Behavior of Organisms” was published. This book furthered the idea of behaviorism: a concept built in the early 1900’s by a Dr. Watson onto Pavlov’s classical conditioning (remember the experiments showing that a dog would salivate at the sound of a bell if that bell had always preceded the appearance of food?). Behaviorism is explained by Psychology Today as:

“Behaviorism seeks to identify observable, measurable laws that could explain all of human behavior. Although psychology now pays more attention to the inner landscape of emotions and thought, behaviorism has had a durable influence on everything from animal training to parenting techniques to the bonuses financial managers receive.”

In other words, the strict approach of behaviorism views people and animals as “input/output” machines; apply one of the quadrants to them and get the desired behavior result. It also relies heavily on the notion that if the desired behavioral result is not achieved, it is the fault of the person applying the quadrant. They are not doing it appropriately: fast enough, well enough, effectively enough or creatively enough. There is a lot of truth to the fact that animals (ourselves included) respond to input in predictable ways. You only have to offer to give a pig a tasty treat or observe a child’s behavior after they’ve been injured to know that certain input = certain output for many things. Overall, however, life is not that simple.

Much of Skinner’s work involved the observation of animals under sterile laboratory conditions, where the animal had no competing stimuli to deal with. These animals were kept undernourished, in a state of perpetual need. It was the combination of these two factors that led directly to the strength and consistency of the behaviors that Skinner was able to observe. It wasn’t until a couple, both psychologists who were students of Dr. Skinner’s, took his methods out into the real world in the form of training performing animals that more of the picture emerged. Their paper, “The Misbehavior of Organisms” was published in American Psychologist in 1961. In it, they spoke about the limits to the theory of behaviorism that they were able to see even in their more controlled training environments:

“When we began this work, it was our aim to see if the science would work beyond the laboratory, to determine if animal psychology could stand on its own feet as an engineering discipline. These aims have been realized. We have controlled a wide range of animal behavior and have made use of the great popular appeal of animals to make it an economically feasible project. Conditioned behavior has been exhibited at various municipal zoos and museums of natural history and has been used for department store displays, for fair and trade convention exhibits, for entertainment at tourist attractions, on television shows, and in the production of television commercials. Thirty-eight species, totaling over 6,000 individual animals, have been conditioned, and we have dared to tackle such unlikely subjects as reindeer, cockatoos, raccoons, porpoises, and whales.

Emboldened by this consistent reinforcement, we have ventured further and further from the security of the Skinner box. However, in this cavalier extrapolation, we have run afoul of a persistent pattern of discomforting failures. These failures, although disconcertingly frequent and seemingly diverse, fall into a very interesting pattern. They all represent breakdowns of conditioned operant behavior.”

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Marian Breland with Walt Disney, 1965

The Brelands informed the world in 1961 in no uncertain terms that operant behavior could not explain all that animals do, nor could it control or change it. Animals are complex, far from the input/output machines behaviorism would have us believe they are.

Why does this matter? Why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s quite simple really. The people who are the rabid proponents of positive reinforcement training to the exclusion of positive punishment build their arguments for this type of training on Skinner’s work, which proved that behavior strengthens best through the use of rewards. In other words, the Skinner Box experiments proved that under those circumstances, animals learned to do behaviors and refrain from doing certain behaviors when people gave and took away rewards.  For dog people who think this translates the same way to real life outside of the laboratory, who have ignored the Breland’s sobering conclusions, this means that they stubbornly stick to demanding that everyone give or take rewards away as the only humane methods needed to train dogs of every type, under every circumstance.

These are the people who are most active on social media dog groups. These are the people who are lobbying to change our animal welfare rules. These are the people who are trying to get tools like prong collars and e collars banned, even though more injuries happen due to flat collars, harnesses and head halters than with the “bad” tools. These are the people who label anyone who uses such tools or physically corrects their dogs as “abusive”. You’ll find them being very outspoken about the possibilities of psychological harm from the use of adding punishment to training regimes, a very real possibility, but not in the way these people would have you believe when it comes to LGDs. These are the people who are taking over the LGD training conversations online and in written print.

And it’s costing LGDs, their owners and the working dog relationship that should be evolving a lot. In many cases, it’s causing the complete breakdown of the relationship and the dog to behave in ways that would not happen were corrections better understood and more appropriately applied. It is my firm opinion, and that of many people who have owned these dogs for generations that corrections are an integral part of training LGDs successfully, especially pups.

The reason you’re not being told to apply corrections when training LGDs or if you are, the instructions are vague or largely unhelpful (extended “time outs”, tackling dogs to the ground, isolation, etc.) is because there are very few people in LGDs who both understand the benefits of using positive reinforcement and have the balls to talk about corrections appropriately. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to dog world politics, and even I struggle with how much to say on social media or in print for fear that I will be labeled an “abuser” or harassed endlessly. The other reason is because some people believe that dog owners are generally unable to understand the limitations of correcting a dog and will therefore use any advice to correct as a green light to be cruel and harsh with their dogs. I have never had this happen when I take the time to explain the thought process behind using both rewards and punishment judiciously, which ironically, relies on an understanding of how they affect behavior, Skinner-style.

LGDs have been bred for centuries to be quick learners and to rely on binary feedback (both positive and negative) for their learning process. When a certain behavior brings them a reward, whether it’s internal (the satisfaction of driving off a threat, nurturing a lamb or playing with a canine playmate) or external (praise or food from their owner), it easily becomes something they want to do. When a certain behavior brings them a punishment (a shock from an electric fence or a head butt from an angry goat), it easily becomes something they don’t want to do again. These are best seen in younger pups, who are like little learning sponges. They soak up the binary input and learn solid lessons that they adhere to for their lifetimes. Sure, even the best of LGDs will color outside the lines during their teenage phases, but a small reminder of the lesson will generally bring them back in line. What people who loudly say that we have to prevent LGD pups from practicing behavior we don’t want aren’t telling you is that there is often a better, more efficient way to achieve that: corrections.

When our dogs do not receive the input they need, ideally as pups, they don’t learn the lessons that are necessary for them to be successful. Conveying this to people requires the clear communication that corrections will be necessary. These are dogs who are living with vulnerable creatures, and they are required to be with them full time, outside of human input a fair bit of the time. The western people who think they know something about how to raise a LGD will tell you ridiculous things like “a LGD shouldn’t be in with animals unsupervised until they are 2 years old” and “LGDs were never meant to be good with poultry” instead of telling you the information needed to guide your LGD to being a successful guardian. I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but there are no for profit producers who are going to feed and house an extra large dog for 2 years before they can be trusted to work. No one has the time to babysit their dogs for years in the hopes that they will be appropriate guardians in the end. Further, there are no working LGDs in their countries of origins who aren’t learning on the job from day one. This is not to say that dogs who have not been raised as mainly full time guardians can’t become one, but it is to say that that isn’t the most efficient way to do it. It’s not even the most effective way to do it.

LGDs need clear, effective communication. They need to know the boundaries of the job early on. They need to know that mouthing stock, of any shape or size, is inappropriate. They need to know that escaping fences because they feel like it is not ok. They need to know that fighting over food, jumping on people, chasing stock or enthusiastically licking a newborn while its mother cries is wrong. They need to know that being polite is a requirement for living well with people and stock. While it’s important to note that a dog must be taught what TO DO, it is still very important to correct them effectively and efficiently in order to teach them what NOT TO DO.

young kuv learning to herd sheep 3 of 3

Some dogs will need very few corrections in their lifetime. Some dogs will need many, many more. This does not mean that the former are better dogs, although, it is highly likely they will be perceived that way. This also does not mean that the latter are less apt to be good LGDs – in fact, it can mean the opposite. These can be dogs who are the most tenacious with predators, the best and most creative types who don’t let anything get in their way and who can stay ahead of the wiliest of predators.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that straight forward corrections are inherently abusive or unnecessary. Judiciously applied, they provide an integral part of the basis for understanding the “do nots” of life as a working dog. Training highly aggressive dogs to live with prey animals, to protect and nurture them in the face of threats, to live together well with other dogs and people requires some form of active, timely correction. In tomorrow’s post, I will outline exactly what that looks like.

 

P.S. So far I have refrained from putting forth the most obvious argument, that LGDs use corrections with each other.  This is something that people who own older LGDs or keep familial groups often forget when talking about raising/correcting pups. As humans, we cannot “replicate” well what older LGDs do with younger ones to teach them, but we can take a page out of their book regarding the fact that proper corrections are an appropriate and highly effective form of communication.

 

 


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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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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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For the birds.

Please stop saying that LGDs were never meant to protect poultry and therefore inappropriate behavior with poultry should be tolerated.
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Ceaser patiently watches over his chicken friends.

STOP IT!
 
While LGDs may not have been bred to specifically guard and bond with poultry (although flocks of geese were tended to in some European countries just like sheep/goats), poultry are a long standing pastoral staple in the countries where these dogs were developed. They were meant to guard them by default, and definitely NOT meant to help themselves to a snack of bird flesh whenever they felt the urge. Meat/eggs are valuable things in developing countries, and prized possessions in countries with historical agriculture bases. Even more interesting is the fact that chickens were sacred creatures for some ancient cultures, and even rode into battle with Roman armies.
 
Some LGDs, like the Great Pyrenees leaning BWD (Big White Dog) of North America, is capable of bonding well with poultry of all stripes. ASDs (Anatolian Shepherd Dogs) are also more prone to being natural poultry guardians. Others, like the more traditional Gampr , Akbash, and Kuvasz are more likely to want to protect them by default. The poultry is in the space they protect, and therefore are protected. At the very least, they are not harassed nor assaulted. For many producers, this would be enough. No requirement would be made for the dog to take care of the poultry in a maternal fashion.
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Sammy guards her flock. She even killed an owl that tried to make off with some of her chickens.

Remember, most of these dogs were born in, spent a great deal of their lives around and ended up living in pastoral settings. Their active working lives were only a portion of the sum total of their lives. They doubled as guard dogs for the home front, for the producer’s families, as family dogs (which is why they are so innately good with children, the infirm and the elderly) and as village dogs. Many are still used for these purposes today. These dogs were and are required to get along well with the people, to appropriately distinguish between benign and threatening activity in amongst the busyness of village/home life. Occupying themselves with chasing or killing people’s poultry would not be acceptable behavior by any stretch of the imagination.
The more I hear online and from producers directly about the advice being given for handling and training these dogs to work, the more concerned I become about our future. Slow, inappropriate maturity is being held up as the expected standard for our working dogs. Effective, efficient training is being actively discouraged in favor of what I call the “killing with kindness” methods. Dogs are being confined more and more without the appropriate guidance and real working time experience needed to become confident guardians. Dogs are being micromanaged to the point where they are confused and unable to meet expectations, a serious blow to their self esteem.
Over and over, I see a lack of understanding about how the canine mind and life stages work from those in positions of influence. I’m seeing the fruits of what has been sewn by people who are more interested in self promotion and specific breed promotion than in caring for the working dog as a whole. This is never more evident than when I have to step in to a situation with an adolescent or young adult LGD who has not received what they cried out for from day one.
LGDs should NOT chase/mouth/attack/kill your poultry. If you can’t manage to convince them not to (or to find someone who can), keep them separated. Full stop. These inclinations should be identifiable from early on, and most easily addressed at early ages. Any focused staring, stalking, pouncing and chasing should be actively discouraged. Proper behavior should be modeled and praised. Ideal modeling is by an older LGD. Placing a young pup with larger, more aggressive poultry such as geese is a good way to keep the connection with winged stock whilst ensuring a rambunctious pup cannot push them around. As a bonus, geese tend to be slower moving and don’t trigger the chase instinct as easily in young pups. If you don’t have access to larger poultry, early supervision with timely corrections is the best way to start. These corrections include redirecting (physically moving or distracting) the pup away, verbally discouraging the behavior, using spatial pressure (moving into their space in order to block or move them away) and physically correcting.  Avoid allowing the pup to have long periods of time to watch flighty birds from behind a barrier. This encourages arousal and frustration over the inability to chase. Instead, tethering for limited periods in an area where the poultry can escape from the dog or judicious use of the dangle stick can be good options. Whatever you do, don’t inadvertently encourage the inappropriate behavior by allowing the dog to practice it unchecked or by using “nagging” (ineffective) corrections.
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Photo of pup and poultry from gampr.org

Yes, it’s true that we do often see in an otherwise reliable pup incidents where they are inappropriate with poultry as they mature. Those funny birds can be very tempting toys for a bored adolescent pup. That said, those dogs respond quickly and very well to correction and limited periods of separation, going on to return to their stable roots. Stay the course, give clear information/expectations in your training, enforce those expectations effectively while taking into account the life stage of your dog(s). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can change all in a slow and sweet way. Equally, don’t believe that you can spend little time with your dog and still properly affect their behavior. This is especially true if you lack an older mentor dog or a familial group to help train.
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LGDs can be and should be just fine with poultry. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are many less than reported.  Let’s keep that in our manual of expectations. Let’s keep our expectations high. Let’s not let down future generations of working dogs and the people who need them by unnecessarily affecting breeding selection in negative ways. Most importantly, let’s stay the course with our dogs so that they can protect to their full potential.
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Bakarwals and the rise of the global LGD preservation movement

I have a group on FB called “Livestock Guardian Dogs and Conservation: The Way of the Future“.  As FB groups go, it’s a calmer, more fact-focused, resourceful group. The main goal of the group is to raise awareness of the importance of Livestock Guardian Dogs in the rewilding we are seeing globally. It may sometimes feel like too little, too late, but we are finally realizing how significant it is for our planet to once again support a richer, more diverse ecosystem.

Alongside this, we have a record number of people on this planet, a need to feed them and house them. Both of these things run straight up against the work we are doing in nature, and how nature is changing all on its own. How can we support the diversification of the ecosystem and still meet the growing needs of a burgeoning human population? The answers are multi-faceted and not simple by any means, but the fact that we’ve been systematically getting away from transhumance and the rural lifestyle is not doing us any favors as we seek them. Old wisdom has been lost or is harder to find. Younger people are having to pick up the discarded torches and try to find their way, literally, through the wilderness.

The fact that rewiliding initiatives are targeting abandoned farmland as a way to jumpstart their programs is a pertinent symbol of how urban focused our current policies are. On the face of it, leaving the rural land to the wildlife and moving people to cities might seem like a good way forward, but underneath, there is much more we need to recognize. Ironically, the very thing we think will reconnect us to the planet is actually isolating us from it.  I believe that we must continue to coexist with wildlife in physical space, if only to bear witness and continue to stand in the gap between what animals want and need from us and what humans want and think they need out of life. If no one stays, we will be unable to resist becoming a hive-like mind that has forgotten what we are made of. We will exist in a vacuum that encourages us to be takers only, not managers, not guardians. It’s true that we may well be fighting a losing battle, where all animals will be raised in robotic-run barns and we will buy their souls packaged in little foam trays at the nearest box store, but I – and many like me – believe that it’s a fight worth stepping up for. If we lose the ecological benefits of controlled grazing and farming on a small scale, if we lose the ability to choose how and where our meat is raised – if we lose the resiliency, co-existence and breeding selection pressures that small farming and transhumance offer us, we lose what makes us uniquely human. The ability to negotiate with an environment we cannot control and to meet our needs alongside those of predator and prey is a skill set we cannot lose. We will lose touch with our planet. When I think about the current trends in policy making around this subject, I tear up a bit. Urban life does not naturally lend itself to the comprehension of what is sacrificed in order to be a consumer-directed world. We see that more and more every day.

One of the greatest things about what I do is that I get to meet some brave and phenomenal people who are working hard to stand there in the gap and say over and over again how much we need to preserve the “old” ways. For some, this means advocating for continued acknowledgement of the rural life. For others, it’s living the lifestyle themselves. For still others, it’s running formal programs that target the retention of the ways of transhumance and small farming – further, retention of the stock and LGD genetics that make it all possible. One such person is Hamza Habib, an engineering student, small farmer and Bakarwal LGD preservation specialist in Pakistan. We have had some very interesting conversations about his experiences there, conversations that highlight the passion Hamza has for the Bakarwal people and dogs of his region.

Hamza, who recently thoughtfully bred a litter of working Bakarwal Dogs, is one of a few vocal people online strongly focused on retaining appropriate LGD instincts in the Bakarwal Dog landrace. The trouble with raising the profile (and this has been true historically) of LGD breeds/landraces, especially obscure ones, is that certain people immediately want to exploit their aggressive traits for profit. The Russian government did this most famously with the Ovtcharkas of the Caucus mid 20th century, and it’s been a ‘thing’ ever since. It’s not surprising that the proponents of the Bakarwal Dogs Preservation Project have to actively combat this online and on the ground. Breed preservation initiatives are always a double edged sword, but oh so necessary.

Check out these beauties:

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These are siblings from the litter Hamza produced. He retained these two to work on his family’s farm. Most of the pups are working, given back to farmers who need them to protect against the encroaching wolves in the area. As they haven’t seen wolves in Pakistan for decades, specific genetics need to be cultivated to produce effective guardians. Hamza has found these genetics in the dwindling Bakarwal Dog population. He reports that the pups he’s bred are loyal, nurturing and fierce. They are designed to exist on minimal foodstuffs. They naturally want to partner with him and to be in his favor.

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If you’re not familiar, the Bakarwal are a nomadic people. They live a life most of us love to romanticize, but could never possibly sustain. They carry on the centuries-old traditions of transhumance, even if more within borders than ever before. More about their history and lifestyle (and beautiful pictures!) can be found here , here and here. Just like in many countries now, their lifestyle and wisdom is less and less valued by both their fellow citizens and the government. It is the work of people like Hamza that I personally hope will stem that tide of change. To that end, I will be making a point of highlighting these initiatives in an ongoing way on this blog, so that the information can be found in an effective and easy-to-share format.

The people working their fingers to the bone to buck the thoughtless urbanizing trend deserve at least that.  Our planet deserves at least that.

 


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What’s in the works

Winter prep is in full swing here on the farm, and as it’s the first time all is down to me to plan, execute and assess, I’m a bit nervous. This is further complicated by the fact that I’m in a new area of the country on a new piece of property and just don’t have a really good feel for what to expect. That said, I’m not one to ever back down from a challenge easily and I have wonderful family support, so all will be well – or at least doable. Winter in the colder parts of Canada is a bit like entering a deep, winding tunnel that just has to be traveled through no matter what.  At some point the light will show up in the distance and you’ll know that you’re going to get through to the other side. It can be brutal, but there is a lot of truth to the notion that tough circumstances breed tough people.

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Titus and Ivy are getting to know each other better and better all the time. Ivy had a harder time adjusting to being back with me than I’d expected, but most likely a fair bit of that had to do with the fact that I was no longer on familiar turf.  Titus also had a slower start on the farm, but through some focused binary feedback is maturing in leaps and bounds. I’m very pleased with his capacity for ‘single event learning’, meaning his ability to learn something the first time he experiences it or receives feedback about it. I’ll be detailing more about this important LGD trait, as well as talking more about the dynamics between him and Ivy as their relationship continues to develop.

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I’m working on a post about Resource Guarding (RG), a fancy term we trainers use for the behavior dogs show when they don’t want anyone else to touch or take their possessions. There are two main types: RG against other dogs/animals and RG against humans. We’ll talk in depth about both of those, how to assess if the RG is normal or abnormal, strategies to prevent and address it and a bit of perspective on RG in LGDs in particular. This seems to be a subject that comes up quite often with people who are used to using certain training methods with other types/breeds of dogs or who have had some success in the past with forceful methods of behavior modification. This may turn into a series of posts, considering how involved the subject matter is.

This year, I’ve had one trainer in particular reach out to me for advice with LGDs.  I’ve been thrilled with how receptive he is to learning about the mind of the working LGD. As more and more LGDs are making their way onto small holdings and into urban areas, we are in desperate need of ensuring the right information gets into the hands of the trainers and behavior consultants who see them first. This can be the difference between life and death for these beloved dogs. To that end, I’ve opened a consulting service that focuses on both domestic and international consultation with a deeply discounted service for non-profit organizations. The focus will be on training and problem solving for the oft difficult to understand working dog mind.

So there is a lot in the works! I continue to be a slave to my domestic and farm duties as well as to my COO Saluki siblings (if you’ve ever been owned by sighthounds, you’ll understand) so life is just as I like it: busy.  Looking forward to continuing to hear your stories, so keep them coming. You can find me on FB anytime as well at Rolling Spruce Farm or Guard Dog Consulting .

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The Big Question: What is a LGD?

In my work with LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dogs), I ran into this question more than any other.  It takes many different forms, but essentially what everyone wants to know is what a LGD is, what a LGD does, and conversely, what falls outside the parameters of the definition.  This is not only the most common topic of conversation, but also the one that many educators struggle to adequately define.

I’ll start by saying that I am very aware that my worldview is that of someone who has lived their whole life in western society.   I have, however, worked very hard to counteract this by exploring the cultures that still keep LGDs predominately as their ancestors did.  Cultures with deep and ongoing pastoral roots show a clearer picture of the Livestock Guardian Dog than those who have largely moved to closed registry systems with a heavy emphasis on conformation shows.  As these dogs traditionally were true landraces; the people who still promote assortative mating and strict culling practices hold the ancient wisdom of selection and training that made these dogs so solidly valuable as guardians.  These are the people who understand that a working dog is a partner, not simply a tool.

This is what I have learned, borne out by LGD champions here in North America and my own personal experience.

1. A LGD is a large, hearty dog.

LGDs were developed to protect domestic prey animals from wild predators.  This is the heart and soul of who they are.  They cannot protect if they are too small to pose a threat to predators.  They cannot follow through on their threats nor provide an comforting presence to their charges if they are anything but strong and stoic in the face of uncertainty.

2. A LGD is both nurturing and protective.

LGDs are equal parts submissive and dominant, affectionate and aggressive.  They care for their charges with a mother’s love: devoted, gentle and protective.  They defend their charges with a mother’s fervor: decisive, committed and with passion. It is not uncommon to observe a dog expose his belly to an inquisitive lamb and then in the next breath, leap to defend it against a threat.  Once trained and mature, LGDs are able to instinctively discern who is friend and who is foe and respond accordingly.

3. A LGD is thoughtfully aggressive.

Although aggressive and tenacious, LGDs never operate indiscriminately or without inhibition.  Affectionately nicknamed “thoughtful fighters”, LGDs are consistently in control of their emotions and use only as much force as necessary to prove their point.  This does not mean that they will not eliminate predators when necessary, but many LGDs will try to communicate their intent to protect for some time before going on the offensive.  LGDs instinctively view weakness as something to protect, never to harm.

4. A LGD thinks for himself.

  An emphasis on rote obedience, highly prized in the western world, was not part of the selection process for LGDs. As with most working dogs, an ability to think independently is part and parcel of their core definition.  This means that while you won’t find too many members who excel in obedience competitions, they are routinely superior at fulfilling their mission to nurture and protect.  Several senses are heightened in dogs when compared to humans; this must be taken into consideration and respected, especially upon maturity.  Many times, humans have been unable to identify the threat until much later, but their LGD(s) recognized it immediately.

5. A LGD listens to his shepherd.

At first glance, this point seems in direct opposition to the one above.  An independent dog is not at all the same as one who cannot be controlled or who doesn’t defer to any human, however.  A partnership wherein the LGD defers to his owner is earned through building trust and consistently fair handling.  A shepherd has no fear of managing and correcting his LGDs and expects to have the final say on all important matters.  A stable LGD who sees his owner as a partner has no problem listening to him.  In order to establish and maintain this partnership, the shepherd must know when to interfere (for example intrapack/interpack aggression ) and when not to.

6. A LGD is a dog.

Tales of the supernatural, mythical abilities of LGDs are fun to recount and fascinating to listen to, but they serve very little practical purpose in the real world.  While there is usually more than a grain of truth to these stories, it is vital to remember that LGDs are first and foremost dogs with a dog’s instincts and a dog’s view of life.  LGDs have been artificially selected over centuries to have a reduced prey drive and high amount of self control but that does not mean that they are not still dogs.  Care needs to be taken to manage and train LGDs so that they become successful guardians.  As in all working dog types, there are outliers who are unable to fulfill the job description.

7.  A LGD is a social dog.

LGDs develop strong bonds with other LGDs.  They employ a complex and nuanced social language with each other that relies heavily on body language and cooperation.  As with most canines, individual friendship preferences matter, and gender may matter to some.  Almost universally, however,  LGDs prefer to live in partnerships or groups.

8. A LGD can be a “hard” or “soft” dog or somewhere in between.

The disposition of a LGD depends on many factors including genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, health, stage of life, weather and how settled they are in their environment.  Much of the determining factor in whether an LGD will be “hard” (tough, stoic, resilient) or “soft” (unable to defend against larger apex predators) has to do with their genetics, although the other factors deserve equal consideration.  Assessing the individual dog is typically more important than applying broad breed expectations.  It is also vital to recognize that a dog who has recently moved to a new home will behave differently than after they settle in.  A LGD encountered off of their ‘home turf’ will also behave differently than when approached on their own territory.

9. A LGD bonds deeply.

Whether it is to another dog, their stock, their territory, their human(s) or all of the above, LGDs bond intensely and without reservation.   The loss of what or who they are bonded to leaves a LGD with uncertainty and confusion.  Many times, I have seen LGDs whose owners believe them to be defective recover and go on to be incredible working dogs when provided with an appropriate bond.  Much of working LGD rehab can be summed up in two words: providing direction.  It is impossible to compensate for a lack of instinct, however, most dogs with working genetics simply need their instinct channelled appropriately.

10. A LGD is the best friend a shepherd can have.

Shepherds the world over sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that their dogs are working hard to protect their livestock.  For many shepherds, their livestock remains their livelihood and subsequently only entrusted to LGDs due to their effectiveness.  There is no other guardian who is so equally affectionate and protective, nor one who is so incredibly adaptable.  The love and dedication of a LGD is unparalleled.  It is a lucky person whom a LGD considers family and a lucky flock with LGDs to defend them.  Even more, it is a fortunate LGD whose owner cares for and understands them.  12794589_10153959428925987_8528213169421724126_n