Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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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.

Jennifer Sider Gru Mitch

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru and Mitch

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

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

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

Manda

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel, CAS pup

LGD Puppy Raising Exercises

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

jj taylor father and son

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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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)

 

 

 


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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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A small question of obedience…

Recently, in conversation with a well-regarded trainer in the US about one of his client dogs, I stopped his description of intending to train “Place” (asking the dog to stay on an object or in an area until invited off/out) with this question:

“But what do you do when you can’t use obedience training as a short cut to building relationship?”

There was a silence and then he replied that he wasn’t sure.

I continued with:

“How do you get what you need from a dog in terms of self control when you cannot use food/play/force or repetition to get there?”

He was a wonderful sport and played along, responding by asking me what I thought should be done instead.

These questions are, in my opinion, at the crux of all of the problems we run into when working with dogs who have an innately independent mindset. Ask anyone who has spent any time with a working bred aboriginal type dog, be it LGD, hound, spitz or the less common herding breeds and they’ll tell you that these dogs embody the very definition of the independent mindset. For many of them, food can be a simple way to encourage them to bond with us, but others, like LGDs and sighthounds quite often won’t be manipulated in that way. In fact, the more we insist on ‘making’ them do things, the less they respect us. This is what people are actually dealing with when they claim that certain dogs are too “stubborn” or “dumb” to train. They claim that these dogs don’t have a brain in their heads, when it’s actually the handlers who don’t know how to speak their language.

People who don’t know how to handle certain animals resorting to allegations that it’s the animal’s fault? Say it ain’t so. This is has been going on since the beginning of domestication.

You’d think it’d be obvious that the human in the equation should try a little harder and work a little smarter. If the arguments I’ve seen on social media and the conversations I’ve had with other dog people are any indication, it’s not so obvious as it should be. It’s never acceptable to ignore an entire subsection of the canine population like this. Shame on the industry for encouraging that to happen.

So what do you do with an independent dog like our LGDs? Well, for some people, their answer has been to try to breed that out of them. Their dogs and their progeny become hollow shells of what they were intended to be. While it’s true that our LGD breeds/types are all found along the spectrum of biddability (biddable: easily led, taught, or controlled :docile), they should always retain what I call a ‘split brain’. This means that a significant portion of their brain should be dedicated to autonomous, independent thought processes. We should never be able to, nor should we even want to, hijack this portion for our own ends. The retention of this precious quality is VITAL for their ability to work effectively. We have no need of a LGD who needs to look to us for every decision, for every move. How could we leave them with our precious stock then?

At the same time, we need to be able to shape their instincts and help them learn how to control themselves. This part of their brain is dedicated to relationship and is where we need to take our influence very seriously. We need to be able to step in when they get it wrong (think over-guarding with newborn babies for instance or if they decide to take matters into their own hands with a human stranger); this is especially true when we raise them outside of a familial grouping as we do so often in developed, westernized countries.

So what is the answer to this particular issue of retaining fierce independence while impacting behavior and motivation? It’s pretty simple, really. Learn. Listen to them. Up your observation skills. Increase the methods in your repertoire. Acknowledge that there is more than one kind of dog out there. Stop approaching this work from an idealized ethical standpoint or with all kinds of force. These dogs don’t care what you learned in a book or from Koehler. They care about doing what they were meant to do, and if you aren’t relevant to that, you won’t be relevant to anything. If you don’t want to get hurt, if you don’t want the dog to check out on you and you still want to get from A to B, put your ego aside. Put away any piece of you that thinks you know what these dogs are about because you’ve had x number or x other kinds of dogs all your life. Approach this as a novel experience, a learning opportunity to expand your horizons and your toolbox. Resist the temptation to extrapolate endlessly from the few experiences with LGDs you’ve had or the stories/advice you’ve heard on Facebook and in poorly written literature. Those are nothing more than interesting fairy tales. Anything you follow should be able to withstand scrutiny and be able to prove results, period.

Utilize critical thinking. If you’re not getting the results you need quickly, if you’re relying more and more on management as a way of getting where you need to go, if you can’t handle or control these dogs without all kinds of equipment/set ups, you’re on the wrong track.

Yesterday, I fed Titus and Ivy from my hand in various spots on my property. They took each piece of kibble from my hand with respect for me and for each other. Titus put himself into a “Sit” and waited patiently while I fed one first to Ivy and then to him. When a piece landed on the ground, he refrained from jumping on it. We walked from place to place without leashes, without manipulation or force. We repeated the feeding exercise. I shared with them how wonderful I thought they were for offering deference and staying engaged with me. At the end, we played together and had a few cuddles. When I fed him the rest of his meal in a dish later, he ran ahead of me and put himself in a sit, waiting patiently until the bowl hit the ground and he heard me release him to eat. When he was done, he didn’t even attempt to touch Ivy’s dish.

Last week, Titus picked a fight with Ivy because food was present. He had his ass handed to him since she is still able to do so. This was not the first time he’d picked a fight like that. He’s had trouble with self control since the get go. He’d knocked food out of people’s hands, he’d jump up and down like a pogo stick, he’d walk in front of people and throw himself at their feet to get what he wanted (whether affection or food), he’d put his face in whatever and wherever he thought appropriate without so much as a thought process. Ivy’d dealt with his obnoxiousness more than once. He wasn’t learning.

Now he is.

This is literally a dog who has outstanding LGD instincts, who has simply lacked self control. I’m not going to just manage that until he matures. That’s not sustainable and doesn’t teach him anything. The lack of self control bleeds into all kinds of areas of his life. I don’t have an older male to teach him and keep him in line, so it’s been down to me. He didn’t have that enough where he was bred either (this is quite a common thing especially with small litters and not at all criticism), so I’ve been dealing with counteracting a lifetime of reinforcement for inappropriate behavior. My life was chaotic when he first arrived and for a while afterwards, due to the move, kids, school…so I didn’t get on it quickly enough either.

The point is that it’s fixable. It’s trainable. I’m doing that, and not with rote obedience regimes. Titus is responding and we’re all getting to that place of mutualistic symbiosis we need for this farm to run smoothly. Will he get to a place where he’s the boss of all things LGD here? It’s quite possible and I fully anticipate that that will happen. Right now is not the time as he’s not mentally or physically ready for that. So he has had to learn his place, outside of the strong family pack he would have had to help teach him in his country of origin.

To his credit, he’s getting it. To mine, I know how to speak to him so he listens.

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Titus offering a “Sit” to my daughter

 

 

 

 


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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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