Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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”.


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.”

marian breland walt disney

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.