Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


Rules to live by.

As I’m wrapping up my life on this farm, I find myself thinking about the hard and fast rules that I wish current and prospective owners knew about working LGDs.  Here is a compilation of some of them for easy reference.




Do not buy a pup who has not been handled or socialized.  This stupid trend NEEDS to end and the only way that will happen is if buyers stop supporting it.

Do not wait to address inappropriate behavior.  Teach your pup or dog the expected rules (ie. manners) from the get go.  More problems occur because owners slough off the responsibility to teach their pups and then wonder why the now-large LGD is behaving badly and not listening.

Don’t post: “ISO perfect young LGD who will never make a mistake, or challenge a fence.”  Where do you think LGDs come from, a robot factory?  If you have no time to put in and expect perfection right out of the gate, abandon the idea of a LGD.  I’ll happily slap you myself if you don’t.

Don’t expect more of your dog than they can handle for their age or experience.  A small pup is not the physical or mental equivalent of a mature LGD.  No one with half a brain thinks that a young herding pup could move sheep all day or a pup raised for detection work could sniff for bombs all day long – no, working dogs are given time to mature and learn the ropes before being thrown in the deep end.  Get a grip and stop being an idiot.

Socialize all pups.  Don’t look for excuses not to and don’t think up reasons why you can’t.  DO IT.  If anyone says otherwise, run -don’t walk – away.  They’re just playing “expert”.  Ain’t no one got time for that. (See the previous post for a more elaborate explanation on “experts”.)

If it comes down to practicality or taking the long way around when it comes to training techniques, choose practicality.  LGDs are working dogs.  They understand clear, honest communication as long as your overarching priority is to retain and build relationship.

Do not rescue a dog that you are not equipped to handle, no matter how much other people pressure you to or how badly you want to “save a life”.  Only do it if you are certain you can handle the consequences if everything goes sideways.  You could well end up on the business end of a set of sharp teeth or picking up dead stock in your pasture.  When in doubt, leave the rehabbing to the experts.

Don’t limp a broken dog along.  Dogs are mentally broken for different reasons, but it always comes down to either nature or nurture – genetics or care.  The fact of the matter is that unlike many other dogs, LGDs grow into a certain hardness that is difficult, if not impossible, to change.  They are meant to be this way so that once taught well, they are able to stick to their guns no matter what goes on around them.  Unfortunately, this also means that a dog who is treated badly early on may well never get past it.  It also means that while a pup is fairly malleable (especially when very young), this window closes quite rapidly and often isn’t long enough to make up for genetic deficiencies.

Start giving a crap about health.  The LGDs we have here are often so inbred or overbred that health problems are wide sweeping and endemic.  If a breeder wants to give you a laundry list of things you cannot do with their dogs or has dogs who are impaired or consistently passing away early, don’t buy from them.  A good lifespan for a working LGD should be well past year 10, especially if they are not under a lot of strain from predators.  Dogs should not be falling apart in the pasture before then.

There is never any substitution for a well bred, stable, dog.  EVER.  If you choose to limp a dog through their inherent problems, don’t breed them.  If the problem is not genetic in origin, remember that even issues that arise due to environment or handling can and will impact future generations.  Seek a qualified independent assessment of your dog or try to match them with a mate who is strong in their weak areas.  This way, at least some of the litter should be better equipped to deal with life.

A dog who is mean to your children or young stock is not a good LGD.  Period. No more needs to be said on the subject.

Stick your tongue out at anyone who tells you that LGDs are mystical creatures who lived with unicorns back in the cradle of civilization and eat lions for lunch.  LGDs are pretty special, but they are first and foremost dogs and need to be treated as such.  They make mistakes, they need training, and they need a capable human to lean on from time to time.

LGD/non-LGD crosses DO NOT MAKE GOOD LGD PROSPECTS.  Stop testing this, stop thinking you know better or can be a part of a new wave of exciting non-traditional LGDs.  You’re being a moron like many morons before you.  If it was possible to consistently produce good LGDs from such pairings, they’d be everywhere by now.

Get off the large LGD forums.  There are so many voices on there that are just loud, not necessarily informed or experienced.  You’re going to do much better by doing some independent reading, stalking of smaller groups, following common sense and listening to your gut if you have one.  You’re going to do much better by digesting different portions of information that make a lot of sense than by trying to do random things people tell you to do online.  Stop outsourcing your research and your thinking.  In this day and age, there is no excuse for being naive about any new venture.

Finally, YOU alone are ultimately responsible for your choice to employ LGDs.  You are responsible for everything your dogs do.  Take it seriously and don’t be a part of the reason why the use of LGDs is restricted in the future.  Protect your dog and protect your community equally.




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The Armenian Gampr

A few weeks ago, a friend by the name of Rohana Mayer took a trip to Armenia to gather DNA samples of the working LGDs native to there, also known as gamprs.  Rohana is the head of the Armenian Gampr Club of America, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Armenian Gampr landrace.  We were in contact through some of her trip,  and I greatly enjoyed the updates she provided on the Armenian Gampr group on Facebook.  Rohana has graciously agreed to allow me to post some of the pictures she took as well as to sit for an interview, which I will post soon.

First, some context.

Armenia is a small (approximately 30,000 square km, or roughly the size of Maryland in the US) landlocked country in Southwestern Asia, between Turkey and Azerbaijan to the west and east respectively and Georgia and Iran to the north and south.



Like other small countries in Europe, Armenia has struggled with retaining its autonomy over the centuries.  External control and the effort of resisting that control left Armenia in never ending turmoil and culminated in a genocide of at least 1 million citizens between 1915 and 1922 by neighboring Turkey during the tail end of Ottoman rule.   Between political unrest and set backs from natural disasters like the earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 and left hundreds of thousands more homeless, Armenia naturally became a nation of extreme resilience and creativity.  Now independent, Armenians battle against internal corruption and a difficult economy that has left them with a high rate of poverty.  Despite this, Armenia continues its’ long history of reinvention, ever striving to thrive out from under the shadow of the much larger and more influential countries nearby.

Nearly 60% of Armenia’s land base is devoted to agriculture, divided as 15.8% arable land, 1.9% permanent crops and 42% permanent pasture.  The largest section of the Armenian labor force,  at 39%,  is in agriculture.  This high level of permanent pasture land and weighted importance of agriculture in the economy translates into a very long history of pastoralism for Armenians.  Forests make up a further 9% of the land, adding to the available area for grazing livestock.  Transhumance, the ancient method of moving stock from low lands to higher pastures seasonally, is still practiced there today.  Whether in more contained systems closer to urban centers, or found in more remote areas of this beautiful country, Armenian shepherds have long relied on the gampr dog to protect them and their livelihood.

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

Armenian shepherd and resting gampr. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

The Armenian Gampr, like many dogs used for personal and livestock guardian work in different countries, are required to be defensively confrontational with intruders and predators while remaining soft and affectionate with their family.  They must be large enough to be imposing and tough enough to follow through on their threats if need be, but not so big as to impede athleticism or be unthrifty.  Being a true landrace even in modern times means that the gampr is an extremely rich well of genetic diversity.  Furthermore, it means that the phenotypic expression of this diversity resists the development of a show-type or Kennel Club standard.  There are still parameters to judge by, however, and some of the macro points are as follows (from the AGCA website):

“The breed evolved for a rigorous lifestyle requiring independent intelligence, strong survival instincts, reliable livestock guardianship, and a dependable, efficient physique.”

Gamprs have been bred for function more than appearance.  Any color is permissible, except merle, liver or blue, and blue eyes or eyes lacking dark eyeliner, and pink noses.”


“The thick coat of the gampr is excellent protection in all weather extremes.  Typically, longer-haired dogs were from the snowy highlands, and shorter-haired dogs were from the lowlands. The outer hairs tend to be darker than the dense, downy undercoat. They shed their coat once or twice a year, in great amounts. Puppies often are born slightly darker than they grow to be as an adult.

Gamprs have strong, muscular bodies with large bone structure. It is often surprising how large their heads are when compared other modern ‘pet’ dogs.”

An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer

An adult male gampr in Armenia. Photo credit: Rohana Mayer


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

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

As the Armenian people have struggled for so long, so too have their beloved dogs.  At various points in its’ history, the Armenian Gampr has been used to bolster non-working breeds outside their borders, as a part of fighting dog breeding, exported at high rates along with livestock, taken as the spoils of war, lost to inappropriate external expectations and wounded by inappropriate breeding practices both within and outside of the country’s bounds.   True gamprs, those who structurally and temperamentally qualify as guardians, are worth a great deal to breeders and buyers alike.

This sets the backdrop for Rohana Mayer’s recent trip to western Armenia.  Armed with buccal swabs and aided by a team of dedicated indigenous shepherds and breeders, she traveled through a third of the unpretentious country looking for examples of the gampr for DNA testing.  Some dogs had inappropriate temperaments or were overly mixed, and still others showed the ravages of long term inbreeding (done in a misapplied effort to ensure purity).  Perseverance of a high standard of behavior and morphology paid off, though, and Rohana managed to find some beautiful examples of working gamprs.  I’ll leave you with some pictures of these dogs, as well as some links for further reading about the Armenian Gampr.  Look for my interview with Rohana in an upcoming post.  If you have any interest in aiding Rohana and the Armenian Gampr  Club of America’s preservation project, please contact Rohana at or me through this site.


*****More reading:

Timeline of the last century in Armenia:

“A Brief History of the Armenian Gampr” (AGCA):

Overview of the history of the Armenian Gampr, with a slant towards registering a standard:

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Companion living.

I’m working on a post about life stages and expectations for LGDs, but it’s a bit slow going as farm life is in full swing here, leaving free time in short supply.  In the meantime, I want to take a moment to remind LGD breed owners of one undeniable fact.

Whether you think your dog is a working LGD or not doesn’t matter.  If he has working ability, HE thinks he’s a working dog and will act accordingly.  This is what he was bred to do.


More often than not, when a LGD breed is kept as a companion or in an urban setting and they have significant working ability, their owners run into trouble leaving them on their home turf unsupervised with strangers, unfamiliar animals, etc., as they mature.  This is especially true of the harder or less stranger tolerant breeds such as the Caucasian Ovtcharka, Central Asian Shepherd, Kuvasz, etc..  These dogs are hard wired to assess risk, to identify threat and then to drive it off or eliminate it.  This can bleed over into their life off property, especially if they are regularly taken to certain places or walked on certain routes, since this can encourage them to believe that these things and places are also “theirs” and meant to be protected.

Unlike many other breeds, where the maturing process is difficult, but maturity brings with it a dog who is MORE biddable with their owners and steady with strangers, LGDs become hardened with time and tend to listen less and be less tolerant of threat behavior by others.   Unfortunately, many people who acquire LGD breeds expect that their dog(s) will see extended family, visiting family, close friends and playmates of their children as completely safe… just like the owners do.  They expect that the loving and sweet dog(s) who allow their children to sit on them and who cuddle with them on the couch will extend that behavior to others who don’t live with them.  This is not at all what these dogs were bred for, and it is unfair to expect that of them.  Thousands of years of selection pressure has brought us dogs who act independently to address threat, swiftly and unforgivingly (in varying degree) and who don’t understand that Aunt Martha or Uncle Bob aren’t stealing from you, or that Sammy’s little friend from school was only play fighting.

Both breeders and owners share responsibility for this issue.  Breeders should know their dogs well, and sell only to suitable homes that are prepared to deal with any issues that may arise.  Owners should think hard about their expectations for any dog they plan to bring into their home, and ask themselves if they would be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak, or if they are truly willing to do what it would take to keep a large, powerful and ever-suspicious dog happy and safe in that setting.

With proper management and understanding, LGDs can make good companions – in fact, they can be absolutely wonderful in that role.  Setting them up for success is the kindest and most appropriate thing that we can do for them, which sometimes means passing them over for a more suitable dog.  You can take the dog out of the working environment, but you will NEVER take the working ability out of the dog.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs,  enjoys some inside time.

Anneke, one of our working LGDs, enjoys some inside time.



Myths and Misinformation about LGDs, Part I

In 2014, I wrote and published a document that has been shared the world over regarding some of the misinformation out there regarding Livestock Guardian Dogs.  I’m currently updating it and thought it would be good to share it on here to kickoff the new change in the blog.  Since it’s a long document, I’m going to divide it into parts for easier digestion.


Myths and Misinformation about Working LGDs – Carolee Penner

1) Livestock Guardian Dogs should be raised hands off.

This is a common assumption that is wide spread in North America. We can trace this advice back to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger who, between 1977 and 1990, bred and placed more than 1400 LGDs on sheep farms and ranches across the US and Canada through their government funded Livestock Guarding Dog Project . Ray Coppinger is a biologist whose passion was studying dogs around the world and running sled dogs. The original dogs bred for the project were imported by the Coppingers from a variety of countries overseas where these dogs were traditionally used. Even though Ray Coppinger observed the dogs in their native lands and handpicked the ones for import, he failed to recognize how much the pastoral environment and group/family dynamic that the LGDs were raised in contributed to their success. As a consequence of this failure, he recommended that all LGDs should be raised hands off and kept solely with their charges from a very early age, with minimal human handling. The impact of this advice is still felt today in that raising with little human intervention is still seen among many farmers and ranchers as the ideal way to care for these dogs.

We know now that this approach has caused many dogs to lose their lives or to live in such a way that they are overly fearful or aggressive towards their owners. Good working dogs have had to be shot or are unsafe for rehoming when the operation they work on is sold or downsized. Dogs have to be lassoed or trapped for the most basic of health care or vetting and as a consequence wounds and injuries often go untreated. Dogs are unable to discern between a viable threat or the approach of someone to care for them and behave aggressively, resulting in being shot or put to sleep. Young pups can easily become overwhelmed by aggressive stock and resort to defending themselves aggressively. Adolescent dogs may try chasing stock and are deemed unsuitable for the job instead of being open to correction from their owners. In short, raising LGDs hand off is a very bad idea and results in wasted time, money and ultimately in the loss of what could be or are very valuable working dogs.


2) A Livestock Guardian Dog should automatically know what to do and not to do with the stock.

As in most misinformation, there is a kernel of truth to this. LGDs have been selected and/or bred for a long time in various countries to enhance desired traits around livestock. Since the animals they protect are naturally easily frightened by predators like dogs, LGDs have developed nearly the polar opposite body structure of the prick eared, lithe wolf or coyote. LGD ears are wide set and drooping. Their eyes have a mournful, soft or relaxed expression to avoid triggering fear in the stock. Their bodies are larger than most dogs in order to be an effective threat to predators and their heads and muzzles are round and soft, mostly lacking in chiseled angles. Their movements are naturally slow and fluid, except in the presence of a threat. When mature, they are not triggered off by the prey movements of their charges – indeed, their reduced prey drive is often evident when they are young pups and find little interest in chasing balls or playing tug. Everything about their structure and nature avoids triggering prey response in their charges and at the same time inspires confidence and security.

Raising a successful LGD is quite often dependent on guidance and input from older, more experienced dogs willing to correct inappropriate behavior and model appropriate behavior as well as input from the shepherd/owner. LGDs learn the ropes as they grow and mature – by watching, trying things out and responding to appropriate correction.  In the absence of canid role models, their owners need to step up to the plate and train them appropriately.  Given the widespread nature of #1 above, many LGD pups do not get what they need to be set up for success.

Historically, dogs with the completely wrong instinct would be culled, but it is also true that as the litters were heavily culled initially, the remaining pups would often be set up for success due to the higher amount of personal attention they received by the more experienced dogs and the shepherd. Even in our modern western approach to farming and ranching, inexperienced LGDs  and pups need to be set up for success at every turn initially in order to understand what is expected of them and so that they don’t end up in a situation they are not prepared to handle on their own.


3) Livestock Guardian Dogs need to be rehomed or killed if they hurt the livestock.

Each situation needs to be examined on its own merits, but it is true that many successful LGDs make mistakes with the stock when they are inexperienced or not yet mature. The reasons for this can range from being placed with stock that bully them when they are young to being bored as adolescents and discovering that chasing flighty stock is a fun game. Since every behavior that is practiced becomes stronger, it is very important that any unwanted behavior be caught early and appropriate changes made in the environment in order for the dog to be successful. Alternately, the dog should be corrected and/or put away when they display the behavior, but the correction must be just enough in the dog’s mind to convince them to abandon the behavior. LGDs are typically very sensitive to correction from their owners, especially when they have a good respectful relationship.  Corrections must also occur in the act, just before or just after.

In order to effect these changes, supervision is necessary to catch the dog before they mess up or in the act. When the dog cannot be directly supervised, they should be retired to a pen in or directly adjacent to the stock.  Alternately, owners can put their misbehaving pup/adolescent in with less vulnerable stock who won’t put up with the behavior.  Care must be taken to ensure for the safety of the dog if that approach is taken. If the behavior proves hard to eliminate, it may be that the correction is not sufficient or done with inappropriate timing.  It also might be that the dog is unable to comply at that time due to immaturity or health problems.  If in doubt, consult a more experienced farmer and/or trainer.

Another scenario where LGDs can be susceptible to unintentional harming of the stock is during birthing time. All LGDs should be strictly supervised or separated from birthing stock unless they have proven themselves previously and are mature. Maturity does not occur with most LGDs until closer to 3 years of age. Since there is a lot of blood and bodily fluids in the birthing process and the new babies are covered in the same, it can prove to be too tempting for immature or inexperenced dogs.  Their predatory instincts can be triggered even when trying to help the mother clean the babies, and many instances of owners coming across partially eaten newborn babies have been reported.  Some dogs naturally clean up stillborn babies, so it is important to understand that not all dogs who have been found with partially eaten newborns are doing the wrong thing.  If the owner is unsure, however, supervision is the only way to ensure that the dog is behaving appropriately.

Since both mothers and babies are the most vulnerable at birthing time, it is imperative that proper supervision or separation is enacted until the LGD has proven themselves and is fully mature. If a dog takes up going after newborn stock when they were previously reliable, they should be removed and the possibility of a dietary imbalance or other health issue should be explored.

Finally, LGDs are very orderly dogs. Much of their success as guardians relies on knowing the routine and what is normal and not normal in the environment. Therefore, introducing new stock or rehoming the dog to another operation can result in confusion about what is acceptable and not acceptable for them. Introduce new stock slowly and introduce the dog to his new environment slowly and carefully so that he has a chance to acclimate to what is expected and what is normal. Injuries may happen if this process is rushed without allowing the dog to accept and understand the new stock or environment.


4) Livestock Guardian dogs are just tools and don’t need the same care as pet dogs.

LGDs provide a much needed service on farming and ranching operations, but they ARE animals and not objects. They, like the stock on the farm/ranch, need good input (food, water, vaccinations, deworming) and regular care in order to produce good output for the farmer or rancher.  If farmers are not willing to put time, effort and money into their dogs, it is highly likely that the dogs’ ability to perform will be negatively impacted.  It is the wise producer who realizes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping animals, and in this, LGDs are no exception.

Good physical structure is just as important for LGDs, since they are just as prone to having chronic pain due to badly formed bodies as any other animal. LGDs do have a naturally high tolerance for discomfort and pain, in other words, they are very stoic.  However, this does not mean that they don’t suffer, just that producers may have to look a little harder to find evidence of the suffering.  It often displays as aberrant behavior – being picky at mealtimes, sudden aggression, moving slower to get up and a reluctance to sit or lie down, being off by themselves, etc.

Rest is vital to the optimal performance of LGDs.  Many producers under stock their dogs, thinking that one dog can take care of a flock alone or that few can take care of large flocks on range.   While a producer’s individual predator pressure needs to be taken into account, in general, these dogs need a partner to trade off with and in the case of range work, need others to back them up in any battles they encounter.  It may look as though the dogs aren’t doing much when they are observed in the daytime, but it is important to note that most of their duties are performed between dusk and dawn, when predators are most active.  In order for the dogs to get appropriate rest, especially during seasons when predator pressure is high, they must be kept in pairs or groups.

 5) Anyone who has been running these dogs for a while on their operation will understand them well.

Due to their substantial independent natures, farmers and ranchers can have and work LGDs for years and still not understand them or care for them very well. A good indicator of a producer’s understanding of their LGD is the relationship the dog has with them. Evident fear of or aggression towards their owner are not signs of a good relationship. Another indicator is if the dog is in good shape and easily approachable. No one who respects or understands their LGDs well will keep them in poor condition or be unable to put their hands on them. Heavy chains or feral behavior are both warning signs to look for on a visit.

Up next: Part II


A dog is a dog is a dog….

It’s the New Year (2014, time marches on!) and it’s feeling like high time for a little less philosipherizing and a little more down to earth dog talk.   In particular, I’d like to chat about breeds, and whether a dog can be reasonably said to be a dog like any other in our modern world.  Just for the purposes of this narrow conversation, we’ll forget about the 85% of all dogs on the planet (nearly a billion) who live beyond strict breeding control and concentrate on the other 15% that we most commonly encounter and work with.

Some of the former population spills into the latter category simply because some of the dogs that developed in a certain area through natural selection were found to be beneficial to the human population, and continued selection for those desired traits resulted in what was sometimes eventually considered a breed.  Part of the appeal and popularity of dogs to us human primates has come in the form of their usefulness to us; certainly it is not any great shock to the psyche that we seek out and care better for those who do something for us in return.  Truth be told, the continuation of dogs as a species can be directly linked to their amazing ability to mold into a form that does something, either directly or indirectly, for us.  A bit like the subservient individual who ingratiates himself to the all powerful overlord by doing something for him, dogs have made themselves a permanent part of our world.  John Bradshaw in his book, Dog Sense, argues that perhaps the time has come for us to look to our more modern needs rather than our historical ones when it comes to purposely breeding them, but the fact remains that our species mucked and mucked until we came up with dogs who look like and act like what we wanted for certain purposes… and that continues to this day.  Let’s, for the fun of it, take a look at some of the results of our mucking.


Credit: Animal Planet

Credit: Animal Planet



Credit: Animal Planet

Credit: Animal Planet



…and oh, yeah, this:

What an amazing job we have done over the years to make so many different breeds with such a wide range of sizes and abilities.  Perhaps the greater kudos go to the dogs themselves as they are the ones who have proven to be so amenable to what we wanted from them.  In short, it’s clear to see that the purpose of, say, a Siberian Husky is not the same as, say, a Pug – and yet they are both dogs.   (If you’re inclined to know more about how this is possible, here’s a bit on it – and for my geekier friends, here .)

So what’s my point?  Everyone knows that dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  A small child could tell you that some dogs are big, others are tiny, that some dogs have smooshed faces and others have long pointy noses.  Not great fodder for a blog post, is it – certainly I must be digging at the bottom of the barrel to come up with this one?

I’m not, and I truly wish I were.  One thing that I had hoped wasn’t happening, but clearly is in our pursuit of the “science” in everything, is the rise of the idea that a dog is a dog is a dog.  All dog are apparently the same.   In the conversations surrounding dog training, the fact that we are dealing with purpose bred breeds more often than not is a simple fact that is far too often overlooked and sometimes blatantly disregarded.   While I’m among the first to understand that we cannot attribute a whole set of characteristics to every individual in a breed, I believe there is a bigger reason for it than the one commonly given.  It only makes sense that if a certain breed is either a) not well established to type initially or b) becomes very popular and therefore is overbred by less than scrupulous breeders, then of course the resulting dogs will not mostly carry the same indepth qualities.  In fact, in practice, we see less larger differences in breed and more smaller differences in individuals, likely because in order to be considered of a certain breed and therefore useful to a market, the dogs will have to at least reasonably be identifiable as that breed.  Some traits are harder to retain than others, so there are certainly no hard and fast rules here… but overall, you can reasonably assume at least some common characteristics.   So, again, why is this important?  To answer that, I’m going to have to back up a bit, so bear with me.

I strongly believe in a holistic view of training, and a relationship approach to living with our dogs.  I’ve not been one who has owned only one breed or type of dog, so I have lived with and continue to live with many dogs of different sizes, types and temperaments.  Opening your home to any dog in need and subsequently caring for them while they are in bad places in their lives means that you quickly learn that not all dogs are motivated in the same way or by the same things.    Living this way and working this way becomes a crash course in doing what works, and doing it quickly and practically.   You learn to listen to the dog before you, not the dog that was or could be – just this one, right here, right now.  Some of my most challenging dogs have been ones who are of a specific breed, or who are crosses who have more prominent traits from one side or the other (or both), and the way I’ve learned to unlock the best for those dogs is to learn about their breed and act accordingly.  While I don’t argue that for the most part, teaching a dog to sit on cue is done the same way in a Golden Retriever as in a Bloodhound, the greater challenges in life don’t lie in teaching a sit.  They lie in the communication between us and the dog, the engagement as it were, in the day to day.  The traits of a Bloodhound can explain why I might have a harder time retaining his attention when he’s caught a scent, and the traits of a Golden Retriever can help me understand why Goldie tries to “hug” every person who comes in my door.  In the same way, breed can help me decide whether a dog is a good fit for my home – a small fact that seems to be lost on some rescuers.

The most concerning thing for me regarding the idea that all dogs are the same is that it’s costing some dogs their lives, and causing others to live in environments completely unsuited to them.  Some people seem completely baffled by the breed traits their dogs are displaying, and others seem to respond by setting out to prove that they can usurp the traits and make a dog behave contrarily to their natural predisposition.  “I have a such and such type dog and I don’t understand why all my efforts to modify their behavior have come to nothing!”, is a common refrain from dog owners.  Certainly they should be able to get help from those of us who say we help with such things, right?  Considering the fact that I have seen and heard far too many trainers themselves baffled  by what are clearly identifiable breed traits show, I am less than certain of our ability to help effectively.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the cases where dogs are behaving aggressively or destructively because they are so misunderstood by their humans.   We should never be compounding that issue by failing to understand them ourselves.

The breed of the dog I’m working with can tell me so much about their view on the world – both physically and psychologically.  The better I can understand them, the better I can meet their needs and the more effectively I can adjust my communication so it resonates with them and results in what we’re both looking for:  a mutually satisfying relationship.   Even from a purely cerebral standpoint, it makes no logical sense to conclude that all dogs are the same when we’ve made such efforts to make them so different from each other.

The larger and more appropriate question might be: why and how did this idea gain traction?  To answer that properly would take more time than you or I are willing to give in this one sitting, but suffice it to say that strict behaviorism is a very appealing concept to some people.  Behaviorism is defined as: “the theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.”  Addressing behavior in a cookie cutter way can be a useful strategy for some things, and is, but falls woefully short when you get into the complexities of life.  Before you bring it up, I’m aware that in some circles this opinion isn’t a popular one, but I have never been one to refrain from saying something that needed to be said out of concern regarding the reaction.  My greater concern is for the dogs and the things they are being subjected to because we’re refusing to see the bigger picture.

A final point.  There is a badly misconceived notion circulating that because we can use food to have wild animals comply with some of our requests, all beings on the planet learn the same and therefore are the same.  This is a larger, more confusing parallel to the “dog is a dog is a dog” hypothesis.  What fails to come to light in such conversations is the immense limitations of the successes.  Animals are still animals.  Feeding wild birds food by hand to make them “less aggressive” can backfire and make them more so when the feeding stops.  Clicking and treating a zoo resident to hold still for an injection is still always done with a barrier and at arms length because it doesn’t change who or what that animal is.  For more interesting reading on this topic, take the time to read this oldie but goodie from the Brelands, pioneers in operant conditioning and its applications.  Taken from the link:

Three of the most important of these tacit assumptions seem to us to be: that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli.

It is obvious, we feel, from the foregoing account, that these assumptions are no longer tenable. After 14 years of continuous conditioning and observation of thousands of animals, it is our reluctant conclusion that the behavior of any species cannot be adequately understood, predicted, or controlled without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche.





Dude, I hate you because you don’t agree with me….

I am constantly amazed at the places conversations go to on social media.  I’m sure it is no different in any passionate circles such as stamp collecting or pet rock ownership (seriously, have you seen the drama on the Canning pages on FB?) , but all aspects of the dog world are quite famous  for frequent episodes of infighting , dramatic gestures and grand proclamations.   So I really shouldn’t be surprised that if anything, it is worse on social media outlets than in “real life”.


At one point in my life I decided I would like to show dogs, GSDs in particular.  I fell in love with the idea of improving on and preserving a breed and with the comraderie I imagined I saw at the shows.  I use the word ‘imagine’, because it is quite literally the only word that could describe what I was doing – living in my imagination.  While I would never paint all breeders and show people with a broad brush (but if I did at the time, it would have likely been black), my experiences in those tumultuous years left a very bad taste in my mouth.  If I had been looking for a crash course in back stabbing, lying and how to form highly questionable motives I would have been in luck.  Unfortunately for my pocketbook and my sanity, I was looking for what my vivid imagination had prescribed – support and working together for the betterment of the dogs.  I think the word I am looking for to describe my viewpoint at that time is: naive.

Luckily, I didn’t give up on dogs all together and sorted out a path of my own (that currently doesn’t involve a show ring) where I have encountered a number of amazing people (including a few wonderful breeders/show people) who feel just as strongly as I do about dogs, specifically regarding their behavior and their welfare.  It hasn’t been an easy road by any means however.  Politics, egos, a plethora of badly executed or underinformed literature and hero worship have all been serious hurdles and potholes on my journey.  By far the most difficult, however, has been the far too common human tendency towards line blurring during discussions or debates – the one that causes people to put out contracts on each other and dream of running them over with their lawn mowers.  Yes, I’m talking about the inability to separate the desire to prove one’s point and attacking the person who has an opposing view.

Pauwel 'Paul' De Vos - Dogs Fighting, 1620

Pauwel ‘Paul’ De Vos – Dogs Fighting, 1620

Are we, in this area, any different than our dogs?  In reward based training circles we talk often about how to increase harmony between our dogs and marvel often at their efforts to avoid conflict.    We talk about how important it is to encourage generosity and kindness in this other species we are so devoted to, and yet behave too often like scrapping canines in full display of territorial aggression.  “My opinion is the best!” we proclaim (and very rarely back it up any further than with pop literature or references to our heroes who may or may not be themselves well informed)  – “My experience trumps yours and yours and yours…” .  “My dogs can do such and such and were never so much as looked at sideways.” says one party.  “Well, my dogs needed something different so I gave it to them.” says another.  ” If you had only more experience or more skill or more Wheaties for breakfast, you could be like me.” trumpets the first contributor.  ” You’re both wrong – not to mention, a couple of morons!” a third party exclaims.  And….. we’re off….

Unfortunately this race has a lot of casualties it can’t afford, not the least of whom are the bystanders silently listening.  We often forget that social media isn’t confined to our living rooms, despite the fact that we are sitting in ours wearing our chocolate stained pyjamas.  We aren’t on the phone with our mothers and we’re not in a closed room with the other people commenting on our posts.  We are, in fact, in front of a large, mostly silent audience, writing permanent phrases that are easily copied, shared and forever etched on the minds of people we don’t even know.  It’s been a while now, but I still remember reading an emphatic response to one of my early and tentative questions – a response that cut me down to size through the use of some pretty harsh language and which ended in a statement about my capabilities as a trainer… all based on very little information.  Thinking about it now gives me a very visceral response – it had that much impact on me.  I have to wonder how it affected other people who were reading that thread and considering whether or not to post their stories.


The truth is, we are passionate people who will never agree on many of the details of dog stuff – and neither should we.  This past year at the SPARCS 2013 conference held in Seattle, Washington, Adam Miklosi gave one of the most compelling and important talks I had heard in a very long time, all about how diversity in scientific circles is so very critical to the health of science as a whole.  He argued that those who believe in what couldn’t be explained are just as vital as those who require unimpeachable proof.  Together, they keep each other striving for better understanding and inspire the evolution of thought and method, which in turn strengthens their institution.   I believe strongly that we can borrow of this wisdom to better our canine communities.   While there are some absolutes on which we should all agree (and likely do already), we do not need to have everyone agree with us about every detail in order to live and interact in harmony, or at least without plotting to blow one another up.   I truly believe that diversity makes the world a beautiful place, a wondrous place;  a place where we can continue to learn and grow – and yes, defend our viewpoints with passion but never lose respect for the worth in the views of our neighbor.

I challenge you to not allow your passion and “right fighting” to keep us from working together for the welfare of our canine friends.  When the public is being innundated as they are with the confusing methods and dominance theory spouted by the likes of Cesar Millan and Nat Geo, it is far beyond time we look for the good in each other and help each other to grow, learn and become productive proponents of this kinder method of training.  The dogs are the ones who will benefit.

No small victory on social media is worth jeopardizing that.


SDs and Coppinger

I have service dogs on the brain.  Not literally, of course, but as I have children with physical needs who may benefit in the future from specially selected and trained service dogs… I often find myself thinking about them.  It’s a bit like when you are thinking of buying a car and see the kind you’re thinking of absolutely everywhere… or you’re pregnant and all you seem to run into are newborns.  I see service dogs everywhere.


Credit Wikipedia

I have recently been reading Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution (written by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger), more specifically the chapter entitled “Assistance Dogs” .  The book is an all encompassing look at working dogs, giving some very interesting and global views of dogs in the world as they have evolved over time.  In true Coppinger fashion, the chapter on service dogs comes from a very practical point of view: considering the welfare of the dogs involved in terms of their health, training methods and ongoing usage has a central focus.  Considering that any attempts to cast a pall on an industry that is considered highly heroic in nature are automatically met with defensiveness, I am truly glad that the Coppinger duo included it in their book.  Ray Coppinger outlined many of the questions I have been struggling with for some time about the use of assistance dogs.  Specifically:

Is assistance dog work mutually beneficial?

Can service dogs appropriately help children?

Should assistance dog programs be breeding or using rescued dogs?

Are there physical or ethical limitations to what a service dog should be used for?


Credit Canadian Service Dog Foundation


Considering how much time, work and money go into raising and training service dogs, how their use and applications are expanding, and how long the wait lists are for most SD (service dog) organizations…. the pressure is on for any dogs in these programs.  Coppinger states: “All the agencies I have consulted with wish they had more dogs.  Their common complaint is the lack of dogs suitable for training.”.  Further, he comments: “If supply could meet demand, it could well be that in the twenty-first century the service dogs will constitute the major types of working dogs…..  Mainly, service dogs are mass-produced in assembly-line fashion, by agencies.  Over half the dogs that enter the system fail.  The failure rate is due in part to abnormally high levels of “genetic” disease, to the inability of many dogs to respond properly to classical or instrumental conditioning, and to high stress levels created by rearing and training programs.”

Nothing I can distill here can replace the breadth of the chapter, which is well worth the read for anyone exploring this topic.  I can, however, share a few of the main points:

– The major mobility SD organizations breed and raise their own dogs.  Breeding dogs do just that and their pups are sterilized before being matched for working.  Genetic issues are showing up more and more over time so some organizations don’t start their training program until they can safely rule out that the dog is affected.  With structural problems (ie. hip dysplasia), this can mean delaying training for 18 months.

– Scenting, hearing and therapy dogs are often gleaned through rescue.

– SAR (search and rescue), police dogs and bomb detection dogs are usually bought from breeders.

– Regardless of origin, at least 50% fail to become full fledged working dogs.  This figure encompasses both health and behavioral issues.  Coppinger theorizes that one of the main reasons for failure due to behavior problems is due to the use of aversive-conditioning techniques.  In Karen Pryor’s book, Reaching the Animal Mind, Pryor claims that through the use of food training, certain organizations have been able to raise their success rate from 35% to 45-65% and with the addition of clicker training (reward based marker training), as high as 85%.  This would certainly seem to bear out Coppinger’s theory.

– When dogs are raised for SD work, they are often raised in a piecemeal fashion (kennel as pups to foster home to kennel with trainer) with little to no regard for appropriate socialization.  “There does not seem to be much institutional realization that in every other field of working dogs, the good ones are carefully developed from tiny puppies.  … I have asked the personnel at several agencies if they had read the classic Scott and Fuller work on critical period for social development.  One geneticist had “heard of it.” That would be like me saying, “Oh, yes, I have heard of Darwin.” End of conversation.”  – Coppinger

– There is no intrinsic motivation for a dog to excel at service work.  Since there is no evidence supporting the idea that dogs doing the work are aware of what they are accomplishing, what is the reward for doing SD work?  It must be external.   As Coppinger rightly points out, sled dogs “run to near-exhaustion because it is socially rewarding to run and be with other running dogs.” So what is the reward for SD work?

Based on what I’ve shared, you might conclude that Coppinger is not a fan of using dogs for assistance work.  That would be an conclusion I don’t want to leave you with, as it would be leading you in the wrong direction.   In fact, he argues that this is one of the most exciting fields for enhancing dog-human relationship – but that we need to make a concerted effort to redesign the system as it currently stands.  I have to say that I fully agree with him.  There are some amazing organizations such as Canine Assistants, focused on the global benefit of their dogs from before they are born and equally dedicated to the use of positive and reward based methods of training.  In order to prevent enslavement of dogs in this industry, we all must care about how SDs are trained and cared for. I truly hope that we can follow Coppinger’s lead and ask for widespread reform that strives towards true mutuality – I know that’s the only way that I can feel comfortable with my children living with assistance dogs.

Credit Canine Assistants

Credit Canine Assistants