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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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