Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


3 Comments

Correction

This is a long post, out of necessity. I need to be as clear and comprehensive as possible, so that you not only understand the reasoning behind the corrections but also how and when to implement them. Please read it as many times as necessary to feel confident about these things and feel free to comment or message me with any questions, comments or stories on this topic. 

One of the most important things to learn to do when raising and training LGDs of all ages is the art of binary feedback. Binary in this case refers to two distinct parts of information or input: positive and negative. For those who read the previous post about Skinner’s four quadrants of operant conditioning, and who want to put the binary feedback under them – what I’m referring mainly to is positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Remember, if you will, that positive in this case doesn’t mean emotionally positive, instead it means “adding”. Positive reinforcement means to add reinforcement (or reward) and positive punishment means to add punishment (or correction).

Before we start into the hows and whens of corrections, let me touch on the opposite side of the binary feedback system – that of reinforcement. The word reinforcement is often used interchangeably with rewards, which is both helpful and unhelpful. For many people, the word reward brings to mind treats or “dog cookies” and not much else. For some people it also makes them think of dogs who are demanding or out of control, unable to behave unless the owner gives them a treat. I won’t go into too much detail today on the subject of reinforcement/rewards, but I will say that there are many kinds of reinforcement/rewards available to us to use when communicating with our dogs. Essentially, anything that a dog finds satisfying, desires or otherwise will work to attain is inherently rewarding/reinforcing for them. This can be anything from food to affection to freedom.  Watch your dog and see what they seek out apart from basic needs (we don’t use shelter, water or access to minimal amounts of food as reinforcement). These are their reinforcers/rewards. Observe your pup when you bring them a small scrap of meat and toss it to them – do they perk up and pounce on it? That’s a good indicator that it’s what we call a high value item (something they really, really want). Do they seek you out for a pet or to put their paw on you (Great Pyrs, especially, are known for this)? This indicates that they enjoy affection and close connection. LGDs quite commonly find praise from their owners to be very rewarding as well – does yours turn towards you and look interested when you speak to them kindly? Listen to your dog.

HOW

As a general rule, I am a strong proponent of the 80/20 feedback system. This rule was developed for human parenting purposes and states that 80% of the input you give your children should be positive in nature, while the negative input should be restricted to 20%. It has proven itself to be very helpful and as I’ve found, equally as beneficial for raising and keeping dogs. It keeps the balance of the relationship solidly on the positive side while still being effective at stopping inappropriate behavior. This means that the bulk of the communication from human to dog should be positive, while the remainder can be negative if necessary. Personally, I work to get the 80% of positive interaction/input higher and higher over time, and it is good to note that this should happen naturally as the dog matures. It’s true that there will be times when the balance seems really off, times when dogs are testing the boundaries or just generally acting up – adolescence can be one of these times. Sometimes, during teaching phases, the negative input will feel very strong and difficult to do. As long as the dog has a fairly clear understanding of what should be done instead or guidance is given in the moment, this feeling needs to be overcome. We often make more of a mess by anthropomorphizing (placing human feels and motivations on animals) and over compensating for dogs than we do by being clear and firm with the boundaries. Allowing a small pup to behave in a way that we wouldn’t want an adolescent to, for instance, by jumping on people or chasing/mouthing stock leads to confusion on the part of the dog as they grow and the rules suddenly change. The amount of force/effort needed to correct a an older dog is typically much more than is needed with a pup. This is also why LGD pups are wired to learn well from early experiences. No one has time or energy to spend getting an adolescent in line and teaching them about being a working dog from square one. It’s frustrating, ripe for side effects and requires nerves of steel – not for the amateur.

The sooner the lessons are learned, the better. That said, lessons must be age appropriate. Tailor your expectations to the life stage of the dog; quite simply, an 8 wk old pup cannot be expected to never make a mistake. They just don’t know any better and have a low capacity for self control. Notice that I don’t say that they have NO self control, just that it’s less in both amount and length. This is also why it’s vitally important that pups grow up with good, fair mothers and in litters that help them learn the basics of impulse control. The breeder in the developed world plays a large part in the development of self control as well, especially if the pups do not have access to real world experience. Objectively assessing your pup(s) after they arrive at your home (or before!) at 8+ wks is very important – how much of this training have they received? Are they displaying an ability to handle frustration or to control their behavior when required? Do you have older dogs who can help them learn proper social language and how to grow self control? I have actually used my teacher house dogs in a controlled way to teach pups I’ve gotten in who lack age-appropriate behavior control. I would venture to say that if this is not accomplished early on, pain and frustration inevitably follow. It is one of the non-negotiables that all pups MUST learn. Learning self control is not a panacea that will ensure all LGD pups are successful, but it certainly weights the odds in that direction. Proper self control and social behavior (not playing with livestock, deferring to older LGDs through submissive behavior, soliciting peer play away from the stock or being careful around them, lowering body language when interacting with stock, not fighting picking fights over food/resources, refraining from endlessly seeking out the stimulation of play or physical connection, learning to “turn off” and relax) are vital skills for LGDs. Waiting until they mature to insist on these behaviors in any consistent way is not only counter intuitive and a complete waste of time, but also leads to selecting for dogs who cannot function as LGDs until they are grown.

The other important thing I adhere to when providing feedback of any kind is to ensure I make my feedback very distinct and clear. I have a rather calm baseline that I’ve developed extensively over time living with dogs. Most people I know who live with a lot of dogs find that this is the best way to ensure they don’t accidentally feed excited energy into their dogs’ behavior. It also has the added benefit of lending itself well to provide clear lines of voice control and body language for feedback/input. My dogs know well when I’m happy with them, my voice becomes a bit higher and more soothing in nature. My body language is inviting, open and positive – I smile so that the smile comes through in my voice. I offer my hand to them to smell, I pat their head or stroke their side. I will often hold their heads, look into their eyes and tell them just how wonderful I think they are (please do not do this with a dog you do not know well or one that has proven themselves to be aggressive with humans – they can take direct eye contact as a threat). This positive input is not the same as being excited. That is much more animated, both in voice and body language and reserved for when I’m inviting them to play or I want to motivate them – something that is typically not done around the stock or in the case of my house dogs, in the house.

This clear distinction in voice pitch and body language means that the first steps in conditioning correction are easy to achieve. LGDs especially understand the change in tone and intent of tense body language. Their social language with each other, as is the case with many working dog types, is very overt and clear-cut. A content LGD will have a low, sweeping tail, and a relaxed body that is balanced equally over their four legs. Their faces will also be relaxed, often with a hint of a wrinkled smile in the corners of their mouths and eyes. Their ears will be neither pricked forward or held back, instead, they will be floppy and relaxed. They will move neither backward or forward intently when approached. When they lie down, they will often “flop” down and sigh deeply.

An excited LGD may be so for various reasons, but their body language is fairly consistent. Their ears will be pushed forward, their eyebrows lifted up. If they are happy and excited, they will often dip into a “play bow”, their bums up in the air and their fronts in a lying down position. Their bodies will be bouncy, as will their tails, even going into a helicopter blade motion – around and around. They may vocalize with a higher pitch or whine. If they are excited due to the presence of a predator or because they are anticipating something, the balance of their weight will shift to being over their front legs. This makes them look like they are leaning forward and could leap into motion in a split second. It also serves to make them look bigger and more intimidating, which means that they use this pose when correcting each other or as a way to signal intent for conflict. In this case, their bodies will stiffen and their eyes will widen significantly. The sides of their mouths will pull back, but in a different way than if they are happy. The corners of their mouths and eyes will be very tight and hard. Depending on the severity of the intent, a growl may precede or follow these body changes. The growl may be slight and come from higher up in the throat with a significant pause to see if the offender will change their behavior or it may start low, come from the chest and rise in tone and strength. If physical conflict follows, it usually is swift and fierce; it is not uncommon for people who are not aware of the other signs to claim that the physical attack came “out of the blue”. Generally, the attacks are very loud and full bodied – slamming into each other, working to push each other over or going over the back of the other dog so they can gain the advantage of having higher purchase. It is not often that any real damage is done before the conflict is resolved, commonly it is confined to a maximum of tooth punctures. Ears and throats are favorite targets, as is the back of the neck. If a LGD goes for the throat or belly, they are very serious about their attack and fully intend to cause a lot of harm or even to kill their opponent. This is not a routine course of behavior for a LGD, but can appear when mature males or females fight for rank and territory. A dog who pretends that all is well, sidles up beside another dog (or much less commonly, a human) and then attacks with lightening speed is a dog who is not displaying any appropriate social behavior whatsoever – we call this predatory aggression, something commonly selected for with dogs bred to fight.

Living socially within a group of dogs (as is common with LGDs kept for larger operations, in breeding operations and in their countries of origin) and with prey animals requires a high level of social competency. Two sets of interactive behavior are required – one with their charges and one with their fellow working dogs. There is a lot of overlap, however and the one consistent factor is the ability to read tone and body language appropriately. We can harness this ability to read tone and body language and to learn from single events when correcting them effectively. We are not trying to replicate LGD behavior when we do so (as some may claim), but we are doing our best to speak their language in order to communicate clearly with them. LGDs typically start out their corrections with plenty of warning, which means that the one being corrected has a lot of time to change their behavior before things escalate. This is especially true with very young pups, who are given what we call a “puppy pass” by older LGDs for much of their overly enthusiastic behavior. They will be corrected for going too far, though.

The correction will typically start low and slow and “ratchet” up if the pup doesn’t listen (this is the warning system). Depending on the dog, the start could be very quiet, almost under their breath.  Most pups only need things to escalate once or twice before they learn that the early warning signs will be followed by physical correction. Typically this portion culminates in a loud roar alongside a leap over top of the pup, standing over them. Often times this is combined with the older dog placing their mouth directly and widely over the muzzle of the pup and holding it to the ground. The pup is meant to hold still and “give” to their elder. Quite often, the older LGD will not remove themselves from the pup or allow them to get up until they are satisfied that enough submissive behavior has been displayed and that the message is solidly received. Unlike the mythical “alpha rolling” technique, the correction is wholly controlled by the one being corrected. They hold themselves to the ground (no LGD lies on another to keep them down) and either offer appropriate apologetic behavior or don’t. If they don’t, as is sometimes the case when the dog being corrected is an adolescent or young adult, the older dog will repeat their attack until they do.  It is important to know that as young pups mature, the tolerance portion or “puppy pass” for their silly or excited behavior disappears. If it doesn’t, it is quite likely that the older LGD isn’t up for the job of sole disciplinarian or needs some guidance.

It is also very important to understand that LGDs have a system of fairness for corrections. Small infractions result in smaller corrections or a longer warning phase. Large, serious infractions result in no or a very short warning phase. The dogs inherently understand this from the time they are little, which is why it does not destroy relationships between dogs or even with humans when it’s applied. Random, very harsh corrections as some people are fond of doing with their dogs (often also inappropriate for life stages) result in a confused dog who loses trust in their leader. This is what people talk about most when they talk about corrections going awry. Using corrections/negative feedback as the bulk of the interactions with your LGD (flipping the 80/20 rule around, for instance) will also result in a frustrated dog who learns that humans are difficult to please. The working partnership requires that we teach with benevolence – and correcting appropriately is a part of that kindness.

When we humans correct, we must have in our minds what the “minor” infractions are, what the “major” ones are and what life stage our dogs are in. We must construct the environment for as much success as possible (don’t put dogs in no win situations with stock), feed our dogs well and care well for their health. We must ensure they know where we want them to be (don’t have the dog on your bed one night and in with the stock the next, don’t move them randomly from one stock group to another) and what their jobs are. If you want them in with stock when mature, have them in with stock from a young age. This doesn’t mean they can’t be kept separate at times, but ensure that they understand why it is or at least keep it short and work it out to integrate them back in a reasonable period of time. The corrections should start in the way that an LGD elder would do, low and slow for minor infractions and high and swift for large ones. The amount of force and effort required will be determined by the dog themselves – some give easily to a verbal correction (a sharp, low tone with an angry inflection) such as “NO” or “HEY” or “UH” while others require a higher level just to initially acknowledge you. The easiest way to condition this tone is to ensure that you always use the same one, in the same tone (vary in intensity for intent) and follow with body language. Shift your body forward in the upper torso (lean forward) and step into the pup while saying it or immediately after. Raise your eyebrows and look directly at them. If the pup doesn’t stop what they are doing or give ground to you, narrow your eyes and tense your mouth/facial expression. Increase the volume of your chosen correction word/sound and make it deeper. Step towards them. If this doesn’t result in the desired behavior, stride toward the pup and physically stop them/remove them. Express your disapproval of their choice not to listen by shaking your head at them and muttering disapproving words under your breath. If they immediately return to the behavior, remove them without a word and either place them in a pen, on a chain or outside the environment for a short period. Remember that a short time can feel like a very long time to a small pup or adolescent.

Alternately, if it’s an inanimate object they are being inappropriate with, remove it from them. Put it where they can’t access it, or block access to it with your body. Cross your arms, plant your feet solidly and lean forward with the aforementioned facial expression and tone if the pup doesn’t sit back or leave. This is helpful for situations such as where pups are beginning to refuse stock access to water or food. If they try to go around you, move in front of them. If they keep trying, drive them off with large arm motions and by increasing your tone to a yell. In a pinch, and when you can’t get to a dog in time to stop a behavior, throw something beside them that makes a noise or bang on the bottom of a pail to get their attention. Do not hit the dog with the object or with anything else, including your hand.

When the pup shows that they are no longer trying to repeat the behavior, when they sit/lie back on the ground, or when they show other submissive behavior such as curving their bodies around to you in a semi circle, lift one front paw toward you cautiously, lick their lips, look toward the ground – relent. Relax your body language. Soften your facial expression and raise the tone of your voice back to the calm middle ground. If you had a hard time getting through to them about the behavior or you were unable to, you can choose not to speak to them or acknowledge them at all for a while. This sort of social isolation is very effective with LGDs. If you’ve cultivated a bond with them based on companionship and positive reinforcement, they will take your refusal to acknowledge them very seriously.  Forgive them by using your friendly body language and tone – very quickly for young pups and within a reasonable amount of time for older dogs. Don’t be surprise that if, when you choose to interact with them again, they respond with great enthusiasm. Falling out of favor is a very strong correction for many LGDs – and often is enough to stop them from repeating the behavior again.

Once a pup knows that you will follow through from the starting point of tone to stepping into them, removing them or blocking them – and especially with removing your affection, they will begin to respond quickly and well to the tone of your voice and your verbal correction word/sound. This may require a few times of following through and refreshers as they go through adolescence, but it will make your life much easier overall. When you can stop behavior from a pup or dog with a word from the house or across the yard, it lowers your work load and keeps them more reliable. If you are in closer proximity to them, start by speaking as softly and coolly as possible (don’t make it personal), allowing your facial expressions and body language to do the work of convincing them of your seriousness. Eventually this will result in being able to just speak your correction word/sound in a soft tone without any of the rest.

Some infractions and just some dogs in general, require harsher corrections. This is partly because the nature of the behavior is so dangerous (or could become extremely dangerous over time), but also partly because the harshness of the correction tells the dog that this behavior will never be tolerated. There is never a time, for example, that chasing stock is acceptable. Some people will tell you that any “inappropriate” glance at stock should be corrected in this way, but I strongly disagree. Others will tell you that every behavior should be treated equally, with the same rote low level corrections, but I equally disagree with that. Both approaches have a high likelihood of failure. How do you know if your corrections are too harsh or are ineffective? That is easily sorted out. Is the behavior disappearing? Then you’re being effective. Does your dog seem confused or frustrated or are they starting to avoid you entirely or suck up to you obsessively? Then you are being too unfair and too harsh. The dog will always tell you.

Examples of harsh, higher level corrections are scruffing (grabbing the skin on either side of the dog’s face and getting very loud and angry in their face), yanking swiftly and strongly on a prong or slip collar (I very much prefer the prong for this if it’s used), using stim or vibrate on an e collar (use a reliable, very multi-level collar and know what level your dog finds aversive – LGDs typically hate vibrate more than stim as vibrate can actually send them into a panic-  they will respond well to very low levels of stim), pushing them over onto their side and refusing to allow them up (do not lie on them, that can also cause them to panic and it is not well understood by dogs) until they “give”, isolating them by placing them in a pen or on a line alone for long periods, and getting very loud and angry with them, driving them back over a large area or up against a vertical object.

I cannot emphasize the following enough:

NO HIGH LEVEL OF CORRECTION SHOULD BE DONE WITH A DOG WHERE THERE IS NO BOND DEVELOPED BETWEEN HUMAN AND DOG. NO HIGH LEVEL OF CORRECTION SHOULD BE DONE WITH A DOG WHO HAS DISPLAYED HUMAN AGGRESSION SUCH AS GROWLING, LUNGING OR BITING. SEEK OUT PROFESSIONAL, LGD EXPERIENCED HELP FOR SUCH AGGRESSIVE DOGS.

The only exception to the second warning, that of dogs who have displayed aggression toward humans, is to do with young pups. Serious corrections for these pups can make the difference between life and death, provided they are done fairly, swiftly, and they are able to make amends afterwards. This is not an exaggeration.

ALL HIGH LEVEL CORRECTIONS MUST BE DONE WHEN THE BEHAVIOR IS HAPPENING OR IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARDS. THERE IS NO BENEFIT TO HIGH LEVEL CORRECTIONS LONG AFTER THE FACT, AND THERE IS GREAT POTENTIAL FOR HARM IN DOING SO. DOGS DO NOT HAVE THE REASONING ABILITY NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND DELAYED CONSEQUENCES.

This is also why penning or isolating for long periods of time doesn’t work as some people claim it does.

Finally, for minor infractions, remember that pups and dogs who are learning will make mistakes. Pups will make more of them, simply because their memories can be short, their self control easily depleted and their desires very strong. They are the mental equivalent of small children – and we would not expect them to do high level reasoning or sit through a board meeting without something to amuse them. Luckily for us, pups mature much more quickly than human children do, so the requirements can keep pace on an accelerated schedule. Pups over 4 months of age should be able to be in with stock (the exception may be with chickens) for long periods without major issues. They may regress at certain times as they mature (9 months and 18 months are particular hotspots), but reminders should get them back on track.

Keeping this all in mind, start from low on the scale and ratchet up over again when a young pup displays a minor infraction, even if you just corrected for that behavior this morning and yesterday. If it was just a few moments ago, consider being more effective and using management more – separate and supervise for short periods perhaps. As they get older, start a little higher on the scale and consider a harsher correction if the behavior hasn’t fallen out of their repertoire. Again, ensure that they have their basic needs met – if that doesn’t happen, it will increase the likelihood of inappropriate behavior.

Sometimes, high levels of correction will require “set-ups”. By that, I mean, setting up interactions and the environment so that the behavior will appear. Correcting a pup for chasing stock will require them to be in close proximity to that stock. Consider doing this for behaviors that you don’t see in routine life, but you see evidence of (dead poultry, frazzled stock, pulled wool, etc). It is also helpful when training to “hot” or electric wire fences – ensuring the dog gets a good zap by tying food to the wire is an example of this. The best way to handle these things is directly head on. Don’t let time pass without addressing it, especially if you see continual evidence of the behavior.

WHEN

These are lists of minor and major infractions that in my opinion require correction. These lists are not by any means exhaustive, but they are some of the most common inappropriate behaviors.

Minor:

  • jumping up to greet people/jumping on people
  • being pushy at feeding time
  • demanding constant attention
  • beginning to guard the stock’s food, shelter or water from them
  • soliciting play from stock
  • licking stock intently
  • staring hard at stock
  • pushing into stock
  • being rowdy around stock
  • picking a fight with another pup around stock
  • refusing to wait at gates after being taught how to
  • pushing in at the home door
  • refusing to wait calmly when tied for short times
  • breaking out of a pen
  • running away (should not be corrected at all if recall has not been taught)

Major:

  • chasing stock (of any kind)
  • mouthing (placing their mouths on) the stock
  • biting the stock
  • mounting the stock
  • not allowing an individual or small group of stock freedom of movement
  • escaping the pasture fence to roam or muck around (my Ivy has escaped the pasture to come to the house and tell me of an injured or sick animal)
  • knocking a person or stock over
  • being enthusiastic around stock that leads to injury or the potential for injury
  • obsessively harassing elderly or weaker LGDs
  • “stealing” babies from mothers aka “over-mothering” (do not put immature dogs in with birthing mothers)
  • attacking stock who show curiosity over their food items
  • attacking other dogs for their food items
  • responding to appropriate corrections from stock by becoming angry and coming back at them


14 Comments

Your methods suck.

I’m going to take a moment away from working on the puppy series to address an burgeoning problem in the world of LGDs. I predicted this was coming a while ago, and just like most predictions I’ve made in the dog world, I’m sad to see it come true. Truth be told, I’m not only sad, but I’m also incredibly angry. I’m tired of watching egotistical asshats causing such distress in dogs, causing them to wash out, causing neuroses, fueling the fires of frustration in owners and ultimately causing the dogs to have to break bonds with their families or worse, lose their lives.

Let me attempt to explain.

There is a strong faction of LGD fanciers who are currently on the bandwagon of raising pups utilizing what I call the “contain, hover, avoid and praise” method. I don’t know where this method came from, but I suspect it was from someone who could not trust their dogs for whatever reason. It involves a combination of high levels of containment (typically in a pen), leash work, avoidance and positive reinforcement. These people, most widely popular on Facebook for their firm beliefs in themselves and their abilities, perpetuate the idea that this is the ONLY way to raise a LGD pup to successful working status. They employ this advice when addressing dogs who live alone, but also with pups being introduced to other LGDs. They continue to push this agenda regardless of the feedback that it isn’t working for a lot of dogs. They continue to push, regardless of how much unfeasible work this causes for people and how inappropriate it is to be so unclear with dogs about the nature of their jobs. They continue on, throwing people out of the conversation who dare to say that keeping the social LGD isolated like this causes them harm. They keep saying this, over and over, on some of the largest LGD advice groups out there. They can, because they run them.

I’m so angry about this that it’s hard for me to think straight and say these things in a professional way. All I want to do is swear uncontrollably and yell at the top of my lungs until these people listen.

STOP IT!!! STOP OVER CONTAINING THESE DOGS! STOP TELLING PEOPLE THAT CORRECTING DOGS EFFECTIVELY IS WRONG! STOP TELLING THEM THAT KEEPING LGDs ALONE AND ISOLATED IS JUST FINE! STOP SAYING THAT IF A PUP IS ANYTHING MORE THAN A LUMP ON THE GROUND, THEY DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT INSTINCTS!

STOP SAYING THINGS YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF BEING ACCOUNTABLE FOR.

STOP MISLEADING PEOPLE TO BELIEVE THAT IF THEY DON’T DO THE THINGS YOU SAY, THEY ARE ABUSIVE AND UNCARING OWNERS.

Guess what happens when you follow this contain, leash, avoid, over-react cycle? Sometimes the dogs do just fine. It’s a trait of dogs the world over that they manage to do well despite our fumbling attempts at guidance and the inappropriate ways in which we keep them. The brilliance of the human/canine coexistence, proven historically over and over, is that the canine is able to forgive our shortcomings and still grow into themselves, becoming what we need. We are far less able or willing to bridge that gap for them, resulting in a species that has been selected to adjust their behavior for us, anticipating what we need and ensuring their basic needs are met. In the case of working LGDs, their inherent needs (apart from food, water and shelter) are to be in partnership, to learn from a leader, to bond socially and to protect.

How much do we care about these dogs? So much so that we stick them away at the first sign of inappropriate behavior? So much so that we refuse to help them learn self control on the job, in with their beloved charges, in the company of other LGDs? So much so that we show them a working routine day in and day out that we do not intend for them to stick to eventually? So much that we tell them they need to behave when we show up but not on their own until they are fully mature?  Not only is that pedantic, it’s incredibly infantilizing – offensive.

In canine behavioral rehabilitation, there are two vital pieces we focus most on. One is the forward and backward motion of the dog, and the other is instilling self control and resilience. The first half of the latter is what is being undermined by the aforementioned LGD “experts”. Self control is THE most important piece that determines whether a dog will behave appropriately and be able to be in partnership with humans. Secondary to that is discrimination, but that is for another day.

Instilling self control starts early in a dog’s life. Pups learn to wait their turn, to not bite hard when playing (or the play stops), to inhibit reactions/actions so they are not disciplined by mom and to wean when they don’t want to. A good mother instills begins the installation of self control in a pup by the judicious use of tough love. A recent study found that the success of guide dog pups revolved around the willingness of the mother dog to discipline and test her pups. This teaches them their innate ability to delay gratification, handle new situations, to problem solve and to withstand adversity. Just as in humans, these lessons are invaluable to the process of developing resiliency and self control into adulthood. All lessons must be tailored to the developmental stage of the youngster, but mothers instinctively understand this. It’s us humans who struggle to keep pace through the various stages. It’s much easier to contain and isolate – but these  dogs are not inanimate objects that will sit unchanged on the shelf until we have time for them.

LadieBug1

Sitting behind a fence alone, watching stock, is not going to provide the developing LGD with the teaching and life skills they need. No one does this in their countries of origin – it would be unconscionable. Keeping pups isolated in this way would be tantamount to abuse. Pups need each other, their canine pack and their people. That is not to say that we can’t use containment judiciously here, given that we don’t have the same communal way of living with our dogs that they have historically experienced. Every dog will respond to this in individual ways, however.  They must be watched for signs of discomfort, psychological distress and neuroses. They must be given adequate free time to romp and play and just generally be goofy pups. They need to time to play with us and with others of their kind. Much valuable information is given to them during these times.  They need time to just be, apart from being contained. They need to be able to screw up and learn from their mistakes. Learning on the job and within a social order are both vital pieces of the success of a content LGD.

Quite often, isolation will bring about the very behaviors people claim it will address! A bored, lonely pup will need an outlet for their frustrated energies. They will attempt to engage the stock, their only social group, to meet their needs. Back to confinement they go! They will attempt to escape the confinement to satisfy their need to explore and gather information about their environment. They will work hard to get away from the intense boredom of the pen. LGDs need to freely interact with their environment to learn, and confinement with alternating periods of uber control by a human with a leash will not allow them that learning experience. Frustration and hyperactivity, even aggression will follow as natural consequences of the continued denial of their needs.

How is it appropriate to show a pup a certain routine for their lives that consists of being in a pen, walked on a leash, hovered over, unable to make mistakes and get clear binary (what’s good, what’s bad) direction, and then tell them months or years later that oh, this isn’t actually what we wanted you to do!?! If the pup decides on their own that their job is actually to be with the stock or in the field and not in the pen when unsupervised, then the pen is reinforced and they are treated like they’ve done something wrong. If they do do something inappropriate like chase or mouth stock, or heaven forbid STARE at them, the pups are put in a “time out” after perhaps being tackled to the ground or dragged around on the leash. If there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand outside of an emergency, it’s dragging a dog around on a leash/line. What is a “time out” meant to teach a dog? Are these children we can talk to about their behavior afterwards? Outside of very short periods of time meant to prove that I was highly offended by behavior from a dog, I never use a pen for such a thing. The pen should be a safe place they enjoy being in; the same applies to a tether, which is much more commonly used in their countries of origin. This requires judicious use, not routine use. In fact, I go out of my way to ensure that I don’t do the same thing in this respect day after day. Adult LGDs need to be able to deal with changing circumstances and should never get the idea that their lives consist only of an outdoor version of “crate and rotate”. (Link to a video of Titus in his pen/kennel – look at his lovely self control!; below are pictures of Titus in various situations and learning different things in the past 3.5 months here)

Years ago, I bought my first kennel club registered LGD. She happened to be a Maremma, and she was a fuzzy little teddy bear with a tornado of a personality. She was cute beyond reason and pushy beyond belief and I adored her more than I could have thought possible. I spoke with the breeder several times before I went to pick her up and even though I missed a number of red flags that this woman didn’t know what she was doing, I was still in the mindset that everyone else knew better about these dogs than I could (thank you, LGD mythology). I asked to see the little fluff ball’s mother, upon which I was led to a 4 ft tall small pen in the breeder’s barn. There were heavy things piled on the top of the lid of the pen. Inside there was a young, wiggly, lanky insanely white Maremma bitch. She looked at me with pleading eyes. She could hardly contain herself, moving her body around in frantic ways. The breeder explained that she had serious doubts about the ability of this dog to be a LGD given how busy she was, how she high needs for interaction. She didn’t know what else to do with her, this woman said, other than to put her in the pen and keep her there. She hoped this dog would outgrow her “bad” behavior. God, do I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I’d been able to help and not had to leave the farm saddened beyond belief for that lost, misunderstood girl. The pup I held in my arms that day went on to have similar challenges, and unfortunately since I followed a similar (the containment routine wasn’t such popular advice then) set of largely ineffective training methods, the process to get her where she needed to be took a long time and was full of heartache for both of us.

I will never be quiet on this front or any other that is setting people and dogs for failure. I never want to have to leave a farm again or raise a pup without having the necessary tools to help or fix what is happening. Further, I don’t want to have to hold the hand of someone who has been led down the garden path by shitty advice only to find that they’ve not been given all of the information they needed – and what’s more, they’ve been pressured not to seek it. I never want to hear from someone that they believe their LGD is part herding dog (yes, this is what people are being told!) because it’s busy and has significant exercise needs. I don’t want to have to cry late at night any more because I’ve had to hold a dog while they are euthanized because they’re out of control and no one can safely reach them any more.

I’m angry. I’m sad. I want it to stop, or at the very least, I want more people to wake up and listen to their guts before things get bad. If all else fails, share this. Maybe it will give someone what they need in time to save just one dog, keep them working, keep them with their families. Thank you.

 

P.S. The only thing that comes out of the horrible advice these people are giving about raising LGDs is that we continue to select for dogs of only one temperament/character profile. This is becoming a serious issue as the dogs who accept such treatment without rebelling and/or becoming neurotic are very passive, yard-statue types. The rest are washed out as LGDs, killed or otherwise do not go on to work and, perhaps more importantly, contribute to our waning gene pool. These are not the dogs we need to help us with the heightened number of apex predators we are dealing with more and more. LGDs are varied: they range in approach, bonding preferences, need for human interaction, hyperactivity, predilection for independence, ability to deal with different predators. If anyone tells you differently, run, don’t walk away.