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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…


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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


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To correct, or not to correct, that is the question.

I’ve put off making this post for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that our current political climate does not support the judicious use of positive punishment, more commonly referred to in the dog world as “corrections”. My third and final puppy raising post relies on the clear understanding of this topic, so it’s come time to stop putting it off and jump in. I’ve done this over and over privately for people who seek out my advice, so hopefully this will be as clear and helpful for you as it has been for them.

As someone who cut her teeth in the dog world on training that consisted mainly of positive punishment (adding punishment, aka adding something that is is aversive or painful), and then moved to positive reinforcement (adding reinforcement, aka adding something that is rewarding or pleasurable) only training, finally ending up somewhat in the middle or what we call “balanced” training, I feel that I have a fairly even amount of experience to draw from. I also bring a certain amount of objectivity to the conversation, as I haven’t been married to one form of training over another. I see the undeniable benefits of using reward based training. I also see how stopping behavior through the use of punishment is critical as well. As an aside, I also tend to believe that making an animal do something for either our comfort or amusement only is a fairly unethical approach to living with our beautiful friends.

I won’t talk here about how positive punishment relates to the training of the average pet dog, as that is beyond the scope of our focus on LGDs. That said, I do believe that there is a larger picture that ought to be addressed, specifically in terms of how the obsession with rewarding our human children has been taken up wholeheartedly by dog people, much to the detriment of our furry companions. This is a conversation that I show up to have in person or online, time and again – that’s how strongly I feel about it.

The main reason I’ve wanted to write on this topic relates specifically to training LGDs, simply because I believe that these dogs are one of the types suffering the most due to the evolution of the positive only movement. This current trend started with good intentions, as a badly needed push back against the heavy handed training of yesteryear. It was, quite frankly, at the time quite radical to say that dogs could be trained without the use of “alpha” dominance – both radical and timely. Dogs, including our LGDs, continue to benefit from the work of the brave men and women who stepped out of their comfort zones to ask the hard questions. What does a dog feel? How does a dog perceive the world? What do they need? How can we change what we do to meet those needs better? WHY do we have to do things as they have always been done?

Like so many reactionary movements, though, certain people in it were not satisfied with the general acceptance that training needed a kinder approach. They wanted it all to be what they perceive as the best form of communication with other species: reward them. The works of B.F. Skinner, (a psychologist who spent time researching the effects of different types of input on animals) became the basis for what these people call “science based training”. B.F. Skinner is most famous for developing the four quadrants of operant conditioning, a structure that developed from his work attempting to effect behavioral change with animals kept in a perpetual state of neediness. These animals were then placed in an isolation chamber, known as a “Skinner Box” and subjected to experiments that measured their responsiveness to positive and negative stimuli. It is with the information that Dr. Skinner recorded from observing the response of these animals that he formed the diagram that we know of as the four quadrants of operant behavior or “Skinner’s Quadrants”.

ocquad

The four quadrants of operant conditioning

In 1938, Skinner’s first book, “The Behavior of Organisms” was published. This book furthered the idea of behaviorism: a concept built in the early 1900’s by a Dr. Watson onto Pavlov’s classical conditioning (remember the experiments showing that a dog would salivate at the sound of a bell if that bell had always preceded the appearance of food?). Behaviorism is explained by Psychology Today as:

“Behaviorism seeks to identify observable, measurable laws that could explain all of human behavior. Although psychology now pays more attention to the inner landscape of emotions and thought, behaviorism has had a durable influence on everything from animal training to parenting techniques to the bonuses financial managers receive.”

In other words, the strict approach of behaviorism views people and animals as “input/output” machines; apply one of the quadrants to them and get the desired behavior result. It also relies heavily on the notion that if the desired behavioral result is not achieved, it is the fault of the person applying the quadrant. They are not doing it appropriately: fast enough, well enough, effectively enough or creatively enough. There is a lot of truth to the fact that animals (ourselves included) respond to input in predictable ways. You only have to offer to give a pig a tasty treat or observe a child’s behavior after they’ve been injured to know that certain input = certain output for many things. Overall, however, life is not that simple.

Much of Skinner’s work involved the observation of animals under sterile laboratory conditions, where the animal had no competing stimuli to deal with. These animals were kept undernourished, in a state of perpetual need. It was the combination of these two factors that led directly to the strength and consistency of the behaviors that Skinner was able to observe. It wasn’t until a couple, both psychologists who were students of Dr. Skinner’s, took his methods out into the real world in the form of training performing animals that more of the picture emerged. Their paper, “The Misbehavior of Organisms” was published in American Psychologist in 1961. In it, they spoke about the limits to the theory of behaviorism that they were able to see even in their more controlled training environments:

“When we began this work, it was our aim to see if the science would work beyond the laboratory, to determine if animal psychology could stand on its own feet as an engineering discipline. These aims have been realized. We have controlled a wide range of animal behavior and have made use of the great popular appeal of animals to make it an economically feasible project. Conditioned behavior has been exhibited at various municipal zoos and museums of natural history and has been used for department store displays, for fair and trade convention exhibits, for entertainment at tourist attractions, on television shows, and in the production of television commercials. Thirty-eight species, totaling over 6,000 individual animals, have been conditioned, and we have dared to tackle such unlikely subjects as reindeer, cockatoos, raccoons, porpoises, and whales.

Emboldened by this consistent reinforcement, we have ventured further and further from the security of the Skinner box. However, in this cavalier extrapolation, we have run afoul of a persistent pattern of discomforting failures. These failures, although disconcertingly frequent and seemingly diverse, fall into a very interesting pattern. They all represent breakdowns of conditioned operant behavior.”

marian breland walt disney

Marian Breland with Walt Disney, 1965

The Brelands informed the world in 1961 in no uncertain terms that operant behavior could not explain all that animals do, nor could it control or change it. Animals are complex, far from the input/output machines behaviorism would have us believe they are.

Why does this matter? Why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s quite simple really. The people who are the rabid proponents of positive reinforcement training to the exclusion of positive punishment build their arguments for this type of training on Skinner’s work, which proved that behavior strengthens best through the use of rewards. In other words, the Skinner Box experiments proved that under those circumstances, animals learned to do behaviors and refrain from doing certain behaviors when people gave and took away rewards.  For dog people who think this translates the same way to real life outside of the laboratory, who have ignored the Breland’s sobering conclusions, this means that they stubbornly stick to demanding that everyone give or take rewards away as the only humane methods needed to train dogs of every type, under every circumstance.

These are the people who are most active on social media dog groups. These are the people who are lobbying to change our animal welfare rules. These are the people who are trying to get tools like prong collars and e collars banned, even though more injuries happen due to flat collars, harnesses and head halters than with the “bad” tools. These are the people who label anyone who uses such tools or physically corrects their dogs as “abusive”. You’ll find them being very outspoken about the possibilities of psychological harm from the use of adding punishment to training regimes, a very real possibility, but not in the way these people would have you believe when it comes to LGDs. These are the people who are taking over the LGD training conversations online and in written print.

And it’s costing LGDs, their owners and the working dog relationship that should be evolving a lot. In many cases, it’s causing the complete breakdown of the relationship and the dog to behave in ways that would not happen were corrections better understood and more appropriately applied. It is my firm opinion, and that of many people who have owned these dogs for generations that corrections are an integral part of training LGDs successfully, especially pups.

The reason you’re not being told to apply corrections when training LGDs or if you are, the instructions are vague or largely unhelpful (extended “time outs”, tackling dogs to the ground, isolation, etc.) is because there are very few people in LGDs who both understand the benefits of using positive reinforcement and have the balls to talk about corrections appropriately. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to dog world politics, and even I struggle with how much to say on social media or in print for fear that I will be labeled an “abuser” or harassed endlessly. The other reason is because some people believe that dog owners are generally unable to understand the limitations of correcting a dog and will therefore use any advice to correct as a green light to be cruel and harsh with their dogs. I have never had this happen when I take the time to explain the thought process behind using both rewards and punishment judiciously, which ironically, relies on an understanding of how they affect behavior, Skinner-style.

LGDs have been bred for centuries to be quick learners and to rely on binary feedback (both positive and negative) for their learning process. When a certain behavior brings them a reward, whether it’s internal (the satisfaction of driving off a threat, nurturing a lamb or playing with a canine playmate) or external (praise or food from their owner), it easily becomes something they want to do. When a certain behavior brings them a punishment (a shock from an electric fence or a head butt from an angry goat), it easily becomes something they don’t want to do again. These are best seen in younger pups, who are like little learning sponges. They soak up the binary input and learn solid lessons that they adhere to for their lifetimes. Sure, even the best of LGDs will color outside the lines during their teenage phases, but a small reminder of the lesson will generally bring them back in line. What people who loudly say that we have to prevent LGD pups from practicing behavior we don’t want aren’t telling you is that there is often a better, more efficient way to achieve that: corrections.

When our dogs do not receive the input they need, ideally as pups, they don’t learn the lessons that are necessary for them to be successful. Conveying this to people requires the clear communication that corrections will be necessary. These are dogs who are living with vulnerable creatures, and they are required to be with them full time, outside of human input a fair bit of the time. The western people who think they know something about how to raise a LGD will tell you ridiculous things like “a LGD shouldn’t be in with animals unsupervised until they are 2 years old” and “LGDs were never meant to be good with poultry” instead of telling you the information needed to guide your LGD to being a successful guardian. I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but there are no for profit producers who are going to feed and house an extra large dog for 2 years before they can be trusted to work. No one has the time to babysit their dogs for years in the hopes that they will be appropriate guardians in the end. Further, there are no working LGDs in their countries of origins who aren’t learning on the job from day one. This is not to say that dogs who have not been raised as mainly full time guardians can’t become one, but it is to say that that isn’t the most efficient way to do it. It’s not even the most effective way to do it.

LGDs need clear, effective communication. They need to know the boundaries of the job early on. They need to know that mouthing stock, of any shape or size, is inappropriate. They need to know that escaping fences because they feel like it is not ok. They need to know that fighting over food, jumping on people, chasing stock or enthusiastically licking a newborn while its mother cries is wrong. They need to know that being polite is a requirement for living well with people and stock. While it’s important to note that a dog must be taught what TO DO, it is still very important to correct them effectively and efficiently in order to teach them what NOT TO DO.

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Some dogs will need very few corrections in their lifetime. Some dogs will need many, many more. This does not mean that the former are better dogs, although, it is highly likely they will be perceived that way. This also does not mean that the latter are less apt to be good LGDs – in fact, it can mean the opposite. These can be dogs who are the most tenacious with predators, the best and most creative types who don’t let anything get in their way and who can stay ahead of the wiliest of predators.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that straight forward corrections are inherently abusive or unnecessary. Judiciously applied, they provide an integral part of the basis for understanding the “do nots” of life as a working dog. Training highly aggressive dogs to live with prey animals, to protect and nurture them in the face of threats, to live together well with other dogs and people requires some form of active, timely correction. In tomorrow’s post, I will outline exactly what that looks like.

 

P.S. So far I have refrained from putting forth the most obvious argument, that LGDs use corrections with each other.  This is something that people who own older LGDs or keep familial groups often forget when talking about raising/correcting pups. As humans, we cannot “replicate” well what older LGDs do with younger ones to teach them, but we can take a page out of their book regarding the fact that proper corrections are an appropriate and highly effective form of communication.

 

 


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Return of the Slovak Cuvac: a story of wildlife conservation and lost genetics.

I have succumbed to the strange dizziness of a flu that requires me to hold my head as straight as possible; any turns to the side or dips of my head bring on bouts of vertigo. As flus go, this one is quick to let go of the trademark nausea, achiness and gut troubles, but it stubbornly keeps me in the grip of slowly resolving dizzy spells. It’s tough for a busy person such as myself to have to sit still for lengths of time (and not be able to read much!), but I will say there is one silver lining in that I’ve had some time to catch up on my video watching.

I stumbled on this gem from a young British film maker, Robert Glowacky, who produced this film about the decline of the Slovak Cuvac (pronounced Chuvach), also known as the Slovensky Cuvac, the regional livestock guarding dog of Slovakia.

 

The tumultuous history of Slovakia is not unique among the countries of central Europe, nor is the history of their white guardian dog. In the University of Aberdeen’s 2002 report entitled “The use of livestock guarding dogs to protect sheep and goats from large carnivores in Slovakia”, author Robin Riggs explains the origins of the Cuvac:

“Livestock guarding dogs probably came to Slovakia from Romania and the Balkans via the Ukraine Carpathians along with other aspects of the transhumance system of intensive livestock grazing in mountainous areas during the gradual Wallachian colonisation from the 13th and 14th to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Tatranský čuvač, Lipták or valaské psi, of which until relatively recently every salaš (temporary sheep dairy farm/fold) had up to 10 for protecting livestock from predators and thieves, became the native breed of LGD. However, by the mid-1920s numbers had declined to such an extent – particularly during World War I – that systematic efforts were initiated to rescue the čuvač as a breed. With International Canine Federation (FCI) recognition in 1965/69 and the establishment of a club for the Slovenský čuvač (as dog breeders re-named the Tatranský čuvač), breeding focused on the production of show dogs, pets and property guardians…. Most salaše still have dogs (čuvač-type or other, usually the Caucasian sheepdog, Central Asian sheepdog, Polish Owczarek Podhalański and crosses thereof) for protecting livestock…”

He goes on to talk about the interesting way in which the shepherds kept their dogs, a way that is seen frequently in the film:

“…but they are almost always chained to stakes or trees around the fold and milking pen, though at some camps they are released at night. Chaining dogs alters their behaviour (I have found many at salaše to be abnormally aggressive or, when approached closer, rather timid, sometimes ecstatically playful or excessively solicitous of attention) and limits their ability to protect livestock to the length of the chain (Coppinger and Coppinger 1994) or barking to alert shepherds. Many of Slovakia’s chained dogs also suffer excessively as they are deprived of social interaction and some are left on open pastures without access to shade and water.”

Riggs goes on to explain that this was not, historically, how these dogs were kept, but that the war and changes to the number of predators in the area led to shepherds chaining the remaining Cuvac instead of allowing them freedom to patrol.

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Jan Hala, 1927

“In his illustrations accompanying the tale [Old Bodrik and the Wolf], Martin Benka (1888-1971) drew a čuvač, unchained and therefore able “to circle the sheepfold” and go out from the farm to challenge a wolf, bear and fox (Vulpes vulpes), as in the story. Jan Hála’s illustrations from the 1940s (e.g. in Hála 2001: 68, 78) and his description (p.94-97) of the čuvač guarding flocks by day and salaš by night also eloquently portray the continued traditional use of LGDs in Liptov. In 1953, however, Kováč (p.263) wrote that guarding (but not herding) dogs could be chained and some early 1960s photographs (e.g. in Podolák 1982) show LGDs chained up in the Nízke Tatry. At this time, hunting had decimated the wolf population (reviewed in Voskár 1993 and Hell et al 2001) and bears were half as numerous and more restricted in range than presently (reviewed in Janík 1997, Hell and Slamečka 1999), so it may be that there was no longer a pressing need to protect flocks effectively. Perhaps the total number of dogs was reduced to cut costs, or smaller ones favoured for the same reason (T. Krafčiková pers. comm. 2003). Remaining dogs may have been chained for convenience. Podolák (1967: 109) reported that tame LGDs were taken out to pasture but “dangerous” ones were chained near the koliba (shepherds’ hut) during the day and released at night.”

The subsequent paragraphs offer alternate explanations for the widespread use of chaining Cuvac, both gleaned from reviewing recorded 20th century history and in more recent conversation with Slovak shepherds. While I was reading it (and I greatly encourage you to as well!- page 18 and beyond), I was struck by the similarities to some of the advice encouraging people here in North America to chain their LGDs. Some of the pressures the Slovak people came under in the last century are also reminiscent of the mistrust and population increase that our dogs are currently subject to. Further, mention of the fear that the Slovak people feel when contemplating the Cuvac was evident even in the first half of the 20th century.

“Interestingly, illustrator and writer Jan Hála, who lived among rural people in the region below the Tatras from 1923 till his death in 1959, noted that “Boli to psi ani medvedina, celá dedina saich bála”, “The dogs were like bears, the whole village was afraid of them” (Hála 2001: 97).”

This fear informed some of the local laws and customs: for example, the one that allows any sheepdog more than 200 meters from a flock to be shot on sight.

Could it be that the attempt to create a more aggressive dog (by chaining) to defend against predators and strange people resulted in a dog whom no one could trust and therefore needed to be continuously chained? Riggs certainly points to this as a reasonable, albeit ironic, possibility. It would seem, too, that the handling skills of the shepherds and their employees often border on cruel, continuing the erosion of relationship between dog and man.

“I have seen several shepherds beat sheep with sticks and kick them unmercifully and suspect the same sometimes happens to their dogs; a shepherd in Horehronie needed 17 stitches after he rather unwisely hit a Caucasian sheepdog when drunk (S. Finďo pers. comm. 2001, Finďo 2001: 13) while some LGDs placed at farms in Liptov and Turiec are shy of or aggressive towards men carrying sticks. I have frequently been surprised by how little some shepherds know about dogs. Today’s shepherds also seem to be much less concerned about loss of sheep than their predecessors, who often slept by the flock to guard it (I. Zuskinová pers. comm. 2003). It may be, therefore, that a further factor in the decline of the LGD tradition has been the gradual loss of traditional skills and knowledge coupled with an increased desire to solve short term problems (e.g. a wandering dog) in the quickest and easiest way (i.e. by putting it on a chain).”

All is not lost, however, as is seen both in Glowacky’s film and in Rigg’s report. Shepherds and citizens of Slovakia alike still greatly value the Cuvac, their history, and their inborn ability to defend the defenseless. It is clear that careful breeding selection, appropriate training and working to change Slovak attitudes are all vital parts of bringing the Cuvac back to their former position of trusted, unfettered guardian – but it is also clear that they have found dedicated people to champion their cause. If the rewilding of Europe is to be successful, and harmony is to be restored to the ecosystem, the restoration of the Slovak Cuvac and others like them are the only hope for continued peace between the domestic and the wild.

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For the full text of the report, follow this link: Livestock Guarding Dogs to Protect Sheep and Goats from Large Carnivores in Slovakia (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237703700_Livestock_Guarding_Dogs_to_Protect_Sheep_and_Goats_from_Large_Carnivores_in_Slovakia 

For a brief overview of Slovakia, current and historical, follow this link: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Slovakia

If the video in this post does not load, follow this link its original home on Vimeo: Bringing Back Bodrik


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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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Selecting, raising training LGD pups, Part 2

(the first part of this series can be found here)

2. Make a plan (or more accurately, a loose framework).

Manda 2 months intro to horse

Photo credit: Vokterhund Kennel – CAS pup with horse

 

Making a plan, or more accurately, a loose framework for how to approach your pup(s) is a crucial step towards success. Now, I am the first to admit that I hate making concrete, set-in-stone plans about anything, let alone living beings. I know that something will come along to throw a wrench into those plans – be it a strange fear stage, complications with the stock or something that comes up in my life. I have a very busy life outside of farming and working with dogs that requires me to be flexible and to think on my feet. So, chiseling out black and white plans doesn’t work for me – and to be perfectly honest, it has never worked for me when it comes to keeping animals. I do, however, always need to know where I am going and have a general idea of steps to get there.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at what your end goal is for your pup(s). Do you intend for them to be a full time LGD who stays in one area with one type of stock? Do you want stock to move from one area to another, but also have the dog(s) go with them? Will you move the dog(s) from one area to another to guard different areas/types of stock? Do you expect your dog(s) to always stay behind fences with the stock or are you happy to have them interact with you/your family on the yard? Will you invite them into the house? There is no “one-size-fits-all” goal here. The only hard and fast rule is to set out showing the pup(s) what you want for them as the end goal and sticking with it long enough that they accept it as theirs.

In other words, if you want the pup(s) to stay behind fences 24/7 with stock as adults, do not start them out sleeping on your porch or on your bed. If you take a single pup, and even if you are raising more than one, this can mean that you have to deal with days of fighting to escape confinement, especially at night. This can mean that the pup(s) will cry for you to stay with them. You will have to be strong and refuse to bring them up to the house. You must establish the ground rules straight away, in as clear and kind a way as possible. There is enough time after they have accepted these expectations to do other things with them, such as inviting them to the house for a visit.

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Photo credit: Ingham Farms – baby Titus and Nubian goat

You must, no matter what, provide safety for the pup(s). Do not allow them to wander uninhibited.  If you are allowing for them to stay in with stock, ensure the stock is safe for the pup and conversely that they are safe FROM them. If you have mothers with babies, know that they will be overly sensitive to an inquisitive pup and may well harm them over innocent curiosity. If you have a bold pup, know that they can harm young or small stock easily. Match your stock to the nature and size of the pup. Provide an area for the pup to escape to, ideally a small pen or stall with an opening that only the pup can access. Learning to retreat from danger or when feeling overwhelmed is vital for any pup to feel like they have control over their environment and what is happening to them. This control is the basis for learning to regulate their emotions, or develop self control. Don’t put your pup(s) in situations where they cannot escape to keep themselves safe.

Conversely, some pups are too bold and active for their own good when it comes to being in with stock. These are the pups who need more active guidance from both humans and the stock they are learning on. Ideally, with older mentor LGDs to learn from, these pups will be corrected when they get out of line as well as learn appropriately from watching and interacting with them. That said, not all older LGDs have interest in correcting a rambunctious pup. One older LGD will have trouble keeping two pups in line as well. Restricting these pups to strict supervision for the early learning stages and making sure that corrections are swift and effective works well.

As with all pup raising, loving encouragement should be part and parcel of any approach. Timid, highly responsive, cautious and laid-back pups will do best with a high amount of encouragement. These pups are the equivalent to the child who beams over getting high marks or gold stars from their teachers. They may need discipline, but not very often, and they are keen to get things right. Bold, risk taking pups who charge into situations and push between you and the stock (yes, this can look like submission – groveling, flipping on to their back – too) need a different approach. They are like the children who test limits and boundaries on a regular basis to see where they stand. Both types appreciate clear communication, but the latter will require and appreciate when you enforce the boundaries swiftly and effectively. The former will require you to be cautious about your use of correction and be most responsive to verbal corrections as well as brief periods of social isolation. Neither type is “better” – and in fact, the tougher, more challenging pups typically mature into very strong, capable guardians when given the training they need.

3. Socialize, respecting stages.

Socializing (exposing animals to various new sights, sounds, experiences) LGDs after they leave their mom is a tricky business. Not only do some people firmly believe that very little socialization is required for a good LGD but if it is done incorrectly, can result in confusion for the dog and risk for humans. An understanding of the stages of puppy life is very helpful here.

Early socialization is the ideal way to produce a balanced, stable dog who is not afraid of novelty. Weeks 4-7 are when a pup’s brain is akin to a sponge, soaking up information about their world in a way that is unaffected by fear.  Unfortunately, the breeders who recognize and provide this kind of socialization are few and far between. This leaves the new owners of pup(s) with the task of negotiating socialization along with managing the onset of fear in the pup(s). The development of fear is necessary for survival in terms of risk assessment (have you ever seen a person or animal who lack risk assessment skills? They have to be protected from themselves more often than not) but it also makes introduction to new things a bit complicated. This is especially true for dogs who tend towards single-event learning (learning a lesson from one experience) like our LGDs.

In general, the more pups are exposed to when very young, the more they will be able to make appropriate, informed decisions when they are older. People who keep LGDs in more populated areas will need to be concerned about this more seriously than those who intend to keep them in remote areas. That said, we cannot always predict if a dog will need to find a new home eventually or if we will need to move, so socialization is never a wasted endeavor.

The subject of early socialization and how it pertains to LGDs specifically could take up an entire post in and of itself (which should be the case, now that I think about it), so I will just touch on some things to ensure are on the list and a couple of things to keep in mind. Do socialize to: kids, other dogs, sights and sounds of the city, cars (both inside and out), cats, the veterinary office, the house, a crate, people with hats and bundled up for winter, people of different skin color, sizes and shapes than yourselves.

Remember, socialization helps dogs recognize that what is different is not necessarily also threatening, so keep that in mind while doing it. If a pup shows a bad reaction to something new, try not to feed into it. Pause all activity and wait for the pup to recover. If it seems to be an extreme reaction, note this as an area that will need further work or to be revisited when the pup is feeling more confident. Keep things light, work at your pup’s pace, and don’t force interaction. It is enough for your pup to observe, to be curious at their own pace and to receive praise and food from you. Introducing food given by strangers is something I don’t endorse, at any stage. Affection should be only given by strangers if sought out by the pup.

4. Teach basic dog skills and manners.

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Photo credit: JJ Taylor – pup with father

Again, in a perfect world, this part would start at the breeder’s (can we be a little less concerned about whether someone breeds registered dogs or dogs of a certain color and a little more concerned about how much appropriate work they do with their dogs/pups?!?) and your job would just be to continue/maintain it. Pups would come to their new homes knowing what to do when restrained, how to give to pressure, that collars and leashes are part of normal life, that confinement isn’t forever, that sharing with other dogs is good, that being rough with humans doesn’t get you to a fun place, that people can be trusted, that food requires a bit of patience and that frustration can be managed. With breeders opting to keep LGD pups to 12 weeks now more and more, these goals should be part and parcel of the process. These outcomes can be accomplished through a set of exercises that can be replicated when the dog comes to their new home. That said, there are so many other things going on during that time that it can make it difficult to fit into the schedule. It’s also an irrefutable fact that lessons learned very early in a pup’s life are easier to retain over time.

Jennifer Sider pup Gru

Photo credit: Jennifer Sider – Gru

 

Just like with #2, it is imperative that you start out on the foot you intend to continue with over time. Do not allow inappropriate behavior (jumping up on to people, being overly enthusiastic with children, diving into a food bowl before it hits the ground, charging through gates, allowing teeth on skin, etc.) if you don’t intend for those things to continue over time. I see far too many people who continually make excuses for their small pups (“But he’s so little and cute!”, “She doesn’t mean anything by it!”) and then they turn around one day to find that that pup is no longer so small or so cute and actually has become quite the hazard. The poor pup doesn’t understand why his people are upset. He’s just doing what he’s always been allowed/encouraged to do.

I’ve detailed the exercises in a separate post. There are different ways of accomplishing the end goal of learning the above-mentioned skills, but I strongly, strongly suggest teaching them with mainly positive methods. This will again require restraint and patience. There is a time and place for more forceful methods, but it’s generally not when teaching foundation behaviors in a young pup.

 

 

 

 


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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 


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Cleaning up your F’ing messes.

I am going through some major life changes right now that mean the farm is being sold off.  Believe it or not, selling the stock and leaving the property hurts miles less than having to part with the dogs.  I tried and tried to sort out a way to keep at least my best girl, Ivy, but in the end it became clear that I would need to do what always allows me to sleep at night: whatever is best for the dog.

At this time, all that’s left on my farm is a few sheep, the poultry and Ivy.

All I wanted to do with this blog was to come back and write a farewell and good wishes post and hope that somewhere along the way some of what I said got through to some people.  For all intents and purposes, I was done – that is, until I got a couple of desperate messages from people who were at their wits’ end with with their LGDs.   To be fair, this is nothing new and I’ve spoken about that at length before.  What makes the stress different for these people is that they are far from uncaring and stubborn; they have been working hard to do everything RIGHT.

Both personally and online, I’m seeing a huge, alarming rise in the number of people who are trying everything to do right by their LGDs and STILL ending up with messes on their hands.  It used to be that people didn’t want to hear the truth about themselves and their dogs (don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of those people around) but the new breed of LGD owner knows they don’t know much about these dogs and actively seeks knowledge.  They know how to use Google to their advantage, they know to order books and join social media groups for more than just posting cute pictures.  They are thirsty for information…. and guess what?  There are plenty of idiots willing to give it to them.

The LGD world is no different than any other dog world niche in that the information pipeline mainly consists of two types of people.  The first type is the ‘old timer’ who constantly points out how many years of experience they have.  They often reference the old Yahoo groups and talk endlessly about how people need to just shut up and LISTEN to those who have been in the game since the first color TVs came on the market.   That kind of experience is, honestly, hard to argue with.  Newcomers are dazzled (I know I was) by the claims these people make and the sheer numbers they spout continuously.  Unfortunately for them, some of us have other hard won dog knowledge – and know that a dog person can have two types of experience: the same year over and over again or an evolving kind.  You can spot the old timers who have the former by using one simple trick.  Do they say they know it all and have seen it all?  Then they haven’t.  The latter, aka anyone worth their salt, will always say that they are continuously learning and cannot possibly have seen it all in one lifetime.  They don’t want to preach, yell and wag their finger as much as they want to listen and help people sort out their dogs.  They are often too busy living their lives and actually working with dogs and stock to be constantly online waiting to pounce on the next newbie to come along.

The second type of information source is what I call the nouveau expert.  These are people who have other types of dog experience – training, showing, rescue, etc. –  and who have decided that they’ve listened enough to old timers to make up their own minds on things.  Truthfully, this is a very good starting point for building up a library of knowledge.  Unfortunately, this is where most of these people stop.  Many of them have very little experience to weight their “knowledge” against; further, they don’t actively seek out this experience.  They may have bred a litter they needed a lot of help with but haven’t had any working dogs (like the President of the Maremma Club when she took office), they may have been showing one type of LGD in the ring but haven’t successfully kept one in a pasture (like a certain Kuvasz breeder in BC, Canada), they may talk beyond their abilities, make things up and have an inflated sense of importance  because of their old timer friends and a ruthless dictatorship policy (like a certain young owner of a couple of large FB LGD groups), they may want all dogs to respond to positive methods only, despite any evidence to the contrary (like a certain FB troll), or they may have rescued a breed for years that has little working ability any longer and now claim to be a fount of knowledge which includes sending working dogs to pet trainers (like the head of the GP rescue in my province).  You get the idea.  These are people who are capitalizing on their tiny bit of experience with working dogs for profit and prestige.  You will never catch them saying that they don’t know something – they’ll either just make it up or ask someone who does behind the scenes.  If you press them on any point or provide evidence to counter their speeches, things do not go well for you.

Both of these types are infallible – one has little understanding that their limited bubble of experience isn’t the sum total of global reality and the other is peddling their preconceived point of view without earning their stripes in any way, shape or form.

After these years watching them and dealing with their messes, I have a message for these people:

 I AM SICK TO DEATH OF YOUR BULLSHIT.  The games you are playing out online are costing LGDs and their owners way, way too much.  Your agendas may look all neat and tidy as you’re pounding the keyboard and perusing your online empires, but they are NOT.  People like me have been cleaning up the fucking messes you’ve been making – and the hits just keep coming.  STOP.  Grow a conscience and stop.  These are lives you’re fucking with.

 You claim to want to stop the unnecessary destruction of LGDs, but guess what’s really happening?  You’re CAUSING IT.  Get a grip, get out there and learn a thing or two.  Actually look at these dogs you’re “helping”.  Look at pictures, look at video.  Go to see them.  Bring them to your farm – if you even have one.  Rehab a couple and be transparent about the successes and failures.  Do the heavy lifting once in a while.  Get experience with all kinds of LGDs, all sizes, all breeds, all temperaments – and stop slagging things you don’t understand.  

Shut your mouth and listen – learn something new as often as you can.  Give up the power trip and stop being such a fucking fake.  People like me see right through you.  

I have something else to tell you.  Owners keep telling me that I am the most knowledgeable and helpful person they’ve ever talked to.  This does not comfort me, especially not now that I have to leave the beautiful world of the working LGD.  This means that the other people they can reach out there don’t know what they are doing and haven’t been listening to what I and a few others are saying.  This means that even though I cannot always give owners hope for the problems they are facing, even though I am a straight shooter and I don’t always have the answers, they still find me the epitome of what they sought.  Unfortunately, by the time these people get to me, the problems they have are so compounded, so messed up from all the shitty advice they got from you that all we can do is try our best to fix them.

Don’t worry, I know full well that you are not listening to me.   You didn’t listen to me when I told you straight to your face that you were playing with fire.  You  kicked me out of your kingdoms, treated me like shit behind my back and carried on as before.  That’s why I’m writing it down on the internet where nothing truly ever disappears.  At some point the tide will turn and people will have had enough.  They will find this blog and hopefully they’ll find what they need.  I’ll have moved on, but you won’t have changed – you’ll still be digging yourself and all the dogs a big grave just like Coppinger did.  

I, for one, will not cry for you.

 

One last note.

I’d sure like to spend the last few months on my farm reminiscing and working through all my conflicted feelings; instead I’ll be trying to rehab a LGD who learned early on that he could intimidate his owners into giving him whatever he wanted.  His owner came to the experts ages ago to get help, and she could have fixed this problem easily then.  Instead, thanks to their crappy advice, the problem grew and grew to where this dog is looking at the business end of a rifle.  I may not be able to save him, but I will do my level best.  I know he will have the chance with me that he could never get anywhere else in this area.  Not only did his owner seek help when he was young, but she sought help all the way through his life; at every turn, online and in person, these self proclaimed experts let her down – sending her to pet trainers and giving her advice that was a complete 180 from what was needed.  I would much rather had these people said that they couldn’t help or didn’t know than to do this.

I’m giving this owner my best girl, my heart dog, my Ivy.  It’s all I can do as an apology for the painful situation she finds herself in because of my community’s failures.  Because of Ivy, this family will learn that an LGD can control themselves with humans and can be both an effective guardian and appropriate with their people.  Because of Ivy, they will see that the knowledgeable effort you put into a good dog comes back to you ten fold.  I am thankful to be able to give them this gift, no matter how painful it is for me.  I know they will give her the love she so richly deserves.  It’s a good ending to a very bad, very common story.