Guard Dog Blog

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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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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Texas AgriLife Extension’s Livestock Guardian Dog release: A Review

One would hope that with the now over 40 years of mainstream use of LGDs on this continent, we would see educational information releases that are becoming much more enlightened.  If the new release from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center out of San Angelo is anything to go by, however,  we are still very far off the mark.

First, the good news.

The explanation of how Livestock Guardian Dogs work is one of the better ones I have seen in agricultural publications.  It is very beneficial for a producer to have a basic understanding of why their dogs do what they do, so as to prevent misunderstandings, eliminate myths and to give them direction when training.  Understanding fosters empathy and connection, two things necessary for increasing welfare of LGDs.

Encouraging producers to inform their neighbors of the presence of LGDs as well as educating them on what to do if they find the LGDs on their property is a nice touch.  Setting out on the right foot with fellow residents is always a good idea and could lead directly to saving lives.  The use of proper signage to indicate the presence of LGDs is just as important.

The article also talks extensively about the proper care and feeding for LGDs,  making special note of the fact that longevity makes the monetary investment in LGDs easier to swallow.  The emphasis on care is one of the bright spots of the publication.  The aquisition costs in the associated chart seem to be somewhat inflated, given that Texas has one of the highest rates of homeless LGDs on the continent; however, the effort to convey the cost/benefit ratio over time is well placed.

A portion of the writing is set aside to talk about the effect of LGDs on surrounding non predatory wildlife.  This is an important topic that is too often not covered in other publications.

For the above reasons, I cannot discard Texas AgriLife’s publication entirely, as I have done with many others previously published.  It is refreshing to see no mention of the Coppingers here, which indicates to me that distance is finally being put between them and the new generation of LGD researchers – if in name only.  There are still a great deal of references to “research”; no citations are given apart from the one under the chart of mortality.  I can only assume that the research of the Coppingers is what is being referred to, although I cannot be certain.  In any case, if the authors of this publication intended themselves to be taken seriously, they should have include citations for any and all research referenced.

On to the not-so-good news.

Where we begin to run into to serious trouble aligns with where the information typically falls apart in North American publications: bonding and training.  Bonding is an especially muddy concept for us westerners, and the advice given reflects the fact that we have only had a few decades of experience at this.  Of special concern for me is the continued inability to glean important information about the care and training of these dogs in their homelands.

“Old world shepherd dogs typically spend their first sixteen weeks with one or two littermates, a few adult dogs including their mother, a few hundred sheep or goats, and a shepherd. After sixteen weeks, the dog has been behaviorally molded in such a way that it prefers to spend the rest of its life with the group. Since most sheep in Texas are not herded, a human is most often absent from the flock social structure. During the bonding phase, modifications must be made to allow the young guardian dogs to bond with small ruminants without constant human supervision.”

It is largely accepted here that LGDs would, despite being selected over centuries to thrive in highly social settings, adjust well to living alone with only stock for company.   Dogs themselves have evolved over time to desire significant human interaction as well as interaction from their own kind, which in itself contradicts the previously mentioned line of thinking.  This is again fodder for a future post where we can look at this subject in more detail, but in the meantime I wish to put a bug in your ear regarding the unfairness of how we most often expect LGDs to live.

Too much emphasis is put on imprinting, as usual, and a mention is made of research that indicates bonding is compromised if not done before 16 weeks.  It may be important to note that ‘exposure at a critical time’ is perhaps a better term than bonding for what happens between the puppy and the stock.  Ray Coppinger is famous for saying ridiculous things like “A LGD will not guard any animal it has not be exposed to when young.” (SPARCS, 2014), so I can only assume that the information in this section leans heavily on his “expertise”.

The portion that talks about reward vs. punishment is especially opaque.  The scientific definition of punishment (in terms of behavior modification or training) states that it is anything that reduces a behavior from occurring.  In other words, it is anything that causes an animal to no longer exhibit that target behavior; in equal measures, it can be the removal of something positive or the addition of something negative.  Unfortunately, this publication chooses to focus on the use of an air horn as a “training aid”, claiming that it is not punishing but does stop the behavior by interrupting it.   None of suggestions are clearly laid out using scientific terms – if they were, it would be well understood that what is punishing or rewarding is only determined by the individual dog.  An air horn can be punishing to one dog and yet be unable to stop the undesired behavior of another.   The reference to using reward vs. punishment is also far too simplistic and in my opinion lacks any kind of useful information for the producer.  LGDs are particularly good at learning from observation, experience and feedback (both negative and positive).  This is very likely due to the fact that historically, their lives depended on the ability to disseminate information quickly, and at a young age.  There are many ways to train them apart from simply giving reward and adding punishment.

I won’t go through the entire portion that addresses behavior and training, as there is far too much information to refute in one post.  The important things to note about this section are what I mentioned already:  the research relied on is most likely from the desk of the Coppingers and therefore quite inapplicable, and the very, very wrong presupposition that LGDs should have minimal influence from people (as well as thrive within a stunted social structure) bleed through all of it.  As such, I feel that this part could be thrown in the fireplace and we would all be better for it.

Two more things ought to be pointed out before I close.  The claim that “Females tend to stay with the flock/herd and males tend to roam more and protect the perimeter.” is patently false.  More than gender, individual temperament as well as breed type/lineage determine whether a dog cares to be a close flock guardian or perimeter guard.  It is fabricated information like this that cause people to care more about the sex of their prospective guardian than about any other relevant information.  Secondly, the idea that you should cull a pup if they try to escape the fence during the “bonding period” is reprehensible.  There can be many reasons that a pup would display such a behavior, and those need to be addressed before deciding to start over.  Culling a pup should be a thoughtful decision and only done after they have been set up for success at every turn.

All in all, this agricultural publication could be gutted thoroughly to make a useful piece focused on some unique points…. but as it stands, it fall far short of anything I could feel good about recommending.  I fear that the longer we continue to pass on the inappropriate information about our beloved guardians, the harder it will be to give them what they need to thrive.

 

** There is a chart included showing that nearly half of all LGDs here do not see their 6th birthday.  The two main causes of death are “Accident” (including lost, shot, run over, poisoned and other) at 57% and “Cull” at 33%. Granted, the study is nearly 30 years old and the percentages may have changed somewhat, but to me, the death rate of 1 in 2 is entirely unacceptable.  If anything should encourage us to open our eyes and expand how we think about LGDs, it’s this.