And now we come to my favorite part of raising Maremmas – training! But a better way to say that might be cultivating young minds and building relationship. Mindful training of puppies from 2-16 weeks of age shapes the rest of their lives.
Blog: The Magic Window of Time
What follows is an outline of the timetable for the training we do with our pups and what it teaches them. I am a passionate student of animal behavior; I could talk about training and how canines learn for days and am in fact writing a book on this subject that I hope will be published in 2019, so for my purposes here I’ll keep it brief. Interspersed throughout this page you will find links to blog posts that explain some of the concepts more fully.
Member of the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America
7-10 days: Early Neurological Stimulation
Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS):
Here’s a long scientific statement – don’t let it scare you! “Stimulation of a developing organism increases the number of neurotransmitters in that organism.” Puppies are born with their eyes and ears closed but they are already learning!!!! They grow and change right before your eyes. In concert with the changes you can see are so many that you can’t, but they are important and even in these early days it is possible to influence the future of the pup. Increasing the number of neurotransmitters in the brain actually increases it’s physical size and potential for intelligence. Wow. And it is so easy.
Stroking a pup, touching the pads of his feet, rolling him gently from one side to the other, are all ENS protocols so the good news is that most breeders are doing much of this work without knowing the fancy name for it because it is nearly impossible not to cuddle and move puppies. For some puppies briefly holding them in your hands on their back and touching the pads of their feet is appropriate, but for some babies this is too much stimulus so even from the very beginning the pup gets to decide what he is ready for.
14 Days: Startle/Recovery, Barrier Challenges Begin
When a pup’s eyes and ears open every sight and sound is new. Through careful conditioning it is possible to assist the pups in accepting new sights and sounds as normal and safe. Cultivating a solid startle and recovery response is an important piece of how I build resilient dogs. Carefully and incrementally I expose the puppies to stimulus that may cause them to startle. I do not scare the puppies!!! A good example of what this might look like is me making a noise that causes the pups to look over their shoulder at it, and then go right back to playing. Their concern should last less than a second. As time goes on it becomes more and more challenging for me to find things that are noteworthy to the pups because they are learning that new things are not a cause for alarm. This is the beginning of learning environmental discernment.
Barrier challenges are great fun, and so easy to create. Normal responses for pups when faced with something new can be fear or frustration. These are behaviors that can lead to reactivity and aggression. A pup that has been exposed to minor physical challenges of increasing difficulty early in life learns to be a creative thinker. A barrier challenge can be as simple as a rolled towel placed in the whelping box, or a short piece of fencing between the pups and their food bowl. It is really interesting to watch the pups figure this concept out; you can see the “light bulb” moment when they remember to think rather than fuss and protest.
Once the pup’s eyes and ears open they begin to move around purposefully so ENS is no longer necessary from me but the startle/recovery and barrier challenges experiences are elements I continue to incorporate over the next few weeks.
2-3 weeks: New areas, Novel stimulus, Puppy Recall
By about three weeks of age, some industrious soul figures out how to clamor up and out of the whelping box and I know they are ready to begin to interact with their big, new world. Over the next days and weeks I increase the size of the area they live in and expose them to more and varied stimulus as they show me they are ready. I watch their behavioral markers carefully. Pups that are inquisitive are ready for new experiences. Pups that frequently retreat to the safety of familiarity aren’t quite there; I always train to the “slowest” pup. Incidentally, this is not indicative of a shortcoming of that particular pup but is rather an indication of where he is in understanding this vast world at that specific point in time.
This is also the time I begin to introduce new surfaces for the pups to walk on, new sounds, and a hill or two to climb on. At least one new item or experience shows up in their lives every day, from this point and right up until they leave me at sixteen weeks of age or more. Truly, making this happen for the pups isn’t very difficult because a ranch is a busy place, with lots of changes inherent to living here, and the new experiences I provide the pups don’t need to be big things, just thought provoking and confidence building ones.
When the pups open their eyes and can move around at will I begin supplementing their diet. This is the time that I begin to teach puppy recall; the word, the high pitch of my voice, and the energy in my voice will stay the same thorough out their time on the ranch. The pups also learn to look forward to me showing up! When the pups move on to their new owners it is easy to substitute a name of their choosing to my bright “pups!” word. What is important is that right from their first memories being “called” is tied to an experience they love and look forward to. As adults I seldom have trouble with having my dogs come when called because they know I will have something they want, even if it is just my snuggles and profuse praise.
3 weeks and onward: Introduction to gentle sheep
At this age the puppies begin to have significant exposure to their sheep. For details about how I do this please visit the Husbandry page, and read the blog listed above.
4 weeks: Clicker training
By the time the pups are three-four weeks old they begin to understand how to take food from my fingers. I look forward to this milestone because it is the beginning of my opportunity to teach the pups that they have some control over their world and that their actions/choices can make things happen that they like. I love training Maremmas and if I could skip all the “breeder” experiences and shoot straight to this point I would in a heartbeat!
Clicker training begins at this point. Initially I use baked chicken as my food reinforcement for the pups. In the early days I often have to poke the food right into those little mouths because they don’t understand how to take it from my fingers. It’s fun to watch the light bulb moment when they realize I am offering them something as wonderful as chicken! I sit on the ground in front of them and click and treat as many pups as will participate, as quickly as I can, over and over, for no more than five minutes and then that session is finished. This process is called “loading the clicker.” The sound the clicker has no relevance to the pups whatsoever, until it is paired with food. Then it becomes a powerful message that a tasty thing will follow the sound. In the beginning they don’t have any conception of why the click happened or that they had anything to do with it, and I am not clicking for any specific behavior of the pups other than them being willing/able to eat from my fingers. After only a session or two the pups become visibly excited when they hear the sound of the clicker because they know the game has begun!
4 Weeks and Onward:
Manding, Cultivating a Positive CER
and Environmental Discernment
Blog: Manding - Why Teach It?
At four weeks of age the pups are taught to “mand”. This is a Puppy Culture term that means the pups learn to sit to ask for attention. Puppies at this age can demand attention! They may jump on me, chew on my clothing, etc. These are behaviors I want to discourage. Puppies that know to mand cannot, at the same time, put their feet on me. In clicker training terms this is called “teaching an incompatible behavior”. The puppies are not taught not to put their feet on me or do other rude behaviors. They ARE taught that those behaviors don’t get them what they want and that manding does. They are rewarded for manding! This is experienced very different by the pups than being scolded for jumping. The simplicity of this is beautiful.
Puppies (and dogs) do what is immediately rewarding. Puppies are short; I am tall. If the pup pauses a second I can often get him to look up, and the rump goes down, and a click and treat happens; manding happened. The puppies that are bouncing are ignored. One by one as the puppies settle a little, and begin to notice their manding siblings being fed chicken and getting my attention, the puppies learn how to ask for my attention. If I don’t happen to have a clicker and chicken ready when a pup mands for me I use my marker word (Yeeeesss!) and then snuggle the pup, reaching past pups not choosing to give me this behavior. You’d be amazed at how quickly a whole litter will mand, all on their own.
Cultivating Positive a CER and Environmental Discernment
Here’s where the real fun begins! With purpose and planning I introduce my “something new”. I have a great assortment of new items of increasing difficulty or possible level of concern. I first give the pups new things to look at that don’t move. I click and treat eye contact with that item, a step taken towards it, a paw on it, etc. My criteria for reward is broad. I’m looking for any willingness at all from the pups to investigate this new thing. This work is unbelievably valuable to the pups; it truly can shape the course of their future because a confident dog is much more likely to be successful as a working dog than a reactive one. Most aggressive behaviors dogs present began as fearful behaviors.
What I am doing, in scientific terminology, is building a positive CER (conditioned emotional response) to novel stimulus. This becomes an automatic response in the pups – it isn’t a decision they consciously make. In layman’s terms, and to the pups, it means that something new means treats are closely to follow and that their interaction with this stimulus/item makes treats happen even faster. At this point any pup within 20’ of me gets clicks and treats. Even if they aren’t among the front runner brave pups they are participating. The pups can choose to leave and hide out in the stall so if they are where I can reach them it counts and they are rewarded. Nothing bad ever happens if they do that and no judgment is made on my part, by the way. The pups always, always get to choose their rate of learning. I give them environmental opportunities I think they may be ready for; they let me know by their behavioral markers if I am correct.
The environment enrichment items in my toolbox include a wobble board, a teeter totter, an 8’ long fabric agility tunnel, a plastic swimming pool, wide pans that are empty and then later have 3-4’ of water in them, low livestock water troughs that the pups can climb in and out of, ramps used flat on the ground and then raised, etc. The list of possibilities is only limited by my imagination. Very, very quickly the presentation of something new is cause for celebration for the pups. They rush at whatever it is and climb all over it because this is the clicker game! In the case of the tunnel I popped that thing open and got out of the way. I can tell you that I believe the world’s greatest puppy toy is a tunnel! These training sessions are as much fun for me as they are for the pups.
One of the things these early experiences begin to teach the pups is environmental discernment. I have seen four week old pups attempt perimeter checks. Even at this age they begin to feel some ownership of the ground they stand on. Something new is cause for investigation, but once the new thing is figured out and the pups decide it doesn’t matter much they lose interest in it and go back to work, or to play (which is also work). This usually takes them 10-15 minutes. This teaches the pups to use their brains and reasoning skills rather than just going to fear and reactivity. Both these behaviors are common and normal in pups lacking socialization/ exposure to new things. As adults, dogs raised without these experiences may bark escessively and are more likely to show recourse guarding behaviors, again because their automatic responses are based in fear. Pups that have been taught a positive CER greet new situations with confidence and curiosity.
Six to Eight Weeks: Increasing Livestock Responsibilities
By this age my pups are usually living with the sheep full time through the day and eventually at night as well. For more information on how I do this please visit the Husbandry page.
Eight to Ten Weeks and Onward:
Field Transitions, Leash Work, gate manners, car rides, walking up a ramp, the grooming table, clippers, toenail trims with the dremel…the list is endless
These pups are ready to move!! I train my puppies using a method I call “transitional training”. I very carefully cultivate the confidence and curiosity of my pups by moving them to different fields and by using different livestock, all of increasing difficulty as the pups show me that they are ready for more responsibility. The next step is to move them across the barnyard to an entirely new field using the same sheep that they have become comfortable with. Oh my! Sometime when I do this with litters it feels like I can see “Yikes!” on their faces and in their body language, but with some litters they hit the ground running and can’t wait to explore. I love the ever changing nature of learning from my dogs!
This is also a good age to begin to introduce short car rides; sometime I don’t even leave the ranch. I load them all up, drive up the lane and back, and take them all out again.
Remember, throughout all this time the pups are still being exposed to novel stimulus and rewarded for it, cultivating their startle and recovery, and dealing with barrier challenges of increasing difficulty.
Blog: Why on Leash?
To back up just a little bit, leash work with LGDs is different than leash work with companion dogs because LGDs own the ground they stand on. Pet dogs are owned by you, so wherever you go they go too, and all is right with their world. They do need to learn to tolerate the constraints of a leash and harness or collar, but that’s it. For an LGD he needs to learn to accept that as well, but his bigger concern is what to do with this new ground – what is his new responsibility?
By necessity, when I begin leash work with my puppies I move them to new ground, one at a time. It would be completely impractical to try to teach a puppy leash work while surrounded by his littermates. So, before I introduce leash training I teach my puppies that they can be safe in new surroundings, and that in fact these changes can be great fun! That is the first step.
The first place I do leash work is in the interior of my large cedar barn, which is where their stall is in field #2. The landscape in the barn is very different for the pups. The barn is full of equipment and things to look at, and the perimeter is obscure. LGDs always care about defining the perimeter, so this in itself is a challenge/concern to the pups. In past years when I brought a pup out into this area he would often sink to the ground in fear and concern. Very slowly I would support the pup in learning to look up and participate in this new area, and to have some fun while investigating, but this often involved several minute of fear for the pup. Ah, this year, enter the power of the clicker – the game the pups always win!
This year was soooo different. The strength of teaching a positive CER to novel stimulus, and tying the clicker to tasty chicken, gave me a way to communicate with my pups that amazed me. First of all, none of the pups hit the deck. Some of them were still for a few moments while they sized things up but none were fearful. I and my helpers were ready; the second a pup raised up and engaged in his new surroundings a click and treat happened. This is the game they always win! Novel stimulus! To a one, every puppy from this point forward investigated the interior of the barn with confidence and curiosity. The difference was amazing, and how very easy it was to do this for my pups.
Adolescent Training Goals - Waiting For Maturity
This can be a challenging time of life, for both the dog and his owner. It can be a time of confusion and frustration, and of joy and wonder. In my opinion this is all about perspective. I think of these challenges as speed bumps in learning and opportunities to build my relationship with my dogs. Even with my base of experience I still occasionally find myself at a loss to understand a situation. I know I can always reach out to my mentors for clarification. Sometimes it takes a village to raise a Maremma! The complicated dogs are the ones I learn the most from and I thank them for that because what I learn from them often makes life easier for the dogs to come. I only need to make the same mistakes once. Training is never about perfection. I tend to be hard on myself and forget this truth and that doesn’t serve me or my dogs, so I take a deep breath and go back out and kindly try something new until the dogs let me know I’ve got it right.
Blog: Positive reinforcement Training – What It Is & Why It Matters
I teach our adolescent and adult dogs the following cues, taught through the fabric of everyday life. In some cases I use a clicker and treats; for others I use a verbal marker and touch. All these behaviors make the dogs easier for me to live with and work around as I interact with livestock and my many other chores.
I teach our dogs to accept being tied, to travel on a lose leash at my side, the cues below and probably more that I have forgotten to list, in addition to many hand signs:
“Are You Ready???”
Blog: Not Sit
In the creation of this page it has been challenging for me to keep it simple and only touch on the points that I feel are the most important. Writing my book is different because I can sit at my computer and tell Maremma stories endlessly, without restraint, because it’s MY book! I trust that the reader knows he has the choice to set it aside at any time. So if you are intrigued by what you have read here please feel free to open the covers of this book to come and see where it takes you….