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A Language All Their Own

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Written by the owner of these animals:

"This is a short video of Luna, a 5-year-old Maremma, and Stella, a 15-month-old Nigerian Dwarf who was new to the property.  Her attempted introduction to the dogs had taken a bad turn when she panicked and butted, then kicked, my younger dog, who then retaliated.  His retaliation was actually appropriate, and he didn't harm the goat, but obviously, we wanted to avoid that again.

It was decided that we would use Luna, with her calm maturity, to acclimate Stella.  Luna visited the enclosure when Stella was staying with her mother and brother (who had been there for almost a year).  Luna was on leash during the visits to prevent her from approaching Stella.  After about five visits, I turned Luna loose. 

All of us - the dog, the two humans, and the three goats, were outside.  Stella chose to go into the barn, and Luna followed her inside.  This is the video of that interaction.

Stella is now living peacefully with the rest of the goats and both dogs."

And now, my thoughts....

I have watched this video at least twenty times, and I’ll bet I watch it that many more. It is such a beautiful example of the relationships LGDs can cultivate with their livestock. Because most of the work LGDs do happens at night, it is often overlooked by owners, or simply taken for granted.

Animals are masters at reading subtle body language as their primary way to communicate. This is especially true of animals that have been allowed to live with others of their own species while they were in their early developmental stages. Livestock typically are allowed to live with each other, while canines are often expected to be good at being dogs even when they have been taken from their siblings or other dogs when they were young; it does them a great disservice.

The breeder that raised Luna was wise. She allowed Luna to learn from a variety of adolescent and mature Maremmas, so not only does Luna know how to be a guardian of livestock – she also knows how to be a dog! She has been a patient mentor of young Bruno.

LGDs have differing styles of guarding. With this owner's pair of dogs, Bruno takes his job seriously as he does perimeter checks and watches over every inch of her property and as far as his eyes can see. Luna is soft and nurturing with the goats, and she’s also older, so she is happy to let Bruno handle the more physically demanding guarding tasks.

Even though animals understand what is being said through body language, choosing to honor that and change their behavior because of it can be another matter. One of the skills young LGDs need to learn is when to back off, and when to give their livestock a little room. Luna’s obvious willingness to respect Stella’s request for space is flawless.

So let’s talk about the conversation between Stella and Luna in this short video clip. Stella shows her concern about Luna’s presence by facing Luna and backing up to the fence; she then positions herself in the corner so that the back side of her is safe. She stamps her feet from time to time, shifts her weight back and forth, and advances and retreats, letting Luna know that she’ll defend herself if she feels she needs to. She bobs her head a couple of times in mock head-butting challenges. If you watch her back closely, you can see her skin twitch from time to time throughout this exchange. She’s willing to consider Luna’s presence, but she’s prepared for the worst!

Luna, sweet soul that she is, shows her willingness to respect what Stella lets her know she needs, but Luna would really like to be Stella’s friend; you can see that in Luna’s whole body.

Luna enters the pen softly and slowly, with her back rounded, her head slightly lowered, her mouth open and loose, and her tail lowered and wagging gently. She’d like to walk up and give Stella a kiss; Stella says “no” so Luna stops a respectful distance away. Now watch for something really beautiful – watch what Luna does with her head….

Canines have behaviors that are called “calming signals.” They let other animals know that the dog does not want to fight; these behaviors indicate that the dog is willing to be submissive. When a dog stares into the eyes of another dog, that may be perceived as confrontational, so if a dog looks away from the dog, he is greeting, he is letting that dog know he means no harm.

Now back to Luna. After she advances and then stops, she glances over her shoulder at her owner, back to Stella, and then she purposefully turns her head to the left, slowly, and keeps it there. Can you guess what she just said to Stella? Stella knows. And then Luna leaves well enough alone for now and turns to leave. Over time, in her gentle way, Luna will continue to invite Stella to trust her – and I’m betting on Luna!

When people greet each other, we want eye contact. I feel distrustful of a person who won’t meet my direct gaze. My dogs have taught me that they need something else from me, and if I want the deep relationship with them that I do, I need to be willing to speak their language as best I can. In order to do that, I first need to know that the language exists at all.

There is a wonderful book about canine body language that I have read many times because as my understanding of my dogs changes, so too does what I can assimilate from this book.

If you’d like to know more, please check out this book:

On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas. At only 79 pages, it’s a quick read – I highly recommend it!

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