This is a nine-second video of me using two hand signal cues to slow the speed of this enthusiastic male pup, Blue. Did you see my cues? I show him my "stop-sign" hand and then ask him to target to my hand. Watch how responsive he is to my requests. Now, this would not be considered noteworthy if these dogs were Border Collies, but they are Maremmas, dogs with a reputation of being independent.
Raising Maremmas that choose to respond to cues like this is the result of months of training, carefully shaping behavior and building a training relationship. For my dogs, a cue represents an opportunity for reinforcement, so they look forward to them.
Here's the story:
My pups are raised with several types of livestock right from the beginning; six-week-old pups live with gentle livestock full time, and for the rest of their lives. The dogs in the video, Blue & Sky, have been around goats minimally. I have a pair of elderly goats that I use to train pups with. But the dogs have never been with a group of goats; that is a LOT of stimulus! Let me walk you through my training decisions.
I brought the pair of dogs in on slip leads, rather than using the front attachment harnesses you usually see me use, because I knew the dogs could handle it. They were calm and soft in my hands. I brought them in and slipped the leashes off - but I kept the leashes handy.
The dogs were thrilled to meet the goatie-girls. They both bounded around in exuberant fashion; notice that I did not "correct" them, ever. I used careful timing and reinforced the dogs for any pieces of the behavior I ultimately wanted from them. In this way, I build their confidence in themselves and the situation. Confident dogs think well, learn well, so this is what I want to work toward with the dogs. Speedy behavior is not the same as chase behavior. Speedy behavior does not mean you will always have speedy behavior. The way to move past this is through it, shaping the behavior of the dogs piece by piece. This lets the dogs know what I want, and it creates learned patterns of behavior around the goats. If I stop their behavior, rather than moving through it, it is harder for the dogs to know what I want, and it shakes their confidence. No one, dog or human, likes to me told they have made a mistake. It isn't fun. I want the dogs to think goats are way fun.
Now, back to the video at the top of the page.
My rule of thumb in working with speedy pups is five steps. I actually count the strides of a dog moving quickly around livestock. I have found that dogs will often romp for two, or even three, strides, and then settle down and slow down on their own. I watch for the opportunity to reinforce them for that. By four strides I am planning how to step in, ready to do so; five strides is my limit because at that point the dog's energy is probably building rather than decreasing.
Take a look at Blue as the video begins. Count his strides, and then watch the video again watching only me. Can you see me getting prepared to step in with the dogs? At five strides I give Blue my stop-sign.
If I show my dogs my open hand, raised or in front of their muzzle, they know it means to stop. I use it a lot when I come in and out of gates. I use it often for made up reasons because it is an extremely valuable tool to me and I want lots of opportunities to practice it. I make sure the dogs have a strong reinforcement history with it so that they are happy to see this cue.
After I gave Blue the cue, I cued him for the next behavior, verbally reinforced him for the first cue at the same time. My voice was low and soft, words said slowly. This is another advantage of not using verbal cues; being able to cue another behavior while reinforcing the first cue. I don't chatter with my dogs when I am around them so when I do speak it means a lot to them; they pay attention to that.
My second cue is my hand, turned over, and low. This is a target cue; I have asked the dog to put his muzzle in my hand. Again, this is a tremendously valuable tool that I spend a lot of purposeful time teaching. Loose leash walking? No problem. Follow my hand, held near my thigh. Recall? No problem. Come and put your muzzle on my hand. Walk with me through this flock of sheep. No problem, just keep your muzzle in my hand. So easy. I feel that if I need a leash and collar to move my dogs I haven't done enough training. There are certainly times that the stimulus of a situation will be more provoking to the dog than my hand is wonderful, but most of the time targeting is all I need.
As Blue came around the herd I spoke to him gently; that is why he saw my stop-sign hand. Notice what he does when he sees that cue: he plants his front feet so surely that he almost slides, his body lowered, eyes on me. Did you see what he did next?
Blue used four calming signals, one right after the other, to let me know he wanted no conflict: he blinked, he tipped his head, he licked his lips, and he moved toward me in a curve, rather than coming straight at me. This tells me my decision to carefully build his confidence was a wise one because these behaviors show me that he is a little insecure. He's happy to be here with the goats, and me, but it is all new to him so he's a little cautious.
As Blue places his chin in my open hand he is obviously pleased with himself. His whole body wiggles. He stand tall, tail way up, body loose. It's a job well done and he knows that!
Now take a look at Sky. For my dogs, a cue is an opportunity to earn reinforcement. When I work with pairs of dogs both dogs get reinforced. Sky saw the cue - free love! A snuggle just for being nearby, what a deal. My dogs watch for these opportunities. I don't have to do much to have their attention, they want to work with me.
So, in the space of three seconds, I have the attention of both dogs, both dogs were reinforced, both dogs with an emotional reset - pause, begin again.
Wrapping it up:
Kathy and I spent about fifteen minutes with the dogs and the goats. The nine-second video was recorded at about the ten minute mark.
Can you learn to do this?
Yes, you really can.
If you would like to learn how to train this way. The shortest distance to that point is by completing the Karen Pryor Dog Trainer Foundations Course I so admire, link below, using the training manual I wrote, link below. Have fun! I welcome questions and love to hear the stories of others training this way.
Link to purchase the Foundations course:
Link to purchase the training manual from Amazon: