Biddability is about a dog’s willingness to be directed, particularly to be directed to do something in which the dog sees no personal value. I hear my mother’s words in my head when I read this: “Do it because I said so!”
Many companion dog breeds have been selectively bred to have a high degree of biddability; Border Collies are a great example of this. They have the strong, instinctive drive to do their job, as livestock guardian breeds do, but they are also quick to look for direction from their handler. “You say so? OK, good enough for me!” Maremmas, on [EA1] the other hand, generally don’t feel the need to look to a human for instruction about how to do their job. Many owners of LGDs are frustrated by this truth – I see it as a strength! The complexity of how an LGD understands his job and his ability to make management decisions at 4:00 am when I am comfortably sound asleep are wonderful traits. But are there trade-offs? Maybe. Does this mean you can’t teach a Maremma to respond to cues? No, certainly not, but your requests of the dog must be reasonable to the dog – realistic expectations of the dog, with his inherent degree of genetic biddability kept in mind.
Biddability is not the same thing as a dog being willing to do something he enjoys. Rather, it is his willingness to stop doing something he is happily doing and do something else instead, just because you asked him to. Again, let’s go back to the Border Collie/LGD example. A well-trained Border Collie, chasing sheep at top speed, can easily be redirected by a skillful handler; the same cannot be said about most LGDs! Is that a “fault” of the LGD? Not a chance.
I have found Maremmas to be sensitive, easily trained dogs. However, much of that successful training comes from managing the environment the Maremma works in to create a likelihood that he will give me the behavior I am looking for. I can pretty much promise you that ordering an LGD to do something or not to do something will result in you largely being ignored. LGDs are willing, working partners with their humans if the human’s expectations are reasonable to them, but they are not accepting of being ordered about. Shouting an order at a Maremma might work the first time – out of the shock of it – but it won’t work the second time, and you will have damaged your trust relationship with your dog. This just isn’t a good long-term training strategy with a minimally biddable breed, such as LGDs are.
Poor training techniques can suppress or inhibit the inherent biddability in a dog. Conversely, even a highly skilled trainer cannot create or install biddability in a dog, but they can and will make good use of the degree of biddability that is there. A dog who has learned that a cue is an opportunity to earn a reward is more likely to respond favorably to that cue than a dog given a command. That cued dog may appear to be quite the intelligent individual and make the trainer look good in the process, but in truth, what is more, likely to be true is that the trainer’s request was fair and reasonable given the circumstance the cue was given in. In training terms, this is called antecedent set-up – what was true in the dog’s environment when the cue was given.
It is also true that a dog who is very excited or frightened is much less likely to respond favorably to a cue because he can’t. I think of it as a dog having a learning brain or a coping brain at that moment in time.
Many people think of cues as verbal: common verbal cues are sit, stay, come, and such. But this is just the beginning, and in fact, verbal cues are some of the least efficient types of cues to use with dogs because dogs do not use spoken language to communicate. Dogs attempt to learn “English as a second language” from us, accommodating souls that they are.
In training our dogs here at the ranch, I use physical cues a lot, such as hand gestures and body language. I use environment cues and situational cues. This is way not as difficult as it sounds. Have you ever had a dog who got excited when he saw you pick up your keys? That is an example of an environmental cue, or a situational cue, depending on how you look at it. A situational cue might be where the sheep are, and where I am, and where the dog is when we walk through a gate.
Cues like this happen all through the course of a day on a working ranch, and generally in life; the dog seems to read your mind – but does he? No, he is responding to cues. Really understanding cues can be a big part of becoming a successful trainer because most of us give cues often, without intending to. Even a less biddable breed will respond to cues that make sense to him; environmental cues and situational cues often make sense, more so than verbal ones.
As you live with your incredible LGDs, please keep their genetic makeup in mind. Within breeds, some individuals have more biddability than others, but an LGD will never “snap to” like a Border Collie, and he shouldn’t be asked to. To do so sets the dog up for failure.
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