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Companion Dog Trainers Can Contribute to the Failure of LGDs

Updated: May 13, 2023

This four month old pup is well on her way to a successful career as a guardian dog.

There are trainers that seem to have decided they know all they need to know, or claim to know more than they actually do. These trainers are dangerous, particularly to LGDs.

I have partnered with many professional companion dog trainers and rescue organizations. It is a privilege to assist these professionals in bridging the gaps between their existing skill sets and the needs of LGDs, but this kind of willingness to partner is uncommon. Many companion dog trainers treat LGDs like all the other kinds of dogs they train. Experience has shown me that working with trainers like this does not go well for LGDs.

I am a full-time professional LGD trainer, both with dogs coming to my ranch for training and Zoom sessions with LGD owners all across the country. Most of them tell me they attempted to work with a companion dog trainer first and that it didn’t go well for the dog. Either the trainer could not produce the desired results, or the dog’s behavior got worse. Disparaging comments from the trainers about “stubborn” LGDs that are so difficult to train are common.

Many of the clients I work with ended their relationship with their companion dog trainer when prong collars and shock collars were presented as necessary to change the behavior of these independent dogs. And some of the owners tried those methods with the predictable result of aggression in their dogs. Learned aggression is the most common reason LGD owners reach out to me.

I have a friend who is a guide dog trainer in Switzerland. She states that she considers Americans "barbaric" because of our use of shock collars. She says that science proved 35 years ago that they are dangerous to dogs and that collars that inflict pain (shock collars and prong collars) have been illegal in her country since that time. That Americans, in the face of proof of the danger of these tools, continue to use them is astounding to her. She feels strongly that animals have rights and that humans don't have the right to hurt them. I agree.

A trainer is usually consulted when the owner perceives a problem they can’t figure out how to deal with. Hiring a professional may seem like a responsible decision, but how that works out depends so much on the skills and belief system of the trainer. Remember, in the United States, there is no governing agency for dog training. Anyone can claim to be a dog trainer. Most of the dog trainers I have known have an area of specialty and don’t claim to know everything about everything, but sadly, this isn’t always the case. It can be in hindsight that it is realized that the training choices weren’t the best ones for the dog. When a trainer, of all people, has trouble with a dog, it can really frighten the owner. That puts the dog at an even greater risk than he was before.

In my world, the dog is never wrong. If there is a problem it is my job to figure out how to communicate with the dog. It is not the dog’s job to stop doing things that annoy me.

When I was a breeder selling puppies, I learned to avoid selling to trainers, mostly.

The conversations would go like this:

Trainer: I want to buy my first LGD. Great, I say, let me send you to the KPA Foundations course and my training manual so that you can be well prepared to take on this new type of dog.

Trainer: That’s OK; I am already a trainer; I don’t need to take the course. Just sell me a dog.

No kidding, this happened a lot.

If I have owned a German Shephard (I have), does that mean I know how to teach it something specialized, such as Search and Rescue or Drug Detection? No, it does not.

So, even though this person has a lot of experience training dogs, LGDs are different. Even if they have trained LGDs successfully before (as working dogs, not pets), unless they study from me, they can’t know what I have taught my own dogs. But I heard this a lot; “I am already a trainer.” I love the opportunity to learn something new. Even as an experienced training specialist with LGDs, I actively add to my education, taking course after course all across the country. I have never understood the resistance of some trainers to take advantage of the opportunity to learn directly from a trainer who specializes in this new type of dog they are contemplating bringing home or training for someone else.

A dog is a dog, right?

There are two types of dogs: Companion dogs and livestock guardian dogs. The things that motivate these two types of dogs are very different, as are the things that are aversive (punishing) to them. Knowing what is aversive to LGDs is a BIG DEAL because much of the common beginning training admired by companion dog trainers is inherently aversive, or of little value, to LGDs. Because the trainer has trained companion dogs to be pets, working dogs, or anything other than dogs that live with livestock, does that mean the trainer also understands the differences between LGDs and the other dogs they have trained? How? Have they read about it, or have they lived it? I have lived it for many years now and with many LGDs. There are still surprises. How can they know what trained skills actually are helpful for LGDs and their owners?

What about a breed like the Great Pyrenees? This is a breed that has been bred to be used as LGDs, but also as companion dogs. How does the owner want to use this dog? If he/she wants him to be a pet, and the dog has a blend of LGD and companion dog traits, the trainer needs to be able to recognize the LGD traits and help the dog meet those needs in a way that is compatible with being a pet. If the owner wants this blended breed of dog to work as an LGD it is important to heavily reinforce any hint of guardian aptitude. Does a companion dog trainer know what that looks like? I don’t think so. How could they?

The Shelby pups

In early 2022, I was hired to evaluate and train a litter of ten puppies that were a 50/50 mix of companion dog breeds and LGD breeds. This was an accidental breeding. The owner of the dam had previously been sold a GP to use as a guardian dog that had no inclination to work as such. Shelby knew that if she placed any of her pups as guardians, and their wiring was as companion dogs, the owner of the dog would be unhappy, as would the dog. She wanted her pups to be safe. So, the litter came to me at six weeks of age because that is when the dam weaned them.

The pups were a mix of Newfoundland/Leonberger/Anatolian/Komondor. I had never met any of these breeds! Training the companion dog portion of the litter would be easy, but not so the LGD side. All LGDs have specific styles of guarding. The posture of a working Maremma is nose down and tail up. The guarding posture of a GP is nose way up in the air and watching the far away distance. What is the guarding style/posture of an Anatolian or Komondor? I researched this prior to the arrival of the litter – and got nowhere. The literature described the breed standards and how wonderful each breed was, but not their ethology. Then I researched the ethology of Maremmas and got just as far. Disappointing!

So, even after having been trained by at least 300 working Maremmas, I still have a lot to learn. For these pups, I set up many differing scenarios around livestock and changing real estate. I watched the pups for engagement in either, video recording every training session. I spent hour upon hour upon hour working with and observing these fascinating pups.

Out of a 50/50 split of companion/guardian breeds, only one pup showed guardian tendencies. I have her on video as proof; she did this for two weeks and then got over it! But the damage was done. I fell in love with her, so here Juniper will stay. The rest of the pups were placed as companion dogs, and one year later, all owners report being happy with their dogs. I am too.

This is Juniper, at less than a year old, meeting a cat for the first time.

What companion dog trainers teach dogs

There seems to be a cookie-cutter formula for this that I suspect is driven by the requests of the owners of the dogs. Companion dog trainers can’t stay in business unless they create observable results. To the owners of most companion dogs, results look like the dog responding to cued behaviors correctly - obedience training.

Sit Stay Come Down Crate training Where to eliminate

As an LGD trainer, the very word “obedience” makes me shiver. LGDs are minimally biddable dogs. Biddability is pretty much “do it because I said so.” And here is where companion dog trainers begin to get in trouble with LGDs. Two things are true. One is that LGDs have been selectively bred to think for themselves, which is a strength. It is very possible, using the appropriate training language, to influence the behavior of LGDs, but giving them a “command” and expecting compliance is not going to work. The other thing that is true of LGDs is that are always working, 24-7, so when training requests are made of them, it requires them to multi-task. Their work ethic is strong, so if they feel their obligation as a working LGD is a bigger need than complying with a command, they will go to work. As they should! But this does not please companion dog trainers or owners of LGDs who don’t have realistic expectations of them. It can be difficult to have realistic expectations of LGDs if you have no history with them.

Of the above training goals, which ones benefit LGDs? It is important to me to teach my dogs skills that assist them in doing their job as guardian dogs and my ability to communicate with them. So, can I teach my LGDs the behaviors listed above? You bet. But I see no value in them to my LGDs or to me.

Instead of “Sit,” for instance, I teach my dogs to mand. This has great value to them and to me. Manding is an offered sit that I heavily reinforce. It isn’t a command; it isn’t “sit.” Manding has value to LGDs for many reasons. It is an easy way for them to receive reinforcement because it ALWAYS works; I make sure of it. A manding dog is also probably right in front of me and looking into my eyes. If I have his eyes I have his brain, so this manding position is a great one for leading to the next opportunity for reinforcement, such as in response to a cue for behavior from me. It is also impossible for a manding dog to have his feet on me. I never have to teach a dog to keep his feet on the ground; feet on me never works, and manding always works. Easy choice for the dog to make.

Sit, on the other hand, is very often used to stop the movement of a dog. Go to a veterinary office and listen to clients tell their dogs and puppies, “Sit!” in an ever-escalating tone. It doesn’t work well in the way most people use it. It is certainly possible to teach an LGD to sit in a fair way, but I have never found a use for it. A dog that I have told to sit that is now sitting in front of me is not necessarily happy to be there. I have no assurance that I have his brain, as I do with a dog who has chosen to mand, and it is his brain that I want, not just his body.

Stay – why? How is this valuable to an LGD? I do teach my dogs to “Wait,” which is often used when I open gates or move livestock. But my request is connected to an environmental cue or situational cue, which makes sense to the dog. It is an active skill, not just a request of the dog for compliance. And wait means to pause for a few seconds, not minutes. Yes. It is possible to teach an LGD to stay, but because it has big tradeoffs for the LGD, asking for it is likely to have some aversive aspect to it. Why this is true has to do with the differences between LGDs and companion dogs. I’d rather not do that to my dogs unless I need to.

Come – come! – I said come!!!! Every one of my twenty-one Maremmas will come to me at a full run if I give them that opportunity. I don’t ask them to when I know they cannot do this for me, such as when they are in pursuit of a predator. But I don’t give them a command; instead, I turn into a party. Being near me has only ever been wonderful fun, so why wouldn’t they come? I have zero problems with this behavior, but LGDs have a reputation for not coming when called. This flaw is in the trainer, not the dog. Ordering this behavior from an LGD is one of the fastest ways to teach him to avoid you. That is very, very common. Enter the companion dog trainer who states that the only option for control/compliance is a shock collar. Yes, a shock collar can stop a dog in his tracks, but the cost of this to the dog can be huge. Ultimately, it can cost him his life because, again, learned aggression is the #1 killer of LGDs; it is the most common reason owners euthanize their LGD.

Down – why? To control movement? Is this the best way to accomplish that? I don’t think so, and I know asking for this behavior from an LGD creates aversive fall-out, except in the briefest, most carefully constructed training sessions. I control movement by teaching a dog to target a body part to my hand, typically a nose in my hand or his back to my flat hand. I use targeting a lot! Dogs love it, and it is easy to teach. The dogs get to stay on their feet, which makes it still possible for them to quickly respond to a threat, and they stay still unless that happens.

Crate training – I teach all my dogs to be comfortable in a crate for a very brief time because there may be times in their lives when this may be a tool necessary for their safety, but this is a biggie for LGDs. The problem is not being in the crate, the problem is that the LGD cannot guard from inside a crate, and that creates lots of stress for the dog. A dog’s control of his environment, and himself, is a primary reinforcer, just like food is. If you take away more than you give, your situation is bankrupt. It is very likely that this is one of those times unless you really understand LGDs. Toss some cheese in the crate? The dog may now associate cheese with being confined. He may also associate the person who put him in the crate with this potentially aversive experience. Dog doesn’t come when called? Dog ignores you? Think about things like this. Puppies are born perfect – they learn (are taught) to avoid people when they have aversive experiences with them.

New owners often lock puppies in a garage at night “to keep them safe.” This can have a disastrous effect on guardian behaviors for a host of reasons. Also, a bored, stressed pup is destructive. So, is the pup now locked in a crate and in a garage? Oh, the damage this does to LGDs, and it is common.

Where to eliminate – really? First of all, for an LGD, scent marking is a primary way for him to warn off predators. Why would I have any authority to tell the LGD how to do his guardian job? And I rarely see my dogs eliminate. They live in pastures and are secretive about when and where they take care of business. If an LGD is living in a situation where there is a “wrong” place for him to eliminate, I question the wisdom of his living situation. Further, scolding or redirecting an LGD for eliminating would make no sense to him at all; avoid, escape, and frustration are the likely results of attempting to impose this kind of control with an LGD.

Now, let’s get to what really matters – guardian behaviors

If the dog has been purchased with the goal of using him as a guardian, how has the companion dog trainer been cultivating and reinforcing those behaviors? If he has instead been teaching the behaviors listed above, great time-sensitive opportunities have been lost in favor of traditional companion dog training. In the early days, guardian behaviors can be subtle, either in a young dog or a dog in a new situation. The first 48 hours that an LGD is in a new home are critical to his ease of guarding his new home. In his mind, he is building his foundation to work from. Mistakes during this time can be very problematic; at a minimum, they create unnecessary stress for the dog.

There are so many ways to impede the natural development of guardian skills. Here’s an example: I reinforce my LGDs for leaving, not for checking in with me as I would a companion dog. And that is just one tiny little piece of what is different. A dog leaving me is showing ownership and participation in his environment. A dog coming to me, focused on me, is not focused on his job. I say “hi,” quickly snuggle, and then redirect the dog to go back to work; one choice empowers the LGD while the other choice does not.

All LGD training should be designed to cultivate an independent, confident dog. The above companion dog behaviors create a focus on a human as of central importance. If you build an LGD like that you had better be prepared to be out there at 4:00 am a lot because that is when the predators are active. A dog who lacks the confidence to work alone barks – a lot. He climbs fences, digs under fences, and picks fights with his partner or his livestock; the list is endless.

I have said this so many times, but I am going to say it again; fully 30% of the LGDs in this country fail, per the criteria of their owners. Most of those failed dogs are euthanized. I firmly believe that these dogs died before they were six months old; the owner just doesn’t know that yet. The dye was cast way back then.

A dog under six months of age learns very quickly. He creates patterns of behavior. He is born with lots and lots of “potential” neurons. To give you a quick visual of what happens with neurons, let’s try this: * ----- *. The space between the asterisk and the straight line is called a synapse. When an animal has an experience, the neuron “fires,” and the synapses at each end of this rod connect to form a true neuron. Over time, the neuron myelinates, which means that a protective coating is formed over this now-permanent neuron. This actually changes the physical weight and size of an animal’s brain! As the dog matures, the potential neurons go away, leaving only the fully-formed ones, however many of them there are.

What were those experiences? A dog with a lot of chase neurons will be prone to chase livestock, forever, unless carefully managed. A dog that learns to bark a lot will do so for the rest of his life. A dog who learns escape/avoidance behaviors becomes ever more fearful of humans. That often does not go well for dogs. Learned frustration can turn into adult phobias, auto-immune issues, and a host of other problems. A young dog may exhibit learned helplessness and may give in to improper handling, but not forever. Most LGDs are surrendered to shelters, or euthanized, between 12-18 months of age. As they mature and gain confidence, they push back.

I wish this situation were more well understood by LGD owners in general. When I hear people bemoan the awful adolescent age I wonder about the balance of fully formed neurons and how that is now being seen in the behavior of the adolescent dog. This is my favorite age with dogs! It can be a dynamic time of wonder, or it can be when an owner starts to realize they are headed for trouble with their dog.

Adolescence – The SECOND Opportunity to Influence a Dog’s Life in A Big Way:

Punishment Bad!? What Are My Options? My Rambling Answers:

It is very difficult to retrain LGDs. As a trainer, it is frustrating to encounter adolescent LGDs that have been started by companion dog trainers because it was an absolutely predictable course of events. Owners who hire trainers care about their dogs, or they wouldn’t be willing to spend the money on a trainer. It is the obligation – the ethical mandate of a trainer – not to claim more experience than they have. Anyone can learn to train LGDs. I did. Learn from someone who actually uses LGDs to guard livestock if that is what you hope to support in a dog. Use ONLY positive reinforcement methods, reaching back to proven science and not fads. Be careful, and be humble.

The Top 10 Reasons LGDs Fail – Plus One More; The Responsibility of Social Media:

A reason to smile!

Now, having talked about all the cautionary aspects of training LGDs, would you like to see examples of the truly beautiful training possibilities with LGDs? There are many examples of training I am proud of in my blog posts library. These are favorites of mine. Enjoy!

Cues in Action! Verbal Marker, Clicker, Environmental Cues, Targeting, Redirecting, Click for Calm:

Beautiful Training – One-Year-Old Dogs with Goats:

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