****Suzanne Clothier, one of my favorite canine behavior clinicians, talks about a "natural fit" and a "trained fit".
A natural fit is a situation that a dog feels comfortable in without much support from humans.
A trained fit is a situation where the dog requires a lot of training support to be sustained in an environment in a way that is comfortable for him.
A natural fit is easy on dogs and owners. A trained fit requires an ongoing investment of time on the owner's part to continue to keep the dog comfortable. Dogs that are asked to live in an environment that they don't feel comfortable in exhibit lots of coping behaviors due to the stress they feel. They typically bark more than a relaxed, comfortable dog would. They may become aggressive or learn to dig out of fenced areas. An LGD that lives in a situation he isn't comfortable in often will not do his job well. For instance, he may patrol areas only close to the barn and safety.
The story that follows will show you examples of both of these situations.
Katie bought a two-year-old male/female pair of Maremmas from me in June 2021 - Aspen and Meadow. Katie did great with them, and all was well.
Then, in October 2021, she suffered a mountain lion attack. People and the dogs saved most of the flock of sheep, but the female Maremma of the pair, Meadow, never really came past this frightening event. She barked a lot at night and was timid and fearful; what once was a natural fit for her became a trained fit.
I want the dogs we produce here to live in a natural fit environment because this is easy on the dogs and their owners.
We made the decision to bring Meadow home to me. I came to feel that Katie's field, where the attack happened, needed three dogs as guardians. It is too much responsibility for two dogs and would put the dogs themselves at too much risk.
I happened to have four-month-old pups here, so when we brought Meadow home, we took Katie a pair of male pups to her so that she would have her three-LGD support team.
So now, Katie, who had never owned LGDs before she bought Aspen and Meadow at two years of age, is about to become a puppy trainer! One of the most immediate training opportunities concerned feeding behavior between the three dogs.
Katie is not quite a beginner trainer, in my opinion, even at this point. She has worked with animals all her life, has a wonderful intuitive sense of animals, has great observational skills, and has completed the KPA Foundations course and studied the blogs on my website. She is also wonderful about reaching back to me if she has questions, including sending us videos of the dogs' behaviors.
What follows will be a combination of her words and mine - hers will be italicized so that you'll know who is speaking.
10/31/21 - the male pups arrived, and Meadow came home At first, I fed them together, and they switched bowls a lot back then. After a couple of weeks, River's body language told me that Lupine was not welcome to be near him at feeding times.
I started feeding them about 20 feet apart and me standing in between. I started shaping them to stay at their bowls. In the beginning, my body is what kept them from approaching each other, but they quickly learned the cue "eat" with a hand pointing at their bowl.
The puppies started responding to my shaping immediately. River was always most interested in his own bowl, while Lupine was a bit more likely to try to harass the other one. Within 2-3 feedings, they cooperated, and mealtimes were pretty easy.
At this time, Aspen would eat in a separate pasture for feeding time. Aspen eats fast and then immediately tries to eat everyone else's food. I didn't know how to manage two harassing dogs at once at that time.
Within this time frame, it became clear that River was a natural fit for Katie's environment and for Aspen, but Lupine was not. I still had pups available, now five months old, so we had the option of trading dogs again. I decided to bring Lupine home and send Katie home with two female pups with the assumption that she would come to prefer one over the other for her situation. That happened pretty quickly, and one of the female pups came home.
12/14/21 - Lupine comes home, traded for two female pups We switched Lupine for two females, and for five days, I had four dogs: Aspen, River, and the two female pups, Cedar and Sage. It immediately became clear that Cedar and River needed to learn some skills before I could feed them in the same pasture.
Cedar has an entitlement to everything and everyone within reach. She is not as interested in the food itself as she is interested in being able to take food from any bowl at any time, just because she can. Sage was used to this and would easily just switch bowls when her sister came for her bowl. So for those days, I fed the two girls in one pasture (two bowls near each other, and they would switch bowls harmoniously), and I fed Aspen and River in a separate pasture.
Aspen eats fast, and River eats slow. Also, Aspen gets a set amount of food since he is an adult, and River gets to eat as much as he wants as a growing puppy. You can see how this would become difficult. I mainly used my body to keep Aspen away from River's bowl. I would also use treats, but not in a focused way that I would call shaping. I hadn't figured out how to send him back to an empty bowl and get him to wait there. This was not ideal, and I feel like River got crowded while he ate while I tried to keep Aspen away.
12/18/21 - Sage comes home Cedar was clearly the best fit for the pack, and Sage went back to you. I tried feeding Cedar in the separate pasture, but without Sage, she refused to eat. She would not touch her food. So I started using a leash at mealtimes to keep Cedar at her bowl, and at the same time, I incorporated feeding Aspen in the same pasture, so all three were eating together.
With this transition, I came prepared at mealtimes with my treat pouch full and a clicker. I fed them in a line with River at one end, Cedar in the middle, and Aspen at the other end. River was pretty solid at staying at his bowl. I positioned myself between Cedar and Aspen.
Cedar's tendency was to go toward River to harass him, but I had her leash so that she couldn't go that way. I was close enough to Aspen to shape him staying at his bowl. I clicked Aspen and Cedar and taught them that they would be reinforced at their bowls. Cedar got clicks for looking at her bowl or stepping towards her bowl, or eating out of her bowl.
Aspen got clicks for staying at his bowl and looking at me, for not stepping away from his bowl. If he stepped towards Cedar's bowl, he would get another chance to get reinforced by listening to the 'Eat' cue and moving back behind his bowl.
River got verbal reinforcements for eating and being near his bowl. If I had a moment to walk away from the others over to him, I would also give him a treat. The treat reinforcements for these sessions were always delivered in the bowls themselves.
By the end of the first session, I was already able to drop Cedar's leash on the ground. The leash was helpful in getting us going and getting everyone in place at their bowls, but once everyone was settled at their bowls, I didn't need to hold the leash the whole time anymore.
The videos I sent you were taken after doing this routine for about ten days. I started feeling pretty solid with this routine after just a few feedings, and I stopped using the leash after a couple of days.
I put that time frame in bold because I would like to point out that teaching dogs to eat without drama is so very possible and does not require weeks of effort. It does require the skills that Katie has, which are great observational skills and a thorough understanding of how to shape dogs to do behaviors you want, even complex behaviors. Katie learned these skills - you can too!
The Karen Pryor Academy Foundations Dog Trainer Course is the key to understanding how to shape behaviors. The training manual I wrote allows the student to understand how to apply the training techniques learned in the course for use with LGDs. The vast blogs library on my website shows actual people, and not just me, using these skills. Remember, Katie had never trained any dogs in these behaviors before, and she did it in ten days, ten careful, consistent days.
The picture on this email is from a couple of days ago (3 weeks of the 3-dog routine described), and this is my goal. I love it when the puppies sit next to their bowls. That is the end behavior for me that I started shaping weeks ago when I would click them for just looking at their bowl.
Cedar is apparently done eating but sitting so politely and patiently at her bowl, waiting for mealtime to end. She has food left in her bowl, but she's full. Aspen has no food left in his bowl, and he is attentively waiting for me to walk to him and give him a reinforcement in his bowl. His feet are fully on the other side of his bowl, and he is not making any moves to come toward Cedar's bowl. River is not pictured. He is behind me, still crunching away and taking his time about it, relaxed. Each of their demeanor is different.
River is relaxed. Even when Cedar slips by me and approaches River, he doesn't get stressed or aggressive (which I have seen him do). Instead, he looks at me because he knows I will help him and that he does not need to defend his food.
Cedar is more settled and eats more now. Before, mealtimes were more of a game, and she did not focus on eating. She used to take a lot longer to settle and start eating her meal. She still takes longer than the other two, but I think that will continue to improve.
Aspen doesn't give me this sneaky, guilty look anymore about trying to steal food. He is such a sensitive guy, and even though he hasn't been rebuked hardly at all in his life (I did rebuke him once when a chicken was involved, and we made up)...he is aware that he shouldn't sneak up and steal food from the puppies...but he would sneak anyways and look at me with this sad, guilty face. That face has been replaced with excitement at so many opportunities to get food reinforcers brought to him without him having to move at all! It's a win-win-win for all three.
I do need to step in here and point out that dogs don't feel guilt. What Katie is seeing in Aspen's face is learned behavior that when he does what he is about to do, which is super important to him, it probably won't go well. She is seeing worry and stress. Her careful training has allowed Aspen a completely different experience around food, a calm experience of trust and fulfillment.
Katie's finished behaviors - a job well done!!!