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Genetics and Temperament – How Big Is Your World?

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

This confident adult pair have a BIG world; the predator pressure is high, the field is large, and they are responsible for about 30 mini donkeys. These particular dogs are well suited to this task - their genetic blueprint set them up for this success.

Pups are born who they are. The temperament, the character of the pup, cannot be learned or taught. All the best early socialization and the best efforts of a skillful trainer cannot change the genetic blueprint of who that pup is – and will always be. Our responsibility to a pup is this: do our best to understand him, and then, through training and proper management, including placement in an appropriate living situation, assist him in being all that he can be.

This is a fascinating and rewarding process. The first piece is often the most challenging, especially for new owners of LGDs, because LGDs don’t behave in the same ways companion dogs do, so even an experienced companion dog owner is faced with now trying to understand this very different type of dog. Truly understanding the complexities of canine behavior comes through studying using multiple types of resources. One of the most valuable to me has been to simply observe many, many hours of the behavior of many, many dogs in a vast variety of situations. It is a skill I will work to perfect for the rest of my life.

I recently completed yet another course about dogs; this one was all about canine behavior. It has provoked lots of thought and introspection in me. Much of it is rolling around in my head as I try to assimilate this new information and blend it with what I already know, so, of course, here’s a blog about some of it….

I have a friend who is a nurse who works in hospital emergency rooms; she is a self-described adrenaline junkie. She thrives on the inherent drama of her job. She can puzzle through problems with the best of them, often multi-tasking at the same time. She can do this for hours and hours, day after day, and she loves it.

And then think about the life of a librarian. This is a person who does the same, same thing, day after day after day. I have never known a librarian but I suspect a good one is quite an intelligent individual because this is a complex and demanding profession, but in a very different context than my nurse friend’s job.

Now, think about what these two types of individuals might have been like as children, especially as teenagers. Oh my! I think doing a good job of supporting the ER nurse through those tumultuous adolescent years might have been quite a challenge. What might that have looked like? I have raised dogs that mirror these behavior types. What a ride! Could these two very different types of individuals have learned each other’s job? Maybe, but trying to excel at something you are not well suited to is stressful.

Cameo was an “ER nurse” type. As an adolescent dog, she was a thrill seeker. There was never ANY malice about her, but her bouncy, high-energy behavior reminded me a lot of Tigger, and her enthusiasm for new and more complex challenges went on and on and on. I carefully managed this beautiful dog, directing her brilliant brain and highly instinctive drive toward learning situations/experiences that would benefit us both.

My lovely Cameo.... She was about 12 months old in this photo - so right in the midst of her adolescense.

Periodically through times in her adolescence, I didn’t let her live with livestock unless I was there with her because her boundless drive exceeded her reasoning skills and the self-control typical of her age. But as an adult, I marvel at this dog. She is a superb example of what a truly exception guardian dog can be. No job is too big for her. She is gentle and nurturing with all types of livestock, even to the extent that she is one of my most trusted puppy trainer adult dogs - that requires a TON of patience from a dog! She is comfortable working in any of the variety of pastures here. She is comfortable around any visitor. She is kind to other dogs, so I can partner her with any other dog on the ranch.

This year I made the excruciating decision to spay this incredible dog. I want the puppies we produce here to be safe out there in the world. Most people, especially new LGD owners, lack the skills and patience needed to raise a dog such as Cameo. In the wrong hands, she might have been misunderstood and mismanaged, and as a result, she would not be the dog she is today. Fortunately for me, she came into my life after I had raised at least ninety pups. I made lots of mistakes with those earlier pups, but most of them were not the superstars that Cameo is, so the mistakes were small ones. When Cameo came along, I knew a little bit about what she needed from me. Her pups this year, tempered with Milan’s steadier dog kind of influence, are maturing into wonderful working dogs. But I placed them very carefully and made the difficult decision to make producing “easy” dogs my goal. I am pretty sad about that. Cameo’s siblings, Sarika and Bonavento, have a lot of her brilliance, but they are calm and steady dogs better suited to most people’s skills, so they will stay in my breeding program.

Shyla is a librarian. She is an environmentally bold dog, but she appreciates consistency in that environment and intimacy. She is comforted by a world that looks pretty much the same, day after day. She is a loving and social dog with people: on her “Shyla” terms. Even with people she loves and trusts, she often stays one dog’s length away from her human. She’ll come in for a snuggle, usually very briefly, and she’ll typically only offer her head and shoulders as places to touch. She lives with Bruno; we’ll talk more about him in a minute. Bruno is a much bigger dog, fast-moving and effervescent. Gentle Shyla rules!

These two dogs have only lived together for three months, so their balance of relationship is still being established. Bruno and Shyla have become romping best friends, but sweet Shyla put a nice hole in Bruno’s ear the other day; it was probably deserved, as Bruno can be a tad irreverent! Shyla is one of three dogs, living on one intimate acre with seven pet goats and minimal presence of strangers. And here she is thriving; if I had placed her in a different living situation, such as one with lots of people coming and going, she’d be a dog seldom seen. She’d hide in the daytime and work all night. It took me nine long months to figure out exactly what sort of living situation would be perfect for Shyla. It appears I have found it!

Bruno is one of those blessed middle-of-the-road oh-so-valuable dogs. Having been raised well, as was appropriate to his needs (temperament) as a pup and through adolescence, he is a dog who could work with many types of people, in a wide variety of circumstances, with many different types of livestock – now.

Bruno was a serious, confident, opinionated pup. Even at eight weeks of age, he’d stand back from the group during our training sessions, obviously making a decision about if he would choose to participate or not. I gave him the time to consider me. He always participated but was often the last pup to do so. I’m not sure if he thought he was just that special, or if he wanted to see how the others did, or what. Sometimes as a trainer, you simply read the dog in front of you and make adjustments to your training goals for the day accordingly.

Tia was one of the first pups I purchased, way back at the beginning of this Maremma journey. I was creating my breeding program. At nine weeks of age, Tia’s response to something that surprised her was to run 20’, spin and look at it, and then think. Because of this, I knew she wasn’t right for my breeding program. So, I placed her in a working home with a partner of similar age, a bolder female. And there are two of my biggest Maremma mistakes. I now know that placing two females as working partners doesn’t always work out and that partners need to have similar temperaments. Because Tia was timid, when she and her partner reached adolescence, Tia became a target. Her owners really worked at keeping these two females safe and happy, but about a year ago, Tia came back to me.

Tia is afraid of just about everything. In fact, the only thing that comes to mind that she isn’t afraid of is her mini donkeys. She likes them a lot. I really worked at discovering what living situation was going to work for Tia.

One certain pasture seemed to suit her. I’m not sure why, but OK, we have that handled. I tried a variety of partners with her; she was afraid of all of them, even dogs that ignored her and left her alone. Finally, she accepted Teddy, an adult neutered male. He doesn’t put pressure on her. I’ve seen them romp and play, but she always initiates the play sessions I have watched. I don’t know if that is always true. She will not eat if ANY dog can make eye contact with her from any distance. When she first came here, if I picked up a leash, she’d run halfway across the field, even if I didn’t look her way. She responds to new things outside her field either with worry or disproportionately apparent ferocity. If something, or someone, new enters her field, she is a vanishing shadow. She is terrified of having her toenails trimmed, to the point that she appears to fear for her life and would most certainly bite me. But we have become friends, and as long as I behave in a predictable way around her, she will solicit my snuggles. Mind you, this is a year later. I had hoped to gain more ground than this over this much time, but I think this is all Tia has to give me. She’s a trustworthy guardian who is happy, managed this way.

So, here you have four dogs who are happy and successful working guardian dogs living as they are, but what if they were handled differently? For Cameo and Bruno, their world is big. They could handle some changes. That is less true for Shyla, and for Tia, it might mean euthanasia because her fear response, if she can’t flee, is to fight as if her life depended on it.

I read, in one of my trusted LGD books (probably written by Ray Coppinger), that 80% of Maremmas placed in second homes are successful; they were not successful in their first placements. I wonder if some of that success is because a lot about what wouldn’t work for them was learned in the first home.

Dogs who live in situations that aren’t a good fit come up with ways to attempt to cope. Some of the ways they come up with are easy for owners to live with; others are not.

Chase behavior is a common response to imperfect situations. It isn’t typical for LGDs to chase livestock; they were selectively bred not to do this. It is often a response to inadequate socialization as pups, inappropriate training (by humans or animals), being asked to live in an environment that isn’t right for them, or being asked to work as single dogs. Chase can be a predictable, and preventable, response to human errors in management. It is not the problem, it is a product of the problem. If you don’t fix the “why” the dog is chasing livestock you will continue to have a problem.

The next common behavior that happens is aggression, again predictable and usually preventable. I have never met an aggressive puppy – this behavior is learned. With both of these behaviors, I hope you can see why correction/punishment/whatever you want to call it doesn’t work. It often creates even more problems.

One of the reasons I keep our pups for so long is that it takes time for me to learn who they really are. I have to create lots of different situations that give the pups the opportunity to show me more about themselves. I pay very close attention to these evaluations when I select homes for my pups and when I create pairs.

If you consider all this, it is easier to understand why such a high percentage of LGDs fail. In my three years as the MSCA club secretary, on average, I got a call a week from someone either having trouble with their Maremma or wanting to surrender him/her to our rescue. I really think that through education, it is possible to change this statistic. This is one of the BIGGEST reasons I have an extensive blogs library on my website with free access to all. I continue to add to it frequently because I still learn from my dogs, and I am still - and will always be - their student.

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