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How to Train Livestock Guardian Dogs - Teaching Agency to the Black Alder Pups

Life is good!

The litter is almost twelve weeks old, so fast! And they change right in front of me at lightning speed; their choices a week ago are different than the ones they make today.


This is one of the two most important skills these pups will ever learn. In a nutshell, they learn how to make the world give them what they want, so instead of taking what life gives them, they come to understand that their actions are powerful. This is what it looks like:

As tiny pups, they will follow without question their siblings and their mom because this means survival: warmth, food, and social safety.

By about four weeks of age, puppies begin to understand that there is more to the world. Humans can (if the humans behave appropriately) become important to the pups, but when pups request attention using the puppy skills they use with each other, the results aren’t always what they hoped for. Using their front feet and little shark teeth doesn’t always bring comfort and meet their needs. If sometimes the pups are pushed to the floor or shoved away, they have a couple of options. They may become frustrated. They may give up, deciding that humans aren’t the answer. But if their behavior is EVER successful, they may keep trying, and they learn that humans can be unpredictable.

Another option is to teach the pups the way I would like them to ask for my attention and then consistently reinforce them for using that language. To do this, I click for behaviors I like and pop baked chicken in their mouths. At first, the arrival of chicken must seem like a happy accident to them….but then….the lightbulb comes on. Behavior, click, chicken. Want chicken? Do the behavior and chicken arrives! How cool is that!?

“Agency” is a label

Early in my formal training education, I was taught that dogs become “operant” when they learn they have the ability to influence outcomes through their own behavior, but I have since learned that this term isn’t quite accurate. In a recent Karen Pryor Academy course, instructor Laura VanArendonk used the term “agency” as descriptive of what I have thought of as operant.

For me, in this blog post, agency refers to the shift puppies go through as they learn how to own their world. They learn that their choices in using learned behaviors can influence the environment they live in and the quality of their lives. Animals learn to manipulate their environment all their lives as a matter of survival. As a human, with limitations in my understanding of behavior, I am sure puppies do this much more often than I am aware of. But, some of these developmental milestones are ones I have learned to watch for and celebrate because they guide me in making training decisions.

A pup is a pup is a pup – until that cute little fluff starts to exhibit behaviors unique to livestock guardian dogs. As a breeder, watching my first litter begin to do perimeter checks, all on their own, made the hair on my arms stand up. They are just pups, right?! But then, right before my eyes, they begin to do the work they are genetically programmed to do. Wow.


Livestock guardian dogs bark. Dogs bark. Barking serves many purposes for dogs. For LGDs, it is the primary way they let predators know of their presence. This helps the dogs be safe; LGDs are vulnerable to attack from predators, and they know this, so fear can be a reason dogs bark. Dogs are wired to bark first and think later because doing so is a default behavior for safety.

When pups learn agency, as I have defined it, they begin to learn discernment. Barking may have been the default response to a stimulus but they have learned to think, and then act. Learning to use judgment when faced with something new is a very valuable skill for a dog to learn; doing so in this early window of puppy development means they have the opportunity to learn it really well. I can tell you that it is a real pleasure to live with LGDs who use barking as one of many responses possible. I live on a ranch with 30 Maremmas and I sleep very well!

Barrier challenges

This training started with Debi, their breeder, and is being continued with me. As their skills progress and their confidence in themselves increases, I add complexity as I present them with new barrier challenges. Every day, every time, the moments when the pups show frustration at the puzzle the barrier to purposeful problem-solving gets shorter and shorter. I only allow a few seconds of frustration, if it is there, because stressed animals don’t learn well and I want them to enjoy these puzzles. I change my position in relation to them and the barrier or speak to them to redirect them to move to the left or the right. I hear this metronome count in my head when I train; one-two-three change something, changes to one-two solved.

What the pups have been doing

Barnyard wander – 9/22

On this night, I allowed the pups to join me in the barn while I did chores. Many times over the years when I have done this for the first time the pups stay in the interior of the barn. Ah, not so with these babies. They had a grand time and went everywhere! Notice how independent they are from each other. There is safety in numbers, worried pups stay close to each other. It is informative to me to see what kind of proximity the pups choose with each other, whether they follow a fence line (safe) or track out into an open area.

Big field introduction – 9/23

The pups spent about 10 minutes in this new field. I had a helper with me. She walked out with the front pups and I stayed with the pups in the back. The pups went about 100’ into this field, and that was far enough. They had a good time but this is what they were ready for on this day. The blog post below shows a litter of pups in the same field. This litter is a little older and more ready for a bigger adventure than my litter now.

Big Field Transition – 13 Weeks-Of-Age:

Busy! Can’t come now! – 9/25

I asked a friend to record the pups racing across the barnyard and their wonderful recall, which to this point has been flawless. What the pups did on this day really made me grin. Go pups! This is agency. The pups are learning how to be working dogs. This means that increasingly they find doing the job of a guardian more reinforcing than being with me, or even with their siblings. LGDs own real estate. In moving the pups from field to field I have created enthusiastic explorers.

I cheerily, and confidently, sound my recall cue and take off across the barnyard. Where are my pups? They fan to the right and work the perimeter for a bit – and then agree to come and see what I am about. I love this! It signifies a major milestone.

Litter mate syndrome not!

I have a lot to learn about why people think this is real. I have heard people advocate for having only one dog so that the dog will bond with the livestock, rather than with people or each other. Using social deprivation to force a dog to behave a certain way is unkind; I won’t do it and it isn’t necessary. These twelve-week-old pups are already willing to leave me, and each other, to do a job they are learning to love. I am meeting ALL their needs, social and otherwise, and creating opportunities for them to learn to be confidant guardian dogs through the use of the logistics of the ranch. The genetic blueprint for guardian behavior is there, but these are baby dogs so I train using “guardrails” as Suzanne Clothier calls it, making sure the training steps are always possible for them.

Tuning up the trainer – 9/28

On this day, the pups stayed with me as we crossed the barnyard. When they came to the steps of the granary, a couple of the pups climbed a stair. Wonderful! On my list of goals is to train inside the granary, but in order to do that the pups need to be ready to tackle the stairs and enter a building unlike anything they have ever seen.

Clearly, this was the day! It helps to have border collie assistants running up and down the stairs. The pups all came up the stairs and spent 10 minutes exploring the interior of the building. Then, back down the stairs we all went and the pups ran right into the pasture as I asked them to. Nice! Ah, that false sense of being in control…..

When I moved them from this pasture and back to their area in the barn the litter tuned me up big time. A couple of them ran part of the way up the stairs, and then back down because the door at the top of the stairs was closed – and then, all six pups raced to the right (where they have NEVER been) and broadcast across the parking area, and up the lane, and in the jack barn, and over to see Hannah and Milan. Do you see my issue yet?

They didn't go past the green barn, but in less than five minutes they went everywhere else that you can see in this photo!

I am lucky there were six pups, rather than the more typical litter size of twelve pups. It took me 20 minutes to collect all of them. Honestly, they scared me. I am sure the look on my face was comical as I watched my plan fall apart. So much for my careful, not too much stimulus to fast, training plan. I was able to bribe a pup or two into following me back to the barn, using new treats and dragging my jacket on the ground as a novel, cool thing. I had to go and find and carry some of the pups. I have not weighed the pups since they have been with me, but I suspect they are in the 25-30 lb range, and they were not interested in being carried! That really got in the way of their happy exploration.

What about recall!?

No worries. The pups have the rest of their lives to learn to respond to cues from humans, but learning to think and to act upon it are such important life skills that, for me, they trump everything else right now. And I can’t teach them guardian skills. I can, though, create many opportunities for them to practice those skills as they show me they are ready. These are the tasks of a trainer.

Just for fun

Getting double duty out of the Chewy box.

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