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Learn How to Train Livestock Guardian Dogs By Changing Their Environment

Rosemary & Basil happily visit the vet.

Learn how to train livestock guardian dogs by changing the environment around them. The thing an LGD cares about the most is what is going on in his world. Given that, changing what is going on around the dog is the most important training tool there is. This is more important to him than a clicker, treats, or even what else an owner wants the dog to do. This is a fortuitous truth because changing the environment to change the behavior makes so much sense to dogs, and often, this is an easy thing to do.

The environmental consideration is a basic truth, grassroots if you will, and is something the Shepherds who have lived with these incredible dogs for hundreds of years understand very well. What they know how to accomplish with their dogs isn’t based on any training methodology discussed in common training language today. If you read about how to train an LGD you will encounter training methods such as correction-based training, positive reinforcement training, and even balanced training (of all things!) but you don’t hear about what the dogs themselves actually care about. This creates a huge disconnect between LGDs and their owners: every piece of training becomes more difficult because of this. Here are a few examples to help me make my point.


If you wanted to teach math skills to a kindergartener, would you take him to the middle of a busy playground to do that?

It is easy to see that in this example the enticement of what is going on around the child holds far more appeal than the proposed lesson, even if the instructor has incredible teaching skills. The child is not set up for success in this setting (environment) and the instructor needs to understand this in order to make success possible for the child.

What does this look like for an LGD?

Imagine an LGD in full pursuit of a sheep. If you yell at the dog, is what you want more important to the dog than the fun he is having chasing the sheep? How can you change what is going on in the dog’s environment so that you have a chance of interrupting this behavior? My choice would be to whoop it up noisily and then run in the other direction; I may now have become as much fun to chase as the sheep.

Scolding the dog will not teach the dog not to chase sheep. Repeated opportunities to chase sheep create a likelihood of the behavior becoming a learned pattern. Interrupting the dog and giving him a different option in meeting his social needs can produce a beneficial pattern of behavior.

Looking at what is going on in the environment for the dog needs to happen before training goals can be decided upon. Learning how to train livestock guardian dogs does not need to be difficult.


If you wanted a frightened horse to allow himself to be saddled for the first time, would you try this on the airport tarmac?

Obviously not, because the horse would be so triggered by the scary environment that his main concern would be to attempt to leave. But this is not necessarily obvious to a person who knows nothing about horses. What is the body language of a frightened horse? Once that is learned, how do you know what the horse is afraid of? Are people born with this knowledge? I am often told that an owner feels he has always been good with dogs, or that dogs love him, and on from there. If these things are true of a person, the skills were learned through a combination of observational skills, experience, and hopefully some formal education about behavioral science. Many owners who attempt to train their LGD are not as well-prepared to take on this project as they assume they are. This will be reflected in the behavior of the dog.

What does this look like for an LGD?

A dog wearing a shock collar finds himself in a similar situation in that his mind is on what he is afraid of rather than the lesson the owner is trying to teach. He may learn to stop doing what he was doing when he was shocked, but he will also learn associations based on what was in that environment at the time and do his best to avoid it in the future. He may associate it with the collar. The next time the owner attempts to put on the collar, the dog is likely to avoid the human carrying the collar. An LGD who is shocked by an electric fence with sheep nearby may believe the sheep hurt him and then become aggressive with the sheep. If I want a dog to learn something, I make sure that he seems calm and confident in his current situation first; if he isn’t, I change something until he is. Then I can start training.

It is important to understand that using a shock collar does not teach the dog what to do instead. Teach dogs what you want. Build behavior and skills to replace what you want a dog to stop doing. This is how to train livestock guardian dogs in a way that makes sense to dogs.


If you are faced with a two-year-old having a temper tantrum in a busy restaurant, what would you do?

This environment asks for a quiet and calm child. With a child of this age, will threats work best, or will the child become even more upset and out of control? What if you gave the child a favorite toy? What would happen then? If the child is too upset, too tired, too hungry, or in pain, even the toy won’t work. What is left to try? Change the environment the child is in. Picking up the child and offering comfort may be all that is needed, but if not, removing the child from the restaurant would be my next step if I were the mom. Should I be able to expect a two-year-old to have a long attention span and good judgment? No. What if this was an adolescent dog in a setting that required these skills of the dog? It would be too big of an ask for an adolescent dog in the throws of the chemical chaos this age challenges dogs with.

What does this look like for an LGD?

Imagine a pair of LGDs being fed that are growling and willing to protect their valuable resource. Yelling at the dogs (I think of this as adding energy to the situation) may make the dogs even more likely to go from growling to fighting because this adds stress to the situation. What if you calmly stood between the dogs in such a way that their eyes could not meet – this is called “breaking the sightline” – and stayed with the dogs while they ate? In many instances, this works well for dogs because they feel safer. If not, moving closer to the dog that shows the most concern may help, but if dogs actually fight the safe response for the human is to move away from the dogs and try to create a distraction.

Offering the dog support, so that he is not as triggered by the situation, will help move a dog’s brain to a place he can learn from. This is how to train livestock guardian dogs using compassion.


In Summary

In these three examples, the kindergartner, horse, and two-year-old are not wrong, bad, or even disobedient because they just cannot meet the unrealistic expectations placed upon them. A lot of what people think they know about dogs comes from their interactions with other humans; mother, father, child, or friend. One of the limitations of the assumptions made by owners of dogs is that their communication style is a good fit for dogs as well; it isn’t. Pet dogs often learn to be successful in the world they share with humans despite their owners rather than because of them. Dogs are good at adapting to what is needed; the ones that can’t may have stressful, and even dangerous, lives.

LGDs are good at adapting too but they have different limitations than pet dogs do, so their life situations are often even more dangerous; rescues and shelters are evidence of this. So, what is the answer? The very good news here is that anyone can learn to be “good with dogs” if they are willing to become the student of the dog rather than the teacher. Children are often exceptional at this because they have less ego and more curiosity. They are willing to appear silly and to experiment. Trial and error are the name of the game for children; children are just like puppies! They learn so fast that the sky is the limit. The adults in their world could learn a lesson from them.

Would you like to get started on this path of enlightenment? Go somewhere that you can observe your dog while not influencing the dog’s behavior by your presence. What the dog is doing on his own meets a need he has; he may be trying to gain something or he may be trying to escape or avoid something. Watch for things the dog does often that his body language shows he enjoys; a happy dog’s body is loose, his head and tail may be held high, his eyes are soft and his stride bouncy.

In living with your dog, think about ways to increase the dog’s opportunities to do the things he has shown you he likes in ways that meet your needs as well. Figure out a way to be part of his joyful experiences. LGDs love to enter a new field and go to work, so, go open a gate and tell the dog he is wonderful! The dog will find the opportunity to enter the new field reinforcing. Because you opened the gate to make it possible and added your happy and enthusiastic voice to the gift, you have taken one very big step in building a relationship of trust as a working partner with your dog. Nice job!


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