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New Home, New Cow - Managing the Introduction - Novice Owner

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

The backstory:

The woman in the coveralls is Amber, the proud new owner of a pair of eleven-month-old Sarika pups. Her assistant is Anna, who helps Amber on the property.

Amber worked really, really hard to become prepared to take on ownership of these pups. She flew up and visited the ranch; I drove to Escondido to see her property. Amber completed the Foundations course and watched tons of blogs and videos.

The upside of purchasing dogs of this age from us is that they know a lot, having had significant training here on my ranch. The downside can be that a new owner has to learn to be comfortable around TWO very large dogs. Amber's start with her new dogs was not super smooth, in part because, for reasons that are still not clear to me, the dogs growled sometimes. I almost never hear Maremmas growl, and I live with lots (31) of them. The dogs weren't behaving aggressively, quite, but the fact that they growled meant something was going on for them. It also contributed to Amber's occasional unease around the dogs and her confidence in her ability to learn to manage them.

Amber lives too far away for me to go to at that time, but I was really concerned about the growling; I didn't understand why the dogs had done it or if it was the beginning of a scary problem. So, we hired a local trainer with credentials like mine to work with Amber and observe the dogs. I held my breath and hoped that the situation wouldn't escalate while we waited for the date that the trainer was scheduled to arrive - and then that was canceled.

At this point, the pups had been living with Amber for three weeks. I felt that was way too long for them to be across the fence from the livestock rather than with them, and I was concerned that they were beginning to view Amber as their "job," their resource to protect. Amber let me know that she felt increasingly confident in her ability to manage the dogs and that Anna was willing to help her get the dogs started with her livestock, so we all made the decision to give it a try.

The first step in becoming prepared for this introduction was allowing the dogs to live next to the cow and the goat. That went pretty well, but one of the dogs did growl at the goat once, so we all felt a little unsure of where we stood with all this.

The next step is to train the livestock. That started with them living near the dogs, but to do the introduction you see in the videos, Amber first had to teach the cow to lead because it was important to her success with the introduction to be able to control the behavior of the cow.

Then Amber watched the blog below, which shows in great detail Kathy introducing two dogs to goats for the first time. Amber planned it all out in her head what her every move would be with her dogs and the cow. She planned it all in detail with Anna, and then the day came.

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

And then they did the introduction - and nothing happened. To the casual observer watching these videos might be truly boring, but to all of us who had worked so hard to get to this point - Amber's flawless handling of the entire introduction - it was amazing. When I watched the video for the first time, I honestly sat here at my computer and cried because I had been so concerned that this relationship might not work out for Amber and the dogs.

In a perfect introduction, nothing happens! The dogs are calm, and the livestock is calm, the handlers are calm, the session is not too long, and on and on. An introduction that goes badly often has a lot of drama; the dogs become excited, the livestock runs away, and the dogs chase them, as examples. None of that is beneficial to a guardian situation. It can happen to the best of us because these are animals, after all, and animals can be unpredictable, but Amber's exceptionally well-thought-out careful planning ensured her success. This was no accident!

When I talked with Amber after I watched the video (still crying) and told her how amazingly well I thought she had handled things, she was pleased and relieved, but she wasn't clear about all the things she did well. She even told me that at one point, she felt she had been a "hot mess." I sure never saw that. So, I am going to point out in detail what I saw in this video because I want it to be very clear in Amber's mind what success looks like. And as she reads my descriptions, I hope she sits back and grins because she is a star!

So, here goes:

As Amber brings in the cow, check out what a beast she is! Amber is looking for calm behavior and has trained the cow for calm behavior, and on this oh-so-important day, she has a cow with attitude on her hands. Did you see Amber shake her head at how inconvenient this is and how far from the beginning she was hoping for this is? Poor Amber!

The cow does not live in this field, so she doesn't know what's up. Watch Amber's body throughout this video. Despite what she is feeling, such as fear or frustration possibly, none of that shows in her body. She moves slowly and deliberately, regardless of what the cow is doing. She slows down as the cow needs her to and even stops to give the cow a little time to think. Then she continues when the cow is ready. She remembers to use the grain as a bribe and doesn't drop it, as I think I might be inclined to do. Because Amber's conduct sets the tone, the cow begins to trust her and relax. Yea cow! And yea, Amber.

And now Amber goes to get the dogs. Her training relationship with the dogs is OBVIOUS in the body language of the dogs and Amber's ease in handling them, but I did not know this until I watched this portion of the video. I replayed just this part several times, admiring what I can see Amber has created with these dogs. It was very reassuring to see!

She has front attachment harnesses on the dogs, as she should, and is using long lines, as she should. Long lines are not fun! The dogs and the situation need them, but for the handler, they are challenging to manage. They get tangled with the dogs or the handler, and it is easy to get caught up in them and trip. Also, it is normal for a pair of dogs handled by only one person to decide to go east and west instead of traveling side by side.

The fact that they settled in like this for Amber provides clear evidence that the trio has done this sort of training many times. The dogs are relaxed and happy, ready to go on yet another adventure with Amber. Those dogs are better in her hands than they were when we gave them to her. I can see hours of training just in the way this trio walks off together.

And once again, really look at Amber's body. None of her tension shows. She moves her hands slowly; our dogs are taught to target to a hand, so they watch hands closely. Her hands say, "follow me, please."

Amber is prepared with her treat pouch loaded and her clicker in hand. Now, treats only go so far in that the dogs will be reinforced by whatever is present that is of value to them. Amber marks their good behavior, which is important to them, but I find it pretty amusing that Stella almost just obliges Amber by accepting the treat; Rocco can't be bothered. He heard the marker, though, and he is being reinforced by the experience.

It takes a lot of skill to handle two dogs on long lines, make quick decisions about their behavior while watching the not entirely trustworthy cow, clicking with precision for the behaviors she wants the dogs to remember, and then actually delivering the treat to the dog's mouth without dropping it or losing focus on the second dog, and such. This is complicated training.

It isn't critical to the success of this introduction that Amber's handling be flawless - but it is flawless. I am so proud of her. I have walked this path, that being learning to handle all this stuff at once, and I know that it takes many hours of practice. There is no shortcut.

The dogs approach the cow with a little speed. They are clearly excited about this opportunity. They were working dogs here for many months, so for them, being denied the opportunity to live directly with the livestock is punitive. This is part of why I was worried about how long they had been living with Amber essentially as pets, next door to the real job.

Amber has appropriate tension on those lines; she has the ability to rein in the dogs quickly if she needs to, but she makes the very wise decision to trust them a little to see what decisions they will make on their own.

She is also watching the cow. The cow likes these dogs and trusts them. I did not know this! Notice that she turns her head towards the dogs as they approach rather quickly; she does not move her feet or stop chewing her tasty grain.

It is really important to the dogs to touch the cow, in lots of places. This is true of dogs in any introduction, which is part of why it is so important to have physical control of the livestock. The dogs NEED to get an olfactory hit and will pursue a new animal in an effort to do this; now you have drama, a drama that can be avoided.

When Amber marks the dogs and then brings them away from the cow to get their promised treat, even though that isn't important to Rocco, she gives the dogs the opportunity to approach the cow for a second time. She has given them an emotional reset. Watch how much that decision supported them as they approach the cow again.

They are willing to give the cow some space. They focus on other things, moving around her softly and slowly, tails wagging the entire time. These are all calming signals offered the cow; the dogs didn't do any of them in their first greeting because they were too excited, as young or inexperienced dogs can be.

After very little time has passed, the dogs appear just to be hanging out with friends. They flirt with Anna and accept treats from Amber because now they have their brains back enough to remember she is there. The dogs are accustomed to spending their days on the hill, so the cow and the people quickly become old news. The dogs have dialed it in, fine, and are ready to go to work as usual. Wonderful.

And have you been watching just Amber's body? She clicks, she pays, she manages those lines, her hands move slowly, and everything about her conveys calm trust to the dogs.

I love this part of the video. It makes me chuckle! The cow has mentally "moved on." She isn't worried anymore and has gone back to what cows like to do best, which is eat. The handlers, boy, they are ready. They are just hanging out near the cow, and it all looks casual, but it isn't. Both handlers are prepared to step in to redirect or support any move the dogs make. The dogs look a little bored to me. People are fun, but they'd rather go on an adventure up the hill than stay still and watch the cow eat.

They occasionally check in with the cow, and when she moves off, they follow her. Amber continues to mark and reinforce their calm behavior. It's very cool that she takes so many opportunities to tell the dogs what they are doing right. Many handlers, novice or otherwise, "watch for behaviors they can reinforce," missing that they are happening right in front of them as they stay ready to change a "bad" behavior. Both Amber and Anna show masterful training judgment in their management of this interaction; remember, three animals and two people are being trained here!

When Amber bought this young cow, she was warned that the cow likes dogs and will play with dogs. I think it is really cute to watch her here because as the dogs leave her to go to work, the cow hurries to catch up and even shakes her head at them to scold them. I see the potential of a promising relationship here!

At this point, everything the ladies hoped to learn from this introduction has happened. We all now know that the cow enjoys the dogs and appears to be a great new partner for them. The dogs never stopped wagging their tails, they never became overly excited, they checked in with the cow frequently and gently, and they checked in with both handlers in the same soft way.

Amber makes a very wise decision here and ends the training session. Knowing when to end a session is an art form in itself. The cow is just beginning to get a little fussy. The dogs are increasingly puzzled by why they are just standing around.

Here's something that novice handlers often do - that Amber knew better than to do: she did not ask the dogs for more! For example, the cow looks great, so check that box. The dogs look great, so check that box. Let's turn them loose - and see what happens.......

Amber makes the decision to guard her success of the day rather than push her dogs further. This is the only time the cow has been in the field with the dogs. Was this a one-off? Will the dogs be this calm the next time? What would happen if the cow, off lead, got the zoomies? Amber has a tender balance at this point, a tender success. It could not have gone better, including her timing in deciding when to leave, so she has a lot to be hopeful about as she looks forward to the next cow interaction.

I love this photo/thumbnail!!!! The man at the other side of the gate is Amber's husband; this is the first photo of him that I have seen. The dogs were initially wary of him, and Rocco has growled at him a couple of times. Now, these weren't; "I'd like to eat you growls," but they were indications that the presence of the husband worried the dogs. That has been sad because he'd like to be loved by these good dogs too! He has been patient, working with Amber in consort with my instructions to build his relationship with the dogs slowly.

As Amber heads back to home base with the dogs to share her good news with her husband, the dogs, at speed and with happy, loose bodies, so straight to her husband. Good man that he is, he is waiting outside the pen. Having him inside the pen would add complexity to the situation; the humans keep the ask simple for the dogs.

I love seeing the grin on Amber's face and that her husband is there to share her moment of success because bringing a pair of dogs like this onto a property becomes a team effort, and though the dogs have asked for a slow start with him, he is indeed integral to this team effort.

In this thumbnail, notice where the dogs are standing in relation to the humans; they have positioned themselves between Amber and her husband, but what I see is that they do so to ask for his attention. Watch just his body. He stands calmly at the gate, with his hands on the top of the gate, still, and in full view of the dogs. When he reaches across the top of the gate to snuggle the dogs, he moves very slowly, and he waits to reach for them until they ask him to.

You can see Amber snuggle the dogs, and I imagine her telling them what wonderful, amazing, perfect dogs they are. I wonder, at what point, as she was headed back to home base with the dogs, did she take that deep breath and a sigh of relief as she reflected on a job well done. She has so much to be proud of here!!!!

Cow adventure #2

Amber and Anna set everything up to do another successful cow-dogs introduction, and then bailed. Good decision! When they got the animals in place, the cow was grumpy and frisky. The dogs were keyed up on this windy day. Amber didn't like how all this felt, so she shifted to Plan B, which is to do another introduction when things feel right.

Such a wise decision on her part. I love how patient Amber is and how committed to the success of her dogs she is. There is no ego here, and I have never seen it. For Amber, and for me, it is all about the needs of the dogs and the animals in general. This learning journey is not always comfortable, but there is no shortcut to where Amber is right now; she is a skillful trainer and partner to her promising young dogs. I appreciate her SO MUCH!

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