Updated: Jan 23
For several years now, here on the ranch, I have believed that the extensive and purposeful training we do with our pups allowed us to build resilient dogs. Well, as it turns out, I had the right idea but the wrong science.
Resilience is genetic; a pup is born with all the resilience he will ever have. Resilience is defined as "the time it takes for a dog to recover from a stimulus." So, if a dog is working happily in a field and hears a gunshot, how long does it take him to experience that surprise and then recover and go calmly back to work as he was before?
But, as puppy raisers and owners of dogs, what we can and should do is teach pups coping skills. Coping skills start from the genetic resilience the pup has - I think of that as his set-point - and then add life experiences that teach the pup that he can handle a little more than he thought he could. That is what we have been teaching our Benson Maremmas pups, so in truth, we have been doing a great job with our litters of pups, but understanding the role resilience plays in a dog’s life is key when expectations are placed on that dog. No matter how much early exposure a pup has or how much skillful, flawless training a pup has, he will always be the pup he is; he will have the resilience he was born with.
As a trainer, it is really helpful to know what the parameters are in working with a dog. My training goals need to be realistic; if I ask more of the dog than he can give me, nobody wins.
I learned a very big lesson recently, so let me tell you about Reggie. At ten months of age, I sold Reggie to some people who are experienced Maremma owners. Reggie went into an idyllic living situation with wonderful fencing, just the right livestock, and a sweet little female Maremma who was thrilled to meet him. Reggie spent just about 24 successful hours in his new home, and then the earth shifted. Debbie and Dave were in the field with the two dogs and the goats. All was well, and then something hurt Reggie. We still don’t know what it was, but at the instant he was hurt, he looked into Debbie’s eyes, and the connection was made; he associated being hurt with her, so she was no longer safe to be around, from his perspective. In an effort to distance himself from her, he frantically ran the fence line, ultimately launching himself through the upper portion, over the electric wire, under the top rail – and he vanished into the forest.
The humans in his life were devastated. For four long days, every rescue effort imaginable was launched. We all envisioned Reggie as lost and scared. He had never been alone, never been in a forest, and certainly had never been in an area as large as 100 acres. But Dave and Debbie had game cameras set up, and Reggie was sighted several times, always with the appearance of a confident, purposefully working content dog. How could that be?! Why didn’t Reggie seek out people? Why not return to the livestock, the barnyard, and his waiting partner?
We all walked those 100 acres for hours and hours, for Debbie days and days, but Reggie was only sighted at night on the game cameras. And then, on day four, Reggie casually appeared at the periphery as Debbie worked in the barnyard. Debbie is one of those people who understand animals on a cellular level; honestly, I have never met anyone quite like her. Wise woman that she is, rather than attempting to approach Reggie, she brought the partner dog out and just interacted with her, never looking directly at Reggie. Ultimately she finessed the situation in such a way that Reggie followed them into a fenced area. There he was “caught” and placed in a kennel, in a barn, with the doors closed, while we all remembered how to breathe and tried to figure out what had gone wrong.
I don’t have all the answers – I will NEVER have all the answers, and with regard to this situation with Reggie, I was really lost, so I reached out to one of my favorite resources with regard to canine behavior: Suzanne Clothier. In a private Zoom session, we got some answers.
Reggie has a hair trigger with regard to resilience; I did not know this!! How can it be that after ten months of living with and training this dog, I do not know, but as it turns out, Reggie is a rock star here at the ranch. He is environmentally bold, sure of himself with other dogs, sweet with the livestock, and even approaches most strangers, on his terms.
What I didn’t know about Reggie is that he needs most of the things in his life to be constant and familiar for him to feel safe; one too many changes, and it takes very little to push him over the top. When that happens, it can take him hours, or even days, to fully recover and go back to being a relaxed, working dog. We had never put him in quite the situation he was in when he changed homes, so we didn’t know how fragile he could be.
Reggie has had every training benefit imaginable here with us. I have placed roughly 90 pups over the last few years. All of them acclimated well to their new environment – except Reggie. We have all learned a lot from this pup! I will go forward with our puppy training a little differently now. With Suzanne’s coaching, I plan to get to know my pups better to avoid any more “Reggie” experiences. And for this pup, his life works just fine now that he is home. He is an amazing, capable, thoroughly endearing fellow; for his safety and my peace of mind, he will stay right here!
So, part of my takeaway from this experience is that the genetic contribution of the sire and dam of the pup REALLY matters, more so than I realized. That is the foundation everything else is built on. All the training, the expertise of a responsible breeder, and all the life experiences, will only take a pup as far as this genetic blueprint will allow. And there it gets complicated too, because Reggie’s sire and dam have both produced outstanding pups in the past, and they themselves are impressive working dogs. I had never bred these two good dogs to each other, so it is possible they are not a good genetic match with each other. Genetics is a complicated subject. In a litter of twelve pups, I have twelve very different individual pups. So maybe it was only that one pup that wasn’t a good genetic match, or at least an uncomplicated match. After all, Reggie is a perfect dog in a setting he is well suited to. The flaw in the system was me, not Reggie.
I have a five-page puppy questionnaire. Part of the purpose of that document is to give me a thorough understanding of the prospective buyer’s specific needs from their LGDs. My extensive early socialization training and life experiences teach the pups good coping skills. They learn they can function and feel safe in lots of new situations, handled by people they don’t know, and to live with types of livestock they have never seen before – within reason, within their genetic resilience.
But I now know that a pup who has shown me consistent concern around strangers isn’t going to “outgrow” that; my respectful obligation to that pup is to place him in an adult working situation where exposure to lots of strangers isn’t part of what is asked of him. For Reggie, he could obviously handle guarding 100 acres of topography far from familiar, and he could be a happy and productive guy. But asking him to trust strangers was what he couldn’t give us. Most of the pups produced here prefer to work closely with their humans, even ones they don’t know well, and I’m not sure I have raised many (maybe any) pups who would prefer to work without a partner, and in a huge area. But that’s Reggie; he’s a very brave dog with a strong work ethic.
A pup who shows sensitivity to loud noises shouldn’t be asked to work on a ranch adjacent to a gun club, and a pup who is uneasy around children should not be placed with a family with young children, but a family with teenage children might be fine.
A lot goes into making decisions about how to find the perfect forever homes for pups; understanding the needs of the pups and honoring them sets the pups and their new owners up for success. Missing the mark, as I did with Reggie, nearly caused us all long-term heartache.
Resilience is genetic!!!!!!