Teach Your LGDs That the Presence of a Food Bowl Equals Safety: Shaping & Cues - Reminding Adult Dog
Updated: Feb 7
The big dog in the video is Yeti, a four-year-old neutered Maremma. His partner is Blush, also an adult dog. Blush is one of my breeding females, so as an intact dog, she is sometimes challenging to live with. Poor Yeti keeps his distance, for the most part, during those times. Blush and Yeti are an established pair, having lived together for several years. They are well-trained dogs! However, they still are who they are; Yeti is a worrier about food, and Blush likes to push his buttons from time to time.
Sometimes this pair will go for months without having this discussion with each other, but I sit at the gate and observe them for a bit every time I feed. When they do decide to fuss with each other, they usually do it for several days, so I planned ahead and was prepared with the video camera and tripod so that I could record their behavior and write about them in this blog.
I have edited the approximately three minutes of my supervision into five short pieces so that I can easily explain the intricacy of managing this pair which is possible because of the extensive training history I have with them. I think it's pretty beautiful!
The video above begins as I approach the gate, feed bowls in hand. Watch Blush's demeanor change as I come through the gate. She looks like a hungry dog! Don't be fooled; for her, it's "game on." Yeti really enjoys his dinner and is eager to eat, but he knows his partner well, so the presence of food also makes him anxious.
Yeti's anxiety shows as he tries to stay with me, but going near Blush while food is present is not allowed. I use my verbal cue and turn him back; I use my pointed finger to turn him back; I position myself right in front of him and walk at him; when he steps out of my way, I verbally mark that desired behavior and verbally reinforce him. I can tell he is struggling, so I walk part of the way back to his bowl with him to help him out and repeat the cues - markers - reinforcements sequence a few times. I can tell Yeti is still following me because Blush is looking right past me, but I am training both dogs right now. Continually walking away from Blush with her dinner is punitive to her, particularly since she isn't my problem child at the moment. Her behavior has been perfect so far. So I make the decision to feed her while being aware of how close Yeti is to us. I can tell that by watching Blush's body.
While I am snuggling Blush, I also tell Yeti what a good dog he is for staying away from us, but then he decides to push hard. I have pointed and told him to go back. I am walking right at him purposefully in a way that I would never do with a pup. Yeti and I have been here before; one of us is going to give way...
Before watching this video take a good look at my body language: get back, dog! I never raise my voice or change my tone; we just are going to do this, without drama. The second Yeti turns from me, I verbally mark that first step and then praise him all the way back to his bowl.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you watch my training choices. Yeti is 140+ lbs and built like a tank. We have a strong training history; this dog trusts me, but we are talking about a primary resource here, and I will honor him by never forgetting that he is a dog and what that resource means to him.
The whole time I have been in the field with these dogs, I have carefully watched Yeti's body language. In the video, I think you can see that his body is loose and soft. He has repeatedly lowered his head and broken the sight line with me; these behaviors indicate he does not want a conflict with me. He is also wagging his tail in a very friendly fashion, and I know he means it. His eyes are wide open and soft, and he is moving slowly. He lifts his front paw at me a few times, which is also a conflict resolution behavior. When I walked right into him, none of that changed.
But what if it had? What if, at any point in our negotiation, his body language had changed? I would have stopped - right where I was. I would have stayed still until Yeti let me know what to do next. If I gave him a few seconds and he went back to being soft, I would continue to train as I had, but with less speed and more softly. If, after standing there and counting to three, maybe, Yeti had not relaxed, I would have backed away from him while I faced him, slowly, step by step, until he softened his body. I would stand there and talk with him in a conversational, friendly tone, softly and gently.
Knowing Yeti as I do, I know he wouldn't hold out for long; he'd come to me for a snuggle, and he would get one! Am I reinforcing bad behavior? No. We kiss and makeup because the mistake is mine. I didn't read him correctly and pushed too fast, and he let me know he was uneasy. Thank you, dog, for sharing that information!
After our quick cuddle, I would invite Yeti to walk with me toward his bowl. As we traveled, I would mark the lovely behaviors he is giving me and reinforce him through touch and verbal reinforcement. I would stand with him at his bowl, continuing to mark and reinforce his good behaviors. Then, I would slowly walk away from him, headed back towards the gate, not towards Blush.
On this day, Yeti was really feeling social. When he asked me for a cuddle, I just moved my hand away and reminded him to go eat. Eventually, here, Yeti is able to relax enough to respond to my cues and go to his bowl. Keep in mind that all his behaviors have been about insecurity. I just mostly need to remind him that he is safe, from everything. We've had this discussion hundreds of times. Yeti is, by far, the most complicated dog I have ever raised; I fondly refer to him as "Yeti, the bad dog." He isn't, though.
Yeti was a singleton pup, so he had no siblings to help him learn how to be a puppy or to feel safe. He was fed alongside both parents, who pushed hard at him. From his earliest days, he has had to figure out how to be Yeti, all on his own. I didn't learn the significance of what can be true for singleton pups until long after Yeti was an adult. I wish I had known then!
So, back to the task at hand, you can see Yeti do a couple more worried, quick glances, and then he finally settles at his bowl. Good boy.
And Blush, remember sweet Blush. Ah, not so. That little girl is a master of deception. I know, from watching them so many times, that she may sleep next to her bowl for an hour or more before she eats. The livestock these dogs live with are eating hay by the fence, so they will not put pressure on her. Yeti won't go near her while she guards her bowl and often won't leave his empty bowl until she eats and walks away from hers. And then they go off in a friendly fashion together. They never guard their empty bowls from each other or their livestock, so I leave the bowls in the field.
I always have fifteen to thirty Maremmas on this ranch. They all require slightly different handling at mealtime. I am careful with them and respectful. Dogs that feel safe, and feel like they have some control over their world, can afford to be soft, with livestock and with each other. And they are soft with me! My dogs are my friends, and they fascinate me.