Scientific principles govern how dogs learn; not traditional lore, not trendy opinions, and not even if you love your dog so much you believe what you want to be true is true.
It can be difficult to become educated about how to raise a guardian dog well, even though so much is known from a scientific standpoint. I struggle with why this is true. Wouldn't owners want to really know what is true for their dog?
When I started with my first guardian dogs I only knew what I had read. Much of it was conflicting information - so I kept looking. Because of the important influence of a few of my early training mentors, I looked to science, and I found a treasure trove of information that wasn't full of contradictions. I based my training of my LGDs on these scientific principles and my dogs were successful. I feel like I say this ridiculously often, so please forgive me for stating it once more: I have owned, or done training with, at least 250 Maremmas (and other guardian dog breeds) over the last few years. All of the Maremmas I have raised became trustworthy guardians as adult dogs. Yes, I have become a talented LGD trainer, but I started out as a novice just like everyone else. Part of the difference, for me, is that I have had the luxury of having been the rapt student of so many incredible dogs and have the financial autonomy that has allowed me to invest at least $20K, so far, in my formal education. But the biggest reason my dogs are successful is that my training methods are supported by behavioral science principles. Wanna know what else is cool? ANYONE can learn this stuff. It is well documented in a multitude of books, websites, and organizations such as the IAABC and AVMA; look them up!
Just in case not everyone knows who my hero, Ray Coppinger, is, here is some background information. Ray was a scientist with a special interest in sled dogs and livestock guardian dogs. He was also an ethologist. From 1977-1990, through the Hampshire College Livestock Guardian Dog Project, Ray, and his wife Lorna, traveled all over the world to see LGDs actually working as they were bred to do. From those proven, working dogs they purchased and imported many of them of a variety of breeds, including Maremmas. Hampshire College actually had a Maremma registry at least as far back as 1988. Many of the registered Maremmas of the MSCA today came to that registry from the Hampshire College registry. Ray, Lorna, and Konrad Lorenz studied more than fourteen-hundred livestock guardian dogs. They experimented with ways to raise LGDs; and then they did necropsies and measured the size of dogs' brains at a variety of ages. Did you know that the learning brain can be weighed? Increased neuron connections during development weigh more than a brain with fewer of those connections made. And which of those connections are made shape the dog's behavior. Build a lot of chase neurons during this time - and you will get an adult dog who loves to chase.
I have learned the most about what is true for guardian dogs from my two favorite books, both written by Ray Coppinger. I have read these books over and over. The pages are so dog-eared that the books look like they have been attacked. I am writing a book about training LGDs. I have been working on this book for five years. I took time out to write a different LGD training book, published in 2021, and have taken time out to write another, different book right now. Someday, all my copious notes about what I have learned from Ray Coppinger will show up in the books I write. For now, though, I am just going to grab some pieces and share them with you because the safety of LGD pups right now is at stake. I hope you will take Ray's words to heart, as I have. Here goes:
On page 95, of How Dogs Work, Ray Coppinger states:
"However, if you don't raise that set of genes in the proper environment, you won't get a good working dog either. Our experimental work has shown that there is a specific environment in which a livestock dog needs to be raised. If you don't raise the dog in that setting, you ruin its future as a livestock guardian dog. Not only do you ruin it for the moment, but there is no going back and correcting the mistake. One of the greatest difficulties we have with dog breeders is that they believe their dogs' behavior is entirely hardwired and therefore inevitable - all you have to do is buy a livestock guardian dog and it will guard your sheep from predators. We ethologists, who otherwise agree that genetic hardwiring is a crucial dimension of behavior, find ourselves frustratingly saying, over and over, that farmers also have to pay attention to the developmental context: if you don't raise the dog in the proper environment, you ruin it's adult working performance. It's the nature-nurture conundrum all over again."
Profound words. Pure science. And my own experiences with my dogs support what is stated above, although thankfully I found this resource early in my training career and did not end up with "ruined" dogs. But there are LOTS of ruined dogs out there, including pups being marketed by breeders who should know better.
Let's go on. In the book above, on page 114 near the bottom, Ray states:
"Raising puppies, and especially raising them for special jobs as adults, requires attention to detail. When people raise pups as pets, they often take them at about eight weeks old, take them home, feed and cuddle them, housebreak them, take them for walks, and play with them. What they are doing (and they are usually not aware of it) is providing specialized brain-growing conditions that shape a dog's future behavior. If I were buying a puppy for a pet, I would check its early environment and make sure it wasn't raised in a kennel or in the laundry with only its mother and littermates for immediate company during that first eight weeks. I'd be very suspicious of a department-store dog that was twelve weeks old, wondering if the dog had time left to grow the brain I was looking for. I'd also suspect that if I locked that pup up in the house alone each day while I went to work, I'd get a small-brained dog without enough social connections to be a good social companion."
Brains have windows of opportunity for learning and growth. Once those windows of time close, they are gone forever. Animals still learn, of course, but not with the potential a developing young brain has.
On page 198, of the same book, Ray states:
"When I put a livestock-guardian-dog-pup out with a farmer, I cannot guarantee it will be trustworthy, attentive, and protective with sheep, because that adult behavior is variable, depending on the environment the dog is raised in. As a breeder, I don't have any control over how the buyer raises the guardian dog, and therefore I can't be sure the adult dog will direct proper behavior toward sheep."
On page 202, Ray states:
"Behaviorism is based on the assumption that dogs learn tasks because they seek an external reward, or, they are aversively conditioned to avoid unpleasant situations. With the working breeds described here (border collies and LGDs) the dog is internally rewarded and the handler's job is basically to manipulate the dog's location in such a way that the dog anticipates the performance of a pleasurable act."
So, dogs don't do what they do to make their owners happy. They do what they do because there is an intrinsic reward for doing so.
And finally, on page 222 of the same book, Ray states:
"Developmental difference change, sometimes radically, the individual dog's abilities, its awareness, its trainability as an adult. My border-collies raised with sheep as if they were livestock guardian dogs could not be taught to herd sheep. Is that because they have less working-intelligence than their siblings, which were raised in an environment more normal for border collies? When I raised livestock-guarding dogs with border collies, I ruined them for guarding-dog work. They could not be taught to be attentive, trustworthy, and protective with sheep if they were raised in an incorrect environment. Could I say their working intelligence was diminished by being raised in a home? Is their working intelligence genetic?"
And yet, so often, a breeder is accused of having faulty genetics in their breeding dogs, or failing the pups in their early training. Social media platforms love rock throwing; I don't see much encouragement for new owners of LGDs to go out and get a science-based education so that they can keep up with the needs of their new, incredible pup. That is a shame.
There is so much more to talk about, and I will get to it at some point. I look forward to it! But you don't have to wait for me. Purchase both these books, and read them cover to cover if you want to do a really good job of raising your LGD pup. Solid, trustworthy resource materials are out there. My website is full of good information, including videos that prove that what I am promoting is true. Kim Crawmer's website, Prancing Pony Farm, has an extensive blog posts library as well. As I have, Kim has walked the walk. She has raised lots of pups, at least through some point of adolescence, relies on her adult guardians to protect her stock, and has made a big effort to learn the behavioral science behind effective training.
One of my favorite behavioral science clinicians has a phrase that sums it up pretty well for me. She asks "How many dogs old are you?" of people voicing opinions about dogs. When you consider who to listen to, when the barrage of opinions show up on Facebook pages, and such, consider this. If the person with the opinion isn't using their dogs the way you want to use yours, look elsewhere for advice. If the person with the opinion has "had LGDs for 30 years" ask how many dogs that is. If they had single dogs it could be three dogs' worth of experience. And it is absolutely possible to do something very badly - for 30 years. The study of behavioral science is ever-evolving, and what was accepted as the humane, standard treatment of dogs has changed A LOT over these years. So, training methods that are 30 years old should be evaluated in this light, rather than accepted as gospel.
Good luck out there. I welcome questions and love this subject, so reach out to me via email if you'd like more information.
Link to purchase the Foundations course:
Link to purchase the training manual from Amazon: