Updated: Jan 22
Katie S. owns the dogs in the photo; I have written about her in other blogs, along with Katie W., because they are sharing a somewhat similar training journey with their dogs. They have generously given me their permission to allow others to learn from them, and along with them, through my blogs.
I'd like to share a few short videos with you that demonstrate the lovely language animals have with each other.
The "backstory" for these videos:
The four-month-old pups had been in this field for just a few minutes. They had been in training with us for two months and then were re-homed with Katie to join Aspen. They have been living with sheep, goats, or mini cows, since they were eight weeks old, which is when they came to me.
The flock of sheep are yearlings, almost, and were raised on my ranch among the puppies and other adolescent dogs, so they have been trained to accept the presence of white dogs. Honestly, I just brainwashed them into thinking being surrounded by many moving puppies is normal! So, on this day, introducing just two new pups to them was no big deal.
The behavior you will see is inherent to both species; it isn't "taught," but it has been supported through training in that I have made sure the sheep were never hurt by pups, and that the pups developed confidence in themselves over time through my careful management. The result of these efforts is beautiful to see.
Take a look at the posture of the sheep in this thumbnail of the video. They have "circled the wagons" in that they are grouped together and facing different directions. Their heads are way up; they are alert and ready to flee but are also just a bit curious about the new pups.
In the video, the first pup heads toward the sheep as he investigates the field, with his nose on the ground and his tail held high. He comes in a little fast, and the sheep trot off, but not far because this wise pup turns back and investigates the tree instead, which gives the sheep a minute to consider the pup from a distance comfortable for them.
The pup nonchalantly investigates the base of the tree. Those smells are undoubtedly pretty interesting to him, but he also purposefully allows the sheep to be invisible for a minute as both species consider each other.
The mindful conduct of the pup is typical in adult, experienced LGDs but not in pups of this age - unless they have been raised in a way that allows them to learn these skills early in life, as is true for pups we raise here on my ranch.
Seconds later, the pup is joined by his brother. Clearly, they would like to investigate the sheep, and the sheep have become more curious than wary. It is easy to see this; the sheep are more spread out than they are in the first thumbnail, and they are all facing the direction of the pups.
As the sheep approach the pups, the pups stop and offer many calming signals to the sheep. They turn their heads away from the sheep, breaking the sightline, They lower their heads and turn slightly away from the sheep with their tails wagging slowly, held low and loosely.
One of the pups becomes a bit brave and approaches one of the sheep, who agrees to this greeting by walking slowly towards the pup. When the sheep startle a little and move off, the pup is startled too, but rather than pursue the sheep or become excited by the sheep's behavior, he backs up and considers the situation.
The Training Triangle
In the presence of the pup, as the pup makes wise choices, I talk to him and support him through my verbal praise; this connects me to the pup and this experience. My praise isn't why he is making these good choices, but through my voice and physical proximity to him, I can let him know I like what he is doing:
Event - Dog - Me
I take advantage of opportunities to connect myself to behaviors I would like to see more of.
When the pup is startled, if I do nothing, he will draw his own conclusions about what just happened; sometimes that is exactly appropriate, but not in this instance because this young pup could use some support. With my "up" and bright voice, I let him know that wow, that was interesting, and he comes to check in with me, as he has learned to do if he needs a little support. I know I made the right choice in talking to him because he does come to me. If he had wagged his tail and moved off instead, he would have been letting me know he had the situation handled just fine on his own; thank you very much. But I have lost nothing in offering my subtle support.
In this video, one of the pups would clearly like to get to know the sheep. The speed of his approach is perfect now. Watch the pace of the pup as the sheep dash away; he never falters, never increases his speed, and when it is clear that the sheep need some distance, he turns away from them and heads back to his partner. Again, this early discernment is not common in pups of this age, but through proper training, it can be.
When the pup leaves the sheep, they turn and are drawn to the pup as if responding to the pull of a magnet. The pups have shown the sheep a lot of respect in terms of allowing them to move away without pursuing them, so the sheep are beginning to feel safe and increasingly curious.
Take a look at this thumbnail. The sheep are approaching the pup from behind him, coming purposefully, with some speed, and as a tight group. The pup's body shows some concern; he has slowed his pace, lowered his body a little, and curves his body to face them slightly.
In the video, as the sheep come at the pup, which makes him a little insecure, he simply stops and glances back at the sheep. In doing so, he has let the sheep know that they need to give him a little space too. The sheep understand this subtle request from the pup and honor it. Throughout this exchange, the pup slowly wags his tail and occasionally gives a downward dip of his head in deference to the sheep.
I can tell you that the humans in this equation were a little nervous as we watched the approach of the sheep. I was close to the pup, ready to step in between him and the sheep if he had needed that support. It is absolutely my job to keep this pup safe, emotionally and physically, so that he is positively reinforced as he begins his relationship with his new sheep.
We are only about ten minutes into this new exposure of the sheep to the pups, but the sheep are gaining confidence and become a little more assertive than the pup would like them to be, so instead of simply stopping, he travels across and in front of them. This is a more considerable pushback on his part, and the sheep get the message.
I'll share more about Katie's experiences with her pups and Aspen in another blog, but for now, here is an example of an early introduction of pups to livestock that could not have gone better, and that is no accident! You are watching the result of purposeful training in the past, which supported both the pups and the sheep in this situation and our presence as trainers in the moment.