Updated: Jan 22
The #1 reason LGDs fail is people.
The good news is that people can learn to support their dogs!
Most people who have LGDs value them, either personally or in what the dog can do for them. Most mistakes that people make with their dogs are just that; they are mistakes.
Understanding how dogs learn and how they are impacted by the choices an owner makes can really help the dog meet the owner’s expectations. This helps to keep the dog safe because he becomes a valued partner with livestock and property.
Let’s take a look at some of the behaviors LGDs do that owners find difficult to live with.
Barking may seem innocuous, but in some situations it can get a dog killed. Here on my spacious ranch dogs barking are just dogs doing their job. I expect it and appreciate that they are working; I don’t have close neighbors, so what my dogs do isn’t very impactful for others.
Many owners of LGDs use them on smaller acreages where neighbors’ lives have been affected by how much an LGD barks. In that circumstance, the LGDs are part of a community, and a community needs balance. Even if a rancher has a legal right to use LGDs living with intolerance or hostility from neighbors is stressful for all concerned. There are LGDs that have been shot while working in their own fields or poisoned. Owners have been pushed to re-home their cherished LGDs because of pressure from neighbors.
Dogs bark for many reasons. An LGD living a well-balanced life uses discretion when barking; he barks at the meaningful stimulus and then stops. An LGD who is frightened may bark in a sustained fashion, seemingly at nothing. Young LGDs may do this to some extent. A lonely dog barks more than a content dog. A single puppy can learn to bark excessively because the job asked of him at that age is too much for him. This learned behavior will likely be true for the rest of his life because barking is self-reinforcing for dogs.
Why LGDs Bark & How To Manage This: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/why-lgds-bark-how-to-manage-this
LGDs that climb fences and leave, or dig under and leave, are not safe. It is common for wandering LGDs to be shot or hit by a car. Even if they come home safely this behavior is stressful for owners, in part because it leaves their livestock unprotected. Going on adventures outside the LGDs’ pasture becomes VERY reinforcing to the dog very quickly because it is fun! Once an LGD learns this behavior, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to re-train the dog.
Dogs are social beings. A single LGD is an inherently stressed animal because his social needs are not met. Traditional thinking says that a single LGD will bond more tightly with his livestock because of this social need. That theory has not been born out through my experience with my dogs. A pair of LGDs, living in a field well suited to their capabilities, with livestock as their focus, is happy to stay home in most cases.
Once this wandering behavior is learned, managing the dog becomes difficult. New fencing accommodations may need to be found; this is often frustrating to owners. A dog that runs away is difficult to re-home.
Fencing Options & Considerations for Maremmas: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/fencing-options-considerations-for-maremmas
Compassionate Use of Electric Fencing For Maremmas: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/compassionate-use-of-electric-fencing-for-maremmas
Living With a Dog Wearing a Dangle Stick – Training with Aversives – No!: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/living-with-a-dog-wearing-a-dangle-stick-training-with-aversives-no
Aggression Towards People
Aggression is a fear-based behavior.
Dogs who are not well socialized with people may bite rather than interact with a stranger. Aggression is often the result of the use of correction-based training. Dogs will protect themselves. A dog that learns he is not always safe around humans will become wary of people. This will be true of his relationship with the person who used this type of training, but it may also generalize to include ALL people.
Dogs are masters at avoiding conflict and will use many physical behaviors to ask for conflict resolution; with people, livestock, and each other. If those requests are not respected, the dog’s behavior will escalate until he gets what he needs. Once a dog learns that aggression is more effective than all the early, subtle requests for change, he will skip those early steps and go straight to what works.
Dogs will protect their resources; from people, livestock, and each other. A resource for a dog is anything he values. In the case of aggression towards people, this often occurs in the course of feeding the dog or removing the dog’s feed bowl.
Appeasement Behaviors – Canine Conflict Resolution: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/appeasement-behaviors-canine-conflict-resolution
Aggression Towards Livestock
This can happen if a dog is injured by livestock. It can also be a learned response to the dog’s need to protect his resources from livestock; feeding a dog in the presence of livestock is a recipe for disaster.
Many dogs learn to “work it out” with the livestock they live with. Most of my adult LGDs can give a look at their sheep, goats, or whatever they live with, and the livestock will stay back. I don’t expect this of my dogs though, and certainly not of my young dogs.
As is true with learned aggression with people, when a dog learns how effective it is to bark at, run at, chase, or bite livestock, they stop warning; they go straight to what works. This changes the relationship the dog has with livestock because now the livestock is viewed as competition for the dog’s resources rather than as animals to nurture.
Dogs often generalize this behavior, so removing food bowls isn’t enough. Dogs may decide the area where they are fed is a resource to protect, then that end of the field, the area around a gate, and even water troughs. In this video, you will see two of my dogs who were returned to me after having learned to protect their dinner from the press of lots of sheep over weeks of time.
This learned behavior didn’t happen overnight; there were many warning signs. Ultimately, one of these dogs was euthanized because of the danger she continued to present to livestock in fields adjacent to her and other working dogs who were influenced by watching her behavior, despite my very best efforts at finding a living situation here on my ranch that would work for her for over a year. The extreme behavior you see in this video is learned, predictable, and preventable. The loss of this incredible dog is tragic.
Teach Your LGDs That the Presence of a Food Bowl Equals Safety: Shaping & Cues - Annabel the Cow: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/teach-your-lgds-that-the-presence-of-a-food-bowl-equals-safety-shaping-cues-annabel-the-cow-4
Teach Your LGDs That the Presence of a Food Bowl Equals Safety: *Shaping & Cues* - Young Dogs: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/teach-your-lgds-that-the-presence-of-a-food-bowl-equals-safety-shaping-cues-young-dogs-5
Aggression with each other
Dogs target weaknesses in each other.
This is true of all breeds of dogs, but is especially true of LGDs because of their somewhat feral nature; a dog with an earache who shakes his head a lot because of it is at risk from his partner, as is a dog who limps, or a dog who shrieks because of being shocked by an electric fence or hurt by livestock.
Once a dog becomes a victim, they often carry themselves differently going forward because of it and therefore are likely to be targeted again for a lesser offense. This can turn a solid pair of working dogs into two now incompatible dogs.
I know of LGD owners who believe it is appropriate for a dog to “correct” another dog. Well, what is at stake for that owner OR the dogs? Will the loser of that fight receive the possibly extensive veterinary care he may now require? Such corrections can be expensive for an owner. In every scenario I can imagine, I think it makes more sense to prevent the altercation in the first place through management of the dogs.
One of the common reasons dogs fight is over resources, such as at feeding time. This is easy to prevent.
Teach Your LGDs That the Presence of a Food Bowl Equals Safety: Shaping & Cues - Reminding Adult Dog: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/teach-your-lgds-that-the-presence-of-a-food-bowl-equals-safety-shaping-cues-reminding-adult-dog
One of the specialized traits of LGDs is that they have little to no prey drive; prey drive is why companion dogs chase things, such as balls, birds, and herd livestock. The fixed stare of a dog with prey drive and his purposeful pursuit of an individual animal has been selected for many working breeds, but not LGDs. However, there are many reasons an LGD might choose to chase his livestock.
One of the most common reasons are boredom and seeking companionship, such as in the case of a single LGD who is lonely or looking for a playmate.
Another reason LGDs chase livestock is learned aggression towards them, as is true for the dogs in the video.
Sometimes, a dog that chases sheep can be trained to live compatibly with a different livestock species. Still, in general, this behavior can become dangerous to both the livestock and the dog very quickly because it is self-reinforcing to the dog. Said simply, it's fun.
If you "discipline" a dog for chasing livestock, he will learn not to do it in your presence; now you have a dog who still does the behavior, but you don't know how much or how often because you never see the dog do it. The livestock that lives with the dog will tell the story through their now fearful demeanor when the LGD is nearby.
Dog Does Not Come When Called
This can be the result of a lack of training, AND, it can be the result of improper training.
Dogs do what is immediately reinforcing to them. If a dog has learned that coming when called will always result in a snuggle, and possibly a belly rub, he is likely to come to the owner at top speed; I have found this behavior to be an easy one to teach.
But if the dog has ever learned he is unsafe around humans he is minimally likely to respond to this request for proximity to his owner.
Sometimes dogs need to come when called for their safety; in other circumstances, having a dog come when called is a convenience for his owner. Dogs that ignore or refuse to comply with requests for behaviors from owners are often deemed “independent.” I don’t see it that way. Dogs are wise and predictable; if you make recall always a win for your dog, he is likely to look forward to the opportunity to give you this behavior.
Teaching a Maremma to come when called - recall: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/teaching-a-maremma-to-come-when-called-recall
Can’t Touch the Dog
A dog that isn’t willing to allow an owner to touch him has a poor quality of life because if basic grooming and veterinary needs are not tended to the dog will suffer because of this.
Given what we have already covered, I suspect you can appreciate why a dog might choose to keep his distance from an owner. The good news, though, is that this can be changed through behavior modification training, and a dog is never too old to learn this.
Positive reinforcement Training – What It Is & Why It Matters: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/positive-reinforcement-training-what-it-is-why-it-matters
The Grooming Series - Maintaining Maremmas with a Plan - ***Read This One First ***: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/the-grooming-series-maintaining-maremmas-with-a-plan-read-this-one-first
I hope this blog has been helpful. I know I covered a lot of information here. In my opinion, something close to 30% of the LGDs in this country “fail” due to the choices their owners make. Loving your dogs is not the same thing as understanding your dogs, or having reasonable expectations of your dogs. Most of the LGDs that fail are euthanized – this is preventable!
Please be careful with your dogs. Before you bring an LGD into your life, educate yourself thoroughly about the needs of these specialized and amazing dogs.