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Training Clients: Bella & Thor Meeting Sheep and Goats on Long-lines

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Bella does beautifully in this first session. She gives me a lot of offered behavior that I can pay her for. She inspects the ground, as a good guardian dog should do, and then brings her attention back to me. She is unconcerned about the livestock, including types and ages of animals that are unfamiliar to her. When the flock moves past us quickly Bella stays steady.

Part of the reason she is with me in training is that she has a history of chasing her own sheep sometimes. I think this is due to her age, the fact that she does not have a canine working partner, the breed of her sheep, and her training introduction to them. At this point, it is unclear how quickly Bella will move past her chase behavior, including if she will ever move past it as this is now a well-learned behavior for her.

In her time with me, I will give her many livestock interaction options such as using differing fields, a variety of types of livestock, and asking her to work with other Maremmas. I suspect she'll find all that more engaging than chasing sheep is; we shall see. Even if that is true while she is here though it is also true that she will be a young dog for many more months. She will need careful management during that time if she is to become a trustworthy guardian ultimately.

Bella and I are not at the beginning of her learning journey because her chase behavior has preceded my time with her. I have her in the middle for a bit to help her out and to learn more about what she needs so that her owner can step back in and continue her training at home.

Bringing a dog to me for training is never, ever about "fixing the dog" as dogs are born perfect, in my opinion. When owners, and life experiences, become part of the picture things can become confusing for dogs and their owners. My training goal is to improve the teamwork between the dog and his/her owner. While Bella is with me her owner is busy with his own homework which includes improving his understanding of how dogs learn.

If I train a dog and then send it home to an owner who has not kept pace with me with their homework I will not have done the dog or the human much good; this is a partnership, and I am only one-third of the equation.

The lovely Thor has been living with Bella for most of her time with me so far, so if you watch Bella's introduction video you'll see where Thor has been living as well. He has never been in the field he is standing in right now, and he has not been asked to be alone for several days.

I put him where he is in the video because I wanted him to be able to be part of the training I was doing with Bella. I also wanted to keep a close eye on him to be sure that he wasn't frightened about being in that field alone. Frightened dogs don't learn well, and often what a frightened dog learns is counterproductive to maturing into a confident, discerning working adult.

Dogs trained here with me move on to their new homes and new lives believing they can handle any job, can trust any human, and can never make a mistake. With dogs here for training that have a different history a big part of my task is to help them find their confidence again, and then move forward from there.

Thor does a really wonderful job for me here as I suspected he would, but I wasn't sure of that and I don't believe in taking chances with behavior or safety so we used the long-line. In this small pen among so many animals, I will always have my young dogs on long-lines so that I can ensure that they don't get trampled by the flock inadvertently.

The livestock doesn't mind the presence of the dogs but they also are not mindful of them. It is very much my job to keep my dogs safe around livestock, particularly when they are young because being hurt by livestock can have lasting consequences for the dog.

Wrapping it up

When I watched these videos I wondered if my viewers, other than the owners of these dogs, might be bored to tears. All of the work we are doing here is slow and without drama; as an owner of many adult LGDs I can tell you that is exactly what I hope to see in my dogs and their interactions with the livestock they guard.

They learn it right here - in these slow, carefully crafted livestock introductions when they are pups. It is MUCH easier (and faster) to train young dogs well rather than trying to "fix" dogs later.

Thor is off to a very good start. His owners are experienced LGD owners who have lived with dogs that were challenging because of behaviors they learned previous to their ownership of them. They sent Thor to me so that he has better odds of becoming a steady, trustworthy adult guardian who should be easier to live with than some of the dogs in their past. That is so wise and it is my privilege to learn from him and train with him!

However, as I said, there are no bad dogs. The dogs in their past had challenges in part because of the way they were managed by the humans in their lives.

Traditional training of LGDs, and animals in general, is correction-based training. If either Thor or Bella go home to that kind of handling by their owners the work I do here won't fully protect these dogs from having problems.

So, owners, I hope you are doing your homework!

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