Updated: Jun 22
I recently read that training dogs is like expecting them to learn English as a second language. Thinking of it that way reminds me of how patient I need to be with my dogs and how realistic my expectations of them must be. But in truth I think what is about to happen, if you are a new Maremma owner, is that you now need to learn “Maremma” as a second language.
I can tell you that behaviors that seem random and baffling to you make perfect sense to the dog, and if you can learn to see the world as they do a magical partnership can begin. Maremmas are inherently kind, sensitive, intelligent dogs. They offer their canine body language honestly; it’s there for you to learn from and understand. This is your responsibility and privilege. You have free will. You brought the dogs home and placed them in the circumstance they find themselves in. Now you get to watch and learn and participate, and make sure everyone stays safe and happy.
Dogs do what is immediately rewarding to them. If you want to change their behavior you’d better have something better to offer them than what they already have.
Are you one of those people who think dogs “feel guilty”? Think again. The dog is reading your body language at that minute, probably even before you made it through the gate. He isn’t thinking about what he did minutes or hours ago. What he knows is that in the past, in this similar circumstance, you were worrisome, unpredictable, and possibly aggressive. Because of this memory, he may drop to the ground and show you appeasement behaviors, such as rolling over onto his back, or simply avoid you.
What about the “Dominance Theory?” It’s a myth! Science has proven that this isn’t how dogs see their world. They haven’t been wolves for a long time, and even wolf packs don’t have the kind of social hierarchy that many people think they do. If you get in a power struggle with your dog you may think in the moment that you have won, but you will lose, because this behavior from you is damaging to your relationship with your dog. From the dog’s point of view you have become untrustworthy and possibly frightening. Your dog may choose to distance himself from you – he isn’t ignoring you, he’s trying to stay safe. Or he may feel the need to resort to aggression to protect himself. A dog put in this position often pays a high price for his owner’s lack of understanding or compassion.
If you give your LGD a command you have almost assuredly set both yourself and your dog up for failure. A command is an order; a cue is an invitation. That is a huge difference to your dog. Punishment-based training works, for the short term. You can stop a dog from doing something – for a limited period of time - by yelling at him, but this will cost you!
So, if you can’t “be dominant” and you aren’t supposed to give orders, how do you get what you need from your dogs? The answer, and it’s a lovely one, is to teach an incompatible behavior. Rather than trying to stop a dog from doing something that is obviously rewarding to him – and annoying to you - give him something else to do instead that is even more rewarding.
If you find yourself frustrated with your dog for some reason, stop and think about EXACTLY (physically) what he is doing that you don’t like, and then think of EXACTLY (physically) what you would like him to be doing instead. Picture this! You may need to be a bit of a creative thinker here, because unfortunately it is common human behavior to find fault – in ourselves, our children, and our dogs. But what would your perfect dog be doing??? Can you think of a way to teach him that?
If you can’t picture that, how the new behavior would be taught, think of what the dog’s body would actually be doing – sequentially, piece by piece by piece, and then teach him each of those pieces individually. This can be done in whatever order you prefer, and in every circumstance the dog offers them. Use your clicker! Click and pay for Every. Single. Piece.
You may feel that this is pretty random training, and wonder what this has to do with stopping a dog from putting his feet on you, for instance, but have faith – we’re getting there.
Clicking for ANY behavior increases the likelihood of it happening more often. It also lets your dogs know what behaviors you like. Dogs will become “operant” – they will figure out how to make you pay them! This is very cool, because having learned what single, simple behaviors make treats and praise show up, dogs will look for opportunities to give them to you.
A dog with this mindset may be so busy thinking of those ways to make you pay him that he forgets to lose his self-control and put his feet on you. And you can reinforce earlier in the process now that you know what the pieces of that behavior are and have taught your dog that you will pay for those first pieces (the ones you like). You can click for eye contact, before the feet come off the ground, and the feet may never leave the ground.
Really, picture this: Here comes the dog, happy, jazzed, and fast. At six feet from you – click! Wow. Now there’s a thought. The dog had something else in mind, and maybe was a little out of control, but he has learned that a click is ALWAYS followed by something good, so now his mind is in a different place.
If it were me in this situation I would click and then toss the treat to the dog, rather than hand it to him. I might toss it to the side, rather than directly in front of me or the dog, because dogs that put their feet on people are usually positioned right in front of the person. So, now, in this circumstance, my charging dog is moving slowly and is beside me, or at least not in front of me. He eats the treat and looks up – click/treat for that – treat tossed. He looks up and I take one step forward – and so does he – click/treat, maybe hand-delivered at this point if the dog has settled down enough that I want him near me. And then we go for a walk. That early, out-of-control energy, has been diverted to behaviors I like, and that the dog has learned to like giving me.
Notice that I never needed to “stop” the dog from jumping on me. Instead, I have “created behaviors”; I have conditioned the dog to look for opportunities to win. This dog KNOWS he can please me. This increasingly confident dog will become increasingly calm and mindful, because, in this case particularly, I am dealing with a Maremma. Being calm and mindful is part of what has been genetically selected for in this breed.
This is fun stuff!!! Dogs love this kind of training – what’s not to love?! For owners, who may feel a bit overwhelmed by the behaviors of their dog, learning to see behaviors as actually as pieces of behavior gives them a starting point – a piece at a time.
For more information about teaching “incompatible” behaviors please see the following blogs. Remember to smile!