Updated: Jun 22
Thor has been here in training with me for six weeks; he is the black and tan pup among the white Maremma pups. Puppies develop on speed dial so much has changed over this time. The video above is a great example of that.
I have partnered Thor with a variety of dogs. I want to build a self-reliant guardian who is tolerant of change. He will go home to an adult Maremma female as his permanent partner so I don't want to teach him that his permanent partner is one of my dogs.
Initially, I gave him a partner in the daytime when I could keep an eye on him. I put him back in his own safe area at night so that he could relax without learning being part of what was asked of him. As he gained confidence I allowed him to stay with a partner overnight as well, switching partners every few days.
To give Thor a partner required that I take that partner Maremma away from the greater responsibility that they had been handling. They did not appreciate being dialed back like that. One evening I allowed Thor to follow his partner into the large field next to where he had been living. About ten minutes later I checked on him and found him in a corner, with his nose pressed through the fence, looking utterly miserable. I don't know what happened to him but clearly, this situation was more than he was ready for. With apparent gratitude, Thor accompanied me back to his small, safe pen for the night. By morning my normal cheerful Thor was back.
Thor likes the gentle, starter sheep so early on I was able to allow him to live with my three ewes. He had been with me for about a week. I created a pass-through gate situation that would allow the dogs to retreat to the privacy of a stall, and so that I could leave food in front of them overnight without pressure from the sheep.
Somewhere in here, time-wise, I decided to allow Thor and his current partner to spend a day with Strawberry the mini cow. Below is a video of Strawberry with her favorite adult Maremma Yeti. As you can see, Strawberry is not a threat to the dogs but Thor was terrified of her! So, back to his safe sheep he went.
After Thor had been with me about three weeks he decided to experiment with being in charge of a resource. In his case he picked the food bowls. In three sessions I taught him the feeding protocol the Katies so capably demonstrate in the blog posts below:
Raising Eevie & Banks - Feeding and Manners – Katie W. - Shaping: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/raising-eevie-banks-feeding-and-manners-katie-w-shaping
Feeding & Manners - Katie S. - Shaping, Blog #1 – Katie’s Story: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/feeding-manners-katie-s-shaping-blog-1-katie-s-story
Feeding & Manners - Katie S. - Shaping, Blog #2 – Katie’s Videos: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/feeding-manners-katie-s-shaping-blog-2-katie-s-videos
Training To Prevent Resource Guarding - Katie S. - Success!!!: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/training-to-prevent-resource-guarding-katie-s-success
Thor is an EXTREMELY sensitive pup! The first night that I began his feeding protocol training I was holding the small bucket I use to carry dog food. As I stepped in front of Thor's approach to his partner I may have used the bucket to stop his progress. I really am not sure. What I do know is that one minute Thor was tall and brave and the next minute he was off like a flash to hide in the corner of the nearby stall. I felt terrible about frightening the poor boy! It took me several minutes of pleading for his forgiveness before he would join me outside again to eat his dinner.
I stayed with him while he ate his dinner for the first few minutes for about a week. Then I was able to leave him with his partner because he was willing to stay with his own bowl and eat rather than requiring my supervision. If he drifts back to guarding resources at some future point in his development, as he is likely to do, I will again stay with him while he eats to bring him calmly through that developmental window of time.
Thor will be asked to guard chickens for his owner, so, I bought him four chickens I found on a Craigslist ad. Kathy and I planned, and I mean planned, a careful introduction for Thor to his new hens. We set up the video camera. I sat in a chair facing the camera, a hen in my lap, and Kathy brought Thor to meet the bird. He approached his hen slowly, calmly, and with great deference. The hen was having none of it. Before I knew what had happened the hen managed to peck my tender Thor's nose three times. Who knew a chicken would do that?! I am admittedly a novice chicken handler. Once again I managed to allow Thor to become frightened in a novel situation. We ended the training session about five minutes later because Thor did not agree to give that hen, or us, a second chance. Since then he has spent his time living in the field next to the hens. We'll go back and give it another try soon, now with me forewarned about chicken behavior.
Thor had been with me about a month when his character around the sheep began to change slightly. As he became more sure of himself, and his body developed from a slow, fat pup to a more athletic build, he began to occasionally move quickly around the sheep. My well-trained ewes pretty much refuse to run from pups but it is important that Thor learn to move slowly around the livestock. So at this point I only allowed Thor to be with the sheep when I could keep an eye on him. He resented this change! I often saw him sleeping against the fence as near to "his" sheep as he could get.
Every adult reading this was a teenager once and lived to tell the tale. Some of us fared better than others, in part due to the level of supervision we received from our parents. This early intervention for Thor is what my favorite canine behavioral clinician Suzanne Clothier calls "Training With Guardrails". To change an LGD's behavior just change his environment! Simple! My darling Thor has sailed right along without making one-single-mistake because I WILL NOT allow that to happen. That's my job, as it is every owner of an LGD of any age.
Thor had been with me about five weeks when he discovered a low spot in the fence that he could squeeze under. I would not have thought that possible but Thor must be mostly hair because he did! And guess what. He went right into that large field that he had been so afraid of three weeks before. AND, he went right in with an adult, somewhat bossy mini cow - on purpose! OK, Thor, I am listening!
The video you see at the top of this post was taken on Thor's first night in this field. Through the day he charged all over that field, sometimes accompanied by a Maremma but often on his own. I saw him working far perimeter fencing all on his own. He carried himself with the utmost confidence. Thor had been here at least a month before I saw him work a perimeter alone so this behavior was impressive, particularly given where he was, that being in a big, new field he used to be afraid of.
Not only is Thor now able to manage this much greater responsibility in terms of how large the field is and the presence of the adult cow, but he is also one of four dogs, rather than working with only one dog. Dogs are opportunists. Often, if a dog in a population carries itself in a worried posture other dogs will target the apparent weakness in the dog as evidenced in his body language. I know in watching Thor hold his own in play and at work with three other dogs that are larger and faster than he is that he is carrying himself with confidence. I have watched him closely because no way do I want to see him in a four-dog pile-up dog fight. Skirmishes like that are typically just for show but I know how emotionally fragile Thor can be. That needs to be protected.
The next day, I heard Thor's "alert" bark for the first time. He was alone in that field, sleeping peacefully when I walked across the barnyard in the dark. He jumped up and gave me a deep, authoritative "WOOF!" Just one bark. I spoke to him, and he wagged his tail and went back to bed. Thor is an economist. He mostly guards visually rather than actively patrolling areas. He prefers to let the Maremmas do that but he will quickly join them if he feels they need backup. He also doesn't say much. However, he misses nothing!
Thor is an interesting fellow, at once a cream puff heart inside a tough dog body. Making handling mistakes with Thor could be devastating to him. Here with me, he is learning to be soft and strong at the same time. If he were "corrected" he could easily become aggressive and noisy as an adult. His owner is wise, and I don't think she will let that happen. After all, she reached out to me very early in her time with her new pup way before Thor had much of a chance to make mistakes. Before Thor goes home in a month or two she will have completed the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations Course. I don't require this of my training clients but Thor's owner sees the obvious benefit of doing so. She will also come to the ranch to spend a little time training with me with Thor before he goes home.
So often LGD pups are put in situations without this kind of training support. Many of them "fail", per their owner's expectations. Thor is a perfect pup, and they are perfect pups, it is the system that is flawed. I feel privileged to be allowed to work with Thor, as well as to learn from him!
Top 8 Reasons LGDs Fail: