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Transitions and Shaping – Let’s Not Test the Edges

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

This is a graphic that was shared with me about people, specifically – me. At issue was “what does it take to derail me” (my words) at any given time.

“A” is the spot to be, of course, and is generally where I hang out, but things like COVID, personal loss, and personal stress can make it challenging to stay there sometimes. That one last straw can tip me toward either “B”; “C” is a place to avoid. Through learning life skills, and some terrific mentoring, I have learned to take care of myself and claim happiness through most of life’s ups and downs.

Behavioral science is a broad topic. We now understand how dogs experience their world based on studies of people, particularly children. I think the graphic above applies to dogs too. I have tested this theory here on my ranch, over and over, with more than one hundred puppies or young dogs, as well as twice that many adult dogs.

Let’s talk about what “Threshold” is. The dictionary definition is “the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect”: the threshold of consciousness; a low threshold of pain.

In the dog training world, it is the point at which the dog has been pushed too far. A dog over threshold has a reactive brain, or a shutdown brain, but not an open-to-learning/training brain. Dogs remember these experiences though, as do people, and can be traumatized when managed this way.

When training dogs, part of what I am often doing is teaching the dog coping skills. I used to think I was teaching the dogs “resiliency,” but science does not support that theory. Animals are born with their own “set point” of resiliency, as are people, but life skills can be added to improve the dog’s quality of life from that base. This is often referred to with puppies as “socialization.” When doing this kind of training with puppies, I challenge them, which improves their coping skills while being very careful to stay away from their threshold points.

Over time, I have gotten good at this because I have studied a lot of puppies, and as I work with my pups, I am working with a group of animals that I have come to know well. When I attempt this training goal with an adult dog, it will take me a little time to understand this dog well enough to know where his edges are – what sets him over threshold because every dog is different. I don’t know this dog’s history, so I don’t know if he has a sensitivity to sound, or movement, or spatial considerations, as examples.

This brings me to why I am writing this blog. I had a recent experience with a new owner of one of my adult dogs that hurt and upset me because of the unnecessary pressure their decisions placed on my dog, as well as their existing LGD, and the risks this posed to the dogs.

Very broadly, here’s what happened. This adult dog of mine spent several days traveling to his new home. That included motel stays and support through the use of Trazodone. He arrived at his new home looking pretty good. The dogs were introduced through a gate, and that looked pretty good, so they were introduced in the pasture. That went well. Then my dog got a look at the new, and to him, a very novel type of livestock from across a fence. That went well, so they turned out both dogs and the livestock group into the pasture together – two hours after this dog of mine arrived. They felt this went well, including the behavior of my dog when a young animal got the zoomies in front of him, and he didn’t respond by giving chase. When they shared this news with me, I was horrified and hurt because they had made an agreement with me to allow me to make the training decisions in these critical, early days.

It upsets me when people don’t keep their word with me, mostly because it shakes my confidence in myself. I clearly misread these people and their willingness to be coached. In placing puppies, making these kinds of mistakes is my greatest fear because if people don’t listen to me about how to manage my pups, I can no longer support my pups and keep them safe.

What they told me was that the dogs were “doing fine” and that if I had been there and seen how well they were doing, I would have made the same management decision; they could not be more wrong. In talking about this situation with my training partner, she pointed out that, though they already owned an LGD, she didn’t feel they fully understood the risks to the dogs. Here is a blog that outlines some of the behaviors LGDs come up with when they are placed in untenable situations:

The graphic at the top of the page may give you a clue as to why, regardless of the behaviors of either dog at that time, I would NOT have made the decision they did because of the transitional situation for both dogs.

They don’t know this dog of mine, so they cannot know how close to the edges he really is, even if he is calmly standing in front of them with his tail wagging. Inherent to their situation, that being having a dog in a transitional situation, he is coming to them under the stress of several days of travel and medical management. They don’t know what he is sensitive to in terms of sounds, movement, and spatial considerations. They know these things about their own dog minimally, but not how that will change for her when faced with another dog coming into her field, near her people, and near the livestock she loves and protects.

There is no upside to being in a hurry in training a dog and a whole lot to lose. This good dog of mine “looked good,” and so they gave him another challenge/change, and another, and another. Why? I really don’t have an answer for that, but I know decisions like this are common among new owners of LGDs, which is why I am writing this blog. When I was a novice LGD owner, I made mistakes like this. I had no idea that I was taking chances with my dogs because I did not have a mentor there at my beck and call. Most new LGD owners are in a situation similar to mine, in that trustworthy educational materials about how to do a good job with LGDs can be hard to find. But these new owners of my dog had lots of support and chose to turn away from it.

These are “nice” people in that they genuinely care about their animals, but nice people damage LGDs too. Nice doesn’t cut it for me because, for me, nice is making the needs of the dog more important than the needs of the human. They cannot know how far this dog of mine had to reach to stay balanced through the continued challenges they placed in front of him. What if he had “failed”? What if, when the young animal ran past, he had grabbed it by the throat, or if he gave chase and their established dog learned this new behavior?

If a management mistake is made, an owner can change the environment to prevent that mistake from being repeated, but that does not change what the dog just learned.

So much is at stake for these dogs, for LGDs in general, because they are so often misunderstood. There are thirty-three Maremmas here right now, including nine adolescent dogs and one adult that are “for sale.” Given this recent experience, I am tempted to keep every one of them here until the day they die rather than have them at risk in the hands of someone who is not listening to me and won’t allow me to mentor them to support my dogs – and their own success.

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