These dogs gave their owner LOTS of warning signs before they reached this extreme behavior.
Any behavior can also be viewed as small pieces of behavior strung together to create a more complex behavior. I think of it as counting from one to ten. If I change the dog’s behavior at two, I can change the behavior he would have gotten to at ten. Simple.
Interrupt – Redirect – Reinforce
Here’s an example. A dog is running toward me with the clear intent to put his paws on me. At about four strides from me, I step to the left and offer him my hand as a nose target on the right. The dog is likely to keep traveling, with his nose running into my hand. Yay, dog! I take this opportunity to walk off with the busy dog now beside me.
The dog didn’t get into trouble. In fact, he never knew he might have. But what he had in mind to do got changed to something even more reinforcing (fun) to him, and I didn’t end up with a behavior I didn’t want.
These are behaviors that often get LGDs into trouble:
Barking Chasing livestock Aggression Lack of recall
All of these complex behaviors began as tiny pieces of behavior. These pieces of behavior may have gone unnoticed by the dog’s owner or not been seen as opportunities to change the predictable progression of the complex behaviors. Let’s take a look at each of these behaviors and identify some of the early warning signs the dog may have provided.
Barking – fear, stress, boredom
Dogs have a voice for a reason. It serves a purpose for them, and it carries a message for their owners. LGDs use barking as their primary way to warn off predators. But incessant, repetitive, anxious barking is a different message from the dog. Puppies often bark as a fear response, and dogs of all ages may bark because they are bored or stressed in some way. But before that dog opens his mouth to bark, his whole body tells a story.
A dog that is afraid carries his body tightly, often low to the ground. His tail may droop low, and his eyes may cast from side to side. He may pant or yawn. Dogs have many ways to demonstrate that they are afraid. If his circumstance is changed in a way that makes him feel safer, he may not feel the need to bark. In changing the dog’s environment to accommodate his request, you may not have thought about that you also just taught the dog not to bark – but you did.
A stressed dog may show a lot of the fear body language behaviors, but he is also likely to behave erratically or unpredictably. He may exhibit puppy behaviors that weren’t there before, such as mouthing, grabbing at clothes, or putting his feet on people. Again, change the environment, and the dog can make different choices.
A bored dog may seem like a brainless fool. He may bound around in a playful fashion. He may become destructive, or he may learn to become an escape artist. Give this dog a job, and you may have taught him not to do all these things!
Chasing livestock – boredom, lack of a social outlet
A bored dog will look for a way to entertain himself simply as a coping mechanism. Dogs must play. They are social creatures, just as we are. Prey drive is not the only reason dogs learn chase behavior. A bored dog will often show signs of stress before he progresses to chase behavior. Changing his environment can ease his stress and head off chase behavior. So often, dogs are held accountable for letting owners know their life isn’t working well for them by entertaining themselves with livestock. Changing learned chase behavior can be very difficult to do – at step ten. Change it at step two!
Aggression – fear, stress
Dogs are masters at conflict resolution. They also must feel physically safe as necessary for their survival. This includes protecting resources such as food. Almost never do dogs bite without warning or attack livestock without warning. What is actually true is that they shout warnings from the rooftops and often are not heard.
Before aggression happens, the dog will show stress or fear through body language.
Dogs do what works. If a stiffened body is not noticed, the dog may growl. If growling doesn’t work, he may bite. If biting doesn’t work, he may chase and growl and bite. Once he learns what works best that is what he will start with the next time. He is unlikely to go back through all the subtle steps of warning.
Think about what can happen for a dog emotionally when a bowl full of food is placed in front of him in the company of his livestock population or near his partner.
Resource guarding, or what an owner perceives as inappropriate resource guarding, often comes as a surprise to LGD owners. In most cases, resources are controlled by the owner. Protecting the emotional well-being of dogs, with regard to their resources, can make aggression unnecessary to the dog. If, when the food bowl is placed on the ground, the dog’s body tightens, he just told you he is headed to aggression unless his environment is changed.
Lack of recall – learned history, no history
Dogs often have a lot to lose and not much to gain by choosing to come near a human. Humans are often unpredictable from the point of view of the dog. LGDs have been selectively bred to be minimally biddable dogs. Biddability is pretty much “do it because I said so.” For any dog, that isn’t an attractive option, but for LGDs, it isn’t even real.
If a dog learns that being near a human is like a trip to Disneyland, he is likely to learn to come when called because he knows that is an opportunity for something fun. If a dog comes when called and he ever experiences something negative when he gets there, he isn’t likely to make the same mistake again. If a dog has minimal experience around humans, he’ll take the safer option and choose distance.
Want to teach recall? Be a party – every single time. It really is that simple. In my world, recall is taught as soon as pups will accept food from me. Food is a primary reinforcer, meaning that the positive association with it does not need to be taught. Food + human = happy is a wonderful way to teach recall.
Learn to recognize tiny pieces of information from your dog. Say “thank you” for those pieces of behavior, rather than needing all ten pieces to be complete. Shape behavior you want and prevent behaviors you don’t in a seamless, stress-free fashion. This kind of training is fun and rewarding – for dogs as well as their owners. This is my favorite book about canine body language:
Top 8 Reasons LGDs Fail: