I think as often as I get inquiries about my pups from people who have never owned an LGD I get inquiries from people who have one, older, successful guardian; they want the older dog to train the new dog – before he gets too old to do so.
A lot of breeders are OK with this scenario – I am not, based on my personal experience with many Maremmas and my own learned opinions.
The first thing that pops into my head when someone makes this request of me is that they let the trusted LGD that they currently own work without a partner. I don’t make the assumption that they made this choice because they didn’t care enough about their dog to get him an appropriate partner, but regardless of the reason the dog they have worked alone. If he’s an older dog, say nine years old, and I let one of my pups go to work with him I know that pup of mine, in about three years, is likely to be alone and grieving the loss of his best friend. And then my pup, who through contractual agreement is owed a partner, is now the dog working alone. Why would I do that to one of my beloved pups??? The answer is that I won’t. I am OK with placing a pair of pups of similar age with a working adult, but not a single pup.
The second thing that pops into my head is that most people don’t really understand how that process works. That’s OK. Most people haven’t raised as many dogs as I have, so they haven’t had the opportunity to learn what I know. But I have. I know the potential cost to both the pup and the mature LGD in this training/living situation, and it’s potential benefits. As with most things in life this isn’t a black and white situation. I’m going to take a minute here and share with you what my 90+ puppies, and the adult dogs I have used in their training, have taught me about how this works; more importantly, how it feels to them.
Traditionally, older dogs have been training younger dogs for centuries, but not in quite the setting most of us have in the US. In European countries groups of LGDs manage large areas and large groups of livestock. When new pups are introduced they are typically not introduced as single pups; more often they are a portion of the litter. Because there is a lot of space the adult dogs that enjoy puppies (and there are less of those than you might think) can choose to stay in close, where the younger pups are working, and interact with them in a nurturing and patient fashion. The adult dogs who are not amused by the irreverent energy of pups can distance themselves, only interacting with the pups briefly, if they chose that. The puppies learn to pay attention to the body language of the differing adult dogs; some will welcome them and behave in a tolerant fashion while others are GRUMPY and are best avoided if possible – and in a big space avoiding each other is possible, pups and adults alike. They have the ability to move away. This keeps everybody safe and happy, and keeps the learning process productive for the pups; learning to be fearful around adult dogs does not serve them well.
In most of the requests that I encounter the prospective puppy buyer has one beloved, trusted LGD that they count on; they’d like another one just like him. They make the assumption that, if they let this good dog raise the next one, this is a likely (or at least possible) outcome. And, if I am truthful here, I suspect they think it will be easier to let this first dog train the second one; that it will be less of a time commitment for them. I get it. Life is busy. But these assumptions take big chances with the welfare of the pup in addition to the quality of life for the older, established LGD.
When I talk with these people I make the assumption that this older, established LGD has a life that works for him. He has a routine that he’s happy with. MANY older LGDs do not welcome the addition of a new puppy! They often have limited, short term tolerance for the pup. Most are not openly aggressive with young pups. They will move away if they feel they need some space, but often that isn’t an option due to the way most people in this country use LGDs. Typically in the US LGDs guard smaller areas, so they may not have the space to distance themselves from the pup if they feel they need a mental health break. AND, a single pup, who has significant social needs will follow him. So for the adult its “did you not hear me?!”; for the pup its ”please don’t leave me, being alone is scary!”. And right here at this point both the adult dog and the pup are paying a price because the owner chose this style of training for the new pup, and the breeder of the pup allowed it; this is stressful for both the adult LGD and the pup.
Yes, dogs mirror behavior. They will often mirror each other’s behavior, especially if one of them is a pup or adolescent. If the adult LGD is calm and nurturing, with the pup and with the livestock, the pup will take that in and in all probability it will influence his behavior. If the adult is grumpy the pup learns to be fearful, and he learns that this is the way an adult treats a puppy; you have now programmed that puppy to respond to other dogs in his life in that same way when he is an adult. That’s not a great thing to pay forward.
I also want to say this, clearly: adult LGDs DO NOT teach puppies how to guard – instinct does. And the proper working environment does. So, if an adult is successful in an environment that is also appropriate for the current point of development for the pup, and the LGD’s behavior is productive and appropriate, the pup learns a lot from that – but the adult did NOT teach the pup to guard. This is a very common misconception. It is by no means necessary to have an adult LGD train a pup to become a successful working LGD, it just doesn’t work that way.
The other problem in asking a pup to live with an adult LGD is that they have very different working and social needs.
The adult LGD is accustomed to doing a big job, with lots of complexity. A puppy will not be ready for work like that for many months. If too much is asked of that pup too soon he is likely to become fearful and more reactive in his environment – he will bark more!!! As an adult he will bark more, because barking early in his life became a habit. And he is conflicted. He could choose to say near the barn in the smaller, safer area, which is the proper environment for a young pup, but now he is alone and that is scary. Or he can try to keep up with the mature dog. That is scary too. Because he has short legs he probably can’t realistically keep up, so now he is part way between the safe barnyard and the off in the distance adult dog – and that’s even worse. Pups in this circumstance reach a point – threshold – where they can’t take it anymore, and in fear turn and run like crazy towards home. They experience an adrenalin spike for that whole distance; that is an extended fear experience with a significant chemical component for that whole time. And this happens in a very important, formative time in a puppy’s life from a brain chemistry perspective, which is what learning is. This is a BAD PLAN!
Conversely, you could choose to limit the area the adult LGD is responsible for until the pup’s development catches up a little. The problem with this is that, from the adult LGD’s perspective, this lock down is punitive. This creates a stressful situation for the dog; he can’t do his job as he is accustomed to and he can’t retreat from the puppy.
Now let’s spin this, because there are pieces of this scenario that can work very well – if you have the right pieces and understand the needs of both your pup and your adult LGD.
Here on the ranch I use my adult dogs to help train puppies A LOT! But out of sixteen working adult Maremmas only three of them are truly bombproof puppy trainers, in that if they need space they let the pups know this in a measured and appropriate manner. The pups learn from this; they tip their heads quizzically from side to side as they gently and slowly retreat. These trusted girls never escalate their behavior into something that scares the pups, but I also really keep an eye on the stress level of that adult dog. With young, super active and irreverent pups I may keep the adult in with the pups for hours, rather than days. Always, always though, I have adult dogs actively working sharing a fence line with the pups as well as the many working dogs the pups can see and hear from a distance. So pups raised here learn from sixteen different adult dogs in one setting or another throughout the several months of their early lives.
I have adult dogs that like working with four month old pups but not eight week old pups. I have dogs who will work with four pups but not twelve. I have dogs who will step in and attempt to deflect inappropriate behavior of a pup, such as by placing herself between the pup and the livestock or putting a gentle leg across the pup, and I have dogs who simply chose distance and leave when things get silly. That works too because often the pups will chose to follow that adult rather than keep doing what they were doing.
My point is that adult dogs can indeed be very valuable in assisting pups in becoming the capable working dogs they were bred to be, but making the assumption that your single adult working dog WANTS that job can have dire consequences.
Now, placing a pair of adolescent pups with an established LGD is a very different circumstance; this often works beautifully! The pair of pups, who are of similar age, are comfortable working together, so if the adult goes far away the adolescent pups are still fine. If the adolescent pups are 6-9 months old and were raised here they are probably ready for that adult level of work anyway, with, of course, the management participation of the owner as needed.
As that adult LGD continues to age his guarding style will change. Given that he has this younger pair of dogs to back him up he can chose to do more visual guarding while letting the younger dogs do more of the perimeter checks. He can be the dog who stays with the livestock while the other two do the more physical work; he is still working and is happy, while also taking care of his body. This is a natural, and respectful, way to manage the later part of your beloved LGD’s life while still protecting your livestock, now and in the future. I like this scenario.