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Vinny Meets the Goats - Safety Line & Shaping

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Vinny is a sixteen-month-old Cameo x Milan pup. He had never seen an adult goat until we brought him to this pair of retired dairy goat girls. These goats are new to the ranch; Vinny is only the second Maremma we have brought into their field. This introduction went well, for both species.

Often, in our training sessions with both dogs and livestock, the livestock shows us when it is time to end the session. In the video above, the goats are calm and slightly curious of Vinny, for most of the time, we are in with them. But then, for whatever reason, they got springy and traveled to the bottom of the field, away from Vinny. I didn't see any action on Vinny's part that prompted their change in demeanor. I may just have a lot more to learn about goat behavior. But they got speedy, and Vinny became fast as well. He may have become excited because they were, or he may have been confused by their behavior and concerned. He went on the offense a bit, in that he barked, growled a little, and bounced at the girls; this is Vinny asking questions.

Vinny was asking if the goats were a threat - if he had growled, and they had advanced at him, that might have meant the goats could be dangerous. If they had hassled Vinny here in this first interaction, and with him as a young and impressionable dog, that might have produced a lasting negative association concerning goats with Vinny. So, choosing suitable livestock for these introductions is a critical component of the success of the session.

In the last three minutes of this session, you can see Vinny's body language change - he becomes visibly tense. My assistant attached the safety line, which connected her to him in a way that he understands; she is there to support him, physically as well as emotionally. She steps back, allowing him to work independently once again. Notice that he returned to her and leaned against her legs while he looked back at the goats and considered them. This check-in is a product of his extensive clicker training history with humans, lots of different humans. He used her proximity for emotional comfort while he considered his situation with the confusing goats.

Vinny's tension continued to increase, so his handler put a steady hand on him. That helped him, but it wasn't enough. If you watch the goats, as each of these pieces plays out with Vinny, their behavior changes as well. I am not sure if they caused the changes in Vinny or if the goats reacted to him, but either way, it became very clear that it was time to end the session, in deference to both the goats and Vinny.

Notice how easy it was for his handler to get Vinny's attention - his "eyes" as we call it. She never pulled on the safety line to ask for his attention, although she did use it once to stop his advance to the goats. The use of the safety line is never used as a way to "correct" a dog; it is simply a way to safely stop the dog's body, which gives the handler time to get the dog's brain back. An excited dog does not learn well. Stopping the dog with the safety line and then getting his eyes, so that he can be reinforced for any behavior he knows well, creates an emotional re-set for the dog. Often, that is all that is needed for the dog to have a learning brain again and, therefore, be able to continue with the training session. If the dog cannot re-set back to a calm learning brain, then it is time to end the session.

Notice how this session ended. Vinny chose to be close to his handler and give her his eyes because that was a safe place for him. She did a little clicker work to build his confidence, and then she let him strut out of the field, having met BIG goats for the first time and having lived to tell the tale.

Now, think about this.....

How might this introduction have gone differently without the use of a safety line? How about without the benefit of the clicker training history of the dog? I think it is likely that at some point, a dog such as Vinny might speed toward the goats - how would the handler stop him? How would that feel to the dog? Would the dog feel welcomed by that management? Would it build his confidence, or would he hope to avoid the human? How would all this affect his view of if goats are good, or bad?

Almost always, when we do these introductions, and I share them with you, you see "easy" dogs, and it often looks like the handler isn't really doing much. No problem, right? You can do this, right? How would your current LGD react in a situation such as the one in the video, given your current level of training history with him?

Today is a good day to train; today is a good day to begin to develop the depth of relationship with your own dog(s) that you see between this handler and Vinny. It is worth mentioning here that the last safety line training work she did with Vinny was at least a year ago. Vinny understands our training language. His handler understands our training language. So, she can step in, and they can train together in a new situation even though so much time has gone by. A new owner of one of our pups, who knows the language, per the Foundations course and our blogs library, can come here and train with our dogs. The video above demonstrates some of why I require the Karen Pryor Dog Training Foundations Course for new owners - before the dogs go to them.

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