As 2017 came to a close, I acquired a two-year-old female Maremma sheepdog named Tulip. The Maremma is a livestock-guarding dog, often referred to as an LGD. These dogs were first brought to the United States in the 1970s; they have been used as LGD in the mountains of central Italy for hundreds of years. As there are coyotes in the forest surrounding The Ranch, I felt that a guardian dog would be the best way to deter predators.
The dog as teacher
Originally, I had planned to get two puppies, raising and training them myself. However, Tulip was available. She needed a new home, and she was already trained. When I teach students new concepts, I prefer using well-trained animals. I find that working with an experienced animal sets the student up for success; otherwise, the student and the animal are both trying to learn at the same time and neither is set up for the best learning experience. Since I was new to livestock guarding dogs and had a lot to learn, I realized that starting out with an experienced dog would be a good first step for me. Tulip could help protect the animals at The Ranch and be my teacher at the same time. I have already learned so much in the few weeks I have worked with Tulip.
Finding wisdom in experience
When my dog’s breeder taught me how to handle and train Tulip, her descriptions and stories were far from scientific. She said things like, “The Maremma is a proud dog and an independent thinker,” or “the dog must feel as if the herd he is guarding is his, not yours, if you want him to be successful.” She reminded me of my Uncle Sam who used similar descriptions to explain how he worked with his herding dogs on his ranch in New Mexico. As a trainer who tries to avoid labels, I listen to the ranchers’/breeders’ wisdom and “translate” it to myself in ways that align with my understanding of animal behavior.
“They must feel that they are in charge”
Livestock guarding dogs are territorial, and they are protective of what they believe is theirs. The “resource-guarding” that we find so unacceptable in most dogs is exactly what we desire in a guardian dog. LGD are reinforced by seeing outsiders and predators leave when they bark. Ranchers who are instructed to let the dogs “feel that they are in charge” are less likely to discipline nuisance behaviors and lower the dogs’ confidence. A confident dog bred for territorial aggression will claim more territory than an insecure dog. Ranchers who are instructed to let the dogs “feel that the herd is theirs” will have the dogs sleep with the herd, establishing the dogs’ territory.
The belief that these dogs should be allowed to “make their own decisions” also highlights the fact that “control” is a powerful reinforcer for all animals (and humans). When an animal has the freedom to control its environment, and, most importantly, control outcomes (reinforcers and punishers), you have a highly motivated, confident learner, and one that is more likely to stand up to an intruder.
Don’t teach them to sit, lie down, or come—EVER!
Another piece of advice that seemed odd to me at first was, “they cannot be taught basic obedience skills like sit, down, and heel—ever.” LGD handlers feel strongly that training basic obedience will ruin the dog as a livestock guarding dog.
I plan to teach Tulip a recall and a few other behaviors as they become necessary, but I am in no rush to do so. I will be careful about the context in which I train new behaviors that are not related to her role as a livestock guarding dog. I feel certain that this can be done, but I also recognize that I have a great deal to learn. I will not be cavalier about going against the instructions from the experienced LGD handlers who have been so generous with their advice. After all, ranchers, farmers, and shepherds have been working with guardian dogs for centuries. Although they are not usually schooled in the science of training, they have developed techniques that have proven very successful for teaching Maremmas.
What if they misbehave?
Despite asserting that the dogs must make their own decisions and humans should not interfere, LGD trainers emphasize the importance of not allowing the dogs to learn bad habits, such as chasing the livestock they are supposed to protect or not allowing you or other peoples who work with the livestock to come into the pasture. I was told, “if they misbehave, reprimand them immediately, then praise them when they comply because they can be very sensitive.” At first, I was a bit alarmed by these instructions until I watched the way one of the trainers handled that very situation. One of the dogs began chasing a donkey, so the trainer called the dog’s name and stepped in between the dog and the donkey. The dog veered off and returned to the trainer, and the trainer immediately began praising and petting the dog. In essence, the trainer redirected her to a more appropriate behavior and then reinforced that desirable response. I have used this redirection technique most of my career, but I would never have recognized it from the original description.
A learning partnership
I am sure that Tulip will be teaching me far more than I will be teaching her. I promise to keep you informed about her progress and about all that Tulip and I learn together.
P.S. If you want to keep track of Tulip’s progress regularly, follow me on Twitter @KenKPCT.