|A young 8-month-old dog play bowing to these heifers. The play bow is an invitation from the dog to play. This is a perfect moment to give a verbal correction to the dog and discourage play behaviour.|
Self rewarding Behaviour
©Louise Liebenberg 2021
Written for The Shepherds Magazine
People who start off with Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) are often confused why their adolescent LGD start chasing sheep, nipping legs, pulling wool, and displaying a bunch of traits that are concerning and unexpected. Why would the dog harm the animals it is supposed to protect? In this article, I am going to dig a little deeper into what motivates the naughty LGD and the instincts that can be triggered by continuing this behaviour.
Where traditionally LGD were primarily found on open ranges, in shepherded grazing flocks or large operations, many LGDs are now finding placements on smaller livestock hobby/homesteading type places. On big range operations the amount of work, other dogs, and the space they have often provides enough stimulation for a young LGD, that it is less common to see major issues with things like chasing, nipping wool pulling, ear chewing and other bad behaviour. Often, the owners are also experienced in managing LGD and this behaviour is quickly corrected.
For many people new to owning and working with LGD, this bad behaviour comes as a shock. The LGD should not hurt the livestock it is supposed to guard. When it does happen, many owners are very confused by this behaviour and are more often in disbelief that their sweet pup could harm the livestock. There are several reasons why LGD display this type of behaviour, commonly it is seen in poorly bred LGD, where generations of selection for good LGD traits have not been a priority, or among crossbreds with non LGD breeds, a herding dog crossed with a LGD is more likely to show more chase and nipping behavior. However, even well bred, well raised LGD can display this concerning behaviour and unless stopped, problems can escalate.
Young LGD often go through a naughty phase, this is normal,
however what is paramount is how the owner responds to this bad behaviour, that
will determine whether the naughty LGD will become a reliable guardian dog once
All predators (even our LGD’s) go through a learning stage to hone their hunting skills, all predators do this. All young predators play, and the type of playing they do is specific for predators. The type of playing prey animals do is different to that of predators. Kittens will stalk, ambush, pounce, and dogs wrestle, play fight, stalk, chase. Lambs learn to run in a mob, they practice jumping off and onto things and become fast and agile. Lambs might head butt and show dominance type playing but most of it is running around together in a mob.
Play hunting consists of sequential behaviours that need to be refined and practiced. The interesting part of practicing these hunting behaviours is that they are self rewarding. Because they are self rewarding, the predator is encouraged to keep doing this over and over, this repetitiveness is how the predator sharpens its skills. As the saying goes; “practice makes perfect”.
All hunting type games are exciting, for a dog fetching a ball is a “hunting game”. Herding for border collies is a derivative of the hunting sequences, and as most people know, border collies can become rather obsessive with herding and stalking balls, cats, and other dogs. It is exhilarating to do, and it stimulates the reward center in their brain.
If predators practice enough and get down to the kill part, the reward is even greater as they can consume what they caught. For the ball obsessed dog, getting the ball is the reward. This cycle is a self-perpetuating behaviour. The more they do it, the better they become and the more reward they get from doing it. Self rewarding behaviours are the hardest behaviours change. Think about how hard dieting is or quitting smoking is as these are also self rewarding behaviours! This behaviour pattern is hard to stop, even if we know it is wrong or bad, as our desire to be feel that “reward’ often overrides the knowledge that it is bad.
So, what does this have to do with our LGD? When you are a 9-month-old adolescent pup, full of energy and you want to play, the livestock might seem like great playmates. The dog may pick a weaker animal to focus all its energy on. Even a larger animal that tries to butt the young dog, becomes a fun challenge. The chasing and playing starts off innocently enough. As he plays more and rougher with the livestock it becomes even more stimulating for the dog to do. The cycle of playing becomes a self rewarding behaviour, the scary part is that after only one or two times roughhousing with the livestock this pattern of behaviour can become fairly established in the dog. The escalation in bad behaviour can go very rapidly.
LGD have a unique combination of genetic traits that
shepherds have selected for. It is an odd combination of traits, where you have
dogs selected for a low prey drive response (guardian) combined with a high
protectiveness. In most working dogs
(police, search and rescue, drug dogs, herding dogs) one selects for high prey
drive, dogs with high prey drive are easily motivated to work, the border
collie always wants to work sheep, search dogs are often rewarded by a game of
fetch the ball or a little tug-of war as this mimics the catch part of the
LGD are selected for low prey drive as we do not want the dog, who lives full time with the sheep, to be stimulated by these prey animals. This low prey drives allows for the LGD to be able to live with prey animals and not be overly stimulated by their movements or overly focused on weak, lame, or sickly animals. Predators are “triggered” to respond to these attributes. Think of a kitten who gets stimulated to chase a feather, or a falcon to grab a lure, a border collie pup that is “turned on” by the sheep running past a fence.
This low prey drive in LGD can often be seen by their lack of desire to play fetch the stick, their instinct to give chase is often not “triggered”.
Back to the problem of the naughty young dog and his
overzealous play behaviour. If this behaviour is not stopped directly and
discouraged firmly, it can trigger a prey drive response in the LGD. This low
prey drive in LGD is generally dormant, but not gone. If the naughty dog gets to play rough with the
sheep it can “awaken” this prey drive.
Combining the self rewarding behaviour and the possibility for the dog
to become more prey focused, the problem that starts off innocently enough
soon becomes a major issue where the livestock are hurt, maimed, or killed.
People often ask if a young dog that has pulled wool and chases the sheep is ruined?
It is vital that when a LGD starts to display play behaviour towards the livestock that it is stopped immediately, and the dog prevented from continuing this behaviour. Depending on how long this behaviour has continued, the severity of the roughhousing and if the dog has come to view the livestock as prey will determine if the dog is ruined or not. Signs of play behaviour are things like a play bow towards the livestock, a play bow is an invitation to play, or where the dog and animals “chase each other around”. If one can correct the play behaviour at this point, the dog will most likely grow up and become a reliable LGD. If he is eating lambs on the regular, then the prognosis becomes very poor for that dog.
On social media there are hundred of cute videos of the dog “hugging” a goat, or a dog jumping up and mouthing/ nipping the nose of a pony, the pony in turn rears up and runs away then the chase ensues between the dog and pony. The most cringe worthy is where the dog is swinging on the tail of some poor farm animal. The commentary on these videos is all look how sweet they play together.
To me, this is all bad behaviour, and it needs to be discouraged directly. The LGD should not be playing with his livestock, ever. To correct a self rewarding behaviour the punishment must override the pleasure the dog associates with that behaviour. In this case prevention is always better than curing!
To conclude, all playing is a self rewarding behaviour that perpetuates even more play behaviour. Most play behaviour is part of the of the prey- hunt sequence for predators. With LGD, this play can trigger the prey instinct in the young dog, and this can ultimately result in a dog that is no longer trustworthy with livestock as he starts to view the livestock as prey.