Training principles Part 1 and 2
©Louise Liebenberg (2023)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine
This is a long read as I included both parts 1 and 2 into one post.
I know I am guilty of suggesting to people, when they are
dealing with an unruly livestock guardian dog (LGD), to simply supervise them
more without more clarification or explanation. For many people this is a
somewhat vague term, and many do not really know what it all involves. This
article will cover some training principles and how they can be used when
dealing with a naughty LGD. There are many ways to skin a cat. Different
approaches are like having a variety of tools in the toolbox, and depending on
the problem, character of the dog and other influences, different approaches
may be needed to achieve a certain result.
There are several concepts used in the dog training world, both pet and other working breeds,
some people will only use “positive” or “force free” methods, while others use a more direct type of approach. I believe in a more blended approach and depending on what the dog is doing; one should be able to adjust the approach of training or correction, to fit the dog and situation. More about this later.
Positive or force free training simply means you reward they dog for correct behaviour. When the dog “sits”, you say sit and then reward him with a snack. You do not pull on the lead or push his butt down to the ground. You wait until he volunteers the behaviour, or a step towards the desired behaviour you want, and then reward him for that. The dog will associate the reward, the command, and the action and this will encourage the dog to learn and repeat his behaviour. It is all a positive experience for the dog. In the pet dog world this can be called clicker training, where the click is the reinforcement for a good behaviour. IN our LGD, we do this on a much larger scale. We allow them to live their lives freely among the sheep and tend to only intervene if the dog starts showing worrisome behaviour. We provide learning opportunities by bonding the dog to the sheep and facilitate his learning in this way. AS long as he does the right thing, we do not nag him or punish him.
The term “positive punishment” is where a bad thing happens to the dog, because of his (unwanted)behaviour, for example, your young LGD chases a goat, the goat turns around and butts the dog. It is a direct approach, in some circles, it is regarded as a “forceful” type of training method if you, rather than the goat, does the correcting. Instead of the goat butting him, you throw a bucket at him, and it hits him square on his bum. This will hopefully result in him connecting the dots, his chasing the goat, results in a square hit on the bum by a bucket that just fell out of the air. That was scary and not good, therefore he should not do that anymore.
A “negative punishment” is where a good thing is taken away from the dog due to his behaviour. So, for example, the dog is pawing you for attention, you can stand up, walk away, and ignore the dog. His behaviour (pawing you) resulted in you leaving which means he has lost your attention. For most dogs your attention is a reward. With LGD this is harder as the stock cannot just walk away from the dog and ignore him. However, as an owner you can take away his freedom or a bone if he is resource guarding. If he is growling at the sheep for coming to the hay feeder, you can take him away and put him in a different area. For many LGD, this form of correcting is a lot harder for them to make the connection of their behaviour and the consequence of that behaviour. It works better with high drive dogs who are either very attention motivated and less so with LGD. However, there are moments where it can be used successfully. Like jumping up against you, pawing you and other attention seeking behaviours.
“Negative reinforcement” is when bad thing goes away when the dog adjusts his behaviour. You are teaching your young LGD to accept being chained. He is pulling at the chain, hanging at the end of the chain, yelping, and having a meltdown. As soon as he lets up and takes a step forward, the pressure of the chain releases and the young dog has relief. The dog soon learns it is a lot more pleasant to just sit and wait calmly rather than fight the chain. This is a form of pressure and release used in the horse training world.
Particularly with pet dogs, the environment in which they
live, a lot of training happens under controlled circumstances and can allow
for a more positive and force-free training approach. It is rare that a pet dog
living in a flat can show behaviours that can result in the harm or injury of
other animals such as newborn lambs. When it comes to LGD it is a lot harder to
control the environment, situation, the time, and of course the behaviour of
the livestock and their interactions with the LGD. Added to this already
complex situation we are asking for behaviours which are unnatural; we are
expecting a predator to live peacefully and harmoniously with a prey animal,
and not only that, but we also want him to fight off other predators to keep
the prey safe.
With LGD, there is often minimal “training” as such, we strive instead, to mold the behaviour of the dog into what fits our expectations and needs. It may not be crucial for the young LGD to learn to sit and shake paws on command, but it is essential he shows appropriate behaviour toward the livestock. The bit of training we do tend to do, helps us to manage the dog better. I teach all my LGD to be handled for veterinary care, they can all walk nicely on a leash, they can be chained up, they will load into a stock trailer, the come (for the most part) when I call, and they are taught a few basic commands. This makes the dogs easier to handle, manage and teaches them to learn from us.
When a young dog misbehaves or is showing inappropriate
behaviour towards the livestock, it is rare that a positive only training
approach will work. The dog will need some form of punishment or correction to
override the fun and enjoyment he is having from chasing the lambs, running
them down and pulling on their wool. In
this scenario a positive punishment might be the only way to break his
attention and the correction needs to be sufficient to stop the unwanted behaviour. If the pup is in a playful mood and is
play-bowing and inviting the sheep to a game, then a verbal correction or a
well aimed bucket might be sufficient for the dog to stop this behaviour. It is on the owner to find that balance of
the “punishment should fit the crime”. If it is too mild, the dog will simply
go back to wanting to play with the lambs.
Too harsh, and the dog might never want to live with the sheep again.
If the dog is hell bent on chasing and harming the lambs, then the punishment needs to be a lot more direct, and forceful, to ensure the dog really understands that his behaviour needs to stop. The dog must be able to link the correction to his bad behaviour (you need to catch him in the act).
Preferably, you need to stop him before he does the bad behaviour, at that point where he is getting excited and thinking about it, is a good moment to remind the dog that what he is about to do is not a good idea.
It is often hard to catch a LGD before he is about to do something bad, as we generally do not eat, sleep, and live with the sheep ourselves. The time we spend with the dog and the sheep is quite limited. We often only see the results of the naughty behaviour many hours later. This is of course a huge problem in working with LGD and trying to stop problematic behaviour. We are often too late, and the dog has already entrenched bad behaviour into his mind as something ‘fun” to do. This is why we need to pay attention to all warning signs he may be exhibiting.
It is at this point that the advice is often given to supervise the dog more. People say well how can I supervise at night, or I don’t know if a lamb will be born today, so how can I supervise the dog? What does supervising even mean? Surely, they should just be good with the livestock as that is what they are bred to do. It is at this point where dogs either shot, rehomed, or spend the rest of their lives on the porch as many owners do not step up and deal with the problems the dog is exhibiting.
To answer some of these general questions. Well bred LGD do
have a high protective instinct once they are mature and if bonded to the
livestock will extend that protectiveness to the stock. Having these instincts does not mean they are
immune to normal dog adolescent behaviours. Having good instincts does not mean
they will always do the right thing. A well-bred border collie with a strong
instinct to herd, will not win the top sheepdog trials without some training
and molding. It is the human behind the dog who works with the instinct, molds,
and shapes the behaviour and provides the corrections and positive
reinforcement for good behaviour. Instinct alone, is not a guarantee for a good
behaviour. It is the foundation to build upon.
Most shepherds do not live with their sheep full time. So, if you dog is starting to show unwanted behaviour you must spend more time monitoring or spying on the dog. You need to be aware of all and any unwanted behaviour he is showing. You need to know what to look for and have a plan how to deal with this bad behaviour. If you know your teenage pup is getting to the chase phase, they you might want to spend more time in the pasture at sunup and sundown to watch his interactions and correct as needed. You need to remove weak and sick animals from the area where the young dog is living. You want to watch him during lambing and step up and correct him for interfering. If you are ready for bed and are unsure if the dog is “safe” with the stock, it is always better to either put him in a kennel in the pasture or on a zip line than allow him to potentially chase and harm the livestock while you sleep. It is always better to avoid bad habits from developing than allowing them to become entrenched and escalate. A night on a zipline is better than him killing lambs.
It may require some additional facilitation to work with a naughty young dog. You might have to build a bonding pen for the pup somewhere where you can easily see what he is doing, or place cameras where you can monitor him. Sometimes, it means moving the dog to a bigger field, or in with other livestock. If I have a young dog that looks like she is triggered by lambs bouncing and playing, this dog will be moved into the lambing barn and tied up there, so she can see lambs running and playing all day. I am “flooding” her with triggers, and preventing her from acting on those triggers. Usually, a few weeks and with controlled free time amount the lambs, she is accustomed to the lambs racing around that she ignores them. I will continue to monitor her for any signs she might be getting excited about their movements and prevented bad habits from developing.
If the dog remains too excited, I will often place her in with older livestock who do not run, play and bounce. I will allow this dog to mature more and work with her at the next lambing time. By doing this, I am giving the young dog every opportunity to learn and preventing her getting herself into trouble.
Facilitation is creating good situations to help the dog become successful, it may involve moving sheep to suit the young dog, purchasing nice kind sheep to bond with, changing pastures, setting up a zipline, kenneling her if you have no time to work with her, building a bonding pen, fixing fences to avoid escaping, making a yoke if that is what the dog requires, selling off those old ornery goats who relentless beat up a young dog. This is why LGD are not for everyone, as it takes time and effort to work through the rough stages and some dogs can be so determined and single-minded, that it can be exasperating to work with.
Avoiding situations where a dog can make big mistakes is the basis for working with young LGD. Timing and consequential corrections are key elements to all dog training, no matter the breed or the job.