Let’s face it. Training is really about the human, not the animal. We humans like things to be easy, and we’ll let a situation or behavior slide, because it’s working. I call it the “human condition.” But easy doesn’t equate to correct. It works right up until it doesn’t. Often, like a bad relationship, it starts out with small things. Little behaviors that are just outside the bounds of the rules we had originally set.
Contrary to popular belief, livestock guardian dogs don’t start out wandering 10 miles away. It starts with the little puppy, who squeezes under the fence from one pen to another.
We let it go. It was only from the buck pen into the doe pen, and he didn’t bother any of the animals. We tell people how cute he is for wanting to check on all his “charges” at such a young age and what a great guardian he’s going to be when he grows up. Six months later, that same puppy has a tunnel system under the fences, going from the doe pen to the buck pen, in with the yearlings, and out into the front yard.
We put rocks in the holes to keep the goats in their pens where they belong, but he’s got a new one dug in a matter of days — until the bottom of the fences are a hodgepodge of rocks, old boards and scraps of wire. People remark about his diligence in protecting the entire property, instead of just the goats.
Hither and yon
By a year old, he’s realized digging holes and squeezing through fences is a lot like work. At this age, it’s easier to just jump over. Now, he’s patrolling the rear hay fields, and occasionally chasing coyotes through the neighbor’s cow pastures. We’re proud that he’s making sure everyone’s animals are safe. He’s just so driven to work.
It is usually somewhere around this stage that we start to get some inkling that there’s a problem. He can’t protect our stock, if he isn’t home, and the quest to contain him begins. We hot wire top and bottom on all fence lines. Gates get wired — and a neck yoke is even employed in an attempt to keep him home. There is discussion about not properly bonding with his charges, having bad genetics and even the possibility of too much human contact.
In reality, it has nothing to do with any of those things. It started with us, the “human condition.” We let that first transgression slide. That first perimeter breach started the ball rolling on a string of behaviors that we see come to the ultimate conclusion again and again. The dog is rehomed to a farm “with more room” or, worse, winds up dead in the road. This scenario and chain of events can be applied to many behaviors, across multiple disciplines and species.
Very few of my private training sessions are puppy training. Most of them are spent undoing behaviors that would have been much easier to trouble shoot when they were first exhibited. Now, they are habits, and we have to work twice as hard to unlearn them before we can learn what the proper behavior is.
The major difference between the world of pets and the world of livestock guardians is that the behaviors and habits created by a lack of training become accepted “traits.”
A German shepherd that jumps fences and runs the neighborhood is “untrained” but a Great Pyrenees doing the same thing is acceptable — “It’s just what they do.” In reality, the two situations are exactly the same. All because it worked right up until it didn’t.
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