There are a lot of different aspects to training a livestock guardian dog, any animal really. What people don’t stop to think about is how what they teach translates into the real world.
This fact was brought home to me recently with a new foster, not an LGD but a cattle dog. She is an owner surrender. She didn’t work out in their environment — much like any working breed, cattle dogs need to be sold based on the individual. My initial evaluation sparked controversy. Lack of skills does not equal lack of love, but lack of responsibility.
Join me on a little side trip about training, in general, and how its effects trickle down when the animal “doesn’t work out.”
At 1 year old, this cattle dog knows how to sit. She knows “down,” if you have a treat and if you can move at the speed of light, because she isn’t going to hold that position long enough to say “good job.” She also spent a lot of time tethered outside. I was informed by the neighbor that every day when she came out, the dog would bark, and she would walk over and pet her. To these people, it meant she was loved. In reality, it means whenever she sees a human she will bark non stop, because she has always been rewarded for this behavior.
They also taught her to touch, which, in and of itself, is not a bad command. I’ve had dogs who could open and shut doors and turn lights off and on. Without any kind of rules or structure, however, she simply puts her feet on everything, in the hopes of getting a treat.
None of these things have helped her make the transition to a new home. Her inability to communicate effectively leaves her guessing at what the answers might be. Bark and put your feet on it are her go-to answers. I am working on setting up a new foundation, undoing her previous conditioning and giving her tools to help her, going forward.
I see these kinds of situations quite a bit with animals that come here to be fostered. It’s cute right up until it isn’t. I knew a lady who taught her horse how to count. Really, she taught him to paw the floor and get a treat. It got so bad they had to put special shoes on him to stop him from wearing down his toe.
When it comes to training livestock guardian dogs, I always do it as a part of life. I find that if I can relate it to something that makes sense to them, where they can see the need or usefulness, the concept is more easily grasped and maintained. The guarding portion of their job should be pure instinct, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need good manners.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching animals fun things. I’m pretty sure most intelligent animals view a lot of basic obedience as just one more “trick” anyway.
The most important aspect of obedience should be about setting up a foundation for communication with the animal, not about “Pavlovian conditioning.” Whether it’s a dog that jumps, a horse that cribs or a goat that climbs on vehicles, what we owe the animals in our care goes beyond the simple basics of food and shelter. It is the ability to succeed, should they ever need to do it without us.
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