When training livestock guardian dogs, keep an open mind

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livestock guardian dog puppy and goats
Reina, at 4 months old, marches to the beat of her own drum. Case in point, while being photographed, she waded into the pasture and started eating the forage, just like the goats would. Of course, she did. (Courtesy of Farei Kennels)

I remember a story my mother used to tell us, about a family getting together for Easter dinner. A young girl watches her mother prepare the ham for baking. She cuts a thick slab off the end before placing the ham in the pan and putting it in the oven. The young girl asks why she does this, to which the mother replies, “That’s what my mother always did.”

So, the young girl finds her grandmother, asks her why and gets the same answer, “That’s the way my mother did it.” Intrigued, the young girl goes out on the sun porch and asks her great grandmother why they trim a large slice off the ham before baking it. Her great grandmother explains that when she was young and first starting out, the pan she had was only this big.

Open mind

I don’t know where the story came from, but I find it often comes to mind when I’m troubleshooting something on the farm. I find it beneficial to determine how I started doing something a particular way when deciding if it works for me. I think a big part of success in any endeavor is keeping an open mind about how to accomplish a particular goal.

It’s the same with dog training. They are all unique individuals. Remember those two puppies I talked about last month? They are growing like weeds and not all of it is physical. The older they get, the more apparent the differences in their personalities becomes.

Allanon is the quintessential livestock guardian dog. He’s stoic, serious, dignified and calm. Reina handles things in a much different manner. Her quirky outlook on life and her environment sometimes has me shaking my head and laughing at the same time. She has an enthusiasm for doing what you asked — but it’s going to be in her own way.

Reasoning skills

If you’ve never owned a livestock guardian, let me explain further. While they are often labeled as too independent for training, that isn’t actually true. They simply require different, more complex reasons for performing a behavior than your average pet.

While pets were bred for obedience, livestock guardian dogs were bred with more dynamic reasoning skills, in order to do a job when their owner is absent. Setting up solid communication and providing them with an understandable purpose behind a request is often enough to get cooperation. It will simply be done at their speed.

Don’t expect border collie responses. You won’t get them. But don’t let that hinder your expectations. It’s simply that they are different. For example, my cattle dog and a livestock guardian dog are both at the other end of the field. When I holler, they both respond immediately, and they are both “coming.” The cattle dog gets there at the speed of light and the livestock guardian dog at a dignified amble, but their trajectory is the same, straight and true.

Different drum

Reina is an odd combination of the two. I’m finding that she often has a different response to the training methods I have used with previous generations of livestock guardian dogs. She is not disobedient by any means, and will happily do as I ask, her way.

At approximately 4 months old, her recall skills are pretty solid, and she typically comes with all of the enthusiasm her gangly legs and overly large feet can manage. But, again, it’s going to be her way. She might go the long way around, because that is the path we typically take when moving from point A to point B. She might pause to bring whatever stick or pine cone she was playing with along for the trip. But she gets there.

She is also a very caring soul. She goes out of her way to check in with members of the flocks and herds, occasionally looking dejected when the newest goats aren’t sure of her.

Most recently, my oldest stud, Colter, was neutered and retired from breeding. He is currently in the house while he heals, and his tolerance for puppy antics is uncharacteristically low. When confronted with a growl, Allanon simply moved away and laid down quietly. But Reina was not so easily daunted — and proceeded to bring him all of the things she liked to play with, in an attempt to improve the situation.

I imagine her thought process went something like this: “Hi, you seem kind of grumpy. Would you like a piece of cardboard to chew on? How about one of Mom’s sneakers? Just don’t let her catch you. Are you thirsty? Here are your dishes. I spill my water a lot and get thirsty sometimes. Here is Mom’s back massage thingy. It’s fun to roll around. Don’t actually chew on it though. Mom threw a sneaker at me.”

Colter was unimpressed when presented with her favorite things, but one has to admire the enthusiasm and sunny confidence in her ability to make things better.

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