As 2017 came to a close, I acquired a two-year-old female Maremma sheepdog named Tulip. The Maremma is a livestock-guarding dog, often referred to as an LGD. These dogs were first brought to the United States in the 1970s; they have been used as LGD in the mountains of central Italy for hundreds of years. As there are coyotes in the forest surrounding The Ranch, felt that a guardian dog would be the best way to deter predators.
Originally, I had planned to get two puppies, raising and training them myself. However, Tulip was available. She needed a new home, and she was already trained. When I teach students new concepts, I prefer using well-trained animals. I find that working with an experienced animal sets the student up for success; otherwise, the student and the animal are both trying to learn at the same time and neither is set up for the best learning experience. Since I was new to livestock guarding dogs and had a lot to learn, I realized that starting out with an experienced dog would be a good first step for me. Tulip could help protect the animals at The Ranch and be my teacher at the same time. I have already learned so much in the few weeks I have worked with Tulip.
When my dog’s breeder taught me how to handle and train Tulip, her descriptions and stories were far from scientific. She said things like, “The Maremma is a proud dog and an independent thinker,” or “the dog must feel as if the herd she is guarding is hers, not yours, if you want her to be successful.” She reminded me of my Uncle Sam who used similar descriptions to explain how he worked with his herding dogs on his ranch in New Mexico. As a trainer who tries to avoid labels, I listen to the ranchers’/breeders’ wisdom and “translate” it to myself in ways that align with my understanding of animal behavior.
Two statements I hear and read often are that the Maremma dogs must “feel that they are in charge and that the herd is theirs,” and that I must “allow them to make their own decisions as often as possible; they are independent thinkers.” I believe these statements point to the fact that much of the work that these dogs do is instinctive; they are reacting to the environment and behaving in ways that come naturally to them. Their cues and their reinforcers come from the environment around them—not from the handlers. If we are not careful, we can interfere with the innate behaviors of these dogs.
Livestock guarding dogs are territorial, and they are protective of what they believe is theirs. The “resource-guarding” that we find so unacceptable in most dogs is exactly what we desire in a guardian dog. LGD are reinforced by seeing outsiders and predators leave when they bark. Ranchers who are instructed to let the dogs “feel that they are in charge” are less likely to discipline nuisance behaviors and lower the dogs’ confidence. A confident dog bred for territorial aggression will claim more territory than an insecure dog. Ranchers who are instructed to let the dogs “feel that the herd is theirs” will have the dogs sleep with the herd, establishing the dogs’ territory.
The belief that these dogs should be allowed to “make their own decisions” also highlights the fact that “control” is a powerful reinforcer for all animals (and humans). When an animal has the freedom to control its environment, and, most importantly, control outcomes (reinforcers and punishers), you have a highly motivated, confident learner, and one that is more likely to stand up to an intruder.
Another piece of advice that seemed odd to me at first was, “they cannot be taught basic obedience skills like sit, down, and heel—ever.” LGD handlers feel strongly that training basic obedience will ruin the dog as a livestock guarding dog.
Tulip positions herself between her herd and agroup of elk that had wandered out of the forest.
This idea seemed hard for me to believe at first, and I am not sure exactly what behavioral truths are behind it. But after watching these dogs work, I think that perhaps this idea also ties in to how critical it is that the dogs be focused on the environment. Cues for what to do are coming from the field, the forest, the street, and the herd—not from the trainer. Perhaps a herding dog that is too interested in people as a source of reinforcement will focus less on its environment, or sleep less during the day and be tired at night when the guarding work is required. Perhaps training will make the dog too friendly to strangers, or, if the training is aversive, cause the dog to be less confident and less territorial. I wonder.
I plan to teach Tulip a recall and a few other behaviors as they become necessary, but I am in no rush to do so. I will be careful about the context in which I train new behaviors that are not related to her role as a livestock guarding dog. I feel certain that this can be done, but I also recognize that I have a great deal to learn. I will not be cavalier about going against the instructions from the experienced LGD handlers who have been so generous with their advice. After all, ranchers, farmers, and shepherds have been working with guardian dogs for centuries. Although they are not usually schooled in the science of training, they have developed techniques that have proven very successful for teaching Maremmas.
Despite asserting that the dogs must make their own decisions and humans should not interfere, LGD trainers emphasize the importance of not allowing the dogs to learn bad habits, such as chasing the livestock they are supposed to protect or not allowing you or other peoples who work with the livestock to come into the pasture. I was told, “if they misbehave, reprimand them immediately, then praise them when they comply because they can be very sensitive.” At first, I was a bit alarmed by these instructions until I watched the way one of the trainers handled that very situation. One of the dogs began chasing a donkey, so the trainer called the dog’s name and stepped in between the dog and the donkey. The dog veered off and returned to the trainer, and the trainer immediately began praising and petting the dog. In essence, the trainer redirected her to a more appropriate behavior and then reinforced that desirable response. I have used this redirection technique most of my career, but I would never have recognized it from the original description.
My time with Tulip has just begun and my perspectives and thoughts about her training will certainly evolve. The coming year will be a new opportunity for me to further explore how far I can take my partnership with a wonderful animal like Tulip.
I am sure that Tulip will be teaching me far more than I will be teaching her. I promise to keep you informed about her progress and about all that Tulip and I learn together