Debunking the "Shepherd Way" Myth of Training Livestock Guardian Dogs - Science Versus Social Media Gurus
The other day I posted a cute photo of one of my 8 week old Maremma puppies (these puppies but not this photo) with my goats. It was just a chance photo I caught and it was cute, so I did a quick IG/FB post, captioning it "Where an 8 Week Old LGD Puppy Belongs". I took it a step further and shared it on a few LGD groups. As I was doing so I was already deciding that this needed to be a blog post because the topic was too in-depth for just a social media post. So I started working on the blog post but went ahead and put the "readers' digest condensed version" on social media. Here is the post:
As expected I got immediate push-back on Facebook. Most people agreed with me but a couple didn't. Here are some of the comments I received. Instead of getting into a Facebook war I decided to address the concerns here:
Comment: "The way you phrased it, every LGD puppy belongs in with the livestock, even if they just got picked up by their next owner at eight weeks."
Reply: I hear over and over that it's "unsafe" for an 8 week old puppy to be alone in a barn. And of course I agree 100% with this. Where an 8 week old puppy belongs is in the breeder's barn or pastures with its parents, litter-mates and/or other mentor dogs, and with livestock, not with an inexperienced new owner, especially if this is a single puppy, being placed without either a partner or a mentor dog. The answer to this issue is simple. Don't buy puppies from breeders who send their pups home at 8 weeks old. Don't enable this lazy and irresponsible style of dog breeding and puppy rearing.
I plan to write an entire post about this topic but the answer is that in most cases 8 weeks is too young for LGD puppies to go to new homes. Most LGD puppies are bought by first time owners who have no clue how to either properly socialize a puppy to livestock or how to keep the puppy safe and supported while doing so. Having the puppy stay in training with the breeder a few more weeks can make a huge difference both in the success of the puppy as a LGD and in its safety when it is brought home.
These 8 week old puppies are still babies. Their place is here, on my farm, with their litter mates and learning from their parents and other mentor dogs as well as my experienced puppy trainer livestock for at least a month or two more.
As the pups grow we utilize other dogs besides their dams as puppy mentors. We are very careful to only choose dogs that are patient and gentle with the puppies and do not encourage or allow our dogs to "correct" the puppies. Puppies who are treated harshly by adult dogs can become aggressive or fearful and neither makes a safe and trustworthy LGD.
The Real "Backyard Breeders"
Of course if the breeder isn't properly socializing the puppies to livestock in the first place then you're better off bringing home that puppy ASAP, if you are determined to buy from that kind of breeder. (I don't recommend it.) Cindy Benson wrote an excellent blog post about that titled "The Age of Placement for Pups Depends on Who is Doing the Training". That's a must read post!
There's a lot of criticism for "Backyard Breeders" out there. Usually this refers to breeders who are raising unhealthy, uncared for puppies from poor quality breeding stock, but often times the term is used as a weapon by breeders to judge other breeders. In my opinion the real "backyard breeders" are the people raising Livestock Guardian Dog puppies in their backyard (or in their home) instead of with livestock. If the breeder is raising their puppies in their home, backyard or on the patio then it's best to get that puppy home and with your stock ASAP.
But the REAL answer is not to buy from these "Backyard Breeders" in the first place, because even by 8 weeks old you have lost at least 3-4 weeks of vital socialization time with livestock and to be perfectly honest your puppy will never be the same as a puppy who was "raised in a barn". Puppies have critical developmental periods and where your pup spends even the first 8 weeks makes a huge difference in how they turn out. Breeders who raised their LGD puppies like companion dogs either don't understand puppy development or don't care about the impact it has on the future of the dog and the stock it's intended to guard. Ignorance or apathy, it doesn't much matter. Do yourself a favor and just say no to Backyard LGD Breeders.
Comment: "...if they are going to new homes, once they get there they need to spend time in the house to bond with their shepherd, learn how to behave in a house, how to ride in a car, walk on leash, and a whole lot of other things that will make them much better rounded LGD in the long run.
Reply: I totally agree that LGD puppies need to be exposed to experiences and skills that will make them well-rounded dogs (leash walking, exposure to lots of sights, sounds and people), and these experiences should be started by the breeder during their critical learning period, in the first 12-16 weeks. The more things the puppy is exposed to during this time the more well-rounded and resilient they will be. Again, waiting until the puppy goes to their new home is not going to be as effective as having the breeder do it, because by that point the Critical Socialization Period is ending.
Just simply housing the puppies in a stall in the barn (or on a patio or in a house or yard) with no mental stimulation is not good enough. The puppy will be mentally and emotionally stunted and may suffer from all kinds of problems as adults, including aggression and fear, both of which are unsuitable in a LGD. If you instead buy a puppy from a breeder who uses a comprehensive puppy socialization plan like Puppy Culture, in addition to an intensive livestock socialization plan, your puppy will be well-prepared for its future as a LGD and as a well-rounded, stable dog and part of your family.
Debunking "The Shepherd Way" Myth
Spend any time on LGD groups on Facebook and you'll likely encounter the "Shepherd Way of LGD Training" method. This ridiculous theory is heavily promoted on social media by self-described "experts" with no actual training or experience with LGD's. (What professional dog training or behavior courses have they taken? What scientific documents or books have they read? What is their experience with dogs in general and LGD's in particular? Are they a breeder or trainer of LGD's? If they are a breeder how long have they bred LGD's and how many puppies have they successfully placed in working homes?)
These "experts" make the claim that shepherds spent hours a day intensively interacting with and training their LGD's and overseeing their interactions with the flocks. So Livestock Guardian Dogs are independent natured because they historically spent so much time alone with the stock but they also spent every waking minute with the "shepherd"?! That is what we call and oxymoron.
Maybe these people are confusing herding dogs with LGD's but if there's evidence for this "Shepherd Way Theory" I haven't found it. And that idea is refuted in this National Geographic video on Maremmas, where the "shepherd" clearly states that the dogs, for the most part, take the sheep out all day long, by themselves, and then watch them all night, by themselves. The shepherds mainly see them in the morning before the animals go out to pasture and when the dogs bring the sheep back in for the night. No snuggling on the couch in front of the TV for these dogs. The point of LGD's is that they can and do work largely independently. (This video, by the way, was made by the uncle of the breeder of Pegaso, our imported Italian dog.)
Even if ancient Shepherds did spend hours a day interacting with and supervising their dogs those shepherds and dogs lived out on the open range with the sheep. They didn't live in warm, cozy houses with cable TV and internet. You can't take an old world, ancient way of managing LGD's and just plunk it down in our modern world and expect the results to be the same. Sitting on the couch watching TV with your LGD puppy for hours a day and then taking them out to do the farm chores for 30 minutes to and hour, or even a couple of hours, is not going to be enough to train that puppy how to be a Livestock Guardian Dog. You are training it to be a companion dog. Which is fine if you want a companion dog, but not if you need a LGD.
Yes there are adaptations and compromises that have to be made in order to keep a puppy safe while also ensuring the proper early socialization with stock, but if someone wants to be the "shepherd" to their LGD puppy the answer is NOT turning the puppy into a couch potato with token "livestock exposure" for an hour or so out of a 24 hour day. The answer is for a safe place to be made for the puppy in the barn or pasture so the puppy can be properly immersed with the livestock and for the "shepherd" to get outside and spend more time with the puppy, in their natural LGD setting. And for the puppy to have a working LGD partner or mentor, (or both) too.
The Best Place to Get Advice is From Real Experts
If you want to hear from an actual expert on Livestock Guardian Dogs you should read some of the books on the subject by Raymond Coppinger, professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, and his associates. In 1976, Ray and his wife Lorna founded the Livestock Guarding Dog Project at Hampshire College, where he conducted a long-term study of LGD's involving Maremma Sheepdogs as well as other breeds. For ten years the Coppingers compiled data from over 1,400 dogs in research that is still the single largest, long term study of LGDs in the world. They actually started a Maremma Sheepdog registry that predates the MSCA and many Maremmas in the United States are descended from dogs that were imported for the project.
Here's a quote from the Hampshire College website on Coppingers' work: "This long-term investigation into the behavior of a new kind of dog for farmers and ranchers in the United States has resulted in greater understanding of early developmental behavior of dogs, and how early experience (or lack of it) can affect adult behavior."
I don't know about you but I would rather get my LGD advice from real scientists and experts on the subject than from people on social media with no actual credentials, training, education or experience in the field.
"However, if you don't raise that set of genes in the proper environment, you won't get a good working dog either. Our experimental work has shown that there is a specific environment in which a livestock dog needs to be raised. If you don't raise the dog in that setting, you ruin its future as a livestock guardian dog. Not only do you ruin it for the moment, but there is no going back and correcting the mistake.
~"How Dogs Work" Raymond Coppinger & Mark Feinstein
Nature Versus Nurture
Comment: "Dogs with good breeding will learn from you modeling the desired behavior, because that’s how they’ve been raised for centuries"
Reply: Another non-science comment. First of all, dogs don't mimic the behavior of humans, or of other species. To a degree they mimic other dogs but even that is minimal. If it weren't then all I would need to do would be to pair one of my excellent adult LGD's with my puppies and juvenile dogs and the training would be done for me. I wish!
And no matter how much I pet my goats and tell the dogs "nice goat" it doesn't stop the chasing. Dogs don't do what they do to please us or because they love us. They do what their instincts, developmental stages and environments dictate. In order to stop the chasing the environment needs to be matched to their developmental stage (appropriate stock and conditions) and conducive to getting the behavior I want. And they need to be rewarded for the behavior that's desired to encourage more of it.
As far as the assertion that dogs with good breeding will naturally figure things out by curling up on the couch and watching TV, that is pure hogwash, not at all "how they've been raised for centuries" and not scientific at all. Again, in the words of an actual expert:
One of the greatest difficulties we have with dog breeders is that they believe their dogs' behavior is entirely hardwired and therefore inevitable - all you have to do is buy a livestock guardian dog and it will guard your sheep from predators. We ethologists, who otherwise agree that genetic hardwiring is a crucial dimension of behavior, find ourselves frustratingly saying, over and over, that farmers also have to pay attention to the developmental context: if you don't raise the dog in the proper environment, you ruin it's adult working performance. It's the nature-nurture conundrum all over again."
~"How Dogs Work" Raymond Coppinger & Mark Feinstein
And I for one prefer science over urban legends. What about you?
To learn more about Raymond Coppinger, his writings and his work with LGD's and this important topic, please read the blog post below by Cindy Benson. (Another actual expert on LGD's in general and Maremmas in particular.)
**Disclosure - I am one of the Admins on a Maremma Sheepdog training and discussions Facebook group called Maremma Sheepdog Open Forum so maybe it seems a bit ironic that I am warning people to not get their training advice on Facebook. However our group is science based and run by people with real training and experience with the breed. The admins all have businesses as Maremma breeders and/or trainers and have invested in professional training and education on the breed and on dog training and behavior. We have our own websites and blogs where we do most of our writing about the breed, with social media used as a way to educate and encourage those who love the breed, but not as our main or only platform. We do not allow the promoting of unscientific claims or urban legends on our group or anything that harms or endangers dogs. Our mission is to make the world a better and safer place for Maremmas, their owners and the livestock they guard through true education and encouragement. Our group is the only place on Facebook I recommend for training advice.
**I posted this on Facebook and as usual, got some pushback from people. There were a few comments as well as a long private conversation I had with someone today about the post so I wanted to clarify something that came up. When I refer to “The Shepherd Way” it has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with how real shepherds in Italy managed their dogs or still do. What I am referring to is Americans who cherry pick aspects of what I have been told Italian shepherds did/do without doing the whole thing.
For instance, I was told that Italian shepherds basically have house/barns, where the dogs can come and go freely between the part where the animals live and wher the humans live. I do not know if that's true but if it is that is nothing like what I see advocated on social media because most Americans don't have that kind of set-up. Do YOU have a barn attached to your house?
What’s more I don't think most Americans live anything like the ancient or even modern Italian shepherds did/do. Again, I don't know, but I would guess shepherds did and do spend hours a day outdoors with their dogs and stock. Most Americans spend the majority of their hours indoors, in front of some kind of screen, with very small amounts of time outdoors, even if they have a farm or homestead. And most people with farms have an off farm job. So where is this house puppy while the “shepherd” is at work?
My point is not that the real “shepherd way”, whatever that really is, doesn't work. I have great respect for these real shepherds. I just don't believe that's what is being promoted by most people who advocate this on social media. From my conversations and observations on these groups I only see people telling other people to “bring the puppy inside and be the shepherd” without clarifying or teaching them how to really do that. And that is what I have a problem with. I love real shepherds. Fake ones not so much.
And I also do not have a problem if people want to allow their LGD’s in the house. I still believe they should spend the majority of their time outside with the stock, but I doubt a visit to the house now and then will ruin a well started dog. (An improperly started one is another matter entirely.) I have clients who allow their pups in the house and I support their right to manage their pups as they see fit. My dogs might visit my house if I had a different set up. But my house is 300’ from my barn, with an unfenced area between them. I couldn’t have my dogs come in my house without putting them on a leash and walking them over, and if I did the animals would be unprotected. But if you want to bring your Maremma in your house more power to you!
Did you know that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends ONLY reward based training and is 100% against aversive training methods? Why? Because veterinarians are SCIENTISTS and SCIENCE supports positive training. It’s not only about what works or what’s “fast and easy”, it’s about what’s scientifically and ethically in the best interest of the dog. Here are just a couple of quotes from the AVSAB position paper on dog training:
“Evidence supports the use of reward based methods for all canine training. AVSAB promotes interactions with animals based on compassion, respect, and scientific evidence. Based on these factors, reward-based learning offers the most advantages and least harm to the learner’s welfare. Research supports the efficacy of reward-based training to address unwant-ed and challenging behaviors. There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification."
From The AVSAB FAQ's
“What techniques should be avoided in training?
An appropriate trainer should avoid any use of training tools that involve pain (choke chains, prong collars, or electronic shock collars), intimidation (squirt bottles, shaker noise cans, compressed air cans, shouting, staring, or forceful manipulation such as “alpha rolls” or “dominance downs”), physical correction techniques
(leash jerking, physical force), or flooding (“exposure”). The learner must always feel safe and have the ability to “opt out” of training sessions. All efforts should be made to communicate effectively and respectfully with the learner.
Why should aversive training techniques be avoided?
The consequences and fallout from aversive training methods have been proven and are well documented. These include increased anxiety and fear-related aggression, avoidance, and learned helplessness. Animals may be less motivated to engage in training and less likely to interact with human members of the household.”
We agree with the experts at AVSAB. At Prancing Pony Farm we are Positive Reinforcement Trainers and only use reward based training with our Maremma Sheepdog adults and puppies. We are so committed to seeing our puppies treated humanely that we put it in our puppy contract that all our puppy owners sign. The use of aversive training methods such as shock collars, choke chains, dangle sticks and other punishment based training methods is prohibited.
To read the complete document from the AVSAB see the link below:
Monday, August 8th, 2022, was my first day at the Training For Professionals: Across Species course at the Karen Pryor National Training Center (The Ranch) in Washington state. I attended this course with my good friend, Cindy Benso, of Benson Maremmas, who was taking the course for the second or third time. The weather was nice enough that most of the lectures and videos could be held outdoors on the deck, with the beautiful view of the pastures and barn with Mount Rainier (sometimes) visible in the distance. This was a great environment to learn in with breaks in the morning and afternoon for live animal demos and hands on animal training practice. Lunch, snacks and drinks were also served every day, with dinner three of the five nights, as well. Considering everything that is included in this course and the sheer breadth and depth of the learning it was well worth the $1200 price tag for the 5 day course. And the entire course and trip is a tax deductible business expense!
On the way out to the barn for our first animal sessions we were greeted by the Alpacas and Llama. While they don't like to be touched they are very curious and came up quite close to get a look at the new students!
Our first live animal demo was a Goat Training Demo given by Ken Ramirez, starring Kelpie.
Monday afternoon we had our first try at Goat Training. I was assigned Corgi, a Nigerian Dwarf wether who is very smart and was usually waiting for me on his training pedestal when I arrived. Corgi already knows a lot of skills but I quickly discovered that I needed to keep moving at a fast pace and keep things interesting so he wouldn't decide to wander off!
The first day ended around 6 or 6:30 PM. It was a long day but we covered a lot of ground and learned a lot. By the time we got back to the hotel we were ready to crash!
Training for Professionals: Across Species at the Karen Pryor Academy National Training Center (The Ranch) in Washington State
I have just spent the last week (August 8-12, 2022) enjoying a "working vacation" (tax deduction, yay!) at the Karen Pryor Academy National Training Center (The Ranch) in Washington State, where I attended the Training for Professionals: Across Species course with my good friend, Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas Training, and 11 other students. It was a wonderful week filled with hands on training sessions and live demos with various types of animals, in class lectures, videos and much more. I myself worked with goats, mini donkeys and alpacas and saw demos with those animals as well as dogs.
There were students from as far away as Colombia and Hawaii. Among the students were dog trainers and breeders and trainers that work with marine mammals, zoo animals and even chickens! Besides the coursework itself it was very educational just talking with all the students about what it's like working with these various species. It was also a very positive, encouraging and uplifting environment for humans with everyone supporting and inspiring each other to learn and grow in their skills so we can all go out and make a better world for animals and humans.
Before I was even halfway through the course my wheels were spinning with ideas I could implement at home, especially with my goats, which I had always wanted to clicker train but hadn't tried. While working with my training partner, Corgi, a Nigerian Dwarf wether, I quickly saw the value of using dog training platforms to train goats and I went back to my hotel and ordered 6 of them from Blue-9 Training to use with my goats and Maremma puppies. They arrived before I even got home so I will be setting them up and trying them out ASAP.
Previously to going to this course I had never been north of California so being able to visit Washington as well as Oregon was a wonderful experience, especially in August when the California Central Valley, where I live, is an oven!
What a great view for class. If you look in the photo on the right you can see Mount Rainier in the background. We got to see that view whenever the conditions were right and it's breathtaking!
Back in April I began going through a premeditated and relentless attack on my business from a group of several people including competitors and other individuals. I love what I do and have worked very hard to get where I am so this experience was extremely difficult and caused me extreme stress and severe PTSD symptoms. Eventually I had to hire an attorney to help me fight these people but even with my attorney it was a very hard battle that I often felt I would never win. It was truly the most difficult experience I’ve ever been through, and I am a cancer survivor so that’s saying a lot. (At least cancer isn’t personal.) During the middle of this experience my good friend, Cindy Benson, encouraged me sign up to attend the Across All Species clicker training course at the Karen Pryor Academy Ranch in Washington, with her. The course would be held in August so the timing was perfect, as kidding season was over and I had no young puppies to care for. It would be a great way to further my education with training my Maremma Sheepdogs as well as my dairy goats. I had long been interested in learning to clicker train goats but I'd never really tried it. This course would be focusing on all different types of animals but the main practice would be goats, so I knew it would be perfect for me. I really wanted to attend but I was concerned that I should not invest the money in this course, in case I needed the money for legal fees. The course itself was $1200 and there would be airfare, hotels and a lot of other expenses. So although I really wanted to take the course I was very torn. In June I received an email from Cindy, in which she "pestered me" in her words, to attend the course. She reminded me that this course was being held at a perfect time for me and that might not happen again because it is not always held at the same time every year, and it's not often that things line up so well for me to be able to get away from the farm. Then she told me about a similar circumstance she had been in where she was going through a tough situation and was having trouble deciding whether to attend the KPA Professionals Course or not. She said that she thought about it and there were two things that she decided:
1.She needed the distraction. 2. She refused to have her goals be a casualty of her situation. She told me that she fought HARD for every shred of that coursework and looking back, it means more to her to have earned that certification because of it.
What she said really struck me. I knew that I DEFINITELY needed the distraction and that, despite what I was going through, I had to put my animals' needs, my education, my business and my mental health first. Like Cindy, I had goals to improve my skills and knowledge as a trainer so that I could better serve my animals and my customers and I was NOT going to let anyone stop me from achieving those goals. I had to step out in faith, spend the money to go to this course and let the other stuff take care of itself.
So off I went to the beautiful state of Washington, where I have never been. Some of my "issues" were still going on as I was leaving on the plane to fly out, and some of them were still going on while I was there. I really had to fight to keep my focus on being in this course and not letting these other distractions ruin what I was there to do. It was not easy, I will tell you that. I had turned off commenting on my blog before I left home, to prevent further attacks there and so I wouldn't be compelled to reply. But staying off of social media in the evenings was super hard and I didn't always manage it. But every day I went to class and was surrounded by people who live to train animals in positive and kind ways. Not only was I learning how to train through hands-on training with all different types of animals, demonstrations on different types of animals and in-class instruction and videos, but I myself was being immersed in a positive reinforcement environment. Everyone there was encouraging and kind and truly focused on not only helping animals but on helping each other. There were people from all walks of life, different parts of the country as well as out of the country. People from different backgrounds. Dog trainers, people who work with sea mammals and zoo animals, people who train chickens, dog breeders, doggy daycare owners and all different kinds of people. What we had in common was our love of animals and dedication to helping them and the people who care about them. Thirteen students and several instructors and assistants together for 10-12 hours a day, for 5 days in a row and no drama whatsoever. The longer I was in that environment the more I began focusing on what really matters, instead of worrying about this other stuff. I began to get excited about all I was learning and all the ways I could see myself implementing what I was learning into my breeding and training program (dogs and goats) as well as ways I could help my customers and others learn how to be more successful with training and communicating with their animals. By the time the last day of class came to an end I was more excited and optimistic than I've been in months.
On Saturday I drove with Cindy to visit her ranch in Oregon (another state I’d never been to) on the way back from WA. On the drive I told her that I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I had not let her "pester" me into taking this course I would still be immersed in all that other drama and stress, in a bad place and not able to get out. She had been absolutely right. I had NEEDED this course, in more ways than one, and like Cindy, refusing to let my goals be a casualty of my situation will pay off, big time. And I will value what I learned even more because of what I had to go through to get here and because of how hard I had to work to stay focused.
I spent Saturday afternoon visiting Cindy's beautiful 360 acre Oregon ranch. I met every single one of her 27 Maremmas, meaning I petted, talked to and spent time with each and every one of them. Twenty-seven Maremmas! Twenty-seven smiling "White Dogs", as Cindy calls them. I also visited her companion dogs as well as the three Maremmas and several other dogs owned by our friend, Kathy, who we visited on the way to Cindy's. It was a day filled with dogs, as well as goats (including several of my Mini Nubian wethers that I had given Cindy a few months ago), mini donkeys, mini cows, mules, horses, ponies and sheep. It was a great day and a great ending to a great week! And tomorrow I'll fly back home to California where all my smiling Maremmas, goats, horses, companion dogs and other animals will be waiting for me, along with my family and friends. And I'll go forth and use what I learned this week, as well as my newfound focus, to make the world a better place for all of them.
Me with my training partner, Corgi, on the last day of the course. I learned so much working with this smart little guy and can’t wait to implement what I learned with my own goats! I already have 6 training platforms waiting for me at home, to use with my goats and dogs, because as soon as I used one with Corgi I knew they would be invaluable tools for training my animals. Of course I ordered purple! 💜
Me getting a Maremma fix with Hannah and Milan, two of Cindy’s wonderful dogs. Milan (the one who climbed on the table with me) is the sire of two of my dogs, Marisa and Pax, so getting to meet him as well as all of my Benson Ranch dogs’ parents was so great. 💜
Author Hi I'm Kim. I love all animals but goats and dogs are my favorites so I built a business around them, breeding miniature dairy goats and Maremma Sheepdogs. I love sharing my passion and knowelege of these amazing creatures with others.