Will My Dog's Behavior Improve? What are Critical Learning Periods in Puppies, Why do They Matter, and What Should you do if You've Missed Them?
An 8 week old maremma puppy snuggling with a baby goat. Both animals are right at home and well bonded, as they should be.
I am an admin on Maremma Sheepdog Open Forum, a Facebook group for Maremma owners and enthusiasts. This group is run by me and some other Maremma trainers so we often get questions about training issues. A question popped up recently, which I am quoting below. This is a scenario I hear ALL the time on our group and through my own website and business page, so I decided to write a blog post about the topic.
Here is the question:
"Seeking advice: I am working on a homestead in upstate NY, I arrived here a couple of weeks ago. The owners of the land recently acquired two 10 month old Maremmas (they are sisters as well). They acquired them late due to the original breeder having someone back out last minute, and then struggled to home them. Needless to say, they were not bonded with goats or sheep (they apparently grew up in a pig pen). They are now with 5 kids and 3 adult goats and chasing them CONSTANTLY. They will at times latch onto hind legs, and nip at their sides. Thankfully skin hasn't been broken yet, but unless they are supervised all day, they will spend all their time chasing the goats. So far, we have separated the Maremmas so they don't encourage each other. They share a fence line however so they can see each other and be comforted by each other's presence. We try to keep the herding border collie away for the time being, as it seemed like they were mimicking her herding instincts. We are worried that they were brought into the herd way at a much too late age, and aren't going to improve. Any suggestions are experience with this is very much appreciated!"
Here are my thoughts on the issues raised:
This is a disaster waiting to happen and unfortunately it's a story that I hear all too often. There are so many things going on here that it's going to take a long post to cover it all.
First of all there are two big red flags here and one well-intentioned mistake. First, it's not at all appropriate for 10 month old pups to be unsupervised with baby goats or sheep. Some rare pups mature early but they are the exception, not the rule. Most LGD's aren't considered trustworthy with baby ruminants or poultry until age 2 or later. It's not because they are bad pups. It's because they are pups. So remove the baby goats ASAP. Ten month old puppies shouldn't be guarding baby goats, particularly when little is known about the history, breeding or early socialization of the pups.
Second, a LGD should NEVER, EVER have unsupervised time with the stock in the presence of a herding dog or any non-LGD. It's ok for your LGD to interact with your other dogs, but not with the stock unless you trust your non-LGD and you are physically supervising the interactions and are sure the other dog isn't teaching the LGD's fun new games. The LGD's most certainly can and probably will pick up bad habits from the herding dog. And this is not because your herding dog is bad. It's because he's a herding dog. LGDS's and herding dogs are both purpose bred dogs. Bred for polar opposite purposes. (The OP knows this but I'm stressing it for the sake of those that don't.)
And lastly, these pups need to (temporarily) be separated from the stock but NOT from each other. LGD's need partners and young LGD's need appropriate playmates. A goat, sheep or chicken isn't a suitable playmate. Another puppy is. Usually allowing the puppy to have a partner reduces inappropriate behavior with stock. BUT if the puppies weren't properly socialized to begin with or have picked up bad habits, or if the stock isn't suited to the pups, then peer pressure can kick in and they can sometimes get into trouble together. You may need to separate the puppies from the stock temporarily, until you get things under control. So for now I would put both pups together next to the goats and don't allow either of them unsupervised with the animals until you can assess the situation and come up with a new plan.
Now to address the root of the problem and the question of whether the pups can improve or not.
People sometimes acquire puppies or dogs from dubious sources or without knowing much or anything about how those pups were raised. Then they are shocked and dismayed when they find the very dogs they bought to protect the stock have become a danger to them. It's not the new owners' fault. Most people really don't have any idea what's involved in properly socializing and training a LGD. In most cases they trusted the person who sold them the dogs and that person took the money and is long gone, not willing to give advice or point them to truly helpful resources and certainly not willing to take the puppies back. This is really a shame. In my opinion the breeder's responsibility to the puppies they bred continues as long as those dogs live. Meaning they should give lifetime support, encouragement and advice to the owner and be willing to take the dogs back if the owner can no longer keep them for ANY reason. But instead they either ignore the new puppy owner or tell them it must be their fault. It's not that a breeder can fix every problem but they certainly should do their best to help. But since this breeder in question obviously can't or won't support the buyer of her pups I'll do my best to give advice, and to share my own experiences with such dogs. (Yes, unfortunately I've had to learn this lesson the hard way, too. Which is why I feel so strongly about the subject.)
Pups chasing and harassing stock is a very serious issue. Now I am not talking about the occasional case of the "zoomies" many young dogs get. The zoomies is when the puppy is full of energy and feeling good and they suddenly decide that those goats or sheep would make a fun toy. There's a playful energy to it, not an aggressive one. It's still inappropriate but it's different, and usually pretty easy to fix by redirecting or switching out the stock. Nor am I talking about poultry. All pups need to be carefully supervised with poultry and most aren't totally poultry safe until around age 2, though some do mature earlier. But dogs of this age aggressively chasing and biting larger stock like sheep or goats is an entirely different matter. And there are multiple issues at play here.
The first is that the livestock needs to be matched to the developmental stage of the puppies. Baby lambs or goats are not appropriate stock for most 10 month old pups. They can visit the babies under supervision if they are well mannered, but they shouldn't be left alone with them. (I rarely leave any dog under age 2 unsupervised with baby animals or poultry.) Pups this age need to be with ADULT stock and the stock needs to be of the right temperament. You do not want aggressive stock because they could cause the pups to become fearful or even aggressive if they feel threatened and bullied. Regardless of what some people will tell you an animal that continually head butts a puppy for no reason is NOT a good puppy trainer.
On the other hand excessively flighty stock is also bad. A goat or sheep that runs every time the puppies make the slightest move actually excites the puppy and encourages it to chase. Chasing is a self rewarding behavior and once the puppy learns the habit it's very hard to break. So if you have such flighty stock you need to get them away from the puppy immediately. Even my goats, who have all been around Maremmas all their lives, do not all make suitable puppy trainers. Often times I'll notice a puppy chasing and all I need to do is remove one goat who's acting like a silly lunatic and everything is calm again. What you want is stock that looks at the puppy pulling on its ears as if to say "buzz off, kid" and completely ignores them. The puppy gets bored and the chasing stops. They still might try it again, because they are puppies, after all, but they will try it less and less. And when they realize they're not getting the response they want they will eventually quit trying.
Another issue is that most people, when they first get their LGD's, have stock that have never been around a LGD. They think of dogs as predators (because they are!) and they are sure you've lost your mind for bringing one into their midst. So that's why putting the puppy and the stock side by side, until they are acclimated to each other, is important. If you keep them side by side until the stock calmly accepts the puppy then you'll have a lot less chasing when you do put them together. If you bought your puppy from a breeder that properly socializes their pups with stock the pups will seek out the comfort of your stock and will be more likely to behave calmly. But your stock needs to get used to your pup. So give them time.
Polar has lived with these goats her entire life and they with her. Katniss (the doe) is completely comfortable with Polar interacting with her newborn kids. This behavior in both animals is the result of proper socialization as babies.
What if your puppies didn't get the best start?
The other big contributing factor in stock chasing is improper socialization with stock when the pups were small. (Or no socialization at all.) This is a huge problem and more common than it should be. Irresponsible breeders put little to no effort into socializing the puppies and then a scenario like the OP's is the result. If you bought your pups from a breeder that failed to socialize the pups properly to stock then you're probably going to have a really hard time of it and a lot of work ahead of you. Contrary to what some people will tell you it's not all instinct with LGD's. It really does take nature AND nurture to produce a great LGD. You can't buy a puppy from a breeder who raises them in their house or on their patio and then put it out with your stock and expect instincts to just take over. It doesn't work that way. And if that breeder tells you that's an acceptable way to do it they are either lying to you or are ignorant of puppy development. LGD’s need to be socialized to stock almost from birth, in order to maximize the chances of success.
All puppies have a critical socialization period that begins once their ears and eyes open and end at roughly 12-14 weeks. (It varies by breed and dog.) This is when puppies need to be socialized INTENSIVELY with livestock, as well as with humans and to a variety of sights, sounds and experiences. A responsible breeder will have their puppies in close proximity to stock as soon as safely possibly. Definitely BEFORE 6 weeks and honestly by 3-4 weeks (with protected contact at first ) is the minimum I would accept. Once they can see and hear well they should be seeing and hearing the stock they will guard, or similar stock. If all they are seeing is the swimming pool, patio or the couch and TV then you've got a problem. And taking those patio pups for a walk past the chicken coop occasionally or even daily is NOT enough. In order to learn the "language" and "culture" of livestock, puppies need to be immersed in that "culture" 24/7 DURING the critical learning period. Those first 12 weeks are more important than any other time in the dog's entire life. You can certainly still train an older pup who missed this critical learning window, but the dog will never live up to their full potential. And it WILL be more work for you, I'm sorry to say. How do I know that? Because I made the same mistake myself. 🤦🏻♀️ So don't feel bad if you did it, because it's only through my own mistakes that I have learned these hard lessons. But hard lessons often help us grow and learn and do better so let my mistakes help you.
These 4 week old pups are at the beginning of the Socialization period. They are fearless and curious about the world. Look how they interact with the goats! Experiences they do and don't have during this time will shape them into the dogs they will become. LGD puppies need to be interacting with livestock NOW, not living in a house or on a patio. A breeder who raises their puppies in a home setting instead of a barn setting for the first 8-16 weeks is socializing them to be companion dogs, not LGD's. If you need a LGD buy a puppy that has been raised as one.
Three Kinds of Breeders
I have acquired Maremmas from eight different breeders and I have bred and raised several dogs of my own, as well as kept in contact with multiple clients who've bought my pups over the years. I am not here to criticize other breeders, as we all have our own preferences and need to do what works for us. Raising puppies is hard work. Raising puppies and keeping them healthy and safe while also socializing them properly to livestock is REALLY hard work. Not everyone wants to sleep in the barn with their pregnant dogs (what I did before I built my puppy parlor) or trek back and forth to the barn to take care of those puppies for weeks on end. Personally I think if you want to raise puppies in your house or on your patio you should breed companion dogs instead of working LGD's but that's not my choice to make. It IS my choice to not ever buy puppies from such a breeder again and I won't. I have learned my lesson, several times. (Apparently once was not enough for me.) I won't make that mistake again. I promise.
The way I see it there are three ways breeders raise LGD puppies. First there are the "puppy mill" breeders. They are truly just lazy and greedy and are churning out pups without any real effort and with the least expense in order to maximize profits. The puppies could very well be "raised in a barn" but they still may not be getting any interaction with stock or any training. These are pups such as the OP's pups who were "raised in a pig pen". Often these pups are of questionable parentage and health. Unvaccinated, fed cheap dog food. These are the Craigslist dogs. Breed them, house them for 8 weeks (or less) and sell them quick and cheap. Repeat, repeat, repeat... These are the people that give breeders a bad name and they should be stopped. They should be arrested.
Then there are the "estate guardian" breeders. They are usually well to do and live in beautiful, high dollar homes with acreage. They may have a few token sheep, horses or chickens but they aren't serious farmers or homesteaders. They just like having a "cool" or "rare" breed to lay around looking pretty and keeping coyotes from pooping on their fancy lawns. They usually have beautiful, well bred, healthy dogs, which are registered and health tested. They may have even imported dogs or acquired them from great breeding programs. Their dogs truly are beautiful but most often they aren't really LGD's. They are pool and patio guardians. These breeders put little to no effort into socializing their pups to livestock. Since that's not how they use their own dogs they don't understand the importance. They feel that keeping their puppies on their patio or in their house for the first weeks or months is perfectly acceptable. Maybe they just don't understand puppy development or maybe they do but they feel the compromise is worth it. They believe that it's reasonable for them to raise the pups on their patio or in the comfort of their own home for 2, 3 or 4 months and then the new owners can take the puppies home and do the rest. And this works great if the new owners need their pool or patio guarded. Not so much if they need their goats, sheep or chickens guarded. Remember the "critical learning periods"? This method wastes the best time of the puppies' lives. In my opinion these breeders are almost as bad as the puppy mill breeders. Sure they might be taking good care of their puppies but what about the stock those puppies are going to harass and maybe even kill, all because they didn't want to train their puppies? Breeding dogs that will be responsible for the safety and very lives of other creatures is a very serious responsibility and shouldn't be taken lightly.
Last are the truly "good breeders". These people are real farmers, livestock breeders and homesteaders. They depend on their dogs to keep their livestock safe, so they understand what it takes to produce a great LGD. They breed the kind of dogs they themselves need; true working LGD's. Their dogs might be registered or they might not, but the difference is in the effort, time and work the breeders put into their pups to ensure they are breeding true LGD's and not pool guardians, nor puppies that look like they came out of a rescue. These pups are born in a barn or a building near the stock, like my puppy parlor, or a dairy goat milking parlor or some similar set up designed to keep the pups safe and healthy without compromising the socialization of the pups with stock. These breeders put a lot of time and work into their pups. The pups and their parents are healthy, well fed and receive proper veterinary care. And they are well loved, too. Hopefully the parents are health tested but not all are. But the puppies get the safe, gentle, intensive early socialization with livestock as well as with humans and various experiences that will ensure they are set up for success in their new homes. This is how I raise my pups and the only kind of breeder I will buy pups from, now that I've truly seen the difference.
Six week old Maremma puppies learning the language of goats and chickens.
We all Make Mistakes
Luckily I have never made the mistake of buying puppies from a puppy mill breeder. I have acquired puppies from both the "estate guardian" breeder and the "good" breeder. The difference in these pups when I brought them home was striking. The difference is still apparent as juvenile or adult dogs. Now I didn't purposely set out to acquire "estate guardian" dogs. It just never occurred to me until AFTER I had several of these dogs in my possession that not everyone raises puppies the way I do, and the way the breeders I respect do. And I didn't realize the impact the puppies' early socialization would have on them, and me. I thought, like so many people do, that once I got these puppies home and put them out with my goats and other livestock that everything would go great. Boy was I wrong.
These dogs were all between 8 weeks and 4 months old when I brought them home. All had various issues. Some dogs simply didn't bond well to my livestock (not wanting to be near them), some of them harassed and chased my goats constantly and aggressively, some not only killed chickens but ate them. (I didn't let them with the chickens but my chickens trust white dogs and sadly they trusted the wrong dogs and sometimes wandered where they shouldn't have.) I had strangers driving by stop and knock on my door to tell me the dogs were harassing the goats. The most problematic of all the dogs actually broke a goat's leg. (She had seemed to be doing well but then she regressed.)
This is Cedar, with Benson Ranch Celeste. Celeste was bred by Cindy Benson and has guarded my goats since she was 9 months old. She is an excellent LGD, gentle and sweet. Cedar's leg was broken by a different dog. Despite the fact that another dog hurt her Cedar still completely trusts Celeste. The difference is how the dogs act around the goats. Celeste never chases or harasses the goats. She was raised with sheep since she was a tiny puppy, taking advantage of her critical learning period. (Her puppyhood is documented on the Benson Ranch Training Blog - Follow Blush's Litter series.) This allowed her to come to my farm and immediately go in with my goats. They trust her completely, as do I. Cindy does a better job than anyone I know of in socializing and training her pups and I am blessed to have four of her dogs in my breeding program.
Nature or Nurture?
Now you might think this is bad genetics and for a while I worried that it was, too. But some of these dogs are completely unrelated to each other and some of them are related to dogs without temperament problems that were bred by me or by other breeders. The one difference is the early socialization of the puppies. If they were raised similarly to how I raise my pups they acclimated to my herd immediately and had few, if any, issues with inappropriate behavior with stock. If they were not raised in this manner they were hell on wheels. I have owned and trained a lot of Maremmas and I have NEVER been so challenged as I have been by these dogs. Unfortunately once I had them I couldn't do much but try to manage them. I certainly couldn't sell them to someone as LGD's. That would be disastrous and I'm not going to do that to the person or the dog. I would either end up getting the dogs back with more problems than before, or they would get dumped. And they might harm or even kill someone's stock. Definitely not an option. They are friendly with humans and I considered placing some of them in pet homes but the right home never came along. So here they stayed. And I won't lie, it's been ROUGH. But we are finely, after months and months, seeing progress. The older the dogs get the more they have settled.
But I had to be VERY careful about livestock selection with all of them, as well as choosing partners for them. I'm very committed to having my dogs be with livestock as well as to always have a working partner. All of these dogs are dominant with other dogs so finding a dog they get along with was tricky. (I couldn't put them all together because they would fight with each other. Each one needed a very mellow dog partner, which meant that my easier dogs were often required to be put on babysitting duty with these difficult dogs, which is somewhat of a waste of their talent.) Finding stock they could be safe with was even trickier. Some absolutely couldn't be trusted with poultry, though one is better with poultry than with goats. Some chase horses, which would normally be a good choice for "biker chick" dogs. Some of them were too rough for my dairy goat does but did ok with my Mini Nubian bucks, who are big and stinky and not easily intimidated. I experimented until I found stock each dog seemed to do well with as well as a partner they got along with. Then I kept watching for signs of either problems or improvement. Over time they all made progress, though it was very slow progress. Most of them have progressed from bucks, to larger Nubian and Mini Nubian does, to Nigerian Dwarf does. (One of them is still only with the larger does but I will try her with Nigerians soon.) One of them is now guarding chickens and ducks and behaving perfectly. Another that used to chase horses is much better with them. I haven't tried them with baby goats yet but I think eventually they will be ok with them. Maybe not newborns but older kids.
How did I achieve these results? Well I didn't shock the dogs or use dangle sticks or any aversive, that's for sure. What training I did was only positive because that's the only way I train. But mostly I just matched the dogs with stock they could be safe with and dogs they got along with and waited for them to mature. Sometimes I made mistakes, such as when Cedar's leg was broken. Then it was back to the buck pasture for that dog. For most of them they were around 1.5-2 years old before I saw any real improvement. But luckily once I did things moved pretty quickly. For some it was almost like a switch went off. They just matured and got tired of their games. Mostly. They grew up.
But what's very telling is that I see the same level of maturity out of 6-10 month old pups that were bred and raised by me or breeders who use similar methods as I do out of these 18-24 month old dogs that were raised the opposite way. So yeah, these dogs can improve, but boy is it a lot of work. And I for one do not want to work that hard or wait that long for a puppy to mature and stop harassing stock. I would rather spend the first few months working hard to do everything I can to ensure those pups get a good start so I can relax later. But that's what works for me. Work smarter, not harder. Which is why I now ask to see PROOF (photos) of how a breeder socializes their pups before I'll consider buying a puppy from them. I don't care how beautiful your dog is or how good its hip scores are, if those puppies haven't gotten a proper start with livestock I am not interested.
These goats and this pup were born and raised together and are well bonded.
Will My Dog's Behavior Improve?
If you've already bought dogs that didn't get the start they should have, don't despair, there is hope. With time and patience those instincts most likely will kick in and overcome the lack of socialization and you will probably end up with a good, if not great, LGD. It's not the dog's fault they weren't set up for success by their breeder. I had to remind myself of that fact over and over when I would get frustrated with those dogs. They were behaving exactly as they were socialized to do. Even blaming the breeder was pointless. I should have done my research. I should have paid more attention. What mattered was accepting the dogs I now had and working to bring out the best I could in them. It was my job to be patient with them and teach them how I wanted them to behave. So try to be patient with your pups and eventually you'll be rewarded.
But if you haven't bought your pups yet, do yourself a favor. Do a lot of research before you choose a breeder. Don't just ask to see pedigrees and health test results. Ask for PROOF that those puppies are getting the proper socialization with stock. (Spend a little time on my website and social media and you'll find hundreds of photo of my dogs and puppies with stock.) Because that's exactly what I didn't notice when I made my mistake. I didn't notice what was missing in those cute puppy photos. Livestock. That's what was missing. There were no photos of the puppies with stock because they weren't with it. They were on the patio, by the pool, by the jacuzzi, in the house. Anywhere but with livestock.) So if the breeder can't show you lots of photos of both their parent dogs AND the puppies with livestock do yourself a huge favor. Find one that can. Because we all have cameras in our pockets, everywhere we go. It's called a cell phone. If the breeder isn't taking photos of their pups (or adult dogs, for that matter) with livestock it's because they aren't with stock. And you can never redo the critical learning period.
There is a stage in LGD puppy training and development that I call “Finding their bark.” They bark at EVERYTHING that looks suspicious to them, whether that’s a strange vehicle or person, an animal they haven’t met or aren’t quite sure about, a blowing leaf, someone they know wearing a hat or coat they've never seen before or just about anything. People often ask me how to teach puppies what to bark at and what not to bark at, or how to get them to stop barking at things that aren’t a real threat. I personally almost never try to discourage my dogs from barking, especially when they are still learning. Yes I know the barking can be annoying, especially when there’s no real threat, but barking is a LGD’s first and main line of defense. And they have much better sight, smell and hearing than we do and can perceive threats we would never notice. I want my puppies to learn to be discerning on their own, so that they know to bark when there’s a real threat. If I micromanage their barking then they may learn to doubt their own judgement and to look to me for direction. And that’s not going to protect my goats and other animals when I’m in the house asleep, or protect the animals of whomever ends up owning these awesome, barking puppies. So I encourage you to celebrate your barking LGD puppy, because it means they are on their way to being a great guardian for your stock!
The puppies barking at what they perceive as an "intruder" (my son, Noah, getting hay for the animals) in the barnyard. The puppies see Noah feeding every day but apparently something was different about him this night, setting them off. Again, no need for me to do anything. The puppies can tell that I'm not concerned so they soon relaxed.
Polar's and Marisa's 2022 litters met the horses for the first time on this day. Apparently Blossom, the mini donkey, was a concern for this puppy. Notice how patient and calm Blossom is with the puppies. She's a seasoned puppy trainer and there's no need for me to say or do anything. I just let Blossom's calm behavior reassure the puppies and they soon accepted her.
I have been getting a lot of criticism from people because my animals "live on dirt". I would just like to explain to you all that farming doesn't look the same in California as it looks in Vermont, Virginia or pretty much most of the rest of the country and if you are expecting my farm to look like yours and judging me because it doesn't you are both ignorant and cruel.
I live in the Central Valley of California. This is where most of the food in the country is grown, all watered by a huge irrigation system. Back when we first moved here (I'm from Tennessee and my husband is from Maryland) it used to rain only in the winter. We had two seasons. Dirt and Mud. But for about a decade we have been in a severe drought. We get almost no rain and very little snowfall. The snow is what our irrigation systems run on. We have been in such a severe drought for so long that wells are drying up, mature trees are dying and farms are closing. New housing developments are not even allowed to put in lawns in some areas. Only rock gardens and drought tolerant plants. Or fake grass. In some areas entire towns have dried up. On our farm alone we have lost 30-40 mature trees. They just died and fell down or had to be cut down. Almost all of my neighbors and friends have had to put in new wells, because their wells dried up. We are just waiting for it to be our turn.
So why do my animals "live on dirt"? Because there's no water to make grass grow. There's no rain and not enough water to irrigate such luxuries as grass. Even our small lawn struggles to make it. I buy every bite my horses and goats eat, in the form of alfalfa and other hay. This costs me over $2000 a month and it's getting harder and harder to even find, much less afford.
I love grass, rain and trees. Unfortunately those are luxuries I can't have, at least not enough of. So why do I stay in such an ugly, brown dust bowl, you ask? My family. My husband served 40 years in the Navy. We had 6 kids during that career and we spent the last part of his tour here, in the dust bowl. And our children grew up, settled down, got married and had kids. We now have 12 grandkids and they all live in California. We did move back east for a time. Bought a farm in Virginia, where we had all the grass, rain and trees we wanted. But we left half of our family here, in the dust bowl. And with it we left our hearts. So we moved back here. We gave up our 12 acres of green grass in Virginia and willingly moved to the ugliest place on earth. Because though we love grass, trees and rain, we love our family more. So if you want to criticize me because my animals "live on dirt" and everything I own is coated with a thick layer of dust you go right ahead. I know what really matters. And I know farms shouldn't be judged on such silly things are whether they are made of grass or dirt.
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.