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!
Four to Five Weeks Old - Puppy Call & Barrier Challenges - Important and Fun Tools in Puppy Training
Once the puppies have gotten steady on their feet and mastered eating puppy mush we begin working on two very important protocols - The Puppy Call and Barrier Challenges. These activities can be combined or done separately.
The Puppy Call
One of the most important things a breeder can teach their pups is the Puppy Call, and it's very easy to do. We simply start feeding the puppies in an area away from where they are sleeping or playing so they have to come to the new area to get their food. Then every time we put the food down we call the puppies to us with a distinctive and ridiculous sounding "puppy, puppy puppy", over and over and over, until all the puppies have arrived. It doesn't take long before the puppies associate the call with food, and they stop everything they are doing and come running. After we have introduced treats and clicker training to the puppies we can also use the call and reward them with treats other than puppy food. We like to use high value treats such as meat balls or baked chicken. The important thing is that it should be VERY rewarding for the puppies to answer that call!
The Puppy Call is the first step to teaching the puppies recall, which everyone seems to struggle with teaching their Maremmas. If the new owner continues to practice the Puppy Call at home they will retain it. It can be a very valuable safety tool if the puppy gets loose. And by gradually adding in their name the "puppy" can be phased out and you have now taught your dog to come when called. That's not to say your older Maremma will always immediately come if they think something else is more interesting, but like everything else, it's easier to teach a puppy this fun game during their critical socialization period than when they are older.
Another important tool we use is Barrier Challenges. We use a variety of "obstacles" that the puppies must navigate to get from point A to point B. Things like pool noodles, different surfaces to walk on, steps up and down into the dog door and the Puppy Parlor door and x-pens make great barrier challenges. Sometimes they simply navigate them of their own accord to get where they want to go and sometimes we use them in conjunction with feeding or treat time to give them extra motivation. Barrier Challenges teach puppies problem solving as well as how to deal with frustration. And a dog that's not easily frustrated is less likely to behave aggressively with people, other dogs or stock.
Four and a half weeks old and they are pros at coming when called for dinner! And yes, my two bottle raised rescue kittens know the puppy call, too! We are training the kittens right along with the puppies.
Here are the pups, coming into the Puppy Parlor from outside, where they are rewarded with meatballs. We also added a barrier challenge in the form of an x-pen fence around the step. You can see that the last couple of puppies got a little frustrated but they kept trying and eventually got around it and got their reward.
This was a very big challenge for the puppies. I had them in the kennel by the Puppy Parlor while my farm employee, Ethan, was raking the pasture. When he was done he released them while I stood by the gate and called them. My son Noah helped me film and feed the puppies when they arrived. (I should have brought a bigger dish of meatballs, or maybe their dinner. It's hard to feed and film and call puppies all at once.) They had only been in this part of the puppy pasture for a few days and this was a lot for them to navigate and figure out. Where was I? Which way should they go? Plus the last couple of puppies were very distracted by Ethan and thought they should stay and play with him. (Usually I'm by myself when I do the Puppy Call and there are no interesting people around.) If I had thought it through I might have done things differently but as it turned out it was a very good challenge for them and they all eventually made it to the gate and the meatballs! Great job, puppies!
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:
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.
On the way home from The Ranch Cindy Benson and I stopped to visit our friend, Kathy. Cindy trimmed Kathy's dogs' nails and got some much needed dog snuggling time, after a week away from her own dogs. I love the way Cindy always gets right down on the ground with the dogs. If I end up on the ground it's usually an accident! 😁
The views here in Oregon are beautiful!
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!
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.