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!
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.
Spend any time patrolling the internet and you will find people complaining about the "problems" they have with their LGD's. Some are committed to making things work and are just reaching out for advice and help. Others not so much. There are people who are dumping their dogs in rescue because it doesn't live up to their expectations. They see LGD's as cheap, expendable "products" and are happy to throw their dog away and start over if things don't go according to plan.
Others are calling their dogs "a failure", "bad dog" and "a disappointment". They seem to revel in criticizing their dogs to get attention, which is disgusting and sad. What makes this even sadder is that these are often PUPPIES that are being called failures. Everyone knows that LGD's can take 2 years or sometimes more to reach maturity and to be totally safe with stock. So why is it ok to call a 9 month old puppy a "failure" for being a puppy?
The first step in setting the puppies up for success lies with the breeder. Puppies have critical learning periods in the first weeks and months. If breeders don't take advantage of these periods the dog will never live up to its full potential. It might be an "ok" LGD, but not likely a "great" one. Puppies should have intensive socialization with stock from as early as possible. At our farm every dog and puppy we own lives with other dogs and livestock 24/7. Dogs are social creatures and they need to have their needs for socialization met in order to thrive.
Puppies should also be trained with positive socialization methods and only allowed to be around other dogs and stock that are kind to the puppies. Using harsh training methods or harsh treatment by other dogs and stock on puppies teaches puppies to be either fearful or to bully other animals, or both. Neither is what you want to nurture in a LGD.
But no matter how careful and conscientious the breeder is in their socialization of their puppies the job doesn't end there. The new puppy owner has the responsibility to continue this nurturing training and treatment of the puppy once it gets home. Other than the first few days the puppy should be with livestock full time asap. Of course with poultry, accommodations will have to be made to keep the birds safe, but the puppy should have another dog as a companion and some type of mammal to guard if at all possible. The puppy should not ever be locked up by itself for extended periods of time. This is counterproductive to what you're trying to accomplish with your puppy. You will only frustrate the puppy, which will lead to "bad" behavior.
If you are experiencing problems with your puppy the first place to turn is your breeder. A reputable breeder will provide lifetime support to their customers. They can tell you how your puppy was trained before it left their farm and can give advice on how to integrate the puppy with your new stock. Good breeders love their puppies and their customers and want everyone to be happy so don't be afraid to reach out to them.
If you need more help I suggest you seek professional help. And by professional help I don't mean some self-described "expert" with no real background or training. I mean a professional trainer with certifications in dog training and behavior and who specializes in LGD's and positive reinforcement training. Hands down the expert in this area is Cindy Benson, of Benson Maremmas. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, former Maremma breeder and author of books on training LGD's. She can do zoom training sessions with you and your dog and get you back on track asap.
I would like to challenge everyone who owns one of these wonderful dogs to never, ever think of your dog as a "failure" or a "disappointment" and to challenge others to do the same. Advocate for these dogs. When you hear people blaming the dog for human failure, laziness and ignorance speak up and set them straight! Dogs come to us as clean slates. It's our responsibility to help them live up to their potential. It starts with breeders and continues with owners. And if there is any "failure" along the way it is not our dogs who have failed. It is us who have failed our dogs.
These are six of Marcella's puppies, at 4 months old, enjoying a fun game of tag with their puppy mentor, Marisa. LGD puppies need to have at least one LGD companion in order to be happy and healthy and so that they can channel that boundless energy in an appropriate manner.
Hi I'm Kim. I have been an avid animal lover all my life but goats and dogs are my favorites so I built a business around them, breeding registered Mini Nubian & Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats and MSCA registered Maremma Sheepdogs. I love sharing my passion and knowledge of these amazing creatures with others.