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!
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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.