Some years ago, I stepped out the back door to start milking and found Bravo (pictured above) eating a white bird right outside our door. He was still a big puppy and I struggled to train him as a livestock guardian dog. He had killed quite a few of our chickens during his first eight to ten months with us. I had nicknamed him “the dog from hell,” because of our struggles. Yet, I had invested many hours of time with him and believed that we were coming to “an understanding.”
Stepping out the door I found Bravo eating a white bird.
We had received little guidance on how to train a LGD pup and much of what we had been told was wrong, yet I was learning by spending lots of time with the dogs and doing quite a bit of observation. I thought I was making progress with Bravo. But when my eyes fell on that dead bird my heart sank. I thought “I’m through with this dog.” It grieved me, but I really thought we’d reached the end of the line with Bravo. Impulsively, I jumped him, grabbed the bird, and started hitting him with it. I yelled at him in my displeasure. I was crying, as I felt such loss at failing with this beautiful dog.
Through the tears I suddenly noticed that the white bird was a chicken…
I remembered: “We don’t have any white chickens, only white ducks!” Suddenly I realized that Bravo had scavenged a discarded carcass from the neighboring chicken farm, whose refuse heap was very close to our back fence. This wasn’t bad behavior! This was normal behavior for a livestock guardian dog, and he had not broken any of the rules we had been working on. I was ashamed of myself for punishing this dog wrongly. Okay, I’ll admit it, I asked him to forgive me. He did. Bravo went on to be an absolutely amazing LGD.
From that day on I resolved to “always trust the dog.”
An important maxim for training livestock guardian dogs is “Always trust the dog.” This is sometimes harder to do than you might think. Dogs are not people. They can’t talk and their psychology is not human. Yet, one of the foundations for a working relationship is trust. The other is love; love between dog and human.
The first foundation for training a livestock guardian dog is relationship (love).
This is achieved by spending time together. I learned to make our LGDs my chore buddies. I spend hours a day outdoors, doing chores. They are my “buds.” We do almost everything together and I make a point to fuss over them, to give them treats, and express my pleasure at having their company. Because of this relationship, they want to please me, and if they sense that I am taking on a new kind of animal on the homestead, and that it is mine, they oblige me by protecting it. But we need to remember: their work is hard and sometimes violent. Occasionally a predator gets through (especially with poultry) and kills a bird. There will be times that the dog looks like the culprit, when in fact, it’s just trying to “clean things up.”
The second foundation for training a livestock guardian dog is trust.
Even if it looks like your dog did something wrong, never assume that it did. Always give the dog the benefit of the doubt. You must actually see the dog do wrong, and then, ask extra hard whether your interpretation of what you see is the only possible interpretation. Trust the dog! Your dog will put its life on the line for you and your animals. Back it up. Nine times out of ten you’ll find that the dog was trying to do right, and most of the time you’ll learn that it did do right.
About a year ago I stepped out to do chores and found Mando with a dead chicken… one of our chickens! By this time I had grown. I knew better than to jump to conclusions. The bird was dead. I let him have it. I went out to the barn and discovered sign of a marauding opossum. A opossum had killed that bird! I caught the opossum and dealt with it. I let Mando know that I appreciated his help. “Good dog!”
The Way of the Pack, by Brenda Negri, does an excellent job of explaining the relational side of Livestock Guardian Dogs and their handlers.