Dog training

How Humans Fail Livestock Guard Dog Training

Seven and her daughter, Reina, watch over the sheep on a snowy winter day in Maine. (photo of the Farei kennel)

Let’s face it. The training is really about the human, not the animal. We humans like things to be easy, and we’ll let a situation or behavior slide because it works. I call it the “human condition”. But easy does not mean correct. It works until it doesn’t. Often, like a bad relationship, it starts with small things. Small behaviors that just go outside the boundaries of the rules we originally set.

Contrary to popular belief, livestock guard dogs don’t start roaming at 10 miles. It starts with the little pup, sneaking under the fence from one paddock to the next.


We let him. It was only from the buck pen to the doe pen, and he didn’t disturb any of the animals. We tell people how cute he is to want to check all his “fillers” at such a young age and what a great caretaker he’s going to be when he grows up. Six months later, this same pup has a tunnel system under the fences, running from the doe pen to the buck pen, with the yearlings and into the front yard.

We put stones in the holes to keep the goats in their pens where they belonged, but he dug a new one within days – until the bottom of the fences was a hodgepodge of stones, old planks and bits of wire. People notice his diligence in protecting the entire property, instead of just the goats.

Here and there

At the age of one, he realized that digging holes and squeezing through fences was a lot like work. At this age, it is easier to jump over. Now he patrols the back hay fields and occasionally hunts coyotes in the neighbor’s cow pastures. We are proud that he makes sure everyone’s pets are safe. He is so motivated to work.

It’s usually somewhere around this stage that we begin to realize that there is a problem. He cannot protect our stock, if he is not at home, and the quest to contain him begins. We hot spin the top and bottom on all fence lines. Gates is wired – and a neck yoke is even used in an attempt to keep him at home. There are talks of not bonding properly with his fillers, having poor genetics, and even the possibility of too much human contact.

Root causes

In reality, it has nothing to do with any of these things. It all started with us, the “human condition”. We let that first transgression slide. That first perimeter breach kicked off a series of behaviors that we see coming to the ultimate conclusion over and over again. The dog is relocated to a farm “with more room” or, worse, ends up dead on the road. This scenario and chain of events can be applied to many behaviors, across multiple disciplines and species.

Very few of my private training sessions are puppy training. Most of them are devoted to undoing behaviors that would have been much easier to troubleshoot when first exposed. Now these are habits, and we have to work twice as hard to unlearn them before we can learn what the right behavior is.

The major difference between the world of pets and that of livestock keepers is that behaviors and habits created by lack of training become accepted “traits”.

A German Shepherd jumping fences and running around the neighborhood is “untrained” but a Pyrenean Shepherd doing the same is acceptable – “It’s just what they do.” In reality, the two situations are exactly the same. All because it worked until it didn’t.


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