Dog’s Eye View: A dog is a dog
The above title is true, but only to a point. We have to take into consideration why, through generations of specialized breeding, dogs no longer all look alike.
Wolves, in general, look alike. There might be color and size variations, but once you’ve seen a wolf, you know what you’re looking at. What nature and humans have done to dogs is another story. I’m going to choose a specific breed to talk about in this article at the request of a friend who lives with one. The livestock guardian dogs are those big white (mostly) fluffy dogs we see out with the sheep.
The above title is such a generalization we must be clear to note that even in purebred lines, the genetics of the parents and early development play a role in not only the physical look of the dog, but also in its behavioral tendencies. One of my favorite reference authors is Dr. Raymond Coppinger, who was involved in some of the very early study and introduction of livestock guarding dogs in the U.S. Coppinger, along with other noted scientists, has spent years formulating specific studies to delve into the behavioral tendencies of dogs, in general, including guardian dogs.
I’ll start with a quote from one of his early books, “Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution.”
“Border collies have an early onset of predatory motor patterns that they incorporate into their social play. Predatory behaviors of livestock guardians’ onset after the social window has closed. Their (the guardian dog) play behavior is not as rich in behavioral elements as that of border collies.”
So what is the social window, and why does it matter? Even in utero, puppies’ brains are being stimulated by the events and emotions of the mother. So the mother’s temperament and environment play into the neural development of the pup’s brain. Guardian dogs being raised in the working dog environment creates that bonding with the sheep. Otherwise, for dogs in the wild, a sheep is nothing more than a meal. For the guardian dog properly raised, the sheep is family.
Getting back to the socialization window, which begins to close at approximately 12 to 16 weeks of age, a guardian dog making a transition from working dog to house pet as an adult is often met with disastrous consequences. Certain learning windows have closed up shop and are no longer in service. The ability to switch gears and become a family companion can be very difficult. Bringing one home early, as a pup, gives you the best chance.
But for the older strays picked up in the county, it is often too late to transition. Their behaviors are very specific to days living outside, listening to sheep, chasing off the occasional predator and moving with the flock. Most of them have never been to a city or seen a bus or heard the racket of a trash truck backing up. The sounds and smells of humanity are beyond the scope of understanding, and some lack the ability to adapt. This is due to early environmental learning and processing. Unless humanity and city life is introduced early on, during the social window, the ability to adapt is severely impaired.
You can’t take anything for granted. Love is not enough. Can this dog bond with a human family? Only time will tell.
Think about being taken from the life you lead now and transported into an environment in which you have no idea how to cope. Fight or flight survival kicks in. With no guidance or support, how do you know what is safe and what is not?
The livestock guardian dogs being brought into the city surely feel this conflict. The livestock guardian puppies that have been raised in the barn have missed out on critical socialization to help them become city dogs. If you are considering adding one to your family, learn all you can about this breed and plan to commit a lifetime of work to help the dog adapt. You will do remedial socialization for the lifetime of the dog.
Understand the work ahead of you, and be sure you have the commitment to help this adopted guardian dog succeed. Take your own household environment into consideration. These are not athletic dogs. They ramble and rest. They only hike when the sheep are moved to another pasture. They do not “normally” chase and bite, but they do know how to guard a resource.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.
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