As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and experimenting with training methods to harness our LGD’s talents and minimize her undesirable behaviors. The biggest challenge has been preventing her from getting rowdy with the sheep. She has affections for them, which does translate to guarding them. But it also translates, sometimes, into her wanting to engage them in a good game of wrestling, ala teenager dog style. This is injurious to the sheep, so obviously has to be prevented.
Up until now, the method of choice has been to fence her out of the sheep, using portable hotwire, so that she can protect them from a perimeter, but not harass them for entertainment. This stage has been useful: she has learned to guard her territory and the sheep, and the sheep are contained in a unit that makes them easy to guard (e.g. they are not spread out all over a pasture or running away from a location where she can defend them). The sheep are acclimating to her presence, and hopefully observing that she is a protector. And I’ve been working on teaching her other things during this stage: come when called, walk on a leash, and being comfortable with handling.
But now I’m taking the next step, and getting laid off from work is fitting in perfectly with the plan, because I’m home all week now! I am starting to let the sheep out of their inner fence, such that she can commingle with them, for short periods during the day. The key strategy here is to allow her to commingle calmly, which she isn’t always inclined to do on her own. I’m not quite up for becoming a full time shepherd in the field to watch her every minute. So, some mechanical means are necessarily to “help” her do the right thing!
I started out with chaining her to a coffee can full of concrete. I have seen this work well for other dogs, most notably for the pet Siberian Husky of a childhood friend of mine. Dragging the concrete “albatross” allowed the dog freedom of the yard, but kept her from vaulting over their six foot fence and running the neighborhood. Bronte is somewhat afraid of her albatross, so it is definitely effective in convincing her to walk calmly and slowly- she has no choice!
But, it became apparent that this implement wasn’t quite what I needed- its sharp edges made it hang up in the grass, so it was very hard for her to drag. The sheep would wander away from her, and she’d become distressed, as if to say “hey, wait up! I’m dragging a load of cement here!!” I was starting to consider other objects which might work better: round fishing weights or something, and those may still be necessary.
Serendipitously, the concrete can unhooked from her chain (I think the clip came unclipped from catching on grass); and this allowed me to discover that just dragging the chain is deterrent enough for Bronte. She is a fairly sensitive dog, so the heavy chain still bothers her and remains in her awareness (I can tell because she looks at it frequently). I have fashioned the dragging end into a loop, so that her feet tend to hook in it as she walks. So, if she were to try to run, it would very uncomfortable. Viola, a calm, walking LGD- just what I was after! The fastest I’ve seen her travel while wearing the chain as a slow and careful trot.
The nicest thing about this is Bronte gets something in her life that she’s been sadly lacking: company. Though I do give her attention and work with her every day, I know she’ll be happier once she can commune with her sheep in a more intimate manner. I’ve felt badly that she hasn’t been allowed to thus far, but first thing’s first: she has to learn good behavior before she can enjoy the full benefits of her job.
There are a few considerations with this ball-and-chain method of training an LGD. First, I’m trying to check up on her, and the sheep, every hour or so to make sure things are copacetic. I only leave home for short errands while they are out together. And, I wouldn’t want Bronte to have to confront an actual coyote when wearing the chain; because she probably would run despite the chain, and could get injured or traumatized. And, her normally rapid running speed would be seriously compromised by the chain. So, thus far, this setup is only for broad daylight, when the coyotes are least likely to be lurking. In the evening, I use a Border Collie to put the sheep back in their hotwire enclosure, and remove the chain from Bronte’s collar. She dashes about in glee once it’s off, as if her sprinting desire has been pent up all day!
My plan is to let this good behavior rehearsal go on for several weeks, to pattern Bronte and the sheep to stay in docile company with each other. I haven’t decided on the next step yet. (You see, I’m literally making this up as I go, and see what works, and what doesn’t with this particular dog). Once choice would be to start removing her chain midday for short periods. The advantage here is that when it’s hot, she’s less likely to want to play, and the sheep are less likely to spend energy running from her. The other option would be to leave the sheep out with her, and remove her chain, during a night or two. The sheep tend to settle well during the night, so it seems unlikely that she would be able to chase them then. But, she is more active at night, and I would not be able to observe them from the house. So, I will probably try the former, and see how things go.
Here is a picture of Bronte with the sheep. It’s hard to tell where she is (behind the brown sheep on the right, foreground). And that’s the goal. Notice how some sheep are grazing, and their heads are all facing in different directions? This means that there isn’t a canine presence that’s bothersome to them and they are going about their business. If one of the Border Collies were out there, by comparison, the sheep would be tightly bunched; not grazing, and all their heads and ears would all be pointed in one direction- paying keen attention to the predatory presence of the dog.