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Early Training of Livestock Guardian Dogs

Early Training of Livestock Guardian Dogs

We have raised several litters of puppies, and there are many tools to use in the early stages of training. Just because a pup is a wibbly-wobbly new walker doesn’t mean training can’t begin. One of the main tools I use is the rollover. This is a vital skill for all Livestock Guardian Dogs to have and, although many, if not most, of my pups naturally develop it, it is helpful to reinforce it as early and often as possible.


By ‘rollover’, I don’t mean the ‘Alpha Roll’ many of you have heard and read about. There may be a use for that in the opinion of some handlers, but if early training is done, I find it to be completely unnecessary. We have a lot of young handlers-in-training at our farm, so I teach all my kids to do this so the skill is taught and positively reinforced often. From the time the pups eyes open, each time you handle them, roll them onto their back. If they are already there, don’t touch them. Wait until they are on their tummies and roll them gently over as you say “down.” Always give calm positive reinforcement, even to the littlest ones: make eye contact, gently rub their tummy, and say “good.” “Good” will be a useful signal throughout the pup’s life. Don’t use baby talk: a firm, upbeat “good” will last a lifetime. Once they can walk, even if a little wobbly, this skill can be developed further. Try to roll them over as they are approaching you; a surprise rollover from behind will startle rather than train them. Approach gently and calmly, but not necessarily slowly. Approach from a standing, not squatting position – you are training the pup into submissive behavior upon your walking approach. Gently roll the pup over; most will assist, but some stubborn little ones will resist. They are small enough still that you can very gently maneuver them into a side lying position by taking in one hand the scruff of their neck (which often relaxes their entire body) and wrapping the other hand under their tummy and around their hip joint, lifting up (their feet rarely need to come off the floor before they cooperate, but your hand under their hip will support their weight and protect their spine) and gently rolling them onto their side. Again, eye contact, smile, say “down,” and give a tummy rub and a firm, enthusiastic “good” are in order for even the slowest of obedience and cooperation.


Once the pups are walking and scampering around, my kids and I always roll them over when we are approaching. The overwhelming majority will begin learning to roll before your hands even touch them, and by 5 weeks, many will be on their sides before you’re within 3 feet of them. I continue that practice for the life of the dog: by 8-12 weeks, it is a natural behavior for mine. If you have a dual-purpose dog, which to me is a human companion and a working dog (not just a dog unattended in a field with only contact with its main handler most of its life), you can incorporate these drills into play with your pup. My 4 year old girl loves to play “down”, where we run and chase and I suddenly throw my hands at her and say “down,” and she immediately drops to her side. Our pups are known to create rather a road block in front of the barn when they learn this: 9-12 pups in a heap lying down, waiting for praise, is an enjoyable slowdown to my chores. I try to avoid saying “no” if a pup resists obedience to a command. It can sometimes be just one word too many, and confuse the pup as to what is a command, what is praise, and what else you might be communicating. “No” and “good” can be used as opposing messages when teaching patience around food, for example, where the food is the reward for obedience. But when I am using a verbal indicator, such as “good” to indicate my happiness with the pup’s response, I try not to use a verbal cue to discourage behavior. Rather, I simply ignore the pup by removing eye contact and walking away. “No” and “good” can be successfully used during the same training session once the pup is more familiar with your verbal and nonverbal cues, and once the pup clearly grasps and responds fairly predictably to your instructions.


This submissive response will ¬†be reinforced by the stock. Cattle, sheep and goats will lunge, even young ones, and the dogs will begin to associate the approach of the stock as a signal to lie down. Chickens and other fowl are a little different; they are flighty and unpredictable, loud and easily startled. They move very differently than other stock, which presents a completely different training challenge, which I will address in detail in another post. However, you as the handler can continue to train the pup to lie down, and at this age, the pup is very unlikely to be successfully left alone with fowl, so the pup isn’t likely to develop bad habits that result from improper introduction to fowl. Once again, even though LGDs and fowl is a topic of its own, all other training should be the same no matter what your pup will do when it grows up.


The calm nature of the dogs around the stock, combined with the training activity, will bring out the naturally gentle and submissive breeding that makes these dogs a wonderous thing to behold around small and delicate kids and lambs. It is the beginning of the development of respect between the dog and both the handler and those who benefit from the mighty and gentle protection of the dogs.¬†However, please don’t forget: these dogs aren’t bred for obedience. Patience is a must. We expect our LGDs to think and react when we aren’t there to protect our flock. We cannot simultaneously expect independent thinking and mindless obedience. These dogs are ALWAYS multitasking; they are bred to reject human instructions where they see a better way to behave. This is what makes them the perfect pasture companions to our chickens, sheep, goats, cattle and even horses. This is also why we have trouble with them obeying fencelines and expanding their territory. They are good at what they do, and they know it. Be patient with them and they will be everything you expect, and then some.


Nikki Merson, age 41, homeschool mom of 7, raising working Anatolian Shepherds and registered Nigerian Dwarf Goats for 3 1/2 years. When we aren’t working pups and milking goats, our family cultivates a very large vegetable garden and a sunflower and pumpkin patch in the spring, summer, and fall, our family skis in the winter, and all year long I photograph the beautiful scenery around me here in the Appalachian Mountains surrounding Canaan Valley, West Virginia. God has created these wonderful and amazing animals, and we raise them in a way that we believe would please Him: gently, lovingly, and with respect for the 2,000 years of unique breeding that makes them the majestic and wonderful creatures they are.

Nikki Merson
Angel’s Haven Farm
Harman, WV

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