It is common to receive conflicting advice on how to raise a full time working LGD. There are slightly different ways to introduce a LGD puppy to livestock and foster the bond between them. The method you use depends greatly upon your situation.
You may be an experienced LGD user with stock accustomed to living with a LGD. You might have an older reliable LGD to help serve as a mentor. Or this pup may be the very first LGD for you and your stock. You may work full time on your ranch or farm and available to monitor a growing pup with stock, or your job may take you away from your home for many hours every day. You might live on acreage with large flocks and have the ability to organize different or flexible groups of stock and a pup, or your space and animals may be very limited. And finally, your pup may have been born on a farm from excellent working parents and spent its early weeks in close contact with stock, while other pups may have come from unknown backgrounds or did not have these early sensory and formative experiences. In our various situations, we need to be flexible and adapt to our own specific needs.
Perhaps more important than one particular set of guidelines, is providing a reliable way to supervise the pup into early adulthood. It is crucial that all inappropriate behaviors – playing, chasing, biting, herding, barking, dominating, or other aggressive behaviors - be stopped to prevent them from being ingrained. This process is not really “training” in the classical sense and it definitely doesn’t require that level of control. LGDs are self-thinkers and they don’t need to be taught to protect. But even for young pups born with stock, continuing attention to their behavior through observation and time spent with the dog is essential.
It is important to remember that in their homelands, LGDs always worked in close partnership with their shepherds and other livestock guardian dogs. A pup was never left completely alone with stock. Despite the widespread and mistaken advice, both hands-off raising and placing a completely unsupervised pup directly with a flock are wrong. Keeping this knowledge in mind, how should you proceed to give your pup a good start as a working LGD?
In well-established flocks guarded by LGDs, pups grow up intimately with their stock. As they become larger, a pup is often penned with a few older or reliable animals that will not tolerate misbehavior, but also won’t injure the pup. The pup has access to a safe area where he can retreat or eat in peace. When he is large enough (30 to 40 pounds), the pup may join the larger flock, along with adult LGDs and human supervision. Owners or shepherds will continue to monitor his behavior, give him attention, and work on basic manners.
Small homesteads with fewer animals can adapt these techniques. The approach for the first few days away from mom and litter mates can be found here.
If you have an older, reliable LGD, your adult dog may be a good companion for your new pup. He might also serve as a mentor, but not all older dogs are good teachers and they may ignore misbehavior. Most adult LGDs over 2 or 3 years old will accept a young pup graciously.
If you don’t have an older mentor for your pup, you will definitely need to do more supervision. If available, your pup can be penned with a couple of calm, steady animals that won’t bully or injure him, while you observe his behavior over time. On the other hand, skittish stock afraid of a dog may encourage chasing or playing. And small or baby animals could be easily injured by accident or they may try to play with the pup. Another option that folks often use is to pen the young pup right next to the stock to encourage familiarity between them both. A secure pen, which can be made of livestock panels, is also useful when you need to confine him for various purposes or time outs. It is also useful for feeding to prevent food aggression with other dogs or stock.
In all cases you should give the pup attention in his area: grooming, basic work on manners, and walks or exercise in the places where he will eventually work - but do not take him on walks off your property, into your house, or allow him to play with your housedogs in your yard. Formal perimeter walks are not necessary or particularly useful for a LGD, whose heritage lies in huge, migratory grazing with shepherds and flocks. A LGD remains home due to his bond with his stock - especially on open range - and good fencing in smaller areas. Your pup can have bones and other objects to play with in his area, but squeaky toys are not recommended to prevent the association of small animal sounds with play.
Take your pup with you as you do chores every day with your stock. Expose him to all the different species you want him to eventually protect. Let him drag a long line as you observe his interactions. Praise good behavior. Stop all bad behaviors such as chasing, playing, mouthing, or hard staring at stock – and you must correct them when you catch him right in the act. When you consistently see good behavior over time, start leaving him alone with stock where you can monitor him from a distance. Appropriate behavior includes walking calmly around the stock or lying near them with head and tail low, eyes averted, relaxed ears, non-threatening sniffing or licking at mouths, and following the animals as they graze. Immediately remove him back to his pen or tether him if he misbehaves. When you are unable to observe him with the stock, either tether him within the enclosure so that the stock can escape any bad behavior or place him in his area next to the stock.
Be especially careful with birthing animals and young babies. Immature dogs may interfere with the birthing process or attempt to protect babies from their mothers. Allow the young dog to calmly observe mothers and new babies, but don’t leave a him alone with birthing mothers until you are confident of his behavior, which probably will not be until the second birthing season at the earliest. Poultry guarding is the most challenging task we ask of LGDs, as birds are not the traditional stock of these dogs. A good guide to socializing LGDs to poultry can be found here.
LGDs grow rapidly and your 8 or 9-month-old dog may look like an adult but he is far from it. From this point until he is a mature adult at age 2 or so, adolescent or teenage dogs may get into trouble. Some dogs mature early and may be reliable with stock at 15 to 18 months; but just like teenagers they may occasionally regress or have fits of irrational behavior, as well as large amounts of restless energy. Continue to observe your dog for the slightest signs of misbehavior and step back into your training/supervision when needed – using correction on a long line, a time out pen, or tethering when appropriate. Although your dog is not ruined if a mistake occurs, it must be stopped.