This is part of a longer article I'm working on for my new puppy customers to help them learn how to integrate their new Maremma puppies with their stock. But I don't believe you can address what to do in a puppy's new home unless you first understand what happened - or should have happened - during the time the puppy was with the breeder. Therefore I decided to break this down into a series of blog posts so I can get the first part out there, then I'll come back to write more later, eventually hopefully making an entire page on this complex but important topic.
One of the most common questions we get asked by new puppy owners, whether they are buying a puppy from us or have bought one elsewhere and are seeking advice is "How do I train my puppy to livestock?", followed by "When can my new puppy be left unsupervised with my livestock?" This is a a very complex issue and the answer to the first question depends on many factors such as the temperament, age and developmental stage of the individual puppy, how the puppy was socialized with stock for the first few weeks or months of it's life, the type of livestock it will be guarding, the temperaments of the livestock and whether that stock is used to LGD's or not. The answer to the second question is "As soon as it's possible to do so safely for both the stock and the puppy."
I have heard people say to never leave a LGD unsupervised with stock until they are two years old. I very strongly disagree with this advice! That is a good way to end up with a companion Maremma, instead of a LGD. A LGD puppy needs to bond with the livestock it will guard as soon as possible, however it needs to be done safely. And while it's true that in general LGD's aren't fully mature until they are around 2 years old (some even later) in reality a well bred, well started LGD should be safe with at least SOME livestock at a much younger age, and in fact they should not be deprived of this important bonding time with the stock. The trick is matching the right stock to your puppy and setting the puppy and the stock up for success. And that all begins with what happened before you ever brought your puppy home. Then it's your job as a puppy owner to build on that foundation.
If you bought your puppy from us, or from a breeder who socializes their puppies intensively with stock like we do then a large part of the work has already been done for you. Our puppies are born near our goats and are smelling, hearing and seeing them from birth, while being kept safe from sharp hooves and the elements in our Puppy Parlor, which sits in one of our goat pastures. This building doubles as a milking parlor and occasional kidding area and hospital/nursery ward for our dairy goats, so our puppies are exposed to the goats from birth. Usually sometime between 3 & 4 weeks old the puppies have outgrown their whelping area and are getting very mobile. At this point they start going outdoors in the attached kennels and other partitioned off areas to meet a few gentle goats and watch the animals all around them. Usually by around 5 weeks old the puppies have free access to goats and chickens and are never away from livestock as long as they live here. They just meet different types of livestock (horses, poultry etc) as they grow and mature. So when a customer asks us when the puppy they bought from us should be with livestock I tell them they already have been since birth, and not to go backwards. The trick is getting the livestock in their new home to accept a puppy, and if the stock has never had a positive experience with dogs then caution will be needed. That is different than adding a puppy to stock that's already used to LGD's and will be addressed in a later post.
To learn more about how we socialize our puppies with livestock please see this page below:
How We Raise and Train Our Maremma Puppies
If you bought your puppy from someone who skips this important early socialization with livestock them I'm sorry to say that you have a lot of work cut out for you and your dog may never reach it's full potential. It requires nature AND nurture to produce a superior LGD. And it requires a lot of work and a carefully planned and set up environment to raise puppies this way and to do so safely for the puppies and the stock. Sadly there are some "breeders" out there who are either too lazy or too ignorant to do things right. These people seem to be breeding solely for money or prestige. They aren't really farmers or livestock producers and if their puppies get any exposure to stock at all it's an occasional visit to the chicken coop or trip out to the barn to see the family horse or to visit a few token sheep or goats on their "farm". Calling this kind of experience "learning livestock" is like watching a cooking show and calling it "learning to be a chef".
There is a "critical window" of learning for puppies that lasts during roughly the first 16 weeks. This is a scientific fact, not an opinion. There have been many documented studies to prove this. To learn more about these critical learning periods see these links:
Socialization and the Race Against Nature
The Sensitive Period and Socialization in Puppies and Kittens
Neuroscience and Brain Mechanisms of Critical Periods in Puppy Development
Critical Periods in Puppies Revisited
Puppy Socialization Starts with the Breeder
The Puppy Culture DVD and early socialization in Puppies
Now admittedly most of these articles are about companion dogs but the same science applies to Livestock Guardian Dogs. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the early socialization period in puppies is even MORE critical for LGD puppies than companion dogs. We are taking a predator species, dogs, and asking them to bond with, live peacefully with, protect and perhaps even lay down their lives to protect one or more other species - prey species. It requires more than "good genetics" for a LGD puppy to live up to their full potential. It requires nature AND nurture to produce the best LGD's, and anyone who tells you something different is ignoring science. And any LGD "breeder" that ignores this vital early learning window is doing a great disservice to their puppies, their customers and the livestock they will one day protect.
If puppies spend their first 12-16 weeks living with livestock they are learning the "language" of the stock, much like a child immersed in a bilingual home naturally picks up both languages and does so more easily than any adult ever could. If puppies instead spend this time inside a house, on a patio or hanging out by a swimming pool then they are learning to be companion dogs, no matter how many acres the "farm" is or how many predators patrol the outer edges of the property. What matters is what the puppy directly experiences during these first 12-16 weeks and he can't learn to be a LGD if he's not with livestock, period. When you take that puppy that was raised in a companion setting and drop him into a barn full of goats, sheep or chickens he will feel like Dorothy did when she landed in Oz. And then he will spend a lot of time trying to get back home to Kansas! These puppies invariably have a harder time bonding with stock and some never really do. And it's not the dog's fault or the owner's fault. That is 100% on the breeder.
What's more, puppies raised with little to no livestock interaction haven't learned proper behavior with stock during the most effective learning period of their lives. It's a simple fact that a peck on the nose or a head butt from a goat or sheep is a lot more impressive to a 15 lb puppy than a 50 lb one. And a goat that calmly ignores a tiny puppy's attempts to bite its ears is a much better teacher than a goat that yells and screams when a 40-50 lb puppy attempts the same thing. The first goat taught the puppy that this kind off silly play doesn't pay. He soon gets bored and finds something else to do. The second goat taught the puppy a very exciting new game and he will not likely give that game easily, if ever. Better to never let the puppy learn that game by putting the right stock with the puppy at the right age. And that's NOT when the puppy is 3, 4, 5 months old or older!
The RIGHT livestock, introduced early in the puppy's life by the breeder, can teach the puppy manners while also giving the puppy positive interactions with stock so that the puppy learns to respect the stock but also see these animals as his friends. This is what "bonding to stock" is all about. Positive early interactions for both the puppy and the stock. There's a specific type of "puppy trainer" stock that works best: steady, calm and gentle but not prone to either getting overexcited or overly aggressive when the puppy tries to engage in rough play, as all puppies will eventually do. A good breeder understands the vital role the livestock has in training their puppies and employs specific trustworthy stock just for this purpose. But if the puppy gets NO (or little) exposure to stock during this critical window, or exposure to the wrong kind of stock (either aggressive stock or flighty stock) then you are much more likely to have problems with puppies and adolescent dogs that engage in rough play and even aggressive behavior with stock. And in my opinion a breeder that raises puppies in such a manor is highly unethical and should just pick a companion breed.
But these breeders are not going to give up their breed, either because they don't realize the harm they are causing or because the just don't care. Therefore it's the potential puppy owner's job to educate themselves before buying a puppy. Don't just look for a cute puppy or for a breeder who has pretty dogs, even beautiful dogs with correct conformation, impressive pedigrees and fantastic hip scores. Are those dogs actively LIVING with and guarding livestock, and if so, what kind and how many? And I don't mean the stock is in a pen and the dogs patrol around the animals. If that's the case then to me that's a huge red flag that the dogs can't be trusted with stock. And if the parents can't be trusted then the puppies likely won't be trustworthy, either. Also, are the PUPPIES themselves living with livestock? And if so what kind and at what age were they put with stock? As stated in the articles above the longer you wait to socialize the puppy the more permanent damage you're causing. You might be able to train a puppy that missed that critical window but you'll never truly make up for what the puppy missed. You may get an "OK" LGD but you won't get a "great" one. And I don't know about you but "Ok" is not good enough to guard MY animals! So if the breeder can't show you proof and lots of it, in the way of lots of photos and videos of their parent dogs and their puppies WITH livestock from an early age, as well as the accommodations they've made to maximize this vital socialization with livestock for their puppies then I would highly suggest you find another breeder.