BronteGraduationDay Bronte, our Maremma, is one month shy of two years old. In normal dog years, I think that equates to about nine months! 😀 Big dogs are notoriously slow to mature, and she’s no exception. But I can see it happening, her silliness factor is dropping, she is more mindful, and has learned some things.

I’ve written before about how frustrating it can be to work with a non-housedog, because they don’t have the advantage of all the learning that goes with living together in a small space. LGDs, by contrast,  only spend minutes a day with us, since the goal is for them to primarily be bonded with livestock, not people.

One big milestone for me was her learning what a correction was. For the longest time, she didn’t “get it” if I yelled at her, or physically chased her in an intimidating way. The usual tools we use to let an off-leash dog know hey, knock that off.

I solved this problem by accident, actually, in a moment of anger. I was moving the Electronet one day, I’d left her loose, and she was hassling the sheep. I had a plastic fence stake in my hand. I was irritated with her for ignoring my verbal corrections, and I chucked the stake at her. This isn’t recommended, of course, one should never do anything to a dog in a fit of anger, and throwing a stick can have serious consequences if it hits them in the eye! But, nevertheless, I did it, and it scared the crap out of her. And now, I have a correction: just pointing and waving the stick at her is enough to make her contrite.

And so, finally, I have a little bit of a distance training tool. Over the summer, each time I’d move the sheep, I’d let her mingle. If she started getting rowdy, I’d show her the stick, and it would lower her self esteem momentarily. This is exactly what’s needed when a stock dog gets too “high”, is to knock them down a notch emotionally. Because then their presence is no longer intimidating to the sheep. The sheep slow down, the dog slows down, and everything becomes proper. And they all see how things should be.

This ability to rein her in gave me a chance to put words to what I wanted: cool it, slow down, easy there, be nice. Good dog. And when she gave me that, I could praise her and let her stay in with the sheep a while longer. And then the most key learning of all occurred. She started to conclude all on her own that calm behavior around the sheep got her what she most wanted: the sheep accepted her presence and did not shun her. Over the summer, I could see it happening, she’d hurry a bit too fast towards the sheep, they would shuttle away. Then she would self-correct and slow down in response, turning her power down a notch to calm them so she could get near. Beautiful!

So this learning, the frequent being-a-good-dog practice all summer, and her natural maturity setting in has earned her a new milestone this last week. Graduation Day. I let the ewes loose in the field to clean up the edges, and Bronte gets to be with them. For the week, she’s still dragging a chain, one last insurance policy to discourage her from rushing. But I think that can go, she is being very good and the ewes are nonchalant about her now. Knock on wood she doesn’t backslide, she’s a real LGD now! And she looks pretty happy about it.