Written by Megan Borbon at Naranjo Hills Farm
When researching in preparation for our first Maremma, we joined multiple livestock guardian dog (LGD) Facebook groups. The repeated advice was LGDs cannot be unsupervised with poultry until 2 years old, or possibly 3 or 4 years old if they are slow to mature. This is good advice if you are someone who plans to do little training with your dog, because otherwise you are going to come home to a LGD sitting next to a slobbery dead bird. You would be surprised how many prospective owners are under the impression you can toss an 8-week-old LGD out into the pasture and they know your expectations. Or that you can confine a young LGD in a separate pen, but next to the animals for several months without any training, and they will go straight to work when you release them to the pasture. Neither of these plans will work out very well for you and your farm. Yes, there is the unicorn LGD that is just born knowing what to do and does it without you ever lifting a finger. However, this is not what most LGD owners will experience. Without any training, your LGD might figure out to leave the poultry alone as an adult when he loses interest in flappy, squawking objects. However, this does not mean your LGD won’t revert back to puppy like behavior if bored, stressed, or otherwise does not understand what is expected of him. So how do you get your Maremma up and running with poultry?
The single best advice is to keep the puppy with the dam/sire or other older LGD mentor for longer than you would with a companion animal. Two months old is too young for them to leave behind the guidance of older, wiser LGDs. The breeder might not have poultry on their farm, but other skills taught by the mentor dog(s) such as being relaxed and calm around stock will translate to poultry down the road. That being said, if the breeder is exposing the puppies to poultry from birth, you’ll see quicker progress when you transition your Maremma to your own flock. If you already have an older, wiser LGD at home who is known to be a good mentor, you have some leeway in bringing the puppy home earlier. However, many LGDs are not good mentors even if they are exceptional guardians. They can over or under correct, lose patience, or even join in with the puppy chasing the same poultry they once guarded. My oldest Maremma would sit back and let the two younger ones do whatever they wanted until they hit adolescence. Then he suddenly decided he need to correct every step they took and became overbearing. He taught the younger LGDs valuable skills, but only with my supervision, so I could step in when he was veering off track with training.
Once you bring the puppy home, if you do not have a proven LGD mentor, you need to have a safe space adjacent to the poultry. If your poultry are fliers, you want your puppy space to be enclosed on all four sides (e.g., 10 x 10-foot dog kennel or covered run). The puppy should be able to see and smell the poultry, but have no ability to touch, chase, or trap them. The kennel or run is not a place to confine your puppy 24-7, it is only a place to keep the puppy and poultry safe when you are not there to supervise. Provide water and puppy safe chews/toys in the kennel. It is important to note that some LGDs do not do well in a confined space, especially if they are used to having a large area to roam under the supervision of their dam/sire and breeder. Thus, you will need to make adjustments to size and structure to meet the needs of your individual puppy. Do not force your puppy into the structure, rather help him adjust to his new set-up over a few days by pairing the kennel or run with positive things like treats and food, fun toys and chews and working up in duration.
If you want your older children, spouse, farm worker, etc. to supervise the puppy, you need to get everyone on board with the training plan first. When you (or whoever is onboard with the training) is home, the puppy should be out of the kennel and on a 6-foot leash walking around the pasture in a calm manner, doing chores, and yes…even just picking a spot in the dirt to sit down or on a lawn chair and watch as poultry meander around. Watch the sunrise, the sunset, or sit under a big tree and do absolutely nothing. You are teaching your puppy that these creatures belong and we move slow or do nothing at all around them. We have found it beneficial to let the puppy sniff the poultry, as it helps to understand its smell and what they are, but do not let things progress to harassment. A quick sniff of a few seconds is all that is needed. To facilitate this, pick up a calmer chicken and sit down on the ground with it restrained in your lap. Do not make your LGD sniff the bird. If he has no interest, that is completely fine!
If your puppy paws/play bows/licks/stares/lunges at the poultry, make a loud, assertive (but not stressed or yelling) noise such as “uh-uh!” [In all seriousness you could pick any word such as “banana!” and it would come to signify the same meaning. Just chose something that’s easy to say and gets the puppy’s attention. Do not use a common/over used word like “no!” that gets thrown around too easy in conversation and your puppy will learn to tune out.] Once you have your puppy distracted by your chosen word, as evidenced by eye contact with you, reward his manding by giving a treat immediately in the moment (it’s good to carry some treats around with you at all times) or some soothing, long strokes of affection (nothing that is going to get him over aroused as you are working on being calm around the chickens). One of our Maremma’s favorite rewards was brushing along his back and sides, so we carried around a brush those first few months. Think outside the box when finding rewards; not all LGDs, or dogs for that matter, are treat motivated.
Once your LGD has mastered being calm around chickens on a 6-foot leash, move to a long line around 15-20 feet long. You still want to be able to stop your LGD from chasing a chicken past the end of the line, but afforded more space and freedom from your side. Mastering the 6-foot leash means he has not chased, grabbed, stared at intensely, licked, or otherwise become hyper alert around your chickens for several weeks. Go about the same training on the long line as you did on the 6-foot leash. If your LGD has difficulty not chasing on the long line and cannot be redirected, return to the 6-foot leash and once solid again, retry the long line.
Once the long line has been mastered, bring a few calmer chickens into the LGDs kennel, or use temporary welded wire fencing or other barrier to create a small area (around 100-200 square feet). We have a few hens who don’t take any gruff; they will stand their ground and peck should another animal come too close. We use these hens as the first experience the LGD has off leash to teach boundaries. These hens give good corrections and do not chase or flog the LGD, they simply give a quick peck to say move back. Make sure to practice with chickens in the LGD’s kennel at least daily, while still practicing having your LGD on a long line during supervised training sessions in the pasture. Important note at this stage of training: do not try off leash in the pasture before mastering off leash in the pen with the chickens present. If your LGD takes off in chase of a chicken in the pasture, your chicken has no chance, and you just reinforced chasing as a fun game. You won’t be able to catch up to your LGD in time to make any difference in training.
So now your LGD has mastered calm behavior around the poultry on a 6-foot leash, 15 to 20-foot line, and off leash in a small, confined space. You have been practicing and training for weeks to months. If it’s only been a few days, your LGD has not mastered anything. Each step is a few weeks at a time to look for a consistent pattern of behavior. Most LGDs will go down a step, or even two steps, and then get it back together and progress again. Before you try the big step of off leash in the pasture, you need to have a good foundation in recall so if your LGD gets ready to take off, you can regain control quickly and effectively. Only then is it time for off leash training…
The first few weeks off leash in the pasture is not the time to be cleaning your chicken coops, filling water troughs, or shoveling poop. You need to have both eyes on the LGD reading his posture and preventing unwanted behavior before it happens, or worst case, immediately as it’s occurring. Increase the amount of time the LGD is supervised off leash in the pasture slowly over time so he can be successful. Don’t try to make it hard for him, we want to build his confidence and understanding of his job. A young LGD who is off leash for the first time in pasture will reliably misbehave after a few minutes. So, clip back on the long leash (or short leash if you prefer) after 1-2 minutes before they get in to trouble. Next time supervised off leash in pasture, increase the time to 5 minutes before clipping back on the leash. The time after, perhaps 8 minutes, and so on. While the goal is to increase time intervals, make sure to throw in a short time interval here and there to boost confidence and willingness to train. Let’s say you’re up to 15 minutes, every few practices do a 1-minute interval and reward. You can even make it super easy occasionally, such as 10 seconds, before rewarding generously. A trainer we worked with many years ago said, “Make it rain treats!” and that concept has stuck with our farm.
If the LGD starts misbehaving (for example, running circles around the poultry) during supervised off leash in the pasture, call him to you (or go to him if he refuses to come) and clip the leash on, all with a neutral attitude. Do not provide any attention or rewards; take a deep breath and calmly leave the area together. You can return to training after both you and your dog have decompressed, whether that be a few minutes or a few days. Before practicing supervised off leash again, revisit recall training with distractions. Once recall is back on track, return to off leash in pasture practice at the time interval the LGD was last successful at, and work your way back up again to longer time frames. Remember, throw in short intervals every few practices! Training shouldn’t just get more difficult every time, or why would the LGD play along when the goal post keeps shifting?
When your LGD is up to about 1 hour off leash with your direct supervision, now is the time to up the game. Hide behind a tree, pretend like you are busy in the coop (but really watching out of the corner of your eye), walk out the gate but then watch the camera feed from your cell phone, etc. After 1-2 minutes, come back into sight and call your LGD to you and praise/reward the good behavior. If your LGD starts to misbehave when he thinks you aren’t looking, immediately return into view and follow the steps above (i.e., with a neutral attitude, call him to you or go to him if he refuses to come, and clip the leash on). Your LGD has just let you know they are not ready to be unsupervised with poultry. Not a big deal, back up a step and move at the LGD’s pace. Work on long line in pasture and off leash in the kennel with some calm chickens for a few weeks, then return to “unsupervised” (remember you really are watching, but your LGD thinks you’re not paying attention) off leash in the pasture. Restart at a 1 to 2-minute interval and build the time interval slowly over the next few weeks.
The last stage, actually unsupervised in the pasture, is the hardest because it means fully trusting your LGD. Only you will know when that time is as each LGD works at their own pace. There is always some risk involved, but by following the steps above, you will mitigate that risk. One thing to note, if you have large fowl and later add bantam and/or chicks to your flock, it is prudent to go back through the above steps. Usually, the LGD picks up the change in size quickly, but if you throw in small birds without an introduction and supervision, things can go awry. Additionally, if you have two LGD puppies, then you need to find double the time to do the above steps with each separately. It is much too difficult to get both to pay attention and behave when their sibling is present, feeding off each other, and ultimately adding in confounding factors that compromises the structure of the training sessions. The single most important aspect of getting your LGD up and running with poultry is establishing a bond between you and the puppy. It’s difficult to form that bond of trust when you have another puppy vying for attention, especially because two puppies will always see each other as more fun than you!