A Philosophy on Training the Working Akbash Dog Puppy

By Diane Spisak

When I started out with Akbash Dogs I was under the impression that you put the puppies in with sheep, and when you noticed inappropriate behaviors you tried to catch the puppy in the act and make corrections. Well this sounded good in theory, but in fact I was only able to catch the pup in the act one out of three times. The rest of the time the puppy got away with the misbehaving, which reinforced the behavior. I think it was merely luck that most dogs eventually out grew the playful stuff and became good dogs by maturity at age two or three.

I now recommend people raise their puppies under strict supervision right from eight weeks old on. I found it made so much more sense to instill puppies with good habits right from the start than to let bad habits develop and then spend years trying to break them. When the puppies learn proper behavior and good manners at the beginning, I find they become livestock safe sooner and are usually safe with mature ewes by six months to a year instead of two to three years.

This is my routine today.

First of all, it is very important to start puppies in a pen or pasture where they cannot get out through, under or over a fence. If the puppies don’t learn to escape in the first year, chances are they will not know they can and they will stay in the pasture. If, however, you let pups learn they can escape, those mature dogs will likely be escape artists for the rest of their lives unless they are contained by extraordinarily reinforced fencing.

To start preparing my puppies for their future homes I handle the pups every day. Research shows that stimulation makes the dog a better learner and it also helps them deal better with stress throughout their lives.

I put collars on the pups at three weeks of age. With different color collars on each pup, I can easily tell puppies apart to observe and note individual behaviors.

As soon as they start tumbling out of the whelping box to greet people, I begin obedience training. I call "puppy come "and then push them into a sitting position with a "sit" when they do come. I am automatically teaching them to come and I am also teaching them to sit in greeting so they will be less likely to jump on people. I also strongly believe in socialization, so from about three weeks I have friends and neighbors come over every weekend to pet puppies. If the dam was properly vaccinated the puppy handlers will not bring any diseases into the environment. The early socialization far outweighs the risk of disease to healthy pups.

When pups are about five weeks old and pretty steady on their feet, I will put two calm, gentle older ewes in with the group of puppies. I try out a number of sheep until I find a couple that are tolerant of the puppies because I am only interested in starting the bonding process, not much more. The puppies are still not very coordinated so I am not worried about play chasing or even mouthing at this point.

By six to seven weeks the puppies may start some tentative play chasing or mouthing and I will start making corrections by either grabbing the puppy by the scruff and giving it fast jerk with a firm “Leave it”, or a swat with a horse riding crop on the shoulder and a deep-voiced startle correction by making a harsh buzzer sounding " Ehh!” Of course follow that by a "Good dog" when the pup backs off. " Ehh" and "Good dog" are your most common commands until you have shaped their behavior.

Remember to praise good behaviors; nearly everything the pup explores for a while requires either an “Ehh” or a”Good dog” from you. By doing this the pup easily learns to understand what is expected.
Depending on the puppy and how much play interaction I see I usually leave a puppy in with sheep full time until around nine to ten weeks of age. By this time they are getting more coordinated and then the pups go into a larger yard (1/4 to 1 acre area) that shares a fence line with a flock of sheep so that they can still visit through the fence. They are allowed in with sheep only under supervision when I can make some good firm corrections for any play behavior directed to the livestock. If I can do this at least once daily I feel I am doing really well. I am even happy if I do it three to four times a week as long as they are next to sheep for some bonding and socializing the rest of the time, and they are in a large enough area to exercise. By doing this they learn right from the start they cannot under ANY circumstance play chase or mouth the stock. If I am consistent and I can catch them in the act a few times and make timely corrections, then I have a puppy by four to five months with good livestock manners. Once I’m confident that I have made enough "Good dog" praises and "Ehh" corrections so they understand the rules, then they can start getting more time out with the stock with less supervision.

The trick is to supervise them well. You have to catch them In The Act to make a correction that they understand. Even five seconds after the act, the pup won’t associate the correction with the bad deed.
Most people have to learn to recognize the puppies’ subtle behaviors so they can anticipate the pup’s intentions and be ready to correct the pup a split second before the pup actually does something.
Corrections should be of the startle variety; swift, short and firm. Praise for submission, which can be any or all of the following: a roll over, submissive peeing, averted eyes or simply the ceasing of the inappropriate behavior.

Make a verbal startle correction with a sharp and deep-voiced "Ehh!" The word “No” is not strong enough, and is over used to the point pups will ignore it. Another method of correction can be made with an empty soda can, put a couple of pebbles in it and throw or shake the can to startle the pup. You can also use a riding crop with a bat end to extend your reach and slap the pup on the rear or shoulder with an “Ehh!” If the pup is right by you, grab the pup by the scruff, give one shake with a booming “Ehh!” and immediately let go. Never shake the pup with such force that you will injure his neck or spine.

Make your corrections count. Some people swat at the dog and miss, or swat the dog too gently. The dog may begin to think of the hand or crop flapping as a game and start mouthing hands. If this happens, then the corrections are ineffective. If the dog repeats a behavior you have corrected him for, that correction is also ineffective. Your correction was either poorly timed ie. too slow, too late, not firm enough, or some combination.

Corrections must be deliberate, consistent, firm and fair. If you over correct the dog, meaning the correction was either too harsh for the deed or you kept correcting past the point when the dog submitted (maybe you lost your temper), the dog may never forgive you. You need to develop a sense for the type of correction that your particular puppy will need. Most corrections take less than three seconds to deliver.

The nice thing about working with young pups is that they are usually right under foot, and if they try to grab a ewe’s ear, you only have to move a few steps to grab them or swat them with the riding crop on the shoulder and make a verbal correction.

As they get older and are out in a field play chasing there is no way other than an electronic collar to get in a timely correction.

Why an electronic collar? Until the dogs realize they should not mouth or chase, a verbal correction at a distance may distract them but will not convince them to stop. By the time you run out to correct the dog, he sees you and stops the behavior. The delayed correction is no longer timely nor is it understood to be in reference to the behavior. The collar can deliver a correction within seconds of the deed, which the dog will understand and associate with the behavior, not with you.

At adolescence, seven to ten months of age, I again start to closely monitor the pups’ behavior. This is a time of "testing" for teenage pups. If I notice any tufts of wool that indicate wool pulling, or actually see chasing, I confine the dog again and allow him out with livestock only under supervision for a month to six weeks. While he is out with them, I watch for opportunities to make a few good corrections for inappropriate play before turning the dog out unsupervised.

Under no circumstance do I allow any pup under one year and sometimes up to two years to be left unsupervised with energetic, active young livestock. It is asking too much for that puppy not to join in when young livestock go racing around the pasture in play. This is, however, a super time to put that puppy in with young stock under close supervision. The chance of being able to make a correction for misbehavior is higher if there are tempting circumstances, such as lively lambs bouncing around in play!

If you are still uncertain about how and when to correct, don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your breeder or someone who understands the breed and has experience training working pups. 

So to conclude, Stimulate, Socialize, Bond, Train and Supervise. If you make the effort to supervise that new puppy right from the start and for the first three to six months, and you are able to make well timed corrections for play chasing or mouthing every time, you will be rewarded with a terrific livestock-safe guardian dog at a relatively young age.