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Leave the Ducks Alone! (How to Train a Dog to Respect Livestock Without Positive Punishment)

Any owner of both dogs and ducks, chickens, sheep, horses, or other livestock, has probably run across either the fear or the reality of a dog that chases the livestock. I keep a pair of ducks for pets and because the hen produces delicious eggs in the spring and summer. I also own two Border Collie mixes, and with each dog have had to deal with their innate desire to herd the ducks. When I trained my older dog nearly three years ago, I was forced to use positive punishment to rescue my ducks from the 'play' that sent one of them to the veterinary hospital ICU. With my younger dog, I've hit upon a method that I'd like to share.

Before we begin, let me clarify a couple of things. First, I use reinforcement and Skinnerian methods to train my dogs, as well as clickers. For this exercise, I did not use a clicker. You easily can, and it will be quite obvious where and when to do so; thus, I will not specifically discuss the addition of a clicker to the training process. Second, this exercise does use negative punishment- but that's a sight better than the shock collars, dead chicken around the neck, and physical punishment that is advocated by many people in the scenario of a dog harassing livestock. If you are uncomfortable with any sort of punishment, including negative punishment, this may not be the method for you.

Let's begin.

SUPPLY LIST:

Clicker (if desired)

Lots of small treats. You may want to cut the morning meal in half on the day you begin this exercise, as you will be feeding lots of treats all day.

Several edible/chewable jackpot treats that last a while- I used 'Porky Strips.' Greenies or rawhide are also good.

Four foot chain leash

Nylon buckle collar

Timer

Dog with a solid recall- if you can't catch your dog, address that before attempting this.

Livestock

Day Off (you will spend several hours on this the first couple of days)

HOW TO DO IT:

Begin by fastening the four foot chain leash to a post, tree, or fence in your yard (or pasture or wherever the dog interacts with the livestock). Get a pocket full of very small treats. I used Zuke's Mini Naturals, but any tiny healthy treat will do fine. Put one jackpot treat in your pocket. Turn the ducks (for the purpose of this article, I will use 'ducks' to refer to whatever stock you're working with) out in the area.

Before releasing your trainee with the ducks, spend fifteen minutes to half an hour on vigorous indoor play. Set him up for success by tiring him out a little bit! Chase the Dot, fetch, or working on a fast recall from across the house work well. Once he's beginning to show signs of tiring, release the dog into the yard with the ducks and close the door.

Find yourself a project that can be done in a room with a large window where you can look out and observe the dog and ducks. Set your timer for five minutes. With a very persistent duck chaser, you may need to start with two or three minutes. Have a seat and ignore the dog and ducks until the timer goes off.

When your timer beeps, head immediately outside. If your dog is harassing the ducks, walk calmly up to him, take him by the collar (you can click and treat for the collar grab if you like), and lead him to the leash you previously attached somewhere in the yard. Fasten the leash to his collar and silently return to the house. Leave your dog in time out for ONLY 30 to 90 seconds. This is important! Set your timer. A dog given a long time out will forget what he was doing when the time out was given.

If your dog was doing anything other than bothering or chasing the ducks, give a small treat, set the timer for another five minutes, and return indoors.

If your dog got a timeout, release him with a treat and praise after the timeout is up. Stay outside for a moment- if he runs straight back to chasing the ducks, give another timeout. Repeat this until he is released and goes off to sniff or pee or anything besides duck chasing.

Set your timer for five minutes again.

Continue this for a while- go outside every five minutes and give a treat for duck ignoring and a time out for duck harassing. Watch for chances to give a jackpot treat- if the dog is found on the other side of the yard or pasture entirely, doing something that involves zero attention paid to the ducks, he gets a jackpot! This is doubly reinforcing- it reinforces the behavior of completely ignoring the ducks, and the time spent chewing the jackpot treat is time that can't be spent chasing ducks.

Another opportunity to reinforce good behavior is right after the release from a time out. If you see your dog head for the ducks and then turn away to do something else, give a few small treats and lots of praise. Same if he sniffs a duck and then walks away.

Keep track in a small notebook. When you reach four correct responses out of five, increase the time by one minute.

If you have another dog already trained to leave the ducks alone, reinforce him with treats every five minutes as well. This gives him the chance to get some rewards for a job he does every day, prevents jealousy, and gives the trainee the idea that every five minutes he gets a chance to earn reinforcement for doing nothing- it also prevents the trainee from untraining an older dog by showing him how fun it is to chase ducks!

Do not go above ten minutes on the first day. If you get up to ten minutes between time out/reinforcement, quit- pen the ducks up and bring the dogs inside for some play or time chewing favorite toys.

When you start the next morning, go back to five minutes initially, but rapidly increase back up to wherever you left off the day before.

Do not leave the trainee alone with the ducks until you've spent several days on this and reached a 100% accuracy level for at least three days in a row. Duck chasing is self reinforcing, and giving a dog that opportunity without supervision too early nearly guarantees he will take it.

The idea here is to give your dog a choice; he can take the fun of chasing ducks and get it interrupted every five minutes for an unpleasant time out, or he can ignore the ducks and get a delicious treat every five to ten minutes all day. Most dogs will take the treat rather than a fun time that ends in a time out.

The key to success is being diligent about timing and reinforcement. Three to five minutes of duck chasing isn't likely to injure a duck or stress them out to the point of collapse; if you ignore your timer and go outside to give a time out every time you see duck chasing, you will find yourself forgetting when to give treats or play as reinforcement for duck ignoring, which will defeat the purpose of making ignoring the ducks more reinforcing than chasing them.

If you try this technique, please let me know how it goes! My own puppy still does a little chasing, but has toned it down for more of 'duck following'- he walks after them and lies down in their favorite spots. I'm tightening my criteria to include a timeout for following the ducks even if they don't appear stressed, but reinforcement for lying calmly next to them or standing next to them with head turned away from them. My goal is a dog that is comfortable and friendly with the ducks, but doesn't feel that they are a source of play.