One of the biggest problems novices have is lack of timing. What is timing … it’s seeing something ABOUT to happen AND giving the command in enough time that the dog can respond. Most novices see something “after the fact” then try to give the dog a command … which of course, never works as the dog doesn’t have a chance to correct something that’s already happened.
Watch good open handlers run … “better yet” watch the sheep and listen to the handlers commands. What you will see is a good handler will recognize an issue before it becomes a problem and their reaction will allow the dog to control the situation.
Example: The sheep are heading toward the panel and all looks well through novice eyes … when suddenly a whistle comes from the open handler – leaving them trying to figure out why. They’re confused because they have been told to watch the sheep and they were. But watching and reading are “two different things. The open handler saw something that didn’t look right … more than likely the lead ewes head (or maybe just an ear) turned away from the center of the panel (but since the body was still going straight the novice thought all was going well). The open handler knows the body follows the head and tucked that head back in – before the ewe ever had a chance to ”mentally commit” to turn away from the panel.
Keeping sheep in the correct “frame of mind” is just as important as keeping your dogs mind “in the right spot”. If the sheep think they can beat a dog … they will take full advantage of it.
Often novices wait until the sheep have not just turned away from the panel but are actually going sideways before giving a flank. Then to “compound” the problem — they give a wide flank and are slow on a “there” whistle. So, ”by then” their dog has overflanked and the sheep are going sideways the OTHER direction. Leading to the “dreaded” Zig-Zag :@) All because they didn’t tuck the sheep at the correct time.
Another thing I see is novices not flanking their dog far enough to actually turn heads. “Let’s say” the dog is fetching but the lead ewes head is NOT pointed toward the handler at the post. An open handler will have kept the dog on the side the sheep are leaning “tucking” in any ewe that tries to “stray”. A novice tends to think since the sheep are coming “towards” them that everything is OK … that is until the sheep go the wrong way around the post.
You also need to know and understand your dog. All dogs flank at different distances and speeds so you will need to flank at the correct moment that “fits” your paticuar dog. If you have a wide flanking dog you will handle it differently than a dog that takes short, tight flanks.
We are working with a dog that is a natural outrunner – she has a nice “pear shape” one – not to wide nor tight. Checking the sheep as she goes and will “give or take” ground if she feels the need. Her flanks are also clean and correct. She’s easy to handle and wants to work with her handler.
So with all those good things … what’s our problem. Her issue is she’s uncomfortable driving … she lacks the confidence to just “take them and go” so our job is to find a way to inject confidence into her.
When dogs have such a strong instinct to fetch … driving seems awkward and without purpose. They have focused on “you” as something to balance the sheep to … when you are out of the picture they don’t have a pressure object to push against. Driving to them feels as if they are taking sheep into “thin air” and they don’t know how to push when there is nothing to push against. So, often when they first start driving they tend to “flap” around behind their sheep or sometimes refuse to go at all.
With this “sort” of dog it helps to stay close to her and have both of you drive the sheep. This will give her pressure from the side with both of you putting pressure on the sheep. It also gives her something to balance off of and will help with her confidence since you are close to her encouraging her on.
When she gets comfortable “not just fetching” and begins to understand what we are asking … we will start driving straight away but will allow her to do it by flanking. She’s never gong to be a “bore in” driver and we can’t expect that as she’s not a line dog. But, she’s such a good flanker – we won’t have to stop her (which can take confidence out of a dog) in order to widen her flanks. She tends to want to move her sheep by flanking anyway so this makes it feel more “natural” to her – again giving her more confidence.
So, we start to “fall back” and let her take the pressure of the sheep “on her own” we insert flank … walk up … flank … walk up. The minute she feels uncertain we start walking with her again.
Normally I don’t like to flank young dogs on a drive … I prefer to teach them how to drive before I “steer” them but it’s important to change our training to “fit” the dog “not the other way around”.
With other dogs – if you try to walk with them – it’s too much “people pressure” and they won’t walk up on their sheep. So with those, after you turn the sheep and start the drive – you need to back up taking all your pressure off the dog – then give your walk up.
Knowing your dogs strengths and weakness and working to build up the weak parts may take longer than just using a “cookie cutter” training approach … but in my mind it’s a long-term solution instead of a quick fix.
Ever watch a group of Border Collies ”at play”. They usually “key” off one dog and react to whatever that particular dog is doing. If the “key” dog goes from a high energy play mode to a more relaxing one … the rest of the pack will follow suit. If that dog decides to go lay down … the energy in the group will drop dramatically. If you take that dog totally out of the group … the dynamics change completely. They are all “feeding off” the reactions of that individual dog. So, he is the “key” to that packs “structure”.
Dogs “absorb” energy and YOU are the KEY to the type of energy they use to work their livestock. Step back and take a look at your interactions with your dog. When you’re working do you give off hyper energy … yelling, flailing around, and generally making your dog crazy? Or, are you so quiet that you don’t project ANY energy so the dog is left with nothing to “bounce” off of? You need to try to reach the balance between positive and negative. No energy isn’t what the dog needs but all positive isn’t going to get the job done either. You can’t run/train a dog without corrections … dogs aren’t mind readers nor perfect.
Watch handlers you admire work. Do they stay calm, quiet and methodical in their handling only correcting when they need to? Or are they hyper, tense, and over-reacting to both the dog and the stock? When they walk off (even after a bad run) are they still appreciative of their dog? When they are working do they keep a positive attitude toward themselves and their dog?
Remember your attitude and energy will be passed to your dog every time you work – so you need to learn how to use both to help him work better. The “goal is to project an energy that will allow him to work calmly and a positive attitude that he will “absorb”, helping him work better in the future.
Have you ever had days where every single dog you worked seemed “off” … the common denominator is you. “More than likely” you are throwing off unconstructive energy and it’s “rubbing off” on the dogs. When you are stressed you bring out the worse in your dog.
This carries over to trialing. If you go with the attitude that it’s a waste of time and you’re not ready. Guess what … you’re liable to “live down” to your expectations. If you go with a I HAVE to win approach – you will funnel all that tension into every command you give and it will come out in how your dog works.
Working a dog is as much mental as physical (for both you and the dog). You have to get into not only your dogs mind but also yours … and try to keep them both … cool, calm and collected.
I have a really nice dog I’m working that has an issue of reacting without thinking … which can get him (and me :@) in a lot of trouble.
He’s not a hard dog nor one that has no desire to please – His “problem” is he just wants to “go” so the second he hears a command he reacts to what he *assumed* I said. He’s ready to “engage” the moment any word comes out of my mouth … and of course, because he didn’t actually hear what I said – it’s wrong a lot of the time.
So, it’s my job to help him learn how to listen and then respond not the other way around.
How I accomplish this is whenever he’s wrong I stop him and make him WAIT. I don’t just let him try to correct himself without stopping, thinking and adjusting himself.
Let’s use the example of him taking a wrong flank.
Lets say I give him a flank and he goes the wrong way. I tell him to lie down … but, if he lies down for a “split second” – and I let him spin around and go the other direction … he might then be going the correct direction BUT the “wrong direction” was NOT the REAL problem. The reason he made the mistake was because he reacted instead of thinking. So, just correcting the “way” he’s going is not going to fix the problem. He knows his flanks so that’s not why he’s getting it wrong.
I need to work on making every move he makes “slow, methodical and thoughtful”. By making him slow down and THINK before he moves … I’m working on his mind. I need him to relax enough that he can actually HEAR what I said instead of moving because he heard “something”.
I repeat the lie down softly and quietly. At first he would “twitch” every time he heard the words. If he got up I said “lie down” in a firmer voice … then the soft lie down. I wouldn’t let him move until he was calmly lying there LISTENING for the next command.
One other thing that intensifies his reactionary nature is losing his sheep. He’s always trying to get in a position where he feels in control … I need to teach him that speed is not the only method to control sheep. Showing him that no matter where he is if he will slow down (and stop trying to do everything at “mach one”) he can still control his sheep. So, I set it up (in a controlled environment) so his sheep get away every once in a while. Then we wait until he relaxes before I allow him to go retrieve them.
Again, I don’t let him just RUN … he has to go out with thought and purpose. Physical movement without thought isn’t useful to dog or person.
I’m working a dog that flanks too wide on one side. It’s not his outruns only his flank and only on one side. So, I’m trying to teach him the difference between a wide flank and a tighter one. Until he understands there is more than one way to flank … I won’t be able to communicate which one I want.
I start the session (when he’s fresh) with the sheep close by (not an outrun). I give him a short crisp flank sound (either whistle or voice) … and send him “away” making sure I don’t drag out the sound. Then while he’s flanking I wait until the minute he’s starting to break wide … and I say stand, and then walk up – walk up. After he’s walked up (and gotten closer to his sheep) I will repeat the flank (the same way as before … short, crisp word or whistle, stop and walk up). If he “beats me” and gets too wide flank … I stop him and flank him back the way he came (so since we are working on a away side … it would be a come-bye) and then a walk up.
You need sheep that will walk away … running sheep will only make him want to break wider. So, something easy and quiet that will allow you to help him understand what you are working on.
After doing the above for a few minutes I then give a long wide flank make him flank ALL the way around to teach him the difference between the two. Then back to the “tighter” flanks and walk ups.
Another method I use is when he starts to break wide … I will turn the flank into a shed (which he loves) and say in “here-here” and he comes flying in. I don’t want to do that to often since I really didn’t set him up for a shed and don’t want him “pre-meditating” that maneuver :@) However, doing it every once in a while makes him not want to run as wide and keeps him in contact with his sheep.
With a few hard dogs I’ve had to use a long line in a round pen. I don’t use this with soft or sensitive dogs. You need one with a “bit” of drive about them but it will help. You have a long line and give the flank … when he starts to break wide … correct (hey, here, or whatever) and give a tug. Make sure your angle is correct or you will pull him back toward you and not the sheep. You want him to stay the same distance from the sheep he was … not go wider. You don’t keep pressure on the line … just give a little “tug” to keep him from going wider.
I remember before I had ever trained a wide running one … people telling me that was harder issue to fix than one that was too tight. I had my doubts … I had spent so many hours pushing mine out - I just wanted to try that for a change :@) Well, “watch what you wish for” … you know what … they were right :@) If the “wide” part is programmed in … it’s hard to override.
However, it’s only one side and a flank with this dog so I’m not “overly” worried about it. On really wide running ones it’s usually both sides and often flanks and outruns (BUT not always … go figure :@)
I’m working with a dog now that will not push through the bubble. When you are loading stock into a trailer you need enough push and flank to keep the stock going forward. If a dog flanks off and gives too much ground, the stock start going sideways and it stops the forward movement.
Sometimes, it’s “just” the way the dog is but often it’s because they’ve never really learned how to push, hold and flank all at the same time.
So, that’s what we are working on. We started up against a fence trying to have him push until they split. When we first started he would only walk up to a certain point and then lie down because he knew if he pushed any farther they would break. I needed to teach him that’s precisely what I want (hard with dogs that have a lot of feel to keep the sheep together).
He would flank easily but not put enough pressure on the sheep to MAKE them go into a pen they didn’t want in. He needed walk up until they almost split (taking up the slack), then flank sideways, tuck and hold (not giving up the ground he just “won”). Not all sheep need this but when you need it … it’s very frustrating to have a dog that doesn’t how to push through that bubble.
He slowly began to understand what I was asking for. But, at first, if he broke through “his comfort zone” he would grip … and I fussed but didn’t really get “on him”. A hard correction would have meant everything he did was wrong. So, I let him know that gripping wasn’t what I wanted while making sure that it didn’t take the “drive” out of him. A quiet “hey – hey” to let him know I didn’t like that “part” of what he did (if he gripped and “hung on” … I was much firmer with my correction.)
Once he’s enjoying “pushing on” then I will refine it down so he learns to push and then flank to tuck right before they break and then push again. All the pretty flanks in the world won’t push sheep into a dark hole they don’t want to go into but “at the same time” he needs to learn how to do it without gripping.
Part of refining flanks is to teach a dog to flank and then stop with his shoulder pointed away from the sheep. This will allow the sheep to feel less pressure than if a dog flanks and then turns in towards them. I won’t do this with all dogs (especially dogs that tend to flank to wide to begin with).
As usual I use the sheep to help the dog understand what I’m looking for. I will also use a number of sheep … just because it’s easier than using 5 sheep. I start by flanking the dog with a 1/2 flank, stop him and then another 1/2 flank and stop. When the dog flanks, of course I want him turning out correctly on his flanks — but the main reason for this excercise is to teach him when he stops he needs to keep his shoulder turned out (ready for the next flank) and not draw in towards his sheep .
Let’s say I’m working on a come bye … I have the sheep to my right shoulder and slightly in front of me (I’m facing the same direction as the sheep) … the dog is on my left side. As I flank him … I turn with the sheep pushing them away from me (still facing the same direction as the sheep and keeping them at my right shoulder). This makes the dog want to flank because he’s trying to get to their heads. If I stand in the same place I will lose my angle and it might allow him to tighten up on his flank. By keeping myself and the sheep “turning” it encourages him want to turn out on his flank.
Then I will stop him and use a stick (or whatever) to put pressure on his shoulder (to keep it from turning in) and his head (to stop him). If he tries to turn in when he stops I lift the stick up and then point it back at him … putting pressure on him to turn out even more.
With this exercise you can also be working on your 1/2 flanks, and teaching them how to relax about stopping before heading their sheep (for dogs that have issues with “letting go” on a drive). However, the main purpose of teaching him not to turn in … is to help you with your shedding/penning work when you don’t need your dog pushing sheep over the top of you.
What causes tension in a dog?
Tension can come from either the dog, the sheep, the handler or a combination of all the above.
Some dogs just work with a lot of tension.
In some cases … it’s “in the genes” and you can trace some lines to this trait. That’s not to say its all bad as there are some top dogs that run with tension in them. It all depends on how the dog handles it (if it makes them grip off … that’s usually not a good thing :@).
Just to make in more confusing a dog can be relaxed off stock and still be tense when working.
Some handlers build tension.
Sometimes it’s not in the dogs “nature” but it’s “handler made” tension. If someone handles a dog and their timing is “off” it can cause a dog to work with tension even if he’s not “normally” a tense dog.
When a good trainer is working a dog … their timing is correct and it allows the dog to feel comfortable doing what is asked of him (because the handler is “in-sync” with the sheep and dog). So it all FEELS right to the dog. Which allows a dog to relax and think about “the job at hand”.
However, “on a different page” … there are tense handlers that pass this on to the dog – and the dog “thrives” on it (usually it’s the “non-tense” calmer ones that respond). It seems to encourage the dog to “step up a notch” and focus better.
Sometimes sheep build tension.
For different dogs it can be different types of sheep. Some dogs don’t mind wild sheep and will react by flanking off and backing off. They seem to view it as exciting and “makes them read their sheep better”.
For other dogs wild sheep make them feel they are losing control. They like to be in “contact” with their sheep at all times and panic when they can’t find that contact point – causing tension.
Some dogs get so tense working heavy sheep they can revert to gripping. To others it “makes their day” and will just put their “head down and power on”.
So you see … it’s not if the dog has tension or not … but what “the team” does with that tension that “counts”.