Students are always asking why doesn’t my dog listen to me? It all starts “up close and personal”.
In order for a dog to work with you … you have to be in his mind. He can’t hear what you are saying if he’s not listening. So, how do we go about teaching a dog to listen to us better — “communication and trust”.
When first starting a pup if your guidance gives him better control of his sheep (which is everything his instincts are compelling him to do) he will learn to rely on and trust that guidance. If everything you do/say makes him lose his sheep that trust will quickly be eroded. With young dogs the last thing you want is a conflict between what you are making him do and what his instincts are driving him to do. A “well bred” dog will do everything he can to listen to instincts before you. Which is great because this is what we use to mold him into the working dog he will become.
You don’t want to force his attention on you … his attention should be with the sheep. However, this doesn’t mean you have nothing to say about HOW the sheep are to be treated. He needs to know that they are YOUR sheep and you are allowing him to work them. So, he works the sheep and you work him – by controlling the sheep. You are working on his mind so you become an indispensable part of his wondrous experience called “sheep work”.
In the beginning you are developing his awareness that you can help him. The more he connects sheep work to you – the more he listens and trusts you – the more control you will have when you start increasing his distance from you. A dog at 800 yards DOES have a choice to listen or not.
If you insist on total control by doing nothing but giving orders until he “gives up” you are not building communication … because no actual communication took place. You might have a dog that obeys – but If all you are teaching is how to make random moves (flank/lie down, walk-up, etc) without the sheep reacting to HIS movements … then you are not using “instinct building blocks” that are logical to the dog.
That of course doesn’t mean he won’t make mistakes only that when mistakes are made – he will get a correction that allows him to work his sheep more effectively. Try to remember this is about WORKING sheep not making a dog move left/right. Working sheep is learned (more by you than the dog … since he at least has instinct to go on :@) by making mistakes then realizing your actions have repercussions and learning from these mistakes (actually – doesn’t that summarize life :@).
Eventually training has to go against his instincts (i.e. off balance flanks, stopping when sheep are running away, etc.) BUT hopefully by that time you will have built that “working relationship” that he trusts you enough to go to the next level.
A lot of novices tend NOT to watch the sheep’s reactions. Sheep are not inanimate objects for dogs to “play” with. They will learn “tricks of the trade” – and depending on your dog these can be good “tricks” or not. If your dog buzzes them with every flank – they learn to go sideways (trying to avoid the “buzz”). If your dog never takes pressure off – they will never learn to settle when worked. If your dog doesn’t put enough pressure on and then too much – they will learn to not move until chased. The “list” goes on … all the while your dog is learning all these wrong approaches to working sheep “up close” – he can’t wait to get some distance from you so he can become more proficient at them.
I know it’s not easy for a novice to combine the two at the same time … but if you want correct dog work … it’s a the only way. You communicate to the dog the correct way to work sheep and the dog communicates to the sheep that they will be treated with respect if they move.
Most people understand the concept of physical pressure more than psychological pressure. It seems to be easier for students to see someone “correct” a dog physically (because they can actually see it happen) than psychologically (which has to be interpreted ).
But, I think the best corrections are psychological not physical. If you don’t learn how to affect his mind (not just make him mind) you will lose training techniques that a good (notice I said good) trainer can offer you. They may be subtle but they are extremely valuable in shaping your dogs.
A trainer can exert psychological pressure on a dog in a lot of ways. You influence your dogs attitude before you ever send the dog for sheep. If you are tense, stiff, distracted, upset, not focused … your intended or unintended body language can affect your entire run or work session. The tone or volume of voice, your “frame of mind” and many other subtle things are interpreted by these very intuitive dog – even if YOU aren’t aware of it.
The dogs nature has a lot to do with how he reacts or accepts psychological pressure. Some dogs are so “wired” they tend to react to any “stress factor” with excitement – while another “more sensitive” one might react by shutting down. A good trainer will 1) apply psychological (or physical) pressures, 2) observe the dogs reaction, and then 3) modify that pressure.
In the psychological context, observing how a dog interacts with the trainer is telling. Sometimes, what you see is a well-trained dog but no connection … just a dog doing what he is told. The dog may be obedient to commands but neither handler nor dog are exchanging information.
Where a good trainer wants the dog as a teammate. So, no matter the “nature” of the dog, if trained correctly, he will understand that you and he are working together towards a common goal. I do believe that most people interested in working dogs really want the opportunity to build a relationship with their dog.
Learn to observe the interaction between a dog and trainer (including yourself). A dog’s body language is so telling if you are willing to spend the time to learn … it will teach you what you are really SAYING to your dog (not just what you “meant” to say). For instance, a dog bending away whenever the handler moves can say … he’s afraid of the handler OR he’s ready to go to work. Look at his ears, his expression, his attitude NOT just what he is physically doing … but what he is thinking. You need to understand that although a response from two dogs physically looks the same … it can psychologically mean something totally different.
This is why I don’t judge trials … math and I are mortal enemies. OK, I can add but I sure wouldn’t be considered a linear or left brain person. However, one of the advantages of being mostly right-brained is you tend to be creative. I’ve found this comes in extremely handy for training dogs because it allows me to remain untethered in my thought process. I think it’s this “thought process” that makes me willing to try a lot of different techniques to solve a problem.
If you try to make training linear or just “black and white” without altering your training to fit the dog – it will limit the variety of dogs you can train. You can have two dogs with the same issue … one dog might need encouragement while another would need a firm hand. One of the best things I’ve learned through the years is to be flexible with a little patience thrown in.
All this is getting around to an update on the two 1/2 brother pups (that really aren’t pups anymore) I’m training.
Gear (just turned 2 in July):
Was/is “fast off the blocks”. Gear started running in nursery young and has won and placed on both hair sheep and range ewes. He’s a sharp, quick learner that was a pleasure to train. It was all about standing out-of-the-way and let him develop. He had all the right moves and tons of drive. His only fault is lack of push (and that’s more because of the way I like to run dogs). We have worked on that more for my comfort than his. He’s now shedding, sorting, and working on look-backs all without a lot of pressure from me.
Basically his training was all about “unwrapping a mind”.
However, it doesn’t mean everything went perfect. He had issues if he couldn’t “give” on an outrun he would stop (usually when a fence stopped him from “kicking out”). I had to walk out (over and over again) to encourage him to keep going even if a fence was “restricting” him from releasing pressure on the sheep. This was done to give him confidence – he didn’t need a correction – he needed information on how to accomplish what I had told him to do with what his instincts were telling him (a major conflict in his mind). This dog tries so very hard to be right that “getting on him” would have done nothing except “beat him down”.
Tech (will turn 2 in Sept):
He has hardly been “off the ranch” and sure hasn’t run in any trials. He is harder to train – not that he doesn’t have a ton of talent … but training was more teaching him how to listen so he could learn. I spent a lot of time trying to mold him into what I wanted. He’s not really hard-headed but he’s more inclined to get so involved with what he’s doing he tends to forget to listen.
Flanks are to him what math is to me “a un-comprehensible concept”. He’s just now understanding that “those” words being spoken to him actually have meaning. He’s still not set on his flanks but he’s beginning to understand that I’m asking him to change the sheeps direction. His original view of an outrun was “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” - is now starting to shape and he’s giving room on his own.
Now, if I wasn’t flexible or I kept comparing him to Gear – we would have had major training issues. He has really good points – he’s ALL forward (which suits me) – he’s looser eyed (which I also tend to like). He has great feel on sheep (blended in with a bit of “chase”). The thing I’m trying to get across is “he’s NOT Gear” and that’s JUST fine! He is just going to take time to train up but he’s well worth the effort and time.
Basically his training was all about “shaping his mind”.
Talent is talent — it just comes in many different forms.
I’m working with a young pup that tends to be a bit hard/soft. Meaning that if I get on her hard she tries to “shut down” but if I don’t get on her she ”ends up” in the middle of her sheep.
This “type” can be tough to train sometimes so I will take it slow and easy. She started out by not wanting to go around the sheep and being totally one-sided. With all these “strikes” one could think Yikes! But all pups have issues - some are easier to deal with than others but “one way or another” you will have to “deal” with something. Always remember it’s not how they start out but how they finish that counts.
The first few times I took her to sheep all she wanted to do was stay close to me and follow them. She did it with very nice feel and pace – hitting balance and holding that pressure spot to just keep them moving. I would follow her at an angle – trying to put pressure on her shoulder to “kick her around” to the other side of the sheep. I couldn’t say anything or she would come back to me … so I just quietly followed her trying to put enough pressure to make her go but not so much she would look at me.
When I decided I wasn’t getting anywhere I switched “tactics” and brought a trained dog in with her. At first she chased the other dog BUT that got her to the other side of the sheep. Then she would look up see the sheep and start working … so we were getting somewhere. It was a bit “chasey” when she was on the other side — nothing as smooth and controlled as when she was on the same side I was. The chase didn’t bother me (since I knew all that ”feel and balance” was still in there … just a matter of letting it develope). I made sure I kept my corrections very ”low-key” because the first step was to make sure she wanted to work enough to take corrections.
Normally with dogs that dog don’t naturally “cast around” … I put enough pressure to push them around to the opposite side. However, she couldn’t take any “people” pressure (she took sheep pressure fine) so I needed to work within her parameters - not mine.
That’s one of the keys to training a lot of different types of dogs. You need to have the desire to “figure out” what works with each individual dog – not what worked with the last dog you trained. I’ve always found that the most enjoyable thing about training dogs - trying to come up with ideas that allow me to show a dog how to work sheep correctly. I’m always looking for something that will engage a young dogs mind and body and bring out their natural talent.
She had pace and feel when she was on the same side as me and it will re-appear once she allows me to guide her – all it will take is time and patience.
He’s progressing well in most areas. He needs work on his hill outwork (hard for this flatlander to find :@) This time of year is the worse time to “trailer out” because of the foxtails … so not sure he’s going to get that until fall.
His biggest “flaw” right now is pace. He has a hard time understanding that he CAN work sheep from a distance and pacing himself down. So, that’s the main focus right now. I walk with him for miles and just say “time – time” and he’s fine when I’m walking with him (and putting pressure on to reinforce it).
The way I work on pace — I will have around 5 sheep (don’t want too many as it makes him want to flank instead of ”line”). I have the sheep on one side of me and the dog on the other … all in a triangle (I’m the point of the triangle). I walk … the sheep walk … and I MAKE him walk. I don’t down him I say time and put pressure on … by taking a step toward him … pointing the crook at him and growl time – if he slows down I release pressure. This allows him to make the same mistake again and get another correction. But it also puts the responsiblity to slow down on HIM. If I just downed him I would be taking that responsibility.
I’m trying to keep the distance between me, the sheep and the dog the same the entire time I’m walking with him. If I HAVE to down him … I will but then I “cluck” to him to walk on again.
He’s beginning to “get that” but when he takes the sheep and just drives off he will only go so far before he tries to speed up and when reminded to “take time” he “tries” to ignore the command (unless I get loud which is NOT what I want to reinforce … only listen when I yell:@).
I try not to work on pace when he’s still fresh and ready to go. I will do a number of outruns to tire him out (if that’s possible :@) before I move on to pace. This allows him to burn some of that youthful steam off before I try to “grind him down”.
Sometimes when he does slow down he tends to disengage from the sheep (also not what I want) by stopping and standing instead of slowing down (telling me he really doesn’t fully understand the concept). Occasionally he will turn around and look at me (confusion). When he does that I say nothing … just wait until he looks back at his sheep … then I repeat the command.
I could just down him but I always feel that takes the incentive out of them. I would be controlling him instead of teaching him HOW to control himself. That’s NOT to say I never down him – I do. It’s just I’m working on “take – time” (not down … he knows how to down – Well, “most of the time” :@).
“All that said” … I would rather have one I’m always trying to slow down that one I have to encourage on. I’m trying to develope an open dog so it’s better to take it slowly making sure I keep the push in him. If the dog has “it” in him … age often cures “too pushy” issues that young dogs have.