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.
Is that a bit like Deja vu all over again :@)
A couple of years ago I started 2 pups that were as different as can be. They both had talent and proved that the training time spent … was well worth the effort. Since I seem to be “at it” again … I’ve been asked to update on the “new two”.
One is biddable to the point of being soft – the other so driven he has a hard time remembering I’m “in the picture”. The are both young (8 and 10 months) so at “this stage” … all I am doing is letting them learn how to work sheep properly. I don’t train “per se” (no flanks, get outs, take time, etc.). Just using the sheep to teach them balance, distance, pressure, etc.
We will start with the softer one – named Cade. A LOT of natural talent but will have to be brought along very slowly. He can’t handle pressure (for now) so I put very little on him. He doesn’t want to be wrong and when he is – he just stops. All the confidence drains out of him and if I demanded “simple obedience” … I would ruin a really nice dog.
So, for now what I’m working on giving him more drive. So, when he gets a correction (and they all need it at some point) I can help him work through it without taking it so personally.
I put sheep up against a fence and ssssss him to just barrel through and get them out. NOT because he’s hesitant to go (he has NO issues with being afraid of sheep) but because it hypes him up. I push sheep and say “watch-watch” letting him flank back and forth trying to keep them together. He has so much feel this puts the chase in him – which is “the trick” I’m using to make him want to keep going when I see his confidence starting to drop. I will get to the point where I give a correction then a sssss and he will be able to take it and “bounce back”.
He has plenty of line but also good flanks (great combo :@) Too early to decide on the outrun but “think” he may have to be pushed out a bit (but not until we have our “confidence builder” in place).
Click HERE for video: of Cade just starting to work
The other guy named – it seems appropriately enough – Arco … is driven to work. If I walk out the door he says “you ready” and then runs to the sheep.
In “some ways” he’s the opposite “side of the coin” of Cade because when he’s wrong instead of stopping or slowing – he speeds up. He also takes it personally (just has a totally different nature and response). He can get him self in a frenzy if I don’t keep him in check but “getting on him” to much – makes him “run through” corrections. He needs to learn to take a correction and not try to “outrun” it.
He has one issue that I will keep “my eye on” … he never turns his head away when he flanks. Usually that puts pressure on the sheep but he’s bending enough that the sheep are held but not pushed. I may have to correct that later but for now – it’s working for him (and I don’t argue with what’s working :@) However, I think the issue may arise when we start working on outruns.
Click HERE for a video of Arco just starting to work.
For now – both are a lot of fun to work … different dogs – different issues – different year and yet “all so familiar”. I seem to spend 1/2 my life as a cheerleader and the other 1/2 as a truancy officer :@)
I’ve heard the word and used it for years and thought I had it “figured out” in my mind as to what it meant.
UNTIL, An incident gave me a totally different perspective on the concept.
I’ve sold a lot of dogs and they are always happy to see me again (even after years). Even the ones that I didn’t have long – if I’ve worked them they remember me.
Well, I ran into a dog I sold and went up to say hello and got no response. Which surprised me (I think shocked would have been a better term since I had him from a pup and raised and trained him). He was running around sniffing (just being a dog :@) when I walked up to him. He was polite and said “hi” like I was a person (not someone he knew) but went right back to what he was doing. This happened a couple of times … so I reached down got his collar … said his name and he looked up at me and then “the bell went off” and he fully recognized me and got very excited (to the point of trying to jump on me … which he had never done :@).
This got me thinking and gave me a little insight into his “thought process”. He was never a hard dog … he could take being wrong and handled correction very well … going right back to work without a grudge. He learned things quickly and easily and wasn’t hard to handle – but he wanted to work sheep more than anything in the world. He is an extremely talented dog but I would have never called him extremely biddable.
However, He DID want to work with you (which is one of the components of being biddable) but sometimes he just couldn’t “hear” what you were saying. I chalked some of it up to youth but most of it to him being so driven to work.
This particular incident (him being so focused something that he didn’t “tune in” what was going on around him) got me reflecting about the “word” biddable. Now, I wonder if being biddable means being able to multi-task. Not that they just want to work with you but they are capable of working and listening at the same time. Are some dogs we call NOT biddable just not able to combine those two things together all the time?
I know people who get so involved into what they are doing … you can walk into a room and talk to them and they never hear you. They aren’t ignoring you – they literally don’t hear you. They can only do “one thing at a time”. Other people can be totally focused and yet still know what is going on around them (sort of keeping things in the back of their mind without really paying attention unless it seems to be a “life and death” situation).
I know sometimes the adrenaline takes over and dogs can’t hear anything (and forget you are even in the equation) so are those type really biddable — until adrenaline overruns the thought process? Are there others that even if they are “calm” (not running on adrenaline) if the sheep are demanding a lot out of them they can’t “hear” your input. Why are some dogs “biddable” until they get to a certain distance (perhaps can’t hear you – if they can’t “feel” your presence?)
I do realize there are dogs that are just plain hard-headed and really don’t care what you want but those aren’t the type I was thinking of. I’m more interested in the ones that have so much ability and how to go about “drawing” that out of them … it is possible they can learn to multi-task or is that an inherited trait.
I enjoy trying to get into a dogs mind and anything that gets me “re-thinking” concepts I thought I understood — is a good thing “in my book” :@)
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.
With “western” ewes a pup needs to learn to push on. With these “type” of sheep “slow + eye” tends to draw the sheep back on the dog – turning fetches and drives into lifts every 10 feet. So, a young dog needs to learn to put pressure on and keep that steady pressure around the entire field. However, just to make it more challenging these same ewes will split and run if too much pressure is put on them. Hard for “young ones” to “walk that line”. Personally, I would rather have too much push than not enough. That’s just what suits me – not right or wrong … just fits me and my handling.
So, Gear and I have been working a lot on his push … then off to his first trial on range ewes. I expected nothing except the enjoyment of running him and watching how he handled things. He had never been on range ewes, never been on hills and never run at a trial. Nothing like picking Zamora for a debut. However, he was ready. I thought about “On the Border” trial in January but felt he would have been in “over his head”. I don’t/won’t push them just for a trial. Training is suppose to be about developing an open caliber dog – not how many ribbons they won when they were young.
Well, I can “report” working on pushing has been successful – so successful “in fact” we pushed range ewes all over the field. Never saw a line all weekend :@) I couldn’t have been happier. He took flanks, re-directs, and stops. He faced up to stomping ewes at the pen and didn’t flinch (even penned them one day and pens were hard to come by). Really happy about his redirect on the outrun as not only did he have to stop .. he had to bend out and climb a VERY steep hill to be correct … and did it all without hesitation.
Then off to “Hoof and Paw” trial the next weekend without time for practice “in-between”. He was a tad pushy on the first run (I had entered to run 4 times) and by the 2nd run … he lined them out and hit every panel. The same on the 3rd run – perfect pace, distance and with JUST enough push. So, I cancelled his 4th run … he had been “perfect” long enough. Back home to work on “un-perfect” push again :@). I don’t want those “edges” ground down too much at such a young age. Time will grind some of them off … so I don’t need to keep him that careful and precise just to do well at trials. He needs to understand, there is a time to use finesse and other times he needs to “get his game on”, and he will – IF I don’t keep him “ground down” to trial perfection every time I work him.
The thing I valued the most was how he figured things out and tried not to make the same mistake twice. On one of his runs when I gave a fast flank to turn the sheep after they made the drive away panel … he took it but went inside the panel upsetting his sheep. Second time he took the flank with much more thought … flanking quickly without putting pressure on the sheep. You can’t train that into a dog – but you sure can appreciate it.
Still trying to get a video done of Tech. He’s not anywhere near to trialing and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I figure next year will be his “time” and I’m in no rush to push him when he’s not ready. It’s not that he doesn’t have the want/drive (if anything he has too much of that :@). He isn’t set on flanks (he’s the one that thinks straight makes for an easier path) and not feeling forward pressure on his sheep well enough.
Here is a video that Carolyn (that owns Gear’s dam) took at “Hoof and Paw” trial.
I was going to update the pups with a video instead of writing about them. A number of people emailed and asked if they could visually see the difference between them … and I have trying for the last 2 weeks. It’s difficult enough to video the trained ones while trying to work them – but pups – make for “seasick” videos :@). Still working on it.
They are both progressing well and still very enjoyable because they allow me to work on different issues – which keeps my mind busy trying to figure out how to best let each dog grow and learn. It can get “stale” if you are working on the same thing day after day.
Gear is now in “testing” mode – which is a good thing. He’s the one that worries about being wrong so much he can be hesitant in his work. He’s now needing stronger corrections and starting to push back – and I like that. Resistance is good (not “futile” as the Borg say … for those Star Trek fans that speak Trekkie :@)
We are still working on his “push” on the drive. That’s his “hole” and he’s not sure how to “fill it” yet every once in a while he forgets to be cautious and just takes hold of them forges on … and I stand back *with a smile on my face* and let him. I am working on a “get up” (both verbal and whistle) command and that means “fast forward” … encouraging him to have more FORWARD … even if that means occasionally running through the middle of them. Later on I can refine this down to just a speed up command.
That’s one of the keys in training. Learn to put a “rough draft” on a movement or action you want FIRST then later on refine it down. Don’t try to start with the refine move and “rough it up” later. I believe pups need to be pups NOT perfect young dogs.
At one point we had an issue with his come-bye outrun. I have an area (depending on where you stand) that on the “come-bye” side the dog has to follow a fence and then take a hard 45 degree angle to his left to have a correct outrun. He is such a natural outrunner that would confuse him. He would run out trying to be correct and hit a fence and stop. So, I would walk out and encourage him on. Amazing what confuses them sometimes. I’ve had some that would cut in if there was a shadow on the ground.
Tech is going to be slower … not that he doesn’t have talent. Just his talent comes in a “different form” than Gear. Kind of having one kid that slowly plods along but each step he takes he is learning something – where another one shines from the very start. I’ve always said not how they start but how they finish that counts.
All this means is he will need to develop at a slower pace. He will have to learn how to outrun correctly before I can send him any distance which means walking for me .. “over and over” to make sure his “top” is correct … and that takes more time. He needs to learn how to bend off on a flank without leaning on his sheep … once again time. He wants to move sheep in a straight line (great for the drive) but when I need to change directions … straight doesn’t “cut it”.
He had an issue about pulling them off the fence if I wasn’t between him (again back to his straight line “theory”). So, we set it up … over and over again. I would use as little instruction as possible (but still try to keep him right). What I was “aiming for” – was for him to figure it out on his own. He ran through the middle, he stopped and held them up against the fence and did a few dozen other things wrong … but he WAS learning with each correction I gave him. He received a correction when he was wrong but then allowed to “motor on”. I was trying to develop an understanding of not only sheep and pressure but where I was (and keep me in the back of his mind). You give enough pressure/correction to let them know WHAT is wrong but enough freedom to let them learn as they go.
Some train up easy … some are more difficult but I think that is one of the things that makes training so thought provoking. Trying to “find clues” as to what works with each dog to bring out the best in them. I will keep working on and getting a video (that’s actually watchable) to show the difference in them.
I’ve been asked to update on “the kids” every so often … and since they are in the “fun stage” that they learn something new everyday I thought I would give a quick update.
TECH: is working on learning what “out” means. When I flank him and he looks in I give him an “out” and insist that he turn his head away from the sheep. This will come in “to play” when we start working on outruns but for now it’s “up close and personal” so I can communicate to him what I’m asking and make sure he follows through … each and every time.
He doesn’t like lying down and I don’t make him (he’s a long-legged guy and watching him lie down is a little like watching a giraffe try to lie down) BUT I do make him completely STOP (on his feet) without any forward movement when I say lie down. This “lie down” is not a flexible one … it means NO forward movement (standing tends to encourage more forward than when they are “flat” on the ground). If I don’t need a total stop I use stand (and I’m a lot more flexible with the stand).
With him … corrections have to be VERY firm to get through to him … slap your hat on your leg and his reaction is … I’m a little busy right now can I get back to you on that one :@) BUT he’s the one that when he perceives you are angry would “think” about quitting. So, once I get though to him and he realizes he’s being corrected … I have to back off (verbally and physically) FAST. However, getting through to him is much more difficult than Gear. He’s not really “hard headed” just independent and more focused on the sheep than me.
GEAR: Working on lining out on both the fetch and drive (more so on the drive). I use “there-there-steady” on the fetch and then if he tries to flank instead of walk on straight … I make him stand. This stops him from trying to overreact to his every perceived movement from his sheep. He’s very reactionary which can be good if “harnessed” but cause problems if I allow it to “take over”. He will cover a breaking sheep before I can say a word … but he can also cause a sheep to break by trying to hard.
On the drive I use the fence to keep him walking straight instead of letting him push by flanking. This really seems to help him understand that he doesn’t need to go “sideways” to make the sheep to go forward. An issue that happens with the fence is he tends to over-flank and head them – so I have to “fall back” to making him stand. I try and work all my dogs “free flowing” (with very little stopping) but to “get there” they need to understand that: yes, you can just keep things moving until you do something incorrectly.
Also, early on I take 50 (or so) sheep out to the middle of the pasture and make a HUGE hole and teach them to come through to me. Gear is already learning to work at holding them apart. Keeping them apart is helping him understand driving … “just so happens” this seems to make more sense to him. However, with a lot of pups they just get confused when trying to drive that way — so I will just lie them down (between the two groups of sheep) and walk around and have him fetch to me. Then I go work that group. This will make dog broke sheep less likely to come to me (as they are drawn toward the big bunch). So the dog has to learn to hold and push sheep (instead of just follow sheep).
A correction for Gear is HEY … anything more and the ears are “pinned” back and he is backed off too much. He’s not soft … he just wants to be right and doesn’t like to be in trouble. I enjoy this about him as it means he’s connected and wants me in the picture.
I’m also working on both of them having them learn to “pen sort” (meaning I use a gate to let only the sheep I want in) … both are pushy and having a difficult time learning patience (totally understand … not one of my strong suits :@) and I MUCH prefer that with young dogs than “get up – get up”.
BUT most of all I’m allowing them to learn about sheep. That every move they make causes a reaction in their sheep and that they are responsible for their actions. If they cause a mess – they have to clean it up (with corrections from me). The best teachers are sheep (that is …. if you are using sheep that aren’t “dead dog broke”).
No not like the nuns wear — although those are black and white :@)
Most of my students seem to understand the concept that every dog is different but most don’t seem to correlate (even after acknowledging the differences in their dogs) they need to learn to incorporate solutions that include the dog, the problem, the handler, the sheep and the response given to all the above.
So, just what does that mean for you and your dog? Simply … you need to acquire the ability to "stand back" and REALLY see/hear what you are doing and how your dog is responding. If you and your dogs problem keeps recurring … then maybe you have created a habit that needs to be broken.
I’ve read that out of an estimated 11,000 signals we receive from our senses, our brain only consciously processes 40. The rest are accomplished without actually thinking about it or in "other words" … a lot of actions have developed into a habit. A habit is any action that we have performed so often that it becomes almost an involuntary response. So, if you having "issues" you need to learn to be aware of your actions – so it ceases to be an involuntary act. This will allow you to make a choice instead of just responding every time you perform this action.
Example: at "one point" in my training I was having an issue with dogs not stopping with my down whistle so I started to pay attention to the interaction between myself, my dog and my whistling. The conclusion: I was whistling … dog wasn’t responding … so I verbally said lie down. Thereby teaching my dog the whistle was a warning … but not a command. It was a habit I had adopted from training young dogs before they knew what a whistle was. However, after I had the habit it wasn’t long before all my dogs had acquired MY bad habit. They waited until they heard "the word" and weren’t responding to the whistle. So, I stopped using the verbal and started walking out to correct them with just the whistle. It had become such a habit I wasn’t even aware of it until I made myself … take a step back and observe myself objectively.
If you are having "issues" try to find out if it’s something that has become a habit. I’ve seen students say "lie down" (same tone) 3 times and then (and only then) start walking toward the dog YELLING "lie down" and for some "unknown" reason only "then" the dog downs. The dog understands he really doesn’t have to lie down until they yell … then they wonder why the training session always ends in yelling.
You need to stop, step back and pay attention to you and your dogs interactions. This is what lessons/clinics are good for – someone that’s not emotionally involved can help you figure out the WHY … this hopefully will allow you to get to a solution. Why the dog is reacting as he is … is first on the agenda and once that is solved — then you can work on finding the "ammunition" you need to fix the problem.
All the while I’m training I’m trying to incorporate the dog’s ability to control himself instead of leaning on me as the only controlling force. To me this is starting point for “teamwork”. These dogs have exceptional abilities so I always try to “harvest” each and every aspect of it. Of course, some have more talent than others and you do have to work with what you have. BUT, if you don’t try to develop his potential to interact with you – you will end up with less than a partner.
Never forget that self-control is a two-way street. You can’t be succesful at bringing out the best in a dog if you aren’t in control of yourself. This includes, mentally, physically and emotionally. You have to remain calm and give your corrections without infusing anger. Hard to accomplish sometimes but if you aren’t in control – how can you expect your dog to be? Here lies a “paradox ” — a lot of people training dogs are “high drive” – “type A” personalities and tend to be emotionally committed to perfection. This, of course, makes it difficult to allow a dog to “learn from his mistakes” instead of just “controlling every situation”. Even trainers that aren’t “type A” have a lot of emotional involvement and intensity of commitment which tends to make them emotionally over react. Dogs respond to emotion – so the “ball is in your court”.
With some dogs I find it very easy to stay in the calm-training-zone but then there are others that send me into “overdrive” :@) Then to compound that … once started it usually does nothing but ”ramp up” (which is exactly the opposite of what Is needed). I have tried every “trick of the trade” to stay cool-minded with the ones that set me off emotionally and it’s still not easy. I usually just lie them down and let us both cool off. I want the dog to know although I’m leading the dance I want a dance partner (and don’t want to be “fighting” him every step). This partnership will never happen if I spend all my time being frustrated, angry or upset with every thing he does. I try to look at training problems as opportunities to be explored – helps keep me in the right frame of mind. You know the old adage it’s not the destination but the journey.
A truly effective trainer must be emotionally committed to getting the job done correctly and will do “what ever is needed” to accomplish it. However, you need to acquire the ability to discipline yourself so your emotions don’t force the dog into something he is physically and mentally unable to master at that particular time. Look at it as a great way to teach yourself patience. Try to take everything one step at a time and then build on each step. Always remember if needed you can freely step backwards and start over without any harm being done in your training. Sometimes it’s the best solution for both of you.
I’ve always thought that good training was “Pretzel Logic” in that working dogs is such a physical act but in reality it’s amazing just how much mental and emotional energy is expended if it’s done correctly.
Have you ever wondered why some trainers can get everything out of a dog that he has to offer … while others can’t even get their dog to lie down?
A top trainer has learned how to mold a calm, trusting, willing dog. One that is comfortable in knowing how to “handle” sheep and what is expected of him. Good trainers try to “stretch” their dogs but also work within the “parameters” they have i.e. … teaching a “hot” dog how to work cool, calm and with direction. Speeding up a slow dog without getting it “hyped” up and encouraging a soft one to keep trying.
Some trainers can only work with “one” type of dog. I’m not talking about preference of how a dog works – but “to the fact” some trainers don’t have a lot of “tools in the shed” (meaning different training techniques) that they can bring out if a dog doesn’t fit their “ideal dog”. Since they are missing a variety of tools they can’t fix issues that come up unless it happens to fit the tool they “have in hand”.
What does make a good trainer?
Partly it’s being consistent but it’s a lot more than that - because if you are consistently wrong on your timing all you will end up with is a very confused dog. OK, you say then it’s timing - but a good trainer will change their timing to fit the dog. Not only do they adjust the timing to fit the dog but also the sheep and sometimes the terrain (blind fetch … right timing to steady your dog without seeing him … outruns at 800 yards – timing it so you whistle sooner because it takes longer for the sound to carry). So, you say maybe it’s handling? I’ve seen handler/dog win a trial but couldn’t exhaust the sheep – so the dog really wasn’t trained to WORK sheep – more programmed to a trial course.
I think good trainers have the ability to “chip away” at problems. They don’t have the “all or nothing” attitude … all force or all ask. They combine asking and demanding until the dog yields to them readily … never allowing the dog to avoid pressure but to GIVE to it. The don’t take pressure away until the dog “gives” but they also don’t put so much pressure on the dog “breaks”. They try to give the dog enough time to find the answer not just “spoon feed” them one - “thereby” allowing them to develop instead of just obey. They understand no living creature “learns immediately” nor at the same rate and takes that into consideration. They are trying to change them mentally NOT just physically — sometimes using their body to get to their minds and sometimes the “other way around”. They use every tool at their disposal - they don’t just use the brake and gas pedal but the clutch and numerous gears to refine the dogs movements. They don’t just teach the dog left/right/walk up but allow the dog to develop a “sheep working system” that makes the dog comfortable in his own skin. “In other words” they allow the dog to control the sheep and they control the dog.
If you really want to be a good trainer – you need to always keep your mind open to “picking up new tools” that will allow you to communicate better with your dogs.
Since there are different “styles” of training that work equally well — you need to decide which will suit you. Try to remain receptive to a variety of techniques but only incorporate those elements that blend well with your own handling skills or training preferences. You can change your training style if you feel it doesn’t “fit” you but don’t change your style like you do your clothes or all you will end up with is a confused dog.
For those of you that aren’t Star Trek fans – it refers to Mr. Spock’s ability to access the mind of someone else that allows him to know what they are thinking. The perfect example of a handler and dog having a great run is embodied in Mr. Spock’s ritual “my mind to your mind” – wherein he establishes some sort of radio-like connection allowing him to eavesdrop another’s thoughts and/or to inject his own.
When you and your dog are in Sync that’s what it looks and feels like. Working a dog and connecting with a dog are two very different things. It’s like a relationship it’s ALL about chemistry. You can’t have it with every dog but when you find it … it is special.
Different people suit different dogs and you need to learn which “type” suits you. That will help you find a dog that will enable both you and the dog to enjoy working together. Why spend all the time and energy it takes to get a dog working correctly if he doesn’t fit you or your handling style? Why fight a dog that doesn’t suit you when he may just “fit” someone else? Where “more than likely” they would appreciate him more.
I’ve sold dogs that I thought were really nice dogs BUT didn’t “fit” my style of handling. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the dog … just I couldn’t connect with him enough to get the “mind mill thingy” going. :@)
If you’re an adrenaline junky and love running fast, sharp, high energy – high drive dogs but you are running a slow, smooth flanking, easy, quiet type … the odds are you are going to get irritated with him. It’s not his or your fault … it just means you don’t have “chemistry” with that particular dog. It’s very possible someone else would “completely click” with him. It’s not a matter of “right or wrong” – “good or bad” … it’s a matter of what suits your handling style.
We don’t all drive the same cars nor live in the same parts of the country. What you need is what feels the most like “home” to you … be it a house, a certain part of the country or a dog. I think it’s a comfortable feeling when are handling a dog that fits you “like a glove”.
Cottage Grove has an army of helpers and it shows. Everything is very well run and comes across as effortless (which anyone that has ever put on a trial knows is NEVER the case). Good sheep, great course and perfect weather added to the enjoyment this year. The first day they ran over 100 dogs for PN/Nursery/Novice and the next two days had 60+ a day. So, Wilda Bahr had 3 long hard days of judging.
The best part of this trial is watching the dogs and handlers try to ”figure out” how to handle the gate. The dogs have to go downhill, leave one field go through a gate and then uphill to get to the next field. Often there are shadows across the gate opening making it look, to the dog, as a solid barrier. Once the dog actually makes it through the gate it has to rock back over its shoulder to bend out in order to continue on the correct flank. The opening tends to draw them in because they start wide but have come back into the middle to “get the gate” and it’s difficult for them to re-cast out again … to keep on the same direction. The inclination is to hit the gate and keep going on the trajectory they are on when they come through the gate.
Watching the handlers try to decide when/where/if they should give a re-direct. Then watching the dogs listening trying to figure out what their handler was asking —- was dog work at it’s best.
The sheep were healthy and spry fine wools. They could run like the “wind” if spooked and the dog had a hard time keeping up. Dogs needed to stay back off and just tuck heads a fraction to keep them going straight. It took very little movement to get a reaction from them. A lot of dogs and handlers over-flanked making the sheep go sideways - leading to missed gates.
The pen was almost “mission impossible” on the first day and penning was still uncommon the second. A lot of really good runs came to a downfall at the pen. Even when the sheep actually went into the pen very few of them really accepted it … heads were still high as they were looking for a way out.
If you are looking for a fun trial – give it a go. The people are great, the sheep are healthy, and the course is different and challenging.
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.
Sometimes there is a fine line between correction and over-correction. It’s often hard for a novice to know when they are correctly on the “line”, when they have gone over the line or sometimes … which side of the line they are on.
Unfortunately in some dogs this line is razor-thin between getting your point across and shutting your dog down and making him harder to correct in the future. You need to make sure that the dog understands your correction but not at the expense of pushing him over “his” line.
So, how do you make sure your corrections are “correct”? Take your clues from your dog … what are his ears doing, his eyes, his body. Do his eyes have panic look in them? Then you are putting too much pressure on or he’s just not understanding what you are asking of him. Is his body trying to lean away from you because he’s trying to go wider? Or is he just trying to avoid you because he doesn’t want to acknowledge your input. Is he leaning toward the sheep and the only “thing on his mind” is when does he get to move again (implying he’s really not all that interested in what you have to say). If so then he’s not taking your correction seriously.
Your correction needs to get into his MIND and what he’s THINKING not just his body. You may have gotten him to lie down BUT if all he’s thinking about is getting back up … he didn’t get a correction … you just stopped the action. A lot of people train by making the body correct but never get into the dogs mind. This either transfers into a dog that won’t move without being told or one that spends all his energy fighting the handler – never working with them. He needs to acknowledge you and try to understand what he did wrong and what you want from him.
Some times a hard dog will respond better to a soft correction … the harder you push … the harder it makes him. However, “sometimes” hard dogs need someone to convince them they can’t always have it their way or they won’t get to work. It takes experience to know the difference. Of course, the only way to get experience is by doing it … which is a bit of a dichotomy for novices :@).
Learn to read your dog to see if your corrections are “hitting home”. Then to complicate things you need to keep the sheep “in the back of your mind” during a correction. If the sheep are running off it’s going to be hard for a dog to pay total attention to your correction. Like everything else is life … timing is critical :@)
Not all soft dogs are “created equal” :@). Some are soft with their stock … others with people. Then sometimes they come in a combination of both (and that’s a hard one). The dogs I’m writing about are “people soft” NOT “stock soft” (both have enough in that department :@)
Soft dogs need to be handled with “kid gloves” (OK, “lamb gloves”). However, they can be trained to just a high of standard as a harder dog.
The KEY is to teach them how to take corrections gradually. It’s a bit like the old adage of how to cook a lobster … you don’t throw them in boiling water … you bring the water to a boil gradually. Even the soft ones can and will take pressure/correction and training – just in a different “format” than a harder dog.
I have a couple of “soft dogs” I’m working with now that DO NOT want to be wrong and are hesitant to try something if they’re not sure it’s what I want.
So, how do you handle it … “by degrees”. One is not *set* on her flanks and will hesitate to move either direction “just in case” she’s wrong. With a hard dog I would give a *intense* correction and make sure they understood they were wrong and I wasn’t happy about it! With a soft dog (that already is fearful to move) a hard correction would freeze them up even more. So, I will still correct them but not in an obvious way.
If they take a wrong flank I will lie them down … wait (allowing them to relax)… then quietly giving the flank again. If they’re still wrong – I will repeat this but give a quiet correction (listen) AND move my body to communicate physically what I want. Then the second they are right… I will change my tone and encourage them on to let them know they’re correct (either repeating the flank in an *calming* tone (if they are just running) or just *ssshing* them on (if they are hesitant) … to reassure them they’re right and yes that’s what I wanted. I WOULD not correct them for running to fast or slow (that’s why the calming or encouraging tone). They can’t take 2 corrections at once (YET :@)
.This builds a bond letting them know I’m “on their side”. When they’re confused I will “help them out” and encourage them when they’re right (which these “sort” seem to need). Trusting me is the “building block” that will allow me to use firmer corrections as their training progress. Once they learn that I will “let them know” when they’re right … they can allow themselves to take a chance on being wrong.
So, in essence the fire is turned on (they got a correction) but the water is still cool enough they’re comfortable with it. This level I will stay with for quite awhile and report back after our corrections are “ramped up”.
Bond has everything on him he will need to be an open dog but it’s all in a VERY rough form. He’s outrunning, driving, shedding, and doing a lot of just plain everyday work. Although “it’s” there – it’s with very little finesse – but then, that’s how it should be at his age (around 1 1/2 years). If you try to put the finesse on before you have the “rough draft” you won’t have much of a dog left when you’re done.
Let’s use driving as an example … he drives hard and pushy and loves “getting hold” of his sheep and just going. If I had started him driving with total perfection and line … it would have made him hesitant and possibly taken too much out of him. So, when we started I just let him take sheep and GO. Then I started “throwing” in flanks … most of them were fast and quick (he flanks wide on his own so I didn’t have to worry about that as I would with some other dogs).
Now, that he has the “blueprint” of HOW to drive we will start working on how to drive with pace. “At the moment” the only way he knows how to push is by using his body (i.e. flanks). I will now start teaching him how he can use eye, line and pace and STILL push.
I did the same thing with shedding. I started with 40 or 50 sheep and made a huge hole and called him through. I didn’t start with 5 sheep and a “slice through the middle” shed … that would have been too stressful and way too much pressure for a young dog. But, now that we have a rough shed we can start refining it down to a more precise one. I will still take it very slowly to make sure he keeps his confidence in his abilities to come through and control his sheep.
*Footnote* on shedding. I start teaching the dog how to come straight to me before I ever start with shedding. I bring the sheep up to me and after they pass me – I flank the dog and stop him straight across from me … say lie down … that’ll do come and then go set up another outrun. The dog learns to relax and come straight past the sheep to me. “In other words” he’s at 3 – I’m at 9 and the sheep are walking toward 6 or 12. If he flanks off he will “run into the sheep” so it helps teach him to come straight instead of bending and then coming in (especially useful with flanky dogs :@).
I’ll update as things progress as “the kid” matures.