Listen to what you see
If you want to succeed working stockdogs then you need to learn how to read both dogs and stock (and sometimes all in the same moment :@)
Try to observe the dog and read what he’s telling you … he may not be using words but he’s speaking to you “none the less”. The same goes for sheep – they speak volumes with body language. Then, just to make it more problematic, we need to add another very important “equation” – what is your dog communicating to the sheep. All these interactions combined are what make this so VERY difficult (and enjoyable).
You need to spend time observing both species separately and together to understand the subtle communication that goes on between them.
Not only do you need to learn to read body language … you have to “interpret” what they are “saying”. For example: If a dogs head turns away at the pen … is he avoiding or just trying to release pressure on the sheep. Some dogs do use this as avoidance … others as a technique to get sheep to do what they want without gripping. If you decide you don’t like this and correct it – you may be taking a “tool” out of the dogs working method that won’t allow him to function as efficiently as he might have.
You’re the trainer and you get to decide … BUT if you want to be a good trainer it’s invaluable to know when to correct and when NOT to correct. If the dog is communicating something to the sheep and you interrupt that communication … it is going to have repercussions … some you might not have intended.
If a dog is walking up on his sheep and they are “eying” each other. There is a subtle battle going on as to who is going to be in charge. You are the referee and need to understand the rules before you “blow the whistle”.
You want the dog to have the confidence to walk “head on” into a confrontational sheep and you are trying to get him to do it with power and authority and not fear. So, if he’s walking on and you down him … you WILL take some of the power away. BUT if he’s walking on with gripping “in mind” … you may have to down him (especially, if that’s an issue you are working on). BUT what if you down him and the sheep thinks “I’ve won” and rams him just as you lie him down. You have taken a little confidence out of him (also of his trust in you) with some dogs it might not be a “deal breaker” but with others it would be.
This is where your “evaluation” comes in … is the sheep getting ready to give up and turn? If so downing the dog might be the best thing. It might stop a grip and take the right amount of pressure off to allow the sheep to move off the dog. Conversely, If the sheep was still debating if the dog had “enough in him” and you down him … you may “tip the scale” in the sheep’s favor and the dog loses confidence. If your dog is “the sort” that would grip in “self defense” … no harm, no foul (unless you repeat this error a lot) BUT if your dog is the “type” that is wavering on having “confidence issues” … this could “empty the glass” faster than you can fill it.
All dogs are different as are sheep … it’s your job to learn the weakness and strengths of both and use that knowledge to improve your shepherding skills.