The communication puzzle
I’ve been asked why do I emphasize communicating with a dog instead of just “making” the dog obey. Sure, you can train a dog to work livestock by controlling every move he makes but why would you want to? You end up with a mechanical dog that although he is able to do what he’s told – will be incapable of “thinking outside of the box”.
I’m not saying you don’t have to PUT the “mechanics” on a dog to train him. I’m saying that while you are training a dog use the dogs instincts until he understands (words = actions) and you have a bond of trust going. Then you start putting the commands on (making him work against his instincts). First, let him learn how sheep react to his body movements … let him learn that when he is tight sheep split … let him think … let him work. That doesn’t mean let him “run wild” and just chase — you can control his movements by controlling the sheep.
Then progress to “command center”. If you give a flank and the dog flanks the opposite direction (because that’s what his instincts are telling him to do) … it won’t help you get the sheep where you want them. “On the other hand” a flank is NOT just a command to circle the sheep without any reference of what the sheep are doing or going to do. If you teach a dog that a flank is nothing more than a “circle” – what happens when the sheep need a “wider circle” or “smaller circle”? If you are trying to load sheep in a trailer and a dog has the “mechanics” to go left/right but not in context of the job at hand … you may be standing there for a LONG time saying “come-bye” – “away to me” before those sheep get loaded.
Example: when I first teach a dog to flank off balance I will MAKE him go past balance (and he will fight me on it) but once he releases pressure and does what he was asked … I will flank him all the way back to balance and let him bring the sheep. This helps a young dog relax on his flanks because he learns … even if he’s taken away from “the spot” he KNOWS he can control the sheep – he will be allowed back as soon as he GIVES and releases the pressure. This builds confidence and communication mentally and physically and relaxes him so he’s not fighting taking an off balance flank. Allowing for relaxed flanks and a willing attitude towards releasing pressure.
You could also teach him off balance flanks by force … a mindless circle, circle, circle until he “gives up” (I didn’t say “gives to you”). If done with no regard to how the dog is re-acting to this – it tends to break a dog down instead of building him up. I’m not saying “never” do this (as some dogs need to free up and circling is one way to make them flank freer) but it’s not going to give you a connection to the dog … it’s only making him do as he is told (again some dogs – sometimes). If that’s your only training method … your depth of training will be very shallow – as the dogs NOT thinking only doing what he’s told. So you are making him physically flank the sheep but not mentally.
If you learn to train by communication you will develop a dog that can not only work with you but think on his own as well. I don’t think there is anything greater than working with a dog on “something” and seeing the moment he actually GETS it. You can see him say “oh” that’s what she was wanting and GIVES to you.
Getting there takes longer and more thought than mechanical training (and truthfully some dogs will never get there and will have to be made mechanical).
Part of communication is discovering and working with what is natural in a dog. You won’t communicate effectively if you don’t put the effort into trying to understand how they think and react. What is important to them … what did “mother nature” give them and what will you have to supplement?
Dogs are interactive animals and luckily for us they interact with us as well as “their pack”. They take cues from the rest of the pact as to what is needed. So we need to learn and use these “cues” to our advantage. You need to read and respond to what the dog is communicating. Your job is to be observant to his body language and what he is thinking and feeling. Some dogs will lift their tails when they are thinking about diving in, some lay their ears back. others turn their heads away. Observe and learn what YOUR dog is communicating to you and use it to help train him. “At the same time” a lot of interactions between dog and handler happens when there isn’t trust … making the person anticipate what might happen and thereby making it happen (you are tense and communicate this on to your dogs).
A dog that enjoys working with you will look and listen for input. If you are a good trainer you will also listen to the dog. Force training only works when you are 100 percent in control but there comes a time when the dogs mind is full engaged with the sheep and you become secondary. That’s why communication/connection is so valuable in a working dog. He enjoys the interaction and WANTS your input!