Shaping up


I’ve been working a dog that needs help staying correct on his flanks. Trainers often talk about “shaping” a dog (usually in reference to flanks and outruns). I enjoy spending time trying to figure out how to get into a dogs mind (almost as much as actual training) to help him work better – so this particular dog got me thinking about “shaping”.

It dawned on me that not only do we shape the dogs we work but at the same time they are shaping us. We become the trainers/handlers we are because of the dogs we work. They define what we want or need in a dog. They teach us just as much as we teach them IF we are willing to listen and learn.

My first couple of dogs were “work” dogs. They always got the job done even though they were “rough around the edges” they never quit or stopped giving it their all. They taught me that dogs can and do have a “work ethic” and I knew I would need that in all the dogs that followed.

I like a dog with plenty of forward because my first “trial” dog  although perfect for me at the time, didn’t have enough push. I had been told that sheep should walk the entire way around the course and I “took it to heart” and taught my dog that. End result (of course) was running out of time. So, that dog “shaped” my desire for one with push. This dog had perfect balance and pace but no push. Now, was that because I had “shaped” him to be slow and methodical or was that the ‘nature’ of the dog. I’ll never know … but I do know he taught me more than I taught him and I never made that mistake again.

Another dog I ran, had beautiful style, balance and pace and feel … but to much eye. As long as sheep were moving she looked beautiful … But, if sheep faced her she wanted to stop and stare when all she needed to do was just keep walking. So, she shaped me into wanting a dog with less eye. All that style didn’t get me anywhere if the sheep refused to move.

Then, I was “rewarded” with a dog with very little eye or feel. He got the job done but I never felt we had a ‘partnership’ because I had to tell him where to be every step around the course. Making me decide that perhaps … eye wasn’t so bad after all :@). It also impressed upon me … that I didn’t want a mechanical dog because I enjoy the interaction of handling a dog that reads his sheep.

I’ve worked dogs that only worked sheep by being pattern trained – never really understanding the ‘job’ at hand, never really knowing how to read their stock. I’ve worked line dogs that could hold a line to the next county but had no flank to them. I’ve worked dogs that flanked and had no forward to them. Some of these “types” can win dog trial by being handled every step of the way. Winning a dog trial didn’t make up for the fact that was not the way I wanted to work stock.

My point is … each and every dog I’ve trained, handled or trialed has put their ‘imprint’ on me. They have “shaped” me into the “trainer/handler” I am today. I have faults – they had faults but no matter what – we were both learning from each other – because I was always open to learning from them – sometimes what I didn’t want in a dog. Maybe, that’s why I buy and sell so many dogs … there’s nothing better than learning and what brings that out (in me) is a new challenge.

So, when you try to learn how train “by paper” (articles, books, magazine) try and remember how very complex this is. Everyone wants that elusive “how to train a dog” formula. The problem is that the main ingredients in the formula — the dog, handler and each’s experience — are never the same. I guess Nike had it right — “Just do it” and I might add enjoy the doing and the learning.

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Donna says:

    Yes. So true. We need to be able to let go of our ego and learn what are dogs have to teach us.

    1. Donna Masrh says:

      “our” dogs, not “are” dogs. Oops.

      1. Hey … I didn’t even notice … totally understood what you meant :@)

  2. That old “ego” thing does get in the way sometimes :@)

  3. Keith Brooks says:

    Thank’s for the article Candy. Good food for thought.

  4. Mary Lott says:

    Thank you, one of my mentors calls it sheep literacy.. and I want both my dog and I too have it…still on the road to l’arnin

  5. Debbie Dunne says:

    Yup! Who needs cross words, when we have all of these puzzles to figure out?? Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Jan Berger says:

    You have, in a nutshell, described what makes training a dog so challenging and so rewarding at times. It’s about the journey, IMO.

  7. Totally agree …. they are great teachers.

  8. Midwestern Plant Girl says:

    Great read, great insights!

  9. shari kennedy says:

    Thank you for your personal insights. Your words are very compelling and provide an excellent forum for my own personal struggles, celebrations an AhHa moments. I also appreciate your ability to capture the border collie in art form through your photos.

    1. Thank you … really appreciate that!


    Very well said Candy and oh so true. judy


  11. Hank Gallups says:

    This is one of your best, I learn from my dogs way more than they learn from me, being open to learning is the answer

  12. Thanks …appreciate it.

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