Candy Kennedy – Trials and Errors

Posts tagged “flanks


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.

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!

Flanking again

What is the difference between a natural flank and a mechanical flank. Do you really need a mechanical flank. What happens if you only have natural flanks?

A lot of students seem to get stumped with flanks and then get frustrated – thinking if they can’t even “grasp” something as basic as flanks how will they ever get anything else.

The easiest test to see/understand what “type” of flanker you have is for you do the moving and let the dog do the *covering*. When you move away from the sheep’s heads the dog should counter balance the sheep by shouldering out enough to keep the sheep’s heads pointed toward you without pushing the sheep over you. This would be what is natural in the dog … of course not all dogs have that programed in them.

You have to have a visual of what the flank should look like, the distance that the dog should be and how fast he should be going. If the sheep jerk while he’s on his flank … he’s to fast or tight. If they put their head down and eat he’s not having an effect. Look for signs when he’s correct to help you both understand a correct flank. Watch him, the sheep, the results so you can begin to get a picture in your mind of what correct is.

Different flanks for different dogs. Some dogs don’t look at their sheep when they flank – you handle those “types” by calling their name, saying stand or anything to draw them back on their sheep. Some dogs eye sheep so much that every step they take puts a constant pressure on the sheep – those you need to growl or put enough “handler” pressure to keep them from pulling in on their sheep as they go.

So first figure out YOUR dog and the reaction the sheep have to his working style then start “fixing” any issues UP CLOSE. So, let’s say you have a dog that has too much eye and flanks very slowly around his sheep. If you just stand there and REPEAT the flank command … All you will teach him is to go slower and slower. Soon he will be taking two steps every time you give a flank and you have to give another flank command to get another two steps. You give the command ONE time then walk out and get in between him and his sheep to MAKE him go farther on that flank than he wanted to.

Every time you repeat a command and he doesn’t respond … you have “numbed him down” one more “notch” to ignoring you.

If your dog is one that flanks and doesn’t “check in” (flying pass balance) then you need to MAKE them turn the minute you say a command (stand, their name, lie down … whatever fits you and your dog). Don’t stand there and let them run with out thought.
If you give a command and they just keep running — it will be twice as hard next time to get through to them. So say it one time and then MOVE … go out and block them from running past balance (use a correction voice to let them know they were wrong not only in what they did but also wrong it ignoring a command).

So, yes try and develop all the natural they have but don’t just stand there and let them do it wrong all in the name of “natural”.

Cottage Grove

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.


(Click on picture to enlarge)

Last week in class we were working on penning and I happen to remember some pictures taken for the ABCN magazine (15-20 years ago at the Buellton, Ca trial) we used as a visual to go with a penning article. 

 I thought I would re-use them … hoping to help my visual/nonverbal students :@) 

1.) In the first picture the  sheep have been brought to the mouth of the pen and are in the great spot for both the handlers side and the dogs. This spot will allow the handler to move back and forth if needed. It also allows the dog to put forward pressure while covering his side. The dog (walking on straight but leaning left) is putting more pressure on the ONE sheep that has not committed to the pen opening … while easing the rest of the sheep forward. The sheep aren’t facing the handler or dog but are thinking about going in the direction you want them to.

2.) In the second picture where the ONE sheep is looking at the dog (the rest have decided to go in) the dog is in a perfect spot to catch THAT sheep’s eye – but not so far ahead that it turns the other ones back. A couple more steps and the ewe closest to the dog would have stopped (she is looking into the pen but her head is high, and her eye and ear are “cocked” toward the dog).  Compare her to the sheep in the middle whose heads are down because they are not looking for an escape. Once you have stopped them from WANTING to go into the pen … it makes it “twice as hard” to convince them again. So, always try to keep heads pointed toward the pen – don’t block that forward progress.

2.) The last picture shows ALL the sheep accepting the pen and the handler slowly curling around to tuck them into the pen and close the gate. The dog is not putting pressure on as he knows they are going in. You don’t want a dog trying to push them after they have committed to going in as it can spook/split them.

A good pen is fun to watch as it involves cooperation between dog and handler – while neither can take their eyes off the sheep. So, timing, communication and knowing how fast, wide, etc. your dog flanks is a necessity … because you just don’t have time to look at your dog. Penning is watching the sheep’s heads and keeping them pointed into the mouth of the pen – press forward without shoving , flank without over/under flanking, wait but don’t dawdle. “In other words” it’s all a balancing act of pressure and patience :@)

Lamb flanks

This is the time of year I have sold off my ram lambs but have kept a group of  20 or so – 6 month old ewe lambs to work. Making work “new and fresh” for both the dogs and I. It’s a great lesson (for both of us) how to work sheep that have no leader and “not” a clue which way they want to go. They split, they run, they stop and face the dog but NEVER in unison :@)

This “type” of work will make even a clean flanking dog turn into a tight, edgy flanker. The problem being: one tight flank will send lambs “shooting” in four (or five depending on the number you are working :@) different directions. And the dogs, who are not expecting this (having spent most of the time working dog broke sheep) – flanking “back and forth” (with dirt flying as they do the reverse manuever at full speed) trying to cover ALL sides. Building tension in both sheep and dog *not to mention the handler*.
If flanking isn’t a difficult enough task then pushing them will be …  if the dog doesn’t “push on” enough the lambs will stop and stare – making the dogs have to lift every 10 feet.

So, what’s a trainer and dog to do? They key is first you have to “break” them to go forward together as a “group”. Which usually means the dog has to tuck in each and every one of them (at least once … sometimes more) when they try to go sideways (or backwards :@). Once he has convinced them they can’t go anywhere except forward … then you work on teaching the dog how to keep that forward pressure without pushing to hard. Because, if they push to hard they will “revert” back your original problem (getting “skirty” and breaking sideways) – and “one more time” your dog will have to “break” them to go FORWARD. BUT if they don’t push enough – the lambs will stall out, turn and stare at the dog … and again we are back to “re-lifting”.

Cool, calm, STEADY pressure is the key. Try and find that pressure point and distance where the lambs are going STRAIGHT forward without the dog having to flank. If you have to flank make SURE the dog does a clean, quiet, smooth flank … just enough to “tuck” them in AND doesn’t go so far he catches an eye or you “again” will have to repeat the lift.

Dogs that are used to lambs will *after they have tucked them into a cohesive group* tend to lean instead of actually flanking as they have learned how NOT to upset the “apple cart”. They don’t want to have to clean up the mess so they wisely let the lambs relax before they put forward pressure on.

Lambs are “a bit” like range ewes. They don’t want to be forced but will take full advantage of a dog that doesn’t take control. They want to be convinced they need to move away from the dog but you can’t do it with force or you will have a fight. Once they are moving they need to be firmly guided (not shoved) in the direction you want.

So, basically it takes the Mohammad Ali technique of “move like a butterfly sting like a bee” :@)

Drive on

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.