Candy Kennedy – Trials and Errors

Posts tagged “reading sheep

“It was the best of times –

It was the worse of times”. I would give “odds” anyone that has ever trialed has connected with that famous quote from “Tale of two cities”. Zamora was like “Tale of two cities” :@) The first trial had a totally different winner than the second – moral of the trial (or life) – never give up trying!

The weather was perfect (tad hot on Monday Nursery/PN day) which is always special at Zamora – because handlers can sit out to watch dogs crest 3 hills to find 4 sheep 700 yards away.  Outruns are dramatic enough but watching dogs trying to hold pressure and fetch down hill between two ridges – is seeing dog work at it’s finest. I think the main draw for Zamora is the course (of course :@) and dog work. Sure, handling always helps  – but I have always appreciated watching dogs handle sheep more than watching people handle them and you get to see that at this amazing hill trial.

Scores can be found here: 

As they say a picture is worth a thousand words … so here are a couple. One at a distance and one up close (well as close as you can get to 6-7 hundred yards).

Zamoradistance  zamora

Or if you appreciate the “printed word” more … here are a couple of newspaper articles:


We will “end it off” with more of the quote – sounds like dog trialing to me :@)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” …


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.

Looking under the hood

I have a few young dogs that are just starting and thought I would comment on what I’m looking at/for when I work them at this young stage. All I’m looking for is a glimmering of “things to come”. I’m not expecting a pup to work like trained dog … but I am looking for the potential of one. There are things I will “note” so I will have an idea of what I’m are going to need to “adjust” in my training to get the best out of them.

I want to “see” the kind of eye that holds the dog back “just enough” that allows him to keep his sheep together but not so much he won’t push into his sheep.

I want to see him trying to control the direction and speed of the sheep.

I’m wanting a natural cast … meaning “at this stage” … he doesn’t run straight for them but curves around trying to contain the entire “bunch”. “In other words” seeing if he wants to go around ALL the sheep not just what his eye catches.

I want to see if he will push pass “pressure point” to keep them moving (even if that means coming in for a little wool grabbing). Or will he just keep flanking around trying to hold the sheep instead of making them move forward.

I want to see if how much he cares that I’m in the picture – also if he moves away (or towards) my pressure. Some dogs don’t move away from pressure but towards it (so you need to note that so you can work around it as training progresses).

I’m looking to see if he he likes to cover his sheep? Does he cover both sides “equally” or tend to eye up the first/ last sheep one one side or another. Does he always want to go to the head or is he comfortable controlling heads from the back of the sheep?

If he happens to get one off by itself … does he try to control or just “forget it” and come back toward the others (might give “insight” if he will like to shed)?

How much drive/desire he has. When you finish does he keep trying to “go back for more”.

How well does he “read” sheep?

His thought process. Does he process information and correct himself … or do I need to give a growl to help him “figure it out”.

How well does he learn/retain training information.

Is he flexible – when I move does he counter – balance or does he eye up one sheep and ignore the others as they move away.

If one falls behind … does he try to tuck the one back with the group or flank and take the group back to the one? Or just leave the one behind and work the rest.

Does he take correction well or does he get tense, sulk, pout, or “fade out” when ever he is faced with a correction?

How much tension does he carry? When/where does he carry it?

Can he speed up and slow down when the sheep “call for it” or does he only have one speed no matter what the sheep are doing?

How does he respond to sheep breaking or if they stand and face him?

At “last but not least” … actually one of THE most important things “in my book” at all times, I’m trying to ascertain his METHOD on sheep.

Of course, all the above is in “raw puppy form”.

I’m sure a lot of you are saying that’s all very nice but I’m not starting a pup …. BUT I do exactly the same thing with every dog I work. I spend a lot of training time asking questions.

So, if you will “ask” these (and other) questions about your dog “each and every time” you go out to work  – you will begin to get clues as to what you need to work on.


Is he slow on his flanks when he needs to be quick and sharp and that’s why you are missing panels?

Does he not put enough pressure on sheep to keep their “thought process” moving forward … if not … maybe that’s why you are running out of time at the pen?

Is he eying up as he flanks around … causing a fight or a grip off.

Is he stiff on his flanks and not flexible so you never get the sheep penned?

Is he flanking too wide/tight causing problems?

Is he “drawing” his sheep back on him so much that you are stalling out?

If you don’t look and analyze each work session trying to “sort” what he’s doing right from what he’s doing wrong … you can’t correct “the wrong”. The “first step” to correcting a problem is to figure out “why” something is going wrong … then start looking for solutions. IF every time you go out to work you never REALLY observe what the dog is doing that is causing you problems … you’re NOT training you’re just moving sheep around.

Two way street

We communicate to dogs by putting pressure on and taking it off at the correct moment and “guess what” – dogs do the same to sheep —  pressure on/ pressure off.

For you to develop a good sense of timing, you first have to understand the exact sequence of events that constitutes good dog/sheep work. You can’t correct a dog if you don’t know he’s wrong. You have to watch the interaction between the dog and sheep and interpret what the dog is doing that is causing the reaction from the sheep you DON’T want. Then your correction must come before the sheep FEEL the dogs incorrect pressure.

When we train a dog by using pressure … we alter the pace and the direction we want the sheep to go. Removing  pressure is the dogs “reward.” It is the way we communicate to the dog, “Yes! That’s it.” If your timing is off when you either apply pressure or remove it, your communication becomes garbled. The dog will not make a clear connection between the pressure you put on him and the response you expect from him.

This is why training sheepdogs is SO difficult – you are looking for a response from the dog BUT it’s the sheep that are dictating the CORRECT response and you are “the middle man”.

So applying pressure with the correct timing is just “step one”. You also need to remove that pressure the moment the dog responds correctly. A constant pressure numbs the dog down and he simply learns to ignore it because it has no meaning. Releasing pressure when the dog is still wrong rewards him at the incorrect moment.

As we train dogs, we first show them what we want. Then we ask them. Only when they understand the physical action behind the word can we use  just voice/whistle commands. If at any point the “voice” isn’t communicating our intention then we go back to “showing” them (physically reinforcing what we want).

While giving a flank command may communicate to the dog that you want him to go “left/right” but it does not give him any information about shape, pace, or width of the flank. That’s where the finesse comes in – you need to learn how wide/tight a flank you need (in order to not upset the sheep) and then how to communicate that to him.

Keeping this “in mind” will curb the tendency of some handlers to think of commands as simply a direction for the dog to go instead of a reaction they want from the sheep. They think they can give a command for a right flank, for example, then just wait for the dog to end up in the exact spot they were envisioning without any more interaction from them. If between those start and stop commands, the dog gets no information from the handler … then he is on his own. Depending on his “nature”, he may decide to take over and do whatever he pleases or he may become anxious because he gets no reassuring feedback from his handler that he has done the correct thing.

Feedback works in both directions. A well-trained dog is the best teacher for a Novice learning to time their commands correctly. If you do not get the response you want when you apply your commands (and you know that the dog reads sheep better than you do) you can assume that the communication glitch comes from your side of the post.

The importance of timing the correction and the release of pressure correctly and of constantly receiving and interpreting feedback from the dog and sheep are two of the reasons that pairing a green dog with a green handler seldom works. However, not all handlers have the luxury of an open trained dog to refine their timing on. So, They often struggle to figure out if a lack of response to their commands is due to application of the wrong command, poor timing of their correction, or a dog that has learned to take advantage of its handlers uncertainty.

Almost everything stated about the interaction between you and your dog – can be applied to your dog and his sheep. Poor timing, late corrections, and “green sheep/green dog” can add up to the same problems that occur between handler and dog. Think about it … what happens when the dog puts too much pressure on the sheep or doesn’t put enough pressure on … puts pressure on but doesn’t take it off, etc.? Pressure on/Pressure off … this goes for you and your dog – and your dog and the sheep.

I’ve always said you can tell how someone works their dogs by watching how their sheep react to a dog … if well shepherded they will react to dogs without fear.

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”.

Sheep for all seasons


I’m in the process of buying and selling sheep. I put a lot of effort keeping my flock fresh for “dog work”. I do have a herd of Dorpers that I breed and keep replacement lambs out of. I also have a few Cheviots (just because I like them :@) that I breed.  However, the majority of the flock I use until they are dog broke and then sell them on and buy more. I try to bring fresh ones in every 3 or 4 months.

I think using different “type” (in the sense of how they react to a dog not just the breed) is the best thing for allowing a dog develop. I don’t think a dog will truly understand stock if you continue to use the same sheep you started your pup on all the way into teaching the finer movements an open dogs needs. Puppy sheep hardly react to the “course” moves a puppy makes – so they sure won’t respond to “finesse” movements.

It’s not easy to get fresh sheep but unless you have a ranch that has thousands of sheep so you can cut fresh ones off daily … I think it’s the second best thing.

So, you say what am I looking for in sheep?

First, of course, for pups I try to always keep some “knee knockers” around – these type allow dogs to get very close to them and will try to come to you no matter what the dog is doing. This helps a young pup (that doesn’t know where to be ) to get to the other side.

Then I try to keep some sheep that won’t run when a dog walks up on them. These “type” of sheep “push” back on a dog and need pressure from the dog to MAKE them go. This  helps to teach a dog how to lift properly. If your sheep always run when they see a dog … he can’t learn HOW to lift …  because all he’s really doing is playing “catch up”.  Sometimes putting hay down helps give sheep a little resistance and teaches the dog that not ALL sheep take off just because he’s “there”.

For teaching the drive you need free-flowing sheep that don’t “kill themselves” trying to come back to you. They need to move away from a dog but not run … dogs needs to be able to take hold and direct them not just run along behind trying to catch up.

Then for teaching outruns I try to have “some” sheep that will run towards something (NOT me). Mine run towards the barn they sleep in so I always try to go up the field and send the dog back down for a outrun. If you time it right … as the sheep are running away the dog HAS to bend out or the sheep will outrun him. If the sheep run towards you as soon as a dog gets near them .. they soon learn to flatten out and cut in on the outruns. Why would they try to be correct when it gets them nowhere.

To “peak a dogs interest” I use wild sheep. These “type” will also teach a dog where to be faster than all the corrections you can give. Don’t let him just chase … make him work them correctly but LET HIM WORK.

Ewes and lambs to teach patience and how to stand up for himself.

Yes, it’s a hassle to swap/sell sheep out and get new ones but well worth it for your dogs training. Training isn’t just teaching a dog to do certain moves but HOW to do those moves to create a reaction from the sheep.


(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 :@)