Candy Kennedy – Trials and Errors

Posts tagged “Sheep

Hey Days.



Although It’s really to hot to work dogs this time of year – when you have a *bunch* of puppies – you just have to “take them out for a spin”.  They are way to young to *train on* but it’s fun to put them on sheep and get a peek as “what might be under the hood”.  I don’t believe in putting 8 week old pups on sheep (one unintentional “slam” can turn a pup off forever) … but once they are capable of getting to the head – I can’t resist giving them a try.

I’ve always said it isn’t how they start that counts but how they finish. That said – after all these years I can usually tell if I’m going to “connect” with a dog once I get an idea of how they interact with sheep. It gives me an insight to how much eye, push, feel they might have and I know what I *click* with. If I’m going to spend the hours training one up then it just makes sense to keep the ones I personally get along with. I have trained all “types” so I don’t feel the need to train just for the learning experience. It doesn’t mean the others aren’t going to be good dogs. I often hear … “well, if they are selling then there must be something wrong with the dog” and I totally disagree. Through the years I’ve seen – just because one person doesn’t suit a dog … doesn’t mean they won’t be good dogs in someone else’s hands.

Back to the reason I titled this “Hey – day” is because that is the extent of my “training” when I go out with young pups. I don’t have a down, a call off or any thing useful :@) I just try to encourage them to get on the other side of the sheep. When they are wrong … out comes my “Hey” … letting them know that’s not what I want – try it a different way. The rest of the time I’m giving them the freedom to learn THEY are the ones influencing the sheep’s behavior.

Let’s compare working sheep to driving a car. If as a teenager you were put in a car and told “drive” … more than likely”, you would be able to “get it done”. Why? Because through life experiences you had developed your eye/hand coordination  (driving toy cars, riding bikes, etc.), But, let’s say – as a child, you had been restricted and never allowed to develop the skills needed to perform tasks that taught you “motor control”. Then, you are suddenly thrown in a car and told to drive …. the difficulty would become obvious – because you wouldn’t know how to coordinate your eyes, hands, and feet so wouldn’t have the ability to control the steering wheel and brakes.

Same with dogs – if they never learn (would that be eye/paw coordination) how their movements work in relationship to the sheep – they can’t learn how to control them. So, at this young age all I’m trying to do is say “Hey” (NO … don’t grip, run through the middle, etc.) and then let them work when they are correct. hopefully soon – you see them start thinking – OH, I did that! At “this stage” that’s all I want. I’m trying to get that thought process going “all the while” relating to me as well as the sheep. I can always put the obedience on later on … but I want to let the natural come out as much as possible to start with. So, in “other words” I’m really not training – I’m letting them work. I control the “situation” by controlling the sheep not them.

That doesn’t mean I just let them chase sheep – that’s not working. In “essence” I’m using the sheep to get the reaction I want out of the pup. When the pup tries to cut in … I move the sheep sideways making the pup flank out to head them. When the pup pushes to hard I push the sheep back making the pup “rock back” because the sheep aren’t going forward. All this without commands – other than Hey, sssssh, and good.

Border Collies have an uncanny ability to read and control sheep – I can’t imagine training without “keeping that in mind”. Why would I try to put my “instincts” in place of theirs … why waste the best thing about them?


For the love of the dogs


I can’t think of a greater compliment that can be said about someone in our “world” than “For the love of the dogs” This is going to be a hard one for me to write. I seriously thought about not writing anything  … partly because it’s so personal but more because it makes it real and I don’t want it to be real. Bill Slaven passed away and I can’t believe he’s gone.

For those of you that didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Bill you missed out on special man. He was special to his family, his friends, his community and especially to our herding dog world. To me he was like my adoptive father. I’ve known the Slaven’s for over 30 years and have enjoyed working dogs and spending time with them anytime I could get up North. They are what ranch/farm families are about … hard work, respect of the land, and open arms for friends.

I met Bill at a trial where he had provided the sheep. He was “first and foremost” a shepherd but did he ever love watching and working these dogs. He had such an appreciation of our sport while knowing that he needed these dogs to get his job done. I think this says a lot to end the conversation if trialing is representative of real work. This man made his living from sheep … as did his father and grandfather. He knew the value of a good working dog and did everything in his power to provide a place to keep this spirit of real dog work alive.

He, his wife (Joan), his son (Micheal), and his daughter (Peggy) for 21 years put on one of the most challenging trials in North America.  This trial tested the merit of these dogs in the “real sense”. It was a huge course (700 yard outrun up hills) with sheep that tested the dogs every step of the way. The Slaven’s didn’t run in the trial – they only worked tirelessly so we could put our dogs to the challenge.

Every time I stayed – after dinner we had to go out … so he could let me watch his young dogs work – he was always so proud of them. It was a ritual we had for many years. I won’t be able to head “up north” for a trial without thinking that I won’t have the pleasure of sharing dog work with him.

As much as it is a personal loss – it’s a bigger loss for the working dog community. We don’t have many trials (or ranchers that love to put on trials) to showcase our dogs like Zamora did. It’s a big loss to everyone  … even if they never had the pleasure of running their dog on this great hill trial. Bill did it all for “the love of the dogs”

I loved what his daughter said – Bill is up in heaven organizing a dog trial. The image gave me comfort. He will be so very missed down here.

Tail of two trials (“tail = tale” :@)

A friend and I decided we would try and “beat” the summer heat – headed north for a few trials. I’ve been to so few this year with Moss being “off/on sound” that I thought I would give him a go to see if he was ready to “rock and roll” again. We were gone for 12 days and thoroughly enjoyed our “summer vacation”. BUT we sure didn’t “beat the heat” we seemed to have taken it with us.

First trial we “hit” (only 13 hours from home :@) was Geri Byrne’s. She has been putting on trials all summer in order to make money for the Finals. No one has to worry about how well the Finals will go as Geri is as organized as ever. She also has a great group of “EverReady bunnies” that work tirelessly to keep everything going. Quick, even set out by John and Connie Fontaine (with great help from Lana’s son James :@), long days of judging by Mike Hubbard (Sat) and Lana Rowley (Sun).

The sheep were placed in rocks at the top of the field and it was intriguing how many dogs had trouble spotting/finding them. Many good outrunning dogs had issues. The field was a hill with green that faded to brown toward the top – which I think also added to the dogs confusion. Once found the sheep seemed like “ping-pong balls” – and were hard to get to “line”. Bouncing from “side to side” seemed to be the only way they knew how to move. Challenging at the pen the first day and the shed the second (guess they figured they better switch it up to keep us on our toes :@)


Then on to the next trial that spell check never recognized:@) It was in Oregon around Roseberg and called Umpqua Valley! No matter what it was called … it was a great trial. Held at Deborah Millsap farm and what a gorgeous farm it was! Well organized and extremely well run. Including a beautiful 400 yard outrun, great, challenging but tough sheep.
The only real issue was the heat. The local news kept reporting this was the first time in 700+ days that it would hit 100 degrees (trying to “cheer us up”? :@) Deb kept apologizing for the weather (as if she caused it :@). She and her crew re-doubled their efforts to made sure there was water everywhere for the dogs (they not only made sure the sheep had shade but gave them a mister). They had a sprayer at one tub so you could spray the dogs before you ran (seemed the handlers used it as much as the dogs :@)

Derek Fisher (our illustrious judge with shorts on trying to stay cool :@) announced at the handlers meeting that allowing the dogs to go to water would not be docked (but time/sheep lost would be).  I think everyone’s concern for the dogs (and livestock) was very much appreciated.

Results click here:


A friend and I traveled 12 + hours to a trial in Utah and had a blast. I told her on the way home it reminded me of the trials of 20 years ago.

It wasn’t the course that reminded me of “days gone by”. It was a very challenging field with many pressure points. The field they usually held it on was over grown so they decided to move to a hill field where the grass had been grazed down. It consisted of a tough but honest outrun up two hills taking dogs with scopey outruns or “lacking that” … the ability to listen to the handler when a re-direct was needed. A number of dogs crossed the first day if they weren’t in the “listening mood”.

It wasn’t the sheep as they were the “usual” (if there is such an animal :@) range ewes that needed a dog to be able to push – with a little finesse thrown in – in order to get around the course. They would take full advantage of a dog that flanked too wide (walking toward the dog and even charging if they sensed any weakness). However, they would run like “deer” if the dog put too much (or the wrong) pressure on them. Once running they were often hard to stop or turn. Scores the first day reflected the “fight” between finesse and push. By the second day they had settled in and were very workable. That’s another “odd” thing about range ewes is how quickly they do “accept” dog work (IF they are treated right). These are the kind of sheep that make a 12 hour drive worthwhile … improving both dogs and handlers.

What made it a “trial of old” was the people and their attitude. It wasn’t that they weren’t competitive (they were as they should be) but it was a healthy competitiveness – without the nastiness that sometimes comes from competing against other handlers. They all tried as hard as they could while running and when the run was over – it was over. They moved on to cheering on the rest of the field … anyone that made a pen (and there were few of those … especially the first day)  – the cheers could be heard around the trial. The atmosphere was casual and the attitude positive. It was a pleasure to run and we couldn’t have found a better way to spend a weekend. If we could just find a way to move it closer to home it would have been perfect :@)

Give them a try Utah Stockdog … I think you will enjoy it.

Push turns to shove

With “western” ewes a pup needs to learn to push on. With these “type” of sheep “slow + eye” tends to draw the sheep back on the dog – turning fetches and drives into lifts every 10 feet. So, a young dog needs to learn to put pressure on and keep that steady pressure around the entire field. However, just to make it more challenging these same ewes will split and run if too much pressure is put on them. Hard for “young ones” to “walk that line”. Personally, I would rather have too much push than not enough. That’s just what suits me – not right or wrong … just fits me and my handling.

So, Gear and I have been working a lot on his push … then off to his first trial on range ewes. I expected nothing except the enjoyment of running him and watching how he handled things. He had never been on range ewes, never been on hills and never run at a trial. Nothing like picking Zamora for a debut. However, he was ready. I thought about “On the Border” trial in January but felt he would have been in “over his head”. I don’t/won’t push them just for a trial. Training is suppose to be about developing an open caliber dog – not how many ribbons they won when they were young.

Well, I can “report” working on pushing has been successful – so successful “in fact” we pushed range ewes all over the field. Never saw a line all weekend :@) I couldn’t have been happier. He took flanks, re-directs, and stops. He faced up to stomping ewes at the pen and didn’t flinch (even penned them one day and pens were hard to come by). Really happy about his redirect on the outrun as not only did he have to stop .. he had to bend out and climb a VERY steep hill to be correct … and did it all without hesitation.

Then off to “Hoof and Paw” trial the next weekend without time for practice “in-between”. He was a tad pushy on the first run (I had entered to run 4 times) and by the 2nd run … he lined them out and hit every panel. The same on the 3rd run – perfect pace, distance and with JUST enough push. So, I cancelled his 4th run …  he had been “perfect” long enough. Back home to work on “un-perfect” push again :@). I don’t want those “edges” ground down too much at such a young age. Time will grind some of them off … so I don’t need to keep him that careful and precise just to do well at trials. He needs to understand, there is a time to use finesse and other times he needs to “get his game on”,  and he will – IF I don’t keep him “ground down” to trial perfection every time I work him.

The thing I valued the most was how he figured things out and tried not to make the same mistake twice. On one of his runs when I gave a fast flank to turn the sheep after they made the drive away panel … he took it but went inside the panel upsetting his sheep. Second time he took the flank with much more thought … flanking quickly without putting pressure on the sheep. You can’t train that into a dog – but you sure can appreciate it.

Still trying to get a video done of Tech. He’s not anywhere near to trialing and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I figure next year will be his “time” and I’m in no rush to push him when he’s not ready. It’s not that he doesn’t have the want/drive (if anything he has too much of that :@). He isn’t set on flanks (he’s the one that thinks straight makes for an easier path) and not feeling forward pressure on his sheep well enough.

Here is a video  that Carolyn (that owns Gear’s dam) took at “Hoof and Paw” trial.

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!

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.