BEGINNING IN HERDING
(This is not a “how to” but a “what is expected” of the novice the first time exposed to stock .)
By Pat Taylor
Fellstar Bouvs, TX
It’s all about mindset and teamwork. Pretty much that simple. The hard part is figuring out how to get that mindset and teamwork.
Many people come to the herding arena with a mindset of, “I tell the dog what to do and they do it”. If your one of those people my question is, “How’s that workin’ for you? Not so well?”
It’s about leadership, yes. But, not about telling the dog what and how to get the job done. It’s about “helping” the dog get the job done. Your dog knows more than we mere humans will ever know or understand about herding and reading prey animals. So, lets let him do his job. We’re there just to “help” him when he needs help. Otherwise, we’re there to “let” him do his job and get out of his way. We’re there to give him the tools he needs to get the job done with the minimum of interference from us. We’re basically there to open the gate for him because he can’t reach the latch. Again, pretty much that simple.
Unfortunately, in the beginning when dog and person are struggling to make heads or tails out of what’s happening in the arena it doesn’t seem so simple to them. But rest assured there IS a method to the madness. When we start training we need to set an example for the dog as to what we want done and how we want it done. Then we’re going to work toward allowing the dog to get the job done within those parameters. There IS a Policy and Procedure Manual in herding. Since the dog cannot read we’re going to have to read it to him.
We set boundaries for acceptable behavior from the dog AND from ourselves. Once those boundaries are set we then maintain them throughout the lifetime of our relationship with our teammate, our dog. Remember that, it’s important.
The first boundary we set is “mutual respect”. I respect your (the dog’s) ability to run faster, have more stamina, have a better bite/grip, to dominate, control, or have a better relationship with stock that is unparalleled to anything I could personally achieve. I respect your ability to better communicate with stock and better train stock than I, personally, could do. I respect that I NEED you. In return for my respect I expect the same considerations on the level of team leader, team organizer and team player. But, I want it understood that this is a paramilitary endeavor. That means there is a hierarchy for authority. Not much of one I admit. But the bottom line is there is me, the commander, then there is you, the grunt. We all know who gets all the work done. But when I speak I should hear a, “yes, sir” or a “no, sir”. So, that said, we have mutual respect for each other and what we’re there for.
(Focus work and teamwork.)
The first lesson in herding should always be to bring about the consistent and predictable, effective execution of the commands, “Here” and “Down”. This means that every time you say the word, “Here” the dog recalls. Every time is translated as 100% of the time, whether the dog is chasing a squirrel at the time you say the command, is chasing a cat, is eating, is barking at something out at the fence or doing whatever dogs love to do, he comes when called. The first time called. I repeat, 100% of the time your dog comes when called. Period.
The same standard applies for the Down. 100% of the time your dog Downs when told to Down, whether the dog is chasing a squirrel at the time you say the command, is chasing a cat, is eating, is barking at something out at the fence or doing whatever dogs love to do, he Downs when told.
Notice I did NOT say when on stock…. Yet.
The absolute standard of 100% is the ONLY acceptable goal! You will work throughout the dog’s lifetime to achieve this level of control. You will work throughout the dog’s lifetime to maintain even close to this level of control. But you WILL come close to achieving this absolute or you’ll die trying IMNSHO.
This training and mindset starts from the first moment you contemplate you want to herd with your dog(s) and continues f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I, personally, believe this is the mindset every one of us should have for these two commands; they imply an action should occur. Make it so.
When I start a pup these are the first goals I work toward. Depending on the dog, its age, its drives, time spent in training, etc. I will come close to achieving this standard by the time the dog is an advanced dog in herding.
A dog’s learning curve varies for many reasons; Handler’s ability, knowledge, talent and capabilities; Dogs ability, knowledge, talent and capabilities. The one consistency in training is that the dog’s abilities will vary greatly given what is being trained at any given time. You will come to see the dog’s abilities swing like a pendulum. You will teach the dog to drive (push stock in a straight line) and suddenly the dog’s ability to cover (keep stock in a group) will go away. Then you’ll work on your dog’s ability to keep stock in a group and suddenly he can’t drive worth a hoot. The pendulum will swing radically one way or the other until the dog is able to understand many of the concepts that herding requires. He’ll be able to do one or the other element in herding but won’t seem to be able to do both. As time and training continue that pendulum will begin to swing less and less radically from one direction to the other until you will find a happy medium where the dog has many varied abilities of equal measure. So expect this in training.
I tell you this up front because the first thing we work on in a dog is SELF-control. Depending on the dog, we may have to put more emphasis on controlling the dog to prevent injury to stock, chasing of stock (not herding but chasing), and control from the handler to direct the dog, etc. Without such control of the dog, then you cannot effectively complete a task on demand.
This doesn’t mean we are going to beat control into the dog. Depending on the dog we may have to put more control or exert less control on the dog to accomplish training. But in the end, we WILL control the dog.
I expect handlers to show me they can control their dogs and that the dog has respect for the handler. The first test is when they drive up. Is the dog out-of-control in the vehicle and trying to crawl out a window or is the dog quietly waiting for permission to get out of the vehicle? Is the dog in a crate or loose in the vehicle? Has the owner/handler prepared for control of the dog. I’m sure you know where you fit in that scenario.
Then the handler gets the dog out and I look to see if the dog is lunging and/or dragging the handler or is the dog walking with the handler and keeping the leash loose? Again, I’m sure you know where you fit in that scenario.
My question to you is… How do you expect to control/handle the dog when sheep are in the pen with you if you cannot control the dog OUTSIDE the pen? If you have no respect from your dog outside the pen then what makes you think the dog will magically give you respect when you step into the pen with sheep? You do realize those sheep are living, breathing animals that can feel pain and have emotions like fear, right? We sometimes forget that, since we are carnivorous. No, the sheep are not pets. At least not at my house. But I also don’t want them to be injured though many times it just isn’t that simple. But gaining respect from your dog BEFORE you enter the arena sure helps in the prevention of injury to livestock. But if YOU do not have respect from your dog be assured I WILL get his attention and gain his respect if the livestock are in danger of being injured!
So I watch how the handler walks toward me with his dog on leash and what the dog is doing. I analyze where the training needs to start on this dog.
I expect a dog to always walk on a loose leash. I expect the dog to be the responsible party for keeping that leash loose. That means the handler is walking along and not having to constantly tug or drag the dog back to him. The dog is making sure that whether the handler is walking slowly or fast, the dog maintains a gait that keeps the leash loose and the dog at the handler’s side. This is NOT an obedience heeling pattern. It is simply walking on a loose leash.
Does the dog jump on me, growl at me, ignore me, try to get past me and to the stock, etc.? WHAT is the dog doing as it approaches the arena where stock is located? Again, I want to see self-control in the dog. I want to see keen interest but I want the dog waiting for permission to go investigate. Not ignoring the handler and trying to get to the stock of its own accord.
Now, we’re going to go into the pen with the stock. I want to see the dog Down at ALL gates before entry into the arena.
I want the dog to WAIT for PERMISSION from the handler to go through a gate. I want to see the handler call the dog through AFTER the handler has made entry and turns around and is holding the gate open for the dog to come through.
I want to see the dog come through the gate and maintain that loose leash and the handler to Down the dog AGAIN once inside the arena. That way the handler can safely close the gate behind the dog and turn and see what’s going on inside the arena BEFORE taking the first step in this training session.
When I evaluate a dog for the first time I’ll take some chances with my stock to see how the dog is working and will work. I do this to see what innate talent the dog exhibits. I want to see if the dog is safe on stock or will need some advanced control taught to accomplish the above scenarios. I also want to see where the handler is in his own knowledge of how to handle the dog. What do I need to teach him about handling his own dog.
Once inside the arena I usually go straight to my 45’ round pen with 3 head of knee knocker stock. (Stock that come to me for their protection from the dog.) I am going to ask the handler to walk the perimeter of the round pen. I want the dog on the outside of the handler, walking along the inside of the fence. Then the handler is between the stock and dog with the stock somewhere inside the pen. The stock will generally seek their own place of safety and try to keep away from the dog. If the handler understands the game and keeps himself between the dog and stock the stock will come to trust that handler.
I want to see the dog maintain this posture while the handler walks the inside perimeter. While walking that inside perimeter I want the handler Downing the dog many, many times; reversing direction many, many times. I’m looking to see the level of control and the level of respect the dog has for the handler. The dog has NOT been given permission to work stock. The stock is actually irrelevant. They are there simply as a distraction for the dog.
The dog should maintain a loose leash and walk quietly and calmly next to the handler. No lunging, barking, tripping the handler, climbing on the handler, attacking the sheep or grabbing the leash in frustration. I want a well controlled dog respectful of the handler and obediently performing the task requested, which is simply walk on a loose leash, Downing when told and maintaining that loose leash, which in turn, maintains the dog in a semi-heel position.
When the dog will maintain that position and is ignoring the stock I then up-the-ante. I’ll put more stock in the pen to create more movement and a greater distraction.
When the dog walks calmly and performs the tasks requested, I will then walk the dog THROUGH the stock, splitting the stock as I walk across the pen to the opposite fenceline. Again, the dog is expected to maintain their position and focus and not lunge or grab at stock.
The movement created by the stock as the dog walks through will be extremely hard for the dog to ignore. Some dogs may be fearful. Some dogs may be so prey driven they have to lunge at the stock. If they lunge then they are NOT keeping a loose leash now are they?
Next I will ask the dog to recall to me with the stock behind me. Then I will ask the dog to recall THROUGH the stock with me on the opposite side of the stock. Again, the dog should ignore stock and focus on completing the command.
ALL the above is done ON LEASH!
Depending on the dog you may be able to allow the dog to work stock periodically but the above needs to be a priority before you allow the dog to have contact with the stock.
I work and train a lot of hard dogs. Meaning many dogs I train are gut ‘em and eat ‘em dogs when they start herding. I HAVE to do the above to get a modicum of control before starting to teach the dog to herd.
On soft dogs I’ll modify the work to make sure they are happy to be in the pen with me. Dogs that are NOT a danger to my stock I’ll allow to work and train a lot of things while they are on stock. Just depends on where the dog falls in that continuum for prey drive. Nothing is ever absolute in training EXCEPT the Down and Recall.
YIELDING TO HANDLER
I do a LOT of yielding exercises OFF STOCK BEFORE I START WORKING STOCK! Yes, yielding can be taught on stock. But for beginner handlers it is truly easier to understand yielding exercises and teach them off stock BEFORE making that début on stock. It is also less traumatizing to the novice handler, their dog and the stock if you teach it off stock first.
Teaching yielding exercises off stock is also important to dogs with soft temperaments that cannot take a lot of pressure or that exhibit fear of stock at first.
You do NOT want to put more pressure on a soft dog that is trying their best to work for you but cannot quite make itself work the stock. The stock do exert pressure on the dog. YOU are pressure on the dog. Interference from you may be more pressure than a soft dog can stand. Sooooo, work yielding exercises OFF stock so that the dog understands what is expected of them when they are put on stock and you ask them to yield to you. You are minimizing the amount of pressure put on the dog this way.
Hard dogs need to be worked off stock for another reason all together. Yes, the same pressure issues apply but you want the dog to understand what is expected when a task is requested and then you want to be able to correct the dog if it does not respond appropriately because it is trying to kill stock. The dog understands the task requested (you’ve already trained it off stock). It makes a CHOICE not to do the task and to disrespect you. THEN it pays the consequences and is reminded that YOU are the commander and it is the grunt. You demand the hierarchy of command be maintained and the dog understands this.
Yielding exercises are the mainstay in training herding, especially for upright loose-eyed dogs. Many Border Collies and eye breeds will naturally yield to pressure from the stock and/or the handler. Ever watch a Border Collie recall. Many times their recall in the beginning is a curved line instead of a straight line. They’d rather come in behind you that come straight up to you. You have to train that straight line for a recall. Same with ACDs and other herding dogs. Some dogs are yielding to the pressure of the handler and trying to curve out of the pressure. The handler will have to teach them to stay in the pressure and maintain that straight line. They do the same on stock. If stock look at them they will try to yield away from the pressure exerted by the stock when that stock is looking and stumping at them. It’s called “bouncing out of pressure”.
This is why many Border Collies have huge outruns. They are yielding to the pressure of the stock by getting far, far away from the stock and completing the task requested (a flank) at a “comfortable” distance. So, you may not have to “teach” them to do a big, wide, outrun but, instead, have to teach them to work closer to stock, as the closer they are the more uncomfortable or more pressure they feel.
This can be said in any breed but the example given is commonly seen in the eye breeds. Whether you have a dog that “bounces out of pressure” or a dog that “falls into pressure”, working the yielding exercises teaches the dog to understand pressure and how to appropriately respond to the pressure.
So I will do a lot of “stick work” off stock. My herding crook/stock stick is a mainstay. I demand that a stock stick be used during training. If your dog doesn’t like it then it means they are probably bouncing out of the pressure of the stock stick. TRAIN IT! That’s how you get the dog over that little issue. In trialing the stock stick gives you an advantage. Don’t yield to your dog and not train using one. Doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it but means it’s a tool in your toolbox IF you need it.
I will train my dogs to yield away from the stock stick, to come directly into the pressure of the stock stick and to look at it as a directional aid. It is nothing more than an extension of my arm. See it as such.
With the dog on lead I’ll make sure my dog understands to yield away from the pressure of the stock stick and it will help me teach good, square flanks, sheds, and be a visual aid to the dog.
In the beginning of training the dog will be almost totally visual in its training. It will watch your body language to figure out where it needs to be and what task you want to accomplish. In the beginning 95% of your dog’s commands will come from watching you and responding to your body language. So if your body language is confusing, so also will the dog’s responses be confusing.
Teaching the dog to yield to YOU and do specific exercises will help eliminate the confusion and give both of you predictable and consistent cues from which your dog can respond appropriately. It will also help build a line of communication that will continue to grow in depth and understanding as you and your dog continue up the ladder into more advanced work.
Let me insert a word of warning here. Teaching a dog to YIELD to your pressure is NOT the same as teaching a dog to “target” on some object to achieve a goal.
I have had people bastardize what I’m saying and what they are trying to teach. For instance, lets talk about teaching a dog to yield away from the stock stick. I want the dog to turn away from and leave going away from me. If I put the stock stick in front of the eye of a dog I expect them to yield by reversing direction. That means the dog has to at least do a 180 degree turn. If I were to continue to hold the stock stick in front of the eye of the dog it would result in the dog turning in circles UNTIL I released the pressure (took away the stock stick). Imagine you saw someone ball up their fist and pull back to punch you in the nose. You see the punch/fist coming straight at your face. Whatcha gonna do? Turn away from it right? You are “yielding” to the pressure of the fist coming at your face. Now, no contact is made between the fist and your face. Next time you aren’t so radical in your reaction to the fist. You might turn away but watch the fist out of the corner of your eye. When the fist is retracted you will stop turning away and look at the person that did the action wondering what reaction they were trying to create.
This is how the dog is going to perceive the stock stick at first IF the dog naturally yields to pressure. If the dog doesn’t naturally yield then the dog will not flinch away but push the stock stick aside when it is placed in front of their face and brought in front of the eye.
The amount of pressure you exert will depend on the dog. If it flinches away (turns its head away) you immediately take the pressure away (release of pressure), say Down to stop all forward motion in the dog and praise the dog. It has responded appropriately. It yielded to pressure. You build on that response using pressure and release to get the amount of response you want.
If the dog pushes into the pressure then you may have to tap the dogs face with the stock stick to make it uncomfortable enough to respond appropriately or go away from the pressure. Once a response is obtained then, again, Down and praise to let the dog know that is what you want.
So this type of yielding exercise is what I’m talking about. It will be used to train many different exercises in herding over the lifetime of the dog.
Some people will make up their own exercise. They are having problems with the dog yielding to pressure and instead of teaching the dog to yield they will devise some other method trying to achieve the same task. They will place food somewhere on the floor and try to “yield” the dog to the food but instead the dog is taught that if it goes to the food it gets praise and food. Good trick. Doesn’t do a damn thing for teaching the dog to yield to YOU but nice trick. I’ve seen people train teaching the dog to “go to something” instead of “yield away from something”. Don’t do it. You NEED to teach this exactly as I’m explaining it. At least for now; in the beginning.
So, in the beginning you now see what I’m looking for.
Yielding to YOUR pressure in a confident, predictable and consistent manner.
Focus on what YOU want. Not what the dog wants. (Self-Control)
This is what I expect to see and will be teaching at the beginning of herding to a novice dog/handler team.
Quickly, I will combine the above elements with working the dog ON stock, which is probably the first session depending on the level of prey drive/control seen in the dog. I will put the dog ON stock as soon as it is controllable enough to not be a hazard to my health, the handler’s health or the stock’s health and safety.
I will expect to SEE the dog hold its Down while the handler gets into position to prepare for working stock. That means the dog should to stay wherever positioned until he is commanded to work.
The dog should yield to the stock stick and get up and start working stock from the first time the dog encounters stock. The dog should yield in both directions from the pressure of the stock stick to go either direction around the stock.
Everything I do after this will have to do with the dog yielding in some way whether from a physical cue or responding to a voice command. We will build on this to train different elements in herding.
Herding is one of the most intensive of training venues. The amount of self-control the dog will need is unparalleled in any other sport, including protection. Remember I said SELF-control.
And so the journey begins.