Over the years I've perfected my round pen routine. It works well on all breeds teaching them to relax and have self-control when in close proximity to stock.
The first act of herding I do with a dog is introduce them to Round Pen Etiquette. I’m assuming that we’ve done our groundwork and taught the basics for respect and obedience outside the arena. Now, it is time to apply same to working stock.
We’re talking about dogs that are still on lead and not rock solid in their training but understand the basics here. Now I apply it inside the pen, which is going to be a 45 foot round pen to start with. The reason for 45 feet is that I can get to the dog if I accidently drop the lead or foolishly turn him loose too soon and have to recapture the maniac.
My goal in training is ALWAYS to have a dog that is on the verge of out-of-control. Yep! You heard me right. I want a dog that is happy, trying and really, really wants stock BUT understands that there are rules to this game we are playing.
Most all of my rules are for the HANDLER! It’s YOU that have to train the dog. It’s YOU that has to keep your cool and NEVER get mad or upset with the dog. I don’t care if the dog is killing stock, he’s TRYING!!!! Remember that!!! Proper training WILL overcome all. MY rules for training are:
1) Never show anger.
2) Never raise your voice.
3) Smile. You CANNOT be angry if you are smiling.
4) Do NOT fight with the dog. (I’ll explain this better in other articles but training is NOT fighting.)
5) LET the dog work.
6) In the beginning be SILENT. (The dog will naturally work off body language and remember you should have already trained the yielding.)
8) Be consistent in what you ask for.
10) NEVER utter a word when you give a physical correction except for a sweet sounding “good dog”.
11) NEVER apply a “mean” voice to a physical correction. This makes what you do personal and the dog WILL quit you eventually if you do this.
12) Work your dog with “energy”, “intensity”, and zest. This doesn’t mean run like a maniac. It doesn’t mean cheerlead (remember silence). It means ALL your concentration is on the JOB not the dog and you are as intent on the job as the dog is on the stock.
As I walk toward the round pen I’ll have the dog on leash and down the dog often. The down will only last as long as it takes for the dog’s elbows to touch the ground. I don’t really worry about his rear at this point but I’ll notice if his rear is still in the air. I instantaneously let the dog up the millisecond his elbows touch. (Remember it is the RELEASE of pressure that trains. Not the application thereof. The timing of the release is much more important than the timing of the application.)
As I walk toward the round pen the dog will most likely become harder and harder to handle as the sheep excite him. If not, that’s fine too but the rules still apply.
1) Loose lead at all times.
2) Dog is not lunging at the stock through the fence or dragging me along.
3) Dog responds to the Down command with the FIRST command or is corrected into a down instantaneously.
If the dog isn’t downing on a verbal only command I use my foot, applied to the leash to accomplish the down. I’m rather abrupt in my correction if the dog is not downing the second I say the word Down. Why? Because the down needs to become an ingrained habit. I don’t point at the ground and “ask” the dog to down. I’ve already taught the word down and the dog understands that the word means to plant elbows and hocks on the ground. If I don’t get that, then I’m going to instantaneously take my foot put it over the lead and pretty much jerk the dog’s head down to the ground. His chin will meet the ground in an unforgiving manner.
The NEXT step will be a RELEASE of the pressure from the physical correction. I’ll say, “That’ll Do”, “Here”, and just keep on walking. Most people have to do this repeatedly until the dog “beats” the correction, which the dog CAN do. You’ll also get pretty good and never breaking stride and stepping on the leash to get the dog down for the split second. Pause in your forward motion just long enough for the down to occur or for you to give the correction and MAKE IT SO!
I don’t care how you train your dog to down. Treats, bribery, motivational luring, pinching over the whithers. I don’t care. But we are now to the stage where the dog HAS to down on command instantly. I want this BEFORE you get your dog on stock.
So, I’m walking toward the stock located in the round pen and the dog lunges. I turn around abruptly without saying a word and give a HARD, SHARP leash correction and may run a few steps in the opposite direction. Why? Because my dog is supposed to be walking on a loose lead. The ONLY way to get and KEEP the dog’s attention is to make it worth his while to PAY attention. That is achieved through some type of negative correction. The leash correction does that for me. It motivates the dog to pay attention and keep that leash loose. When you turn around, slow down, speed up, half-turn around then continue in the same direction, the dog is constantly challenged to pay attention so as to keep up with your next move. Keeps the dog on his toes watching me for that abrupt turn around or whatever.
So we’re walking toward the round pen and we do multiple down and turn arounds just to get the dog’s attention. Now, we get to the gate and the dog should lie down and STAY down while we open the gate and walk through (only the person walks through). The dog is WAITING for permission to enter or better be waiting.
If the dog cannot wait patiently then you are going to now work entry through the gate as an exercise. Above you worked on your approach to a gate.
If the dog lunges through the gate you may have to get someone to work the gate with you while you go back outside the pen and start with your approach to the gate and control of the dog. (Remember there is stock inside so always be aware of your own safety around stock. Forget that and you'll end up in a gate opening with stock running over your face!)
Again, LOOSE LEASH at all times.You approach the gate again and down the dog outside the gate entry. Open the gate to the INSIDE of the pen (good stockmanship) and if the dog lunges again, hit him in the nose with the gate by closing the gate abruptly. TRY to catch him before he gets into the round pen if you can.
I had a dog once that was perfect outside the pen on the approach but the owner simply could not correct the dog for entry. The dog was truly driven. We ended up having to tie a short leash from the dog to the fence for the dog to “self correct” when it lunged through the gate and tried to get at the stock before permission was granted. ALL you are doing is asking for respect from the dog when it walks through a gate. DEMAND it!!! GET it!!! Do NOT let the dog behave like a maniac here, as that attitude will carryover into training inside the pen.
Once you have respect from the dog and its waiting outside the pen for permission to come into the pen, and you are now standing inside the pen; then invite the dog inside the pen. BUT… make sure when the dog comes in you immediately down the dog again. This is, again, good stockmanship. The dog should wait for you to close the gait for YOUR safety before trying to work stock. (You don't want the dog to run after the stock and the stock to stampede over you trying to get out that open gate.) CONTROL THE SITUATION!
The dog, downed inside the pen and in the gate opening is pressure on the stock to keep the stock from trying to escape out of the open gate. This allows you to turn around and safely close the gate.
Now, you’re inside the round pen. Nope, not gonna work stock yet. NOW you are going to walk the perimeter of the round pen with the dog on the OUTSIDE of you and walking along on the fence. The picture you should be seeing is outside fence, dog, you, then stock. This should remain the picture you see while you walk around the pen with the dog on lead.
This scenario teaches a lot to the dog. It teaches them to walk a fenceline. It teaches them patience. It teaches them to maintain that position and a loose leash with the sheep in the same pen as a distraction. It allows the dog to "settle" while in the presence of stock.
This scenario also allows you to have better control over the dog should he lose self-control and start lunging at the stock. We are going to repeat the SAME scenario as we did walking up to the pen. Multiple downs and about turns to get and keep the dogs attention on US.
Most dogs will try to lunge around in front of you (forging) and try to get to the sheep. They may also try to get behind you and do the same thing. Remember your about turns. They are priceless for training the dog to keep that leash loose and not forge OR lag.
It doesn't matter how ragged this is. It matters that you stay focused on the dog respecting the "loose leash" requirement. We're not here to drag the dog around the pen. We're here to establish control AND allow the dog to learn SELF-control. That is the reason for the loose leash. A dog HAS to have SELF-CONTROL to accomplish the task of walk around the pen on a loose leash.
Do a LOT of about turns and downs on the fenceline. You should see the dog lose interest in the sheep and become easier and easier to handle. The dog should relax with the stock in the pen BEFORE you try to work the dog on stock.
NOTE: If you do your turn arounds TOWARD the fence the dog STAYS on the fence line and never has to come off the fence. If you turn away from the fence to do your turn arounds the do has to get between you and the stock to complete the turn around and you then have to reposition the dog back on the fence. (Unless, of course, you're doing a Schutzhund turn around.) But... ALWAYS, turn INTO the fence when you turn around. That keeps the dog in position.
STAY on the fenceline. Just leave enough room on the fence that you are not crowding the dog. Once the dog relaxes and quits trying to get to the stock you can lessen your arch around the stock and come off the fence. Get closer to the stock while you are arching around them. Test the dog's self-control. Go BACK to the fence if the dog repeatedly loses control. Do more walks and and turn arounds on the fence again.
NOTE: Another little ditty I do in the round pen is I will be walking along with the dog and suddenly step backward then forward again to continue walking around the pen. IF the dog is paying attention he will start to turn around thinking you are turning around to go in the opposite direction. There IS a METHOD TO MY MADNESS HERE. I WANT the dog to be watching me and responding to my body language. I will speed up, slow down, rock my body forward and backward, take a step or two backward until the dog is literally facing me in a recall position then I'll walk forward again, and just walk by the dog so he'll have to turn back around and reposition himself so the leash is loose again. With the least hesitation in my step I WANT the dog to take a semi-step in preparation to turn around. This little ditty will come in handy when we start training the THERE command.
One of the absolute rules in herding is that YOUR approach to stock should ALWAYS be in an arch. You should NEVER walk directly AT your stock. Big no, no. When you wish to get you and your dog closer to the stock in preparation for working the dog on stock you will lessen your arch to get closer. Then, once your get close you'll go back to the fence and repeat the above. Then you will lessen that arch again and move off the fence and closer to the stock. You do NOT want the dog anticipating its release off leash so make sure you do this exercise until the dog is relaxed and not trying to get to stock.
You want to be able to walk the whole round pen, then walk off the fence, closer to the stock, then back to the fence with the dog following the fenceline and walking with you on a loose lead. Things will get exciting enough when the leash comes off. Right now we want control and we want the dog to exhibit SELF-control.
Before you work stock you will walk through the stock with your dog on lead and you will call your dog through stock with your dog on lead. Again, we're establishing control. For some of the really intensely driven dogs this exercise is a mainstay in establishing YOUR control over the dog when the dog is in tight quarters with stock. The closer the stock in proximity to the dog the more likely you will lose control. We are trying to "hedge our bets" here and teach the dog how to act.
Most of the time I will add more stock in the pen when I start my walk throughs. It just makes it easier to "split" the herd and get a good clean walk through if there is more stock in the pen.
When you start the walk throughs you'll arch around the stock several times, changing direction repeatedly so as to "catch the heads" of the stock and make them change direction repeatedly THEN you will suddenly WALK STRAIGHT AT THE STOCK AND WALK THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF THEM!
Most dogs will lose control the first few times you do this as the stock splitting and flowing around the dog on both sides is too much stimulation for the dog. Do NOT correct the dog for lunging. Just go back to walking the fence line and asking for the dog's attention to be on your.
When you walk through stock make it a pleasant experience, if possible. The dog should remain at your side, just like when walking the fence line. Reach down and touch the dog, call him with your with That'll Do/Here commands to reiterate that he is NOT to be working stock but coming with you instead. But, do not hesitate to give him leash corrections to gain his attention and get the job done. The idea is for YOU to be his center of attention; not the stock flowing around him as you walk through them.
Do this repeatedly, until you can quietly and calm split the group and walk through with the dog keeping a loose leash. Not, I don't expect the dog to heel. That is NOT the goal. I WANT him knowing where the stock is at all times. I don't care if he turns his head and watches the stock flow by as long as he comes along with you and keep that leash loose.
You may have to walk the fence then walk through stock then walk the fence again and go back to walking through stock. Toggle back and forth to get control back then try walking through again until both are equally easy for the dog.
After the dog walks the fence and walks through stock; it is time to call the dog through. The first time you call the dog through you will stand on the same side as the dog and begin your recall from that position. You will walk backwards through the stock while calling your dog to you. Again, you should have already worked the Recall outside the pen to where the dog totally understands what is expected.
Call the dog and walk backwards to the stock and when your back hits the fence, PRAISE the dog effusively. This IS a big deal! Then go back to walk the fence line and once again set it up to recall the dog. As the dog understands and correctly obeys the recall command change your position to be deeper in the sheep group before initiating the recall. Eventually you want to call the dog through stock with you on the opposite side and the dog has to make its own path/hole to walk through the stock to get to you. Again, make sure you maintain control of the dog ON leash so that the dog doesn't inadvertently charge the stock and start working them on their own. This is ALL OFF-CONTACT work so far.
When the dog is readily showing self-control in the round pen, walking the perimeter, coming with you through stock, calling through stock; it is time to add working stock ON lead.
We’ve already taught the dog to yield to the stock stick and now we’re going to apply that, if you haven't already.
ARCH around the stock ON the fenceline. Then as you are arching around the pen watch your stock and your positioning relevant to the stock. The goal is for you to now do a “There”, “Down” on stock. But you want to do this as you get to the heads of the stock and they are just beginning to turn their heads to turn around and go in the opposite direction. You want your POSITION as you do a There, to be a "position of control" for the stock.
To achieve this position you may have to turn around multiple times as the stock may have gotten to where they are just running the fenceline and staying ahead of the dog. You want the dog TURNING the heads of the stock or stopping the stock's forward motion as the dog turns into the stock on the "There" command. To achieve this you will have to time your There so that your arch is ahead of the stock or just when your arch is "catching" the heads and they are beginning to turn to change direction.
Walk the perimeter and watch the stock. As the stock move around the pen turn around and notice when (at what position are you relevant to the stock) you are getting AHEAD of the stock and they are turning their heads to move in the opposite direction. Turn around and again watch when you are getting AHEAD of the stock and they are turning their heads to move in the opposite direction. Do this multiple times until you SEE the pattern you are walking. YOU are heading the stock.
Until now you've done all your turn arounds toward the fence. Now, we're going to put the dog into play. You're going to turn AWAY from the fence TOWARD the stock at that moment when the stock are just fixing to turn their heads to turn around and head the opposite direction.
We are now going to start the first step to teaching the "There" command to your dog. As you turn into the stock do NOT step forward/toward the stock with your dog. There are specific steps/specific body language I want you to use. This is the FIRST STEP in teaching the There command. You are now teaching your dog to “turn in sharply” and FACE the stock with a There command. You want all forward motion from the dog to cease after the dog turns toward the stock so are going to issue a DOWN command the second the dog has complied with the There and turned to face the stock.
Read the definition of the "There" command. It is orienting the dog ON the stock. Make it so.
My way of teaching that sharp turn in that results in a sharp There orientation to stock for the dog, is as I am walking around the pen and my dog and I are facing the same direction. He may be a step or two ahead of me or at my side. Leash just needs to be loose.
As I say the “There” command I will step backward a step or two until I've stopped the forward motion of the dog and have literally pulled/jerked his head and body around to TURN AND FACE THE STOCK. This will cause my leash to jerk the dog’s front in around to be facing the stock. I will then step back up into position next to the dog and turn FACING TOWARD the stock so that both myself and the dog are positioned correctly facing the stock. A timely Down will keep the dog from completely changing direction and be facing in the opposite direction. Your step back to the dog's side and turn to face the stock will also help orient the dog correctly toward the stock. We want the dog FACING THE STOCK AND ORIENTED TO THE STOCK with the There command.
I’m not yet asking for a Walk Up. I’m just orienting the dog to the stock. The jerk on the lead and my step backward causes the dog to turn away from the fence and sharply face the stock. My step and turn to face the stock with utterance of the Down, keeps the dog from over rotating (turning too far). MY body language (step backward, then step up to the dog's side and turn to face the stock) will QUICKLY be learned by the dog as an indicator that the dog is to orient to the stock on the There command or "turn in".
You may wish to practice this without the dog. Walk the perimeter and step back as though tugging on the lead, then step up to the imaginary dog and turn to face the stock. This is YOUR pattern that will help the dog do a proper There command.
If the dog doesn’t down when told you step on the lead.
The Down should last all of a millisecond. The millisecond the dog’s elbows touch the ground you release the dog with a “That’ll Do”, “Here”, and step DIRECTLY AWAY FROM THE STOCK calling your dog to you and praising the dog. If you are still pretty close to the fence then, obviously, the That'll Do will be off to the side of the dog. I usually say, "That'll Do/Here", and step backward away from the dog in a facsimile of a recall, praising the dog the whole time.
EVERY time you say, “That’ll Do”, YOUR action should be to call the dog AWAY from stock (not at an angle but directly away from stock) and PRAISE the dog for calling off. So you may wish to arch closer to the stock BEFORE initiating the There command so you have room to go directly away from the stock when you say That'll Do/Here.
Novice handlers will stumble through the above exercises many times. But, it WILL happen. You are setting a pattern for life with your dog. Good obedience. Good SELF-control by the dog. Good response to commands that are the mainstay of herding.
I, personally, will be using a stock stick with my dog in the round pen. Novice handlers many times have to first do the above exercises without the stock stick until they have a little muscle memory on how to correctly do the exercises. The stock stick is in the way or distracting as they attempt to train the dog.
I use the stock stick to YIELD the dog on my turn arounds. I’ll also use the stock stick on my There to keep the dog from over rotating and to hold the dog into position. I'll use the stock stick on my That'll Do/Here commands to block the direction to the sheep to be sure to get that good clean release off stock directly away from the stock. But it takes practice to do this. But the stock stick is not relevant yet. Your body posture/language is the relevant part of the exercise. It will be the same body language whether the dog is novice or advanced. Even when the dog is hundreds of yards away it will STILL see you turn your body and respond with a directional change. So this round pen etiquette will set the standard for working your dog for many years.
There are many exercises for which I use the round pen to start training. I then move to a larger area. Short flanks, catch heads, straight Walk Ups, There, to re-set my lines for driving, etc.. All are started in the round pen. Desensitization issues are dealt with in smaller areas, including the round pen and the packed pen.
Using the round pen to “fix” problems and train patterns is essential to the long-range goal of a dog that is useful and well trained. Also, a dog that is manageable. Those that don’t have a lot of time to train, e.g., the weekend warrior that only gets on stock a couple times a month and wants to take their dog to trials, need round pen etiquette, as it strengthens communication between dog and handler in a fairly short amount of time. It clearly defines the parameters of the job.
Once you have the etiquette you have a way to demand, retain and maintain respect from you dog. A 45’ found pen is used to begin square flanks, inside flanks, off balance flanking, shedding, driving, straight Walk Ups for short distances, wearing and lots more.
Enjoy the journey.
By Pat Taylor
Fellstar Bouvs, TX
Round Pen Etiquette
and teaching the