By Pat Taylor
Flanking is nothing more than a yielding exercise for the dog OFF stock. The dog has to mentally turn loose of stock and reposition so that it can then push stock in a desired direction. Simple. Right?
The hardest thing for people to teach (or understand) is that flanking is an OFF-contact exercise. The dog should definitely keep an eye on the stock, as the flank is oriented AROUND the stock, but the dog should NOT put pressure on the stock, making it move. Again, the exercise is NOT to move stock. It actually has nothing to do with moving stock. A flank is a prerequisite move to get ready to move stock or in preparation for moving stock.
Also, one of the hardest things for a handler to understand is that YOU should be moving your feet and maintaining a loose leash as you’re teaching the dog to yield. The biggest mistake novice handlers make is to NOT move their feet when training. They just stand there instead of being in motion with the dog. Anyway…
Without a flank you cannot control the direction the dog takes the stock. You have no steering wheel, so-to-speak.
In the very beginning of teaching a dog to flank you should be doing yielding exercises off stock using your stock stick.
If the dog pushes into pressure, it will fight having to yield to pressure. When you are standing facing the dog and the dog is lying down, tap on one of the dog’s front feet. What is the dog’s reaction? Does it bite the stick? (Fall into pressure.) Does it move its foot but not the body? (Yields its foot, which is perfect.) Does the dog hunker down and look like it’s preparing for a beating? (Refusing to yield to pressure, which translates as falling into pressure.) How hard do you have to tap the dog’s foot with the stock stick before the dog takes the foot away? All these responses by the dog are “tells” as to what will need to be done to get the dog ready to flank properly.
We’re going to surmise the dog readily yields to pressure and is not so pressure sensitive it is terrified of the stock stick. If the dog either attacks the stock stick or retreats to the end of the leash to get away from the stock stick you will have to desensitize the dog to the stock stick before attempting to teach flanks. The dog HAS to be comfortable with the stock stick BUT has to respect it and yield to it when you point it at the dog.
I demand that everyone use a stock stick. If the dog fears it, so sad, too bad; get over it. I’ll use the stick and we’ll work at getting the dog over its over-sensitivity. I’ve never had a dog that didn’t get over its sensitivity to the stock stick. I’ve had owners that had problems but not dogs. The whoa-is-me my dog is scared is the handler’s problem not the dog’s. You get over feeling sorry for the dog and do your job of teaching the dog that the stock stick is a tool, not a club. Dogs actually get over their fear pretty quickly when they understand the proper action to take to relieve pressure.
It’s all about communication and understanding. The dog needs to understand what the stock stick is all about and the proper response to any given pressure the dog feels as a result of the stock stick pointing at or touching the dog.
I basically train “doodle” exercises using the stock stick at home. I’ll train the dog to back up when the stock stick is first tapped against the dog chest between the dog’s front legs. Then to back up when the stock stick is just pointed at the prosternum (where the sternum bones meet in an inverted V in between the dog’s front legs). I’ll teach the dog that when I point the stock stick at one foot to move just that foot away from the pressure. I’ll start by tapping/irritating the dog by tapping on the foot until the dog moves that foot. Good dog! I’ll do both front feet equally then I’ll do both front feet almost simultaneously, which generally causes the dog to at least yield backward one step with its whole body. The dog is kept facing me with the leash. If the dog tries to turn around to get away from the stick I’ll hold the dog in place with the leash until I get the desired effect (take one step back) THEN I IMMEDIATELY RELEASE PRESSURE of both leash and the stick. Good dog!
I may start this from a down. I may start this from a stand. Just depends on what result I want. Either way the dog is to yield straight backward (back up) away from the pressure.
Then I’ll start on the face. Standing in front of the dog I’ll see how much the dog yields when the stick is held even with the eye. Proper response would be to yield the head right or left away from the pressure. If the dog doesn’t yield I’ll SAFELY tape on the side of the face of the dog until the tapping irritates the dog enough to turn its head away. Good dog!
Many times it is easier to start your yielding exercises from a standing position as the dog need only step any direction to relieve the pressure. The dog doesn’t need to stand up first if you leave him standing while applying pressure.
I ALWAYS start my yielding exercises with the feet as the feet move the dog. Then I’ll apply pressure to the head after the feet readily move.
Once the feet and/or head move then you’ll apply the pressure for a longer period of time before releasing it. You will ask that the dog turn its head away from pressure and take ONE step. Good dog!
My goal is to get the dog yielding to pressure so that when I ask for that first step in a flank the dog leaves at a 90 degree to ME. (Remember these are doodle exercises we’re doing off stock right now.) When you view the angle it should look like the dog is “flat siding” you to leave. If the dog goes slightly past a 90 degree angle that is fine. But don’t settle for less.
When you’ve done your doodle exercises off stock you should now have the dog yielding left and right at a 90 degree angle AWAY from you. NOW, step off to one side (a small step) and ask the dog to yield away either right or left. Make sure you maintain that 90 degree angle. The dog is moving away from you but since its on leash make sure you MOVE WITH THE DOG to maintain a loose leash.
So far you’re only asking the dog to relieve pressure by going away from the pressure. Point the stick and the dog goes away from the stick. Now I want you to walk over and stand NEXT to the dog facing the same direction the dog is facing. NOW tap the side of the dog’s face and ask the dog to yield away from you. Make sure you maintain that 90 degree angle. More is better. Less is unacceptable.
When the dog yields from your side make sure you step WITH the dog to keep the loose leash as the dog yields away from you.
As the dog learns that yielding to pressure isn’t so bad you’ll ask for more steps yielding away from you. You’ll have to go with the dog as you yield him 5 feet, then 10 feet, then 15 feet. Yield the dog parallel to a wall so you can have a visual aid for maintaining that 90 degree angle.
THEN ask the dog to yield AROUND you at the end of that 6 foot lead. You are lunging the dog like a horse.
Another little ditty is to walk along with the dog at your side and while you are IN MOTION ask the dog to yield BEHIND you to your other side. The dog crosses over behind you. Keep walking along yielding your dog back and forth BEHIND you.
Once the dog will cross over behind you work on facing the dog and crossing over in front of you. Like lunging but you are not turning with the dog. Put a 15 foot leash on the dog and walk off about 10 feet to one side of the dog. Ask the dog to yield toward you and pass in front of you and continue on yielding away from you along that imaginary line making up the 90 degree angle. Now, you have the dog yielding and crossing your plane. Good dog!
I would imagine that in short order you will have the dog yielding to its food bowl, yielding to a specific location, changing direction while IN motion by yielding away from the stock stick when it is placed in a position which blocks the path of the dog. The dog should readily turn around and go the opposite direction.
Now, all this yielding is nothing more than flanking the dog. You just don’t have sheep in front of you when you started.
When you go back to stock make sure you maintain that 90 degree angle. That is sooooo important. That 90 degree angle is called a Square flank. It means the dog is “squaring up” to the sheep or “flat siding” them on its flank.
In general, for a dog to continue to give you a 90 degree angle on that first step in a flank, the dog has mentally turned loose of the stock. When a dog only gives you a 45 degree angle it generally means the dog isn’t mentally turning loose to successfully complete the task (flanking).
On beginner dogs I’m only going to ask the dog to maintain that 90 degrees for about 15 feet into the flank. Then I LET the dog flank until I Down him. Beginner dogs we may LET them flank to a balance point opposite us so that we can then reward the dog by allowing it to fetch the sheep along while we do a walk about. The reward is the dog now gets to PUSH the stock while keeping them grouped and following me.
As soon as the dog is 100% yielding to the pressure of the stick to initiate a flank you want to add the verbal commands for flanking to the scenario. You want to get that dog flanking at a 90 degree angle with only a verbal command as soon as possible. So from the time you start teaching flanks you are working toward getting the dog to understand the verbal commands and initiate and complete the exercise with only a verbal cue. This will take a little time as a dog will more readily respond to body language than a verbal cue. But it WILL happen unless you become a stickoholic and don’t teach the dog to be verbal. I see a LOT (90+%) of novice handlers that OVER use their stock stick. Stop it! TRAIN the dog and don’t fall into that mindset of using the stock stick as a crutch because you haven’t trained the dog to be verbal.
There is NO reason a handler should face their dog for a continued amount of time once the dog understands yielding to pressure and does a nice 90 degree flank. The handler needs to go stand beside the dog and make sure that position is trained. I see a LOT of novice handler still in front of the dog, facing the dog, instead of moving to stand beside the dog. They are trying to micromanage the dog by continuing to face the dog to control it. Stop it! If you train the dog to flank properly then the dog will not need your help to stay off stock. It will understand and execute the flanking exercise as trained. So if YOU are having problems with the dog diving in or encroaching on stock on its flank you need to go back and retrain your flank to be a 90 degree first step. You missed that in your training I guarantee it.
Now, you’re back on stock. You have to maintain what you’ve trained off stock. Make it so. Keep a leash on the dog and do all your doodle exercise on leash with the sheep as a distraction.
REMEMBER, FLANKING IS A POSITIONING EXERCISE. It has nothing to do with moving stock. It is simply to move the dog into a position so that you can initiate controlled movement of stock.
When you start your flanks on stock I generally have the dog to where I can turn and face the stock. I NEED to know where the stock is.
One of my first exercises will be to flank the dog into a position that just barely turns the heads of the stock. This is a power trip for the dog as it is controlling the movement of stock. I WANT a head hunter. I WANT a dog that tries to control all stock movement. So I TRAIN for that!!!
If I’m still having to face my dog I’ll watch the stock over my shoulder but I WILL know where my stock is at all times. That is important!
I will flank my dog just until the heads are turned. “There”/”Down”. Then I’ll reverse that flank and catch heads the other direction. “There”/”Down”.
REMEMBER we taught the THERE command in our Round Pen exercise.
So we END EVERY FLANK WITH A “There”/”Down”. We ask the dog to initiate the flank and stay OFF-contact then end the flank with the ON-Contact command of “There”/”Down”.
We do this repeatedly and just catch heads.
As I flank the dog around me I’ll turn with the dog and when I say, “There”/”Down”, I will give a sharp tug on the leash to stop the forward motion of the dog and get a sharp turn in for the There. The Down is immediately initiated, as I am not doing a Walk Up
Up to this time everything has been on lead. We’re not going to take the lead off but we ARE going to drop the lead to initiate fetching.
We need to get the dog doing 360 degree circles around the stock and stopping anywhere on the clock face. So after catching heads for a while we’re going to allow the dog to flank and drop the lead as the dog begins to turn the heads. The dog may hesitate, Down automatically or just continue to run. Doesn’t matter. We’ll respond accordingly with whatever needs to be done for the dog to continue to flank.
I’m not too worried about getting distance off stock at this point. I just want the dog free wheeling around the stock.
When I drop the leash my body position should be one that reflects me looking BEHIND the dog, e.g., I’m driving the dog around the stock with my focal point being slightly BEHIND the dog. I’ll step into the middle of the sheep and be the center of the clock face with my entire body posture facing slightly behind the dog.
The reason I’m so adamant about this is that if your body posture is ahead of the dog it will cause the dog to turn around and go the other direction. You should be LETTING the dog continue to flank. If the dog stops then yield the dog away from you again without going to the dog, if possible.
You are now allowing the dog to flank off lead though he is dragging the lead for safety in case you need to catch him fairly quickly.
I don’t generally try to Down the dog because you are in no position to make it happen. I WILL follow the dog and when I’m ready, I’ll initiate a change of direction by blocking the dog with my stock stick. If I’ve trained my yielding exercises correctly, the dog should readily yield to the stick blocking his path and turn around and go the other direction.
As the dog tires I’ll eventually add a Down command when I feel I can get one. But the issue here is LETTING the dog flank and change direction when I command.
Let me say here that the dog should NEVER change direction on its own. It should ONLY be when you decide to change direction. This is all about control. Your control. Don’t let the dog make the decision to change direction. It HAS to be your choice.
When the dog changes direction easily and Downs on command I’ll move to the fence so that I’m in a position to get between the dog and stock. When I’m in that position I’ll block the dog from going around the stock and WAIT until the dog stops on its own for a second or two. That is the time I’ll ask for a Down. The second the dog downs I’ll flank the dog around the stock and I’ll simply walk to the other side of the round pen and reposition myself so as to block the dog. When the dog settles again I’ll say Down. I’ll repeat flanking the dog the second its elbows touch. The 3rd or 4th time I Down the dog I’ll step out away from the stock, still blocking the dog and walk to them and pick up the leash. I’ll say, “That’ll Do”/”Here” and walk directly away from the stock.
Depending on the aggression in the dog on stock, I’ll start fetching stock. As I’m flanking the dog back and forth catching heads, I’ll drop the lead and let the dog go on to balance for fetching. I’ll DOWN THE DOG AT THE TOP 100% of the time BEFORE allowing the dog to push the stock. This needs to be an absolute rule. DOWN THE DOG AT THE TOP 100% OF THE TIME!!!!
The reason for this absolute rule is that if the dog Downs at the top every time, the dog will NOT begin to THINK about moving stock until you tell him to. If you allow the dog to start moving stock immediately upon reaching balance to you, then the dog will start anticipating moving stock and start cutting the corners at the top and rushing the stock at the top.
REMEMBER to DOWN THE DOG; 100% of the time; at the TOP!!!!!
I may not add the verbal command Walk Up yet (after the Down at the top) but this is as good a time as any to start sticking it in there.
The dog is flanking and catching heads and downing easily.
The dog is now doing 360s around stock.
The dog is Downing when told.
Now, I’m going to add Walk Ups to the scenario.
This said I have taught the There command beforehand. (See Round Pen Etiquette and Teaching the There.) When I see the dog turning the heads I’ll give the “There”/”Down” command and the millisecond the dog’s elbows touch I’ll initiate the Walk Up command. The Walk Up is an On-Contact command and the dog should immediately get up and walk straight AT the stock. I start it on lead because if the dog doesn’t get up I have the lead to make it happen. I don’t want the dog sticking in the ground an drefusing to Walk Up.
The Walk Up won’t be but for a few steps. Those steps had better be straight at the stock. I’m just looking for the dog to come ON-Contact and push for 2 or 3 steps. Then I’ll Down the dog and Flank him back to the heads again. Repeat the “There”/”Down” and Walk Up the second the elbows touch.
I’ll extend the Walk Up as the dog learns. I’ll do a LOT of Walk Up/Down, Walk Up/Down. In a round pen you will have to reset your line many times to keep a straight line as the pen naturally make the sheep bend in a circle. WATCH for when the dog’s position is no longer perfect and straight but the dog is starting to bend with the sheep. I do NOT want the dog to begin to follow the stock. I want that Walk Up straight as a arrow. So when the dog begins to bend its path I’ll reset the line with another There command OR I’ll flank the dog back around to catch the heads and Walk Up from the other direction until the line begins to bend.
A Walk Up in a round pen should look more like a hexagon. It should not be a circle.
As I proceed I’ll drop my lead and let the dog Walk Up and flank dragging the lead. But I’ll pick up the lead the second I cannot keep my straight line or my flanking goes bad.
I’ll also stand in the middle of the pen and position the dog to Walk Up on a line that keeps the stock in the middle of the pen with me serving as the center pivot point. The dog is to keep the stock on the fence.
Then I’ll reposition the dog for a Walk Up where the inside sheeps head is even with my hip and the sheep are held to me with the dog having to work all the butts to keep all the little sheepies in a row.
When you start working Walk Ups this way you need to keep your shoulder even with the butt of the last sheep. That is what defines to your dog a line that should not be crossed. The dog should work that “line” from your shoulder to the fence keeping all the little butts ahead of that imaginary line and moving forward. (You could call it an Offset-Drive as the dog is behind you.) Wherever you “set the line”, whether with the sheep held to you or on the fence, it is up to the dog to “make it so”. LET him.
And, guess what… you’ve just started your dog driving…
Enjoy the journey.