Originally Published in American Border Collie Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
I have my first young dog and I am very excited about beginning her herding training. He is 10 months old and runs around the outside of the stock when I stand with them but he is tight and sort of desperate. How do I get him to slow down and pay attention to me?
The whole crux of the early training is working on the dog’s mental attitude toward the stock and toward the work. The dog needs to accept that he is to work the stock, not chase them and that he is to do that work with you the handler. Until the dog understands these two basic premises about herding it is very difficult to teach him anything else.
All of the early exercises that are done with the dog have this ultimate aim as their goal. I like to begin as you have with the dog holding a group of about 15-20 quiet, well-broke sheep in a group. I like to use quiet sheep because I don’t want the sheep to give the dog any unnecessary excuses to run amok and ignore me. The sheep standing quietly with me is so exciting to a young dog that it is often enough to cause the dog to run into the stock and generally act like an idiot. This is a good place to begin to teach the dog some manners toward stock.
First I give the dog a chance to calm down. I will allow him to run around the sheep for two or three minutes. If he starts running into them, however, I try to get in his way and use my presence to force him to back off.
This is the beginning of the young dog’s first lesson “don’t run into the sheep and bite them.” I use as much pressure on the dog as that particular dog requires for him to learn that lesson. If the dog starts to run into the stock I apply pressure to the dog. With some dogs this may consist of my saying “uh uh, get back” while I take a step in the dog’s direction. A really sensitive young dog will read that as a great deal of pressure and will bend off me in response. Another dog may not even hear this and will require me to get in front of him or flap a bag or a stick in his face to get his attention.
This first lesson is crucial. Training a dog that does not have a good attitude toward the stock is very difficult. A dog that views the stock as so many hapless victims to be got at the first time an opportunity presents itself is never going to be a dependable assistant. He must learn early on that the stock are not a toy.
The next big lesson is that the dog must pay some attention to me. Happily lessons one and two are usually learned concurrently. As that dog is learning not to harass the stock he is also learning he had better pay attention to me. The danger here is that the first few times the dog goes to stock he is so excited he may seem harder headed then he really is. Err on the side of caution and gradually escalate how much pressure you apply to the dog to get his attention and back him off the stock. It is very easy to misread excitement for hard headedness and to over correct a sensitive dog early on. Go slow the first few times you go to the stock and gradually increase the amount of pressure you apply to get a response from the dog. Also as your training progresses your dog should become more sensitive and responsive to your corrections so be flexible and adjust your tone and actions to your dog’s responses.
A talented young dog is going to quickly become bored with running around the stock and so I will begin to back around the field and allow the dog to balance the stock up to me as I move around. This allows me to begin to incorporate lessons three and four into my work on lessons one and two. Lesson three is the dog must learn to balance and keep the stock to me. Lesson four is the dog must learn to move around the stock either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Most dogs are quite one handed and I use this early time to help the dog develop some comfort traveling in either direction. During all the lessons, however, never lose sight of the most important lessons. The dog must respect the stock and the handler. If the dog runs amok or in any way mistreats the stock he must immediately feel the disapproval of the handler in such a way that the behavior stops and the dog thinks about what went wrong.
The trick in all of this is to use the amount of pressure that is appropriate to the dog being worked and apply it at the time that it will help the dog to know what he did wrong. That is correct the dog appropriately for what he is thinking, not what he is doing. It is very easy to see that the dog is harassing the stock when he is swinging one of them around by the tail. This is also way too late for a correction. The correction needs to be given when the dog thinks “I’m going to grab that sheep by the tail” not when the dog has a hold of the stock and isn’t using his brain at all.
Most experienced trainers do this early training as I have described because it is fairly easy for them to tell the instant the young dogs start to have wrong thoughts and they can apply the correction immediately. A soft, responsive dog can be trained fairly easily by a novice trainer in much the same way because the dog is going to have very few dangerous thoughts and those will be easily squashed with a word or a step or two toward the dog to apply pressure.
Unfortunately, too often novice trainers end up with some very determined dogs or through the miscommunication of early corrections make moderately soft dogs harder. These kinds of dogs can be very hard for the novice to correct since quite often the novice trainer cannot tell that the dog is about to run amok until the assault on the stock has already begun. Since the idea is to teach the dog not to assault, a correction given after the assault has begun is ineffective.
In a situation with a harder dog and a novice handler I would suggest that the help of a professional trainer be sought. A lesson or a training clinic can provide some valuable insight into improving your timing and what signs to look for when your dog’s thoughts are starting down dangerous paths.
I have had some success teaching some novice handlers with these types of dogs using a long line. I begin their training by teaching them to drive so that the dog and the handler are both working on the same side of the stock with the handler controlling the dog through a line. The handler is then in a good position to correct the dog the instant he begins thinking about going after the stock. Using a line in this manner the handler can allow the dog a small amount of slack and when the dog begins to assault the stock the long line will make the correction for the handler much as dogs are taught not to pull on a slack leash.