Creating a Confident Herding Partner
by Tammie Rogers
am amazed at a herding dog's courage. We often ask our dogs to
control and pilot animals that can weigh hundreds of pounds more than
they do. We ask them to manage ewes with baby lambs and cows with newborn
calves. We ask them to move livestock that doesn't want to budge
and contain animals that want to race away under the slightest pressure.
A self-assured herding dog can help a shepherd get out of an uneasy
predicament or a potentially dangerous situation. That bravery often
comes naturally to herding dogs, but our training methods and the situation
in which we place our pups can help foster their natural strengths or,
unfortunately, destroy it. When a dog is mishandled during early training
his full potential might never be reached. That is why it is critical
to train a herding dog with a very important goal in mind. Creating
a confident herding partner is key to success whether the dog will be
used for farm chores, will make a living working on huge open ranges
or compete on the trial field.
As we train our herding dogs, we should strive to grow their confidence
in us as their trainer, handler and partner. We are responsible for
determining whether a pup can handle a particular type of livestock,
number of head, field size, terrain and even a specific handler. We
will grow a dog's confidence if we provide learning situations
where the pup can master new skills, avoid injury and win over his charges.
Learning often requires a bit of stress, but if the situation is overwhelming
for the dog, he will neither learn the lessons we had hoped he would
and he will most probably lose some confidence in his handler and himself.
We should choose livestock that is appropriate for a dog's skill
level. In the early stages of training the pup should not be challenged
with livestock that can outrun him, will turn and face him or that will
ignore his presence. All of these situations are likely to diminish
a dog's confidence rather than boost it. When training novice
dogs, most handlers prefer stock that are well dog-broke, meaning that
the animals will gravitate to the human in the presence of a dog. Dog-broke
stock will often ignore the minor errors that a young dog makes and
choose to move towards the human regardless of these infractions. This
makes the session more predictable for the handler who can then focus
needed attention on the dog. Well-broke livestock help make the dog
feel confident in his abilities to control his charges. With time, a
dog should be provided more challenging livestock so as to hone his
ability to read them and to make that important transition from reactive
to proactive herding.
Making good choices about the type of stock, the field size and the
frequency of training will foster a dog's confidence in his partner.
We should also strive to present training experiences that will help
a dog become confident in himself. A confident dog knows that he can
control livestock. This means that he is assured that he will get to
the right place to affect the stock and he has his handler's permission
to do so in an intelligent manner. A confident dog also knows that he
can manage difficult animals. This means that he feels he has both the
right amount of grit or tenacity to deal with belligerent stock while
having the appropriate amount of finesse to handle sensitive stock.
A confident herding dog tends to be a good working dog. Some signs
that indicate a dog may be lacking in confidence are gripping (especially
grips that people call "cheap shots"), racing around stock
and cutting corners or slicing on the outrun. When someone suggests
that her dog has one of these "problems" she is usually
describing a symptom of stress. The root cause of that stress is usually
a lack of confidence. While corrections are very useful during the training
of herding dogs, they are not appropriate to repair a lack of confidence.
Using correction methods like tossing objects or a staff, shouting or
running at the dog only tends to elevate the stress and decrease the
dog's confidence in himself and his abilities. So, the problem
remains or worsens.
To help develop a dog's self-confidence, here are some methods
one can use.
early sessions, always stop the dog when he is on balance. Do not attempt
to catch a dog that is racing around stock by shouting at him, grabbing
at him, or using his obedience to a down or sit command. Let the stock
settle on balance at your knees by backing up against a fence and disallowing
the dog to circle behind you using the fence as blocks. This allows
the dog to feel that he is in control of his stock. Let him hold this
position on his feet for a few seconds or a minute before you demand
he take a more stationary position like sit or down. This helps him
to feel balance and sharpen his sense of finding the right spot to contain
livestock. This simple exercise sends the message to the dog that you
expect him to hold livestock, control it calmly at your knees and that
you will provide him the time to do so.
Expect and encourage the dog to cover escaping stock. Failure to do
so is probably the number one reason that dogs do not reach their true
potential. Handlers often fear the chaos of a less than perfect gather.
So, they hold the dog back instead of allowing him to cover, control,
and bring stock back. Regardless of how imperfect it is in the beginning,
if the situation arises, I allow a dog to cover escaping livestock.
Personally, I think more handlers should fear the degradation of their
dog's natural ability, balance and drive than a messy gather.
When sheep split during training, the resolution is often achieved through
better management of the situation. If the stock are too flighty for
the dog's ability, get heavier (more dog-broke) stock. If the
arena size or shape is wrong for a beginner dog, move to a smaller area.
If the handler is not proactively getting in the right place, then attempt
to reduce the effects of the deficiency. You may consider options like
working in a smaller space, getting a longer or more visual stock stick,
or finding heavier sheep. All these things will compensate for a handler's
lack of proactively and offer opportunities for the handler to have
a positive learning experience, as well. But, do not hold the dog back
from controlling escaping stock because of a fear of disorganization
of the sheep or lack of perfection. Let the dog know your expectations,
deal with the chaos and reduce its occurrence in the future by more
astute management of the training situation.
To address the issues of gripping, racing and slicing in at the top
of an outrun I employ a very basic method. First, I recognize that all
these problems are probably due to the fact that the dog lacks confidence
in his ability to get around sheep properly. I am amazed at how many
people increase the distance of the gather or outrun when the dog still
has any of these problems. Dogs that can't get around stock properly
when they are sent on a 50 foot gather rarely improve when the distance
This method can be performed on a fence or in the open. Start out with
well broke stock that will settle at your knees and your dog in a stopped
position on balance across from you. Take note of the exact place where
your dog is positioned. Possibly there's a tuft of grass of a
weed growing there that will remind you. If necessary, place a small
marking cone there next to the dog. You need to remember where he was
lying once he gets up.
The distance between you and the dog should be no more than about twenty-five
feet. Remind the dog to stay. Step through the stock towards the dog,
then slightly to the left. Stick out your left arm in which you may
also be holding a stock stick. Take pressure off the dog by turning
your head to the left, possibly turning your glance downwards, as well.
Then, give the Come-Bye (clockwise) flank command. As the dog gets up
and begins a clockwise flank do not move towards the dog. Do not enter
his space as he travels around the stock. The method of moving at the
dog is what most probably caused your dog to slice in and possibly grip
on the gather to begin with. It's a common method, I know, to
step in or at the dog to supposedly "push" him off his stock.
It's often paired with a shouting correction as the dog slices
in at his stock. If you have been doing this for weeks or months without
seeing improvement in the dog, take that as a sign that it does not
work. Your dog is stressed about getting around his stock, he knows
he is going to get yelled at, so he expresses his stress by slicing
in, racing around, or taking a cheap shot at the stock.
Your dog will welcome your remaining in your own space as you give
him access to move freely on his side. Focus on that piece of turf where
your dog began his outrun. Walk directly towards that location with
an outstretched left arm. Your dog is traveling clockwise to get around
his stock. There will be a point where you and the dog will be directly
across from each other. He will be on your right doing his half circle
flank. At that point, turn and face the dog, keeping your left arm out,
and follow his movement until you have your back to that piece of turf
where your dog began. You will have turned 180 degrees. Lower your left
arm and make your stock stick invisible in front of your body. Walk
backwards towards that piece of turf as you watch your dog turn into
the balance point that was created because you are walking backwards
on a straight line to the dog's starting point. Once the dog turns
into his stock give him a stop command and continue to back up until
you are on the same piece of earth where your dogs started out.
If your dog was a slicer, gripper or racer, he probably performed in
true form and sliced, gripped or raced at the top of his outrun. Ignore
it. Do not shout at him. This little outrun was only 25 feet in length.
Most dogs should be able to accomplish this sort of gather of their
stock. But, your dog doesn't know that he can get around his stock
smoothly and effortlessly. He is not confident that he can proceed and
find balance without ramifications. You have to let him know that he
is capable by providing this very easy exercise over and over again
until he realizes that he doesn't need to slice, grip or race.
He needs to understand that you are not going to invade his space and
you are not going to shout at him. You are not going to increase the
distance of this little gather until he can do it well and assuredly.
You are going to provide him with very simple work that he can accomplish
until the stress in his face melts into a soft, tranquil expression.
Many dogs improve in one session of ten to fifteen repetitions of the
half circle flanks.
To make your dog feel comfortable with this new method, you must be
absolutely predictable. As you do these little outruns, you must get
to that same square foot of turf where he began his outrun so that he
understands that you are expecting only a half circle of coverage. If
your dog over flanks it is probably because you adjust your position
to his instead of demanding that he adjust to yours. He has been confused
because he was never provided a clear balance point. This exercise will
correct that over flanking. You can send him both clockwise and counter
clockwise, or you can work on just one direction at a time. If your
field has a heavy draw, let your dog know you are an intelligent herding
trainer by sending him to cover the draw, not the other way where he'll
feel he has to race to get around his stock or they'll get away.
your dog can get around the stock properly at twenty-five feet and turns
in on the balance point that you are creating as you walk to his starting
point, and stops on command before pushing stock past your knees, you
can begin to make the outrun distance longer. But do so only in five
or ten foot increments. Wait until the dog is getting around his stock
properly at that distance before adding a few more feet. With time,
walk closer to the dog (leaving the sheep behind you) before sending
him around the stock. Eventually, you will be at his side sending him
on an official outrun that he will perform with a new sense of assurance.
Anytime that your dog displays a symptom of stress, like slicing, racing
or gripping, reduce the distance immediately. Perform this exercise
quietly, calmly and without shouting at the dog. Remind the dog with
your demeanor that he can confidently and properly get around stock.
Moving around livestock to a balance point is a critical component
to herding whether working chores, executing an outrun, covering stock
during a drive or controlling stock at a free-standing pen. If a dog
displays stress while moving about his sheep, one can assume he's
in need of a confidence growing experience.
As your dog's belief in his ability increases it's critical
to continue to challenge him. Do so by providing access to more difficult
livestock, more complex chores and distances he must travel. Add these
exercises at a rate that does not overwhelm him or you. Expect him to
cover and control his stock and don't worry that it might look
a little messy the first time he attempts a more difficult task. The
object is to communicate your desire that he takes charge of his stock
and that you'll be there to help him.
Once the dog realizes that you have expectations of him that are fair
and attainable, that you will teach him patiently at a pace and distance
he can accomplish, you will see quick progress in your dogs skills and
abilities. A confident dog is a more valuable herding partner. It is
worth the extra effort and time to assure you develop your dog to his
highest potential and greatest sense of self-confidence.
About the Author
Tammie Rogers and her husband Robert live on a fifty acre ranch
in Brownstown, Illinois. Tammie has been training and trialing herding
dogs for 15 years, is an AHBA herding judge and offers herding lessons
and clinics. Her dogs have earned multiple HIT awards in ASCA, AHBA
and AKC trials where she has attained those organizations' advanced
titles on several dogs. A biologist by profession, Tammie left a 20
year career in the biomedical field to devote her full attention to
DarnFar Ranch & Dog Training Facility where she raises meat sheep
and runs a dog training school. The Rogers' also host herding
trials and clinics at their ranch.