Why Does My Dog DO That? or Why Does My HANDLER Do That?
by Lori Herbel
Barking...chasing..rushing..splitting...gripping...overflanking...ignoring...not stopping...these are just a few of the negative things our dogs may exhibit on occasion during the training process.
Running...hollering...pushing...repeating...allowing...grudging...Well, folks, these are just a few of the negatives things handlers may exhibit while in the training process! And, if you haven't guessed it by now, these things are, more often than not, closely related.
Working livestock is a team effort between handler and dog. The results (successful or not) are based upon a constant series of actions and reactions by both parties. Give up the phrase, "I don't know why my dog did that!" Come to the realization that no matter what your dog does, is always because of you, as the handler. Good or bad, you have either taught it, caused it, or allowed it.
Following are some of the common problems that many handlers deal with in training sessions. Listed after each problem will be a few suggestions as to why they may have happened. Note to Readers: This is not intended to be a Magical Wonder Fix for anyone, and there are no guarantees that once you've finished reading this article, you will have instant power and knowledge. View this article simply as opportunity to learn, let it stimulate your brain cells and help you get started on the path to diagnosing your own individual issues and prescribing successful remedies.
Start by using these key words when you encounter a problem: Back Up! Analyzing what happened just prior to a problem is a valuable diagnostic tool. Herding is made up of actions and reactions, and your dog is constantly reacting to you and the livestock.
Problem: My dog barks constantly while we are working!
* Is your dog new to herding? Novice dogs sometimes bark the first few times they're worked on livestock. Barking goes away once the dog gains confidence and becomes comfortable with his relationship with you and the livestock.
* Are you inadvertently giving your dog mixed signals? Barking can be a form of communication by the dog, indicating frustration and confusion. Learn to communicate clearly, ask for one thing and get it. Give the dog tasks that have a beginning and an end, and don't wander about aimlessly.
* Is the livestock causing a challenge, either by confronting the dog face to face, or by refusing to move? Give the stock an open place to go, and be prepared to step in and help your dog get things started again.
* Have you established a pattern, by already allowing the dog to bark for an extended period of time? If so, you are actually conditioning the dog to bark, or in essence, telling him you WANT him to bark. By not correcting the barking, you are reinforcing that you like it. However, constant unnecessary barking is disturbing to livestock. An occasional force bark may be used to move recalcitrant stock, but constant noise only desensitizes the stock to the dog's presence.
Problem: My dog seems to be just chasing the stock, not 'working' them.
* Have you given your dog a clear goal he can accomplish? Go into a training session with goals and tasks; after all, you ARE the leader.
* Have you skipped some important foundation work? Are you attempting to work at a higher level than you have trained? Back up and gain the control you need at a lower level, then extend your work gradually. Foundations must be strong.
* Are you working with -- or against -- your dog? Some handlers inadvertently build in a 'challenge' game, with the dog constantly trying to 'score' by darting around them to get to the sheep. Take the leadership role, don't make herding a 'me vs. you' game.
* Have you taught your dog to view the stock as a 'group', and not as individuals? Correcting him when he dives into the middle of the stock, or in any other manner disturbs the stock, will teach him that he is working only one unit -- not three or five individuals. As the leader, you have to set the parameters of what is acceptable and not acceptable, and you must do it consistently.
Problem: My dog won't take my 'down's' when he's working stock.
* Does he have a solid down away from stock, or in other words, does he take a down 100% of the time when you ask him to, when not working stock? If not, back up and be sure that he understands the concept of the word before you ask him to down while he has the distractions of livestock in front of him.
* Do you find yourself repeating your 'down' command? If so, you are teaching your dog that he doesn't have to listen to you. A dog that hears, "Down......Down!.......Lie down!.....LIE DOWN!" heard the command four times and four times he didn't have to comply. Say it once, and enforce it. Be consistent, both on and off stock. Consistency is the key.
* Do you ask your dog to lie down in an inappropriate situation that will allow his stock to escape? Asking for him to stop off-balance, or off-contact often causes a dog to override the command, as his primary concern is to not lose his livestock. While fully trained dogs can be expected to 'down' at any point in a working session, novice dogs often react by not listening, as they are already anticipating that you will send him on a recovery mission.
* Do you always quit the stock when you ask for a 'down'? If so, you are teaching your dog to associate a 'down' with leaving work. Dogs with intense drive and desire to work do not want to leave the stock, so they may fight the 'down' as it makes them anticipate leaving their work. Try occasionally asking for downs and then reward the dog by allowing him to go right back to working, and vary what happens after he complies with the command.
* Do you allow your dog to get up on his own after a 'down' command? If so, then more than likely you will eventually lose your 'down' command entirely. Don't teach your dog that 'down' means to "lie down...but you can get up whenever you feel like it". Repeating the command (or 'stay') as you walk away often causes the dog to break because it sounds like a new command.
Problem: My dog rushes in and grips the stock, and I can't always stop him.
* Gripping is usually the result of a dog that isn't handling pressure properly. Pressure can come from the stock itself, or from you as the handler. Do you have your dog in a situation that the two of you really aren't ready to handle? Are you working livestock that you aren't quite experienced enough to work?
* Are you working with, or against your dog? A handler that makes herding a 'you vs. me' game becomes much like a goalie at the hockey game with the handler on defense and the dog on offense trying to score. Blocking the dog from all sides and not allowing the dog to take control of the stock causes the dog to look for opportunities to blow past the handler to get to the stock. Anxiety builds quickly in these few moments and often results in the dog darting in and getting a grip. Ironically, many handlers end up causing exactly what they are trying to prevent!
Problem: My dog constantly overflanks.
* Are you giving a correction for the overflanking, and doing it consistently and effectively? A natural instinct of herding dogs is to cover the head of the stock, especially if the stock are nervous and/or moving quickly. However, if your goal is to make forward progress, then overflanking will disturb the stock. Keep an eye on your dog and consistently block him from coming up on either side of the stock. When moving small bunches (3-5, as is often used in trials) it is not necessary for the dog to 'wear' from side to side, so don't use that as an excuse for allowing your dog to overflank.
* Does your dog exhibit self-control? Highly active dogs often overflank just because they have a lot of energy and they can (overflank). A dog that has been properly taught to respect and rate stock, and maintains self control will adjust themselves on their own as they read the livestock.
Problem: My sheep won't settle down!
* How did your dog act prior to entering the working area? Did he pull you across the yard with a tight lead? Did he dart through the gate ahead of you and run amuck around the arena before you approached your post? Was he straining to keep his down at your side while the stock handler attempted to set your stock at the feed pan? Livestock are constantly evaluating their surroundings, and they can tell instantly how a dog will work by his (and yours) body language.
* How is your dog working? With respect for his stock, or is he jousting and pushing them every chance he gets? Even if he settles down after a few minutes in the arena, his initial approach to stock will be the one that sticks in their minds. Teach your dog to enter the working area with the right frame of mind, don't let his bad behavior be excused with comments like, "oh, look how much he really wants to work!"
* Are you nervous, maybe hollering at your dog a lot, because you don't exactly trust what he may be about to do? Livestock are extremely adept at reading human emotions and they will react accordingly. If you are the leader and you are not in control, Mother Nature kicks in and tells them they must do what they need to for survival.
* Are you allowing your dog to work too close to the stock, so that he is penetrating their fight/flight bubble? Different stock have different size comfort zones for different situations and different dogs. It is up to you to learn to read this comfort zone and make sure your dog stays right on the edge of it. As the dog applies his presence at the edge of this zone, it keeps the stock moving. Allow the dog to penetrate the zone, and the stock will become nervous and react by wanting to fight, or take flight. Neither are desirable options.
Problem: My dog keeps taking the wrong flank!
* Are you sure you have YOUR flanks straight?! Many handlers are learning their flank commands at the same time that they are teaching them to their dogs. If you don't give the right flanking command 100% of the time, you can naturally expect confusion. Don't blame the dog if this time "away to me" meant counter-clockwise, but the last time you forced him to go clockwise. A dog that is given contradicting flanks will quickly revert to reading the stock on his own and taking whichever flank will allow him to fulfill his own agenda, whether that be 'damage' or 'damage control'.
* Are you reading the draws and outside influences correctly, and using that knowledge to help you decide which flank to ask for to achieve your goal? Dogs don't have to watch runs before theirs to learn where the draws are, they just read the livestock. If you don't take these outside influences into consideration, your dog may hesitate to take your commands, and try to override them in order to maintain control of the stock.
As you know, there are many, many more issues not covered here, but it would be impossible to cover them all. Hopefully you are now in the frame of mind that will allow you to analyze your own issues, back up and see what caused it, and deal with it accordingly.
Don't fret when things appear to fall apart during a training session, in fact, do quite the opposite. View each of them as an opportunity for learning, for both you and your dog. Be consistent, set the boundaries and enforce them.
And remember, it's better to have these things happen during a training session than in a trial!