by Joy Sebastian-Hall
A factor that influences every facet of our daily lives is attitude. How well a thing is accomplished, how quickly it gets done, how a person feels about it, all boils down to attitude. Herding is a dog sport that can have radically different results depending on the attitude of a handler, dog, stock, or any combination of the three.
The interesting part of attitude is the fact that all three elements are intertwined. Handlers transmit emotions more easily than commands. Body posture, tone of voice, and way of moving can speak volumes to a dog. If the handler is calm, angry, worried, or nervous, the body posture and tone of voice will reflect the emotion. Dogs will respond to the state of affairs by losing the calm, smooth motion that is essential for quiet stock. The stock notices the difference in the dog and makes more radical movements, looking for an escape from both the dog and the handler. The situation rapidly becomes explosive due to increased pressure from all sides.
A handler in this scenario will use short, clipped commands as a way of getting a fast response from a dog in an abortive effort to stop the impending disaster. However, the handler will spew a stream of commands so rapidly that the dog cannot process, much less obey all of them. The dog will have to choose which commands to obey based on what the stock is doing. Often the choice is wrong in the handler's eyes and the vicious cycle continues.
Handlers should use relaxed, smooth sounding "commands" to control their dog. Always give a dog time to process and respond within reason. If it is crucial that the dog is immediately right, it should be set up so that the handler can enforce the command. If a situation becomes increasingly wild, the handler should step in confidently, stop the dog and allow the stock to settle down. During this time the handler should mentally retrace his last actions, attempt to determine what went wrong and think of alternatives that can be tried.
Handler motion or lack of motion can influence both dog and livestock. When handlers exhibit hesitant movements, a dog can and often will begin to stress. This stress can lead to over working, splitting, or refusal to obey. The handler will then be more hesitant, afraid of causing a bigger problem. But exactly the opposite is true. By not adopting an assertive, confident attitude, the handler is creating a larger issue with the dog, one of pack order. When allowing the dog to choose its own actions, one cannot criticize the action chosen. " Asking" the dog to perform is to give up control and place it in the dog's paws.
Develop an "I have all day" attitude. This mental picture can help handlers relax and be quietly assertive. If the dog is wild and unresponsive, back the stock into a corner and prevent the dog from coming in contact until order is restored. Practice with a short-term goal, but be flexible. Think of the situation at hand as an opportunity to teach something. It may not be what was originally intended, but every time a dog is on stock there is a chance to improve some aspect of the work. Attitude can make a tremendous difference in how the training sessions (and trial work) will evolve.
Work on communication. Speak smoothly and do not clip words. Notice the effect of voice inflection on the dog. Have someone listen to commands and tell what emotion, if any, is being displayed.
Pay attention to how many times a command must be repeated. Discover what situations cause difficulty and focus on being assertive, not panicky or nagging.
Do not work a dog when angry or otherwise upset. Take deep breaths and make a point to relax when things are not going well. If it does not improve, stop working.
Practice anticipating the livestock's movement. Always be working ahead mentally. Go where the stock is going, not where they currently are.
About the Author
Joy has been herding for over 25 years, has completed AKC requirements for judging the AKC "A" course, is an AHBA judge and is president of the Houston Area Herding Association. She is also a contributing writer in various publications as well as a herding column published in the North American Working Bouvier Journal. She has been training people and their dogs for the past 5 years. In that time, Roux Crew trained dogs have successfully competed in USBCHA, ASCA, AHBA, and AKC trials. Joy currently has twelve different AKC herding breeds working in her program. When she is not giving clinics, judging, or supporting her students at trials, she enjoys running her dogs in USBCHA and in 2002 qualified for the National Nursery Dog Finals with her 2 year old Border Collie, Short Fuse.