Appropriate Gripping?


by Lynn Leach
Gripping can be a very controversial subject. I believe the answer is reflected in the kind of work the handler needs to complete and the urgency of the job. For example, some people may have a small herd or flock that has been trained to respect dogs. If a problem arises, they may have time to go out and assist the dog or may even put the dog away when it becomes necessary to move a new mom. They find it easier to use grain and manpower rather than deal with a protective mother who may challenge a dog.

Others may need to get livestock loaded quickly and safely, without stock turning in chutes or balking and causing congestion. Or their stock only sees dogs or men infrequently. A dog with an appropriate grip is valuable in these situations.

Others go looking for a dog with more confidence and the power to move livestock under the same conditions, with no grip necessary. This option is a very real possibility, but not in all situations. The handler may have to try several dogs before finding one with the natural ability to cover stock, pace herself and have the confidence needed to deal with tough situations.

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Finally, I think people may not want to allow their dog to grip because they use this dog to compete in stock dog trials. Many trial programs do not allow any grips at all. It is difficult to train a dog to use grips during practical work, then expect her to use a different style during the pressure of a trial. (Where she may need to show patience and possibly allow the stock to 'win') Mind you, having that flexibility and control is truly awesome!!

Why do some trial programs disallow grips when they can be so useful in everyday stock work? Most importantly is that the judge is looking for the best dog-handler team of the day. As stated earlier, there may be a dog that given the exact same circumstances could move the stock without using a grip. This showcases a powerful dog with lots of confidence and the ability to read livestock, who should be rewarded accordingly. Kindness to livestock should be a judge's priority and we must consider that herding is a spectator sport. Also in deference to the farmer, grips will leave bruising on the meat, decreasing the value.

On the other hand, a correct, fair grip can be a useful tool, causing minimal stress on the animal, dog and handler. Because of the activity on our farm, there are times we need to move stock where they do not want to go. Bridges, footbaths or other changes in footing will stress the stock and make them argue. Moving into a dark area such as a barn, trailer or vetting pen may create confrontation. Then of course there is the stubborn cow or sheep, or the protective moms who believe they need to fight. In these cases if a dog goes in with confidence and without hesitation, the battle is often over before it's started.

I like to see a correct grip on the nose if the beast is looking at the dog, then a quick reinforcement on the heel once it's turned and thinking about heading in the desired direction. At that point the dog should reward the animal by moving out of the flight zone, not pursuing and enjoying an ongoing fight.

The key to successfully moving an animal someplace they don't want to go, is releasing all pressure to allow the stock to settle, and then patiently waiting until they look towards the opening. At that instant, apply pressure without giving the animal time to consider options. Experience has taught me that if you miss that first opportunity and the stock makes a break, they now realize they have options and do not have to go where we've asked. This situation is where a talented dog can make all the difference in the world.

What can you do if your dog won't take a grip? This will depend on the reasons for her hesitation in the first place. Last issue, I wrote about working pups. As a youngster, I took the grip out of my Pepsi dog. She was keen and very grippy. I was a novice handler and panicked, correcting her for taking those cheap shots. Later, I corrected her for even thinking about gripping. I took the grip right out of that dog. She began to believe that she was not allowed to bite, so she began to feel she had nothing to back up her authority – which lowered her confidence in many situations. She would either back off when confronted, or rush in trying to get forward movement happening before I could see what she'd done (and give her heck). Poor pup – this created quite a circle of problems. Livestock are very good at reading dogs and often won't even think of challenging a dog if they feel she will stand up to them. As they began to realize Pepsi was cautious, they would challenge her more often. Even stock that would normally never challenge a dog would turn on Pepsi. My job then became to teach her that a grip was not only allowed, but encouraged, in order to re-build her confidence while working... We spent hours setting up situations with stock that would face this dog down, then encouraged Pepsi to stand there and use her quiet power to turn the stock. I used a 'get 'em' command to encourage a grip and didn't worry if it was a quick shot at this point. I did insist that she came off them as soon as she won. We worked on this in open areas where she could escape, then graduated to enclosed situations such as barns, pens and trailers. After many hours of confidence building I had my dog back, but she will always be cautious. And after an extended holiday (over winter months), we usually have to go back and repeat this confidence building.

The power level a dog is born with will influence her grip. Some breeders breed for confidence and workability. If you want a dog that will work tough livestock, I recommend you watch the parents work. Purchase from lines that excel at the type of work you want to do. If I want a good cow dog, I will go to lines that have been working cattle successfully. I'll watch the parents work and note how they handle confrontational situations.

There are many techniques you can use to teach your dog that a grip is not only ok, but a good thing at times. These techniques will require patience and as with any training there is no guarantee.

Provide back up for your dog but try to hide the fact that you are backing her up. I sometimes use another dog working at a distance, causing the stubborn stock to turn, while the timid dog is up close and believing that she accomplished the task. Other times, I move in and physically help her myself.

I have heard of other methods such as holding a ewe in a sitting position while encouraging the dog to take a grip on the nose, or pushing a flock into a corner where they cannot escape, urging the dog to move in. I haven't had success with these ideas yet. In the first scenario, the dog often decides she needs a handler to hold the stock down before she can go in. This is obviously not effective. The second idea goes against everything we have been teaching our dogs from the start. It asks them to come into the flight zone and harass the stock – even if there is no reason to.

I cannot say that these techniques will not work – just that I have not had success with them.

Successful training of your dog requires you to use your imagination, show your dog what you want of her and that she can succeed, then offer something to reward her. Karen Pryor stated "There are as many ways to train a dog as there are trainers to think them up"....and I couldn't agree more. Brainstorm with people about problems you are having. Go to clinics, lessons and training seminars. Observe all you can and try what you think may work for you. Keep an open mind and most importantly, whatever you choose to try – always finish your sessions with success for your dog. Build her confidence and make her feel like a winner……

Happy Herding