Confidence and Power
by Joy Sebastian-Hall
In training, many times a student will comment that their dog lacks power; speaking with a conviction that tells me they believe the dog was born that way and will never change. I have personally witnessed many low power, highly 'explosive' dogs become much stronger and steadier by simply building their confidence. Confidence is a grand thing, but it is also very fragile in the early stages with some dogs. Working inappropriate stock, being asked to do more than they are capable, even too much handler pressure can break down the confidence in a green dog. The important thing to realize is that with proper training, a dog will become more powerful and have a very commanding presence.
Many dogs, no matter the breed, have a definite confidence issue from day one. Get on their level and look at the sheep. For most dogs, sheep are HUGE, smell funny, outnumber them, and the dog cannot escape to a safe distance. The initial discovery that sheep are frightened of the dog provides a positive experience that begins the process of developing an assertive dog.
A wise handler starts out creating situations so the dog can always be successful and win, even what seems to be the smallest of issues. For example, the reason we start in a small pen is that the sheep can't run away, they will be easier to move in a useful direction, and the dog can be encouraged to face the sheep without avoiding it. Initially the handler is little more than a glorified cheerleader, praising correct behavior while constantly shaping the situation to aid the dog. As training progresses the handler can and should change with the dog, allowing the dog more opportunities to make choices and thus continue gaining self-assurance.
Even very keen dogs can be uneasy at the beginning of their training. Constant wearing, unwillingness to get behind the sheep, running past the sheep, not wanting to stop or turn away, can all be signs of uneasiness or confidence issues. We can shape these behaviors out with little problem if we address the underlying cause: lack of confidence. A dog can be forced to stop these behaviors or it can be guided into changing. Guiding is a method that will fit most dogs' personalities. Teaching a dog to gradually accept more pressure keeps the dog ready to accept the next challenge.
Building the confidence level builds the power level. It gives the dog the presence and knowledge it needs to calmly handle a situation. And everything is a type of situation. While building the dog's confidence we are simultaneously building the dog's ability to think and problem solve.
Let's face it; working sheep is just one problem after another. Both the handler and the dog must keep a cool head in order to smoothly and successfully move sheep. A very wise trainer once said, "Think of each problem as a challenge and you will grow." If we can get the dog to work the problem with us, it makes our job a lot easier. When a dog learns early on to be successful, the confidence in its ability to handle situations builds. The more times we create success, the stronger the foundation. Many layers, successfully added, will create the final product: a calm, smooth working dog with presence and power.
It is also something that cannot be achieved overnight. Every dog will move forward at its own speed and occasionally will reach a plateau or even regress a bit. The trainer that is willing to hang in there for the long haul will prevail.
However, many times in a handler's rush to be successful, they will gloss over the rough spots and figure that they will work themselves out. This can be true for a while, but it will not last. Sooner or later the flaw will surface, usually at a tremendously inopportune moment. A trainer must continually look for weak spots and work to strengthen them. This does not mean that the dog is never right; it means that a sharp trainer uses the situation to teach more self-assurance.
It is a thing of beauty when a dog works stock. The confidence that a dog uses is so subtle as to be unremarkable until the conditions start to deteriorate, then the dogs with the strong mental structure, the dogs that have the foundation, move with grace and polish to handle the situation with ease.
About the Author:
Joy has been herding for over 25 years has currently completed AKC requirements for judging the AKC "A" course 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.