First Impressions

by Lori Herbel

Belgian MalinoisSCENE ONE: It's Monday morning, and Bob is attending a business meeting. He enters the room with two other gentlemen from his office, and they take seats together in the back of the room. Suddenly, as they are visiting quietly and preparing for the morning agenda, a door flies open on the other side of the room. A worried looking woman quickly enters the room. She is accompanied by an equally harried looking gentleman, who looks as though he has consumed large amounts of sugar and caffeine. His movements are jerky, and his eyes dart back and forth across the room, as if desperately searching for something. His eyes quickly fall upon Bob and his co-workers and the searching immediately stops. The woman takes a seat, and repeatedly asks her assistant to do the same, but he does not respond. Instead, the man's attention is fixated on the three men at the back of the room. The couple's body language gives the impression that they are not comfortable with each other, and that they may have been arguing about something. The man fidgets nervously as he waits for the woman to begin the presentation.

SCENE TWO: It's Tuesday morning, and Bob and his co-workers have returned for a second day of meetings. They enter the room with an air of caution, as they are a little unsettled after the rough start on Monday. They keep their eyes on the door at the front of the room as they wait. They know they should be checking the day's agenda but they can't seem to concentrate. A soft clicking noise draws their attention to the door as it opens, startling the men despite the quietness of the room. Entering the room is a calm well-dressed woman, carrying a briefcase. She is followed by a nice-looking, well-dressed gentleman, who also enters the room with confidence and authority. It is obvious that the pair is comfortable working together as a team, and their mutual respect is evident. They casually take two seats at the front of the room, and use the next few moments to quietly settle in and prepare for the first presentation.

Now, take a moment to compare these two scenes. Put yourself in Bob's place. Which business meeting do you think he preferred? How comfortable would you be in either of these situations?

Now go back and re-read the two scenes, but this time, transform the scene from a board meeting to a herding arena, and swap Bob and his co-workers for three head of sheep. The couple in charge of the presentation are now a handler and a dog, approaching the handler's post.

Silly as it may seem, the comparison you have just read should provide valuable insight into a successful beginning of a herding run. You have between five and thirty seconds to make your first impression on the livestock, and this all happens before your dog ever leaves your side. There is no second chance to make a first impression, and this is just as true with animals as it is with people. Being properly prepared for that first introduction can make the difference between going home disappointed and empty-handed or going home with a green qualifying ribbon.

Belgian SheepdogEfficient livestock handling requires a working relationship with a mutual sense of trust between three parties: Handler, Dog and Livestock. A breakdown in trust between any of the three parties in this triangle will result in a "deal breaker". If the handler doesn't trust the dog - the livestock will become nervous and over-reactive. If the dog doesn't respect the livestock - the livestock will react in much the same way. If the handler is not comfortable handling the livestock - the livestock are the first to know.

How do the livestock know? They have built-in radar: it's part of their survival system. They are prey, attempting to survive in a world of predators. This instinct gives them an incredible knack for reading body language, and make no mistake: their first impression of you will have a lasting effect.

A successful herding run begins before the handler ever enters the arena. A proper mindset at the gate for both dog and handler is essential. A handler who opens the gate calmly and passes through with confidence and authority, accompanied by a dog with the same outward appearance on the way to the post, will give the stock no reason to be disturbed.

A controlled approach to the handler's post must be followed by a controlled approach by the dog from the handler's post to the stock. The first exercise on both the "A" and "B" courses is an outrun. The object of the outrun is for the dog to approach the stock in a pear-shaped arc, not disturbing the stock until they reach the balance point for the lift and fetch to the handler.

Simple as the outrun is in theory, I believe it is often the most misunderstood exercise in AKC herding. This approach to the stock immediately sets the tone for the remainder of the run. A tight or slicing outrun not only results in the judge taking points off on your official score sheet, it will also result in the sheep taking points off on their Trust Scale. These points are not easy to gain back.

Most herding runs, on average, will last around 4 to 6 minutes. Each obstacle has a set amount of points, and to qualify a handler must keep at least 50% of those points. A run that turns picture perfect after a rough initial contact will likely not be in the ribbons. It is amazing how many handlers can disregard the quality of their first obstacle and wonder why their run did not qualify. Interestingly, this phenomenon does not just occur at the lower levels in herding; there are intermediate and advanced level handlers with the same issues. Unfortunately, excuses are often made instead of solutions.

Cardigan Welsh CorgiSCENE ONE: Joe checks the running order, he's up next. He waits nervously near the arena, with his dog on a tight lead at his side. Both he and the dog are obviously anxious to complete their run. They approach the gate, with the dog in the lead, pulling Joe towards the entrance. Joe stops to unsnap the lead, and repeatedly tells his dog to lie down, with no response. Joe opens the gate and the dog blows through ahead of him. Joe hurries to latch the gate behind him, and hollers a fourth "Lie Down!" The dog finally complies, but their subsequent approach to the handler's post is uneven, with the dog making short bursts towards the top of the arena. Each time the handler harshly calls him back to his side. They finally arrive at the handler's post, and Joe lifts his hand to signal to the livestock handlers. The setout gate opens, and three sheep cautiously peer out into the arena. Their attention is quickly drawn to Joe and his dog, who wait nervously at the post. The sheep are pushed to the setout area, but they don't settle. Joe turns to his dog and gives a loud command. This time, the dog responds immediately as he takes off in a great burst of speed towards the sheep. The dog runs tight on the outrun, which startles the sheep and causes them to run toward the opposite corner. The dog also slices in on the lift and adds a couple of short barks, and the sheep blow out of the corner and run to the open area of the arena.

In this scenario, Joe actually began making an impression on the sheep before they had visual contact with him and his dog. The sheep were already aware of the fact that Joe was having trouble getting his dog to the handler's post just by listening as they waited in the pens. Their second impression came when the gate opened and they saw the body language of Joe and his dog at the post. Their fears were confirmed when the dog came up the middle of the arena on the outrun, slicing in and pushing them into the corner.

SCENE TWO: Joe checks the running order, he's up next. He waits calmly a few yards from the arena, watching the completion of the run before him. He approaches the gate with his dog on a loose lead. As he unsnaps the lead from the collar, there is no change in the dog's behavior. Joe calmly opens the gate, and he and the dog quietly make the walk to the handlers post together. It is obvious they are prepared to work as a team. Upon arrival at the post, Joe takes a moment to place his dog in position at his side, in preparation for a proper outrun. He waves to the stock handlers, who open the gate. Three sheep walk out and approach the setout. They watch Joe and his dog, but they appear more curious than concerned. Joe gives a barely audible command, and the dog moves out at an angle which will take him out and around in a circular motion to the area behind the sheep. The sheep watch the dog's calm, wide approach and wait at the setout until the dog is directly behind them. As the dog turns in on balance to apply pressure to the stock and make the lift, the stock calmly move in a straight line fetch towards the handler.

This time, Joe's quiet approach to the post gave no reason for the sheep waiting in the pen out back to become alarmed. In fact, these sheep may even wander out into the arena voluntarily as the stock handlers open the gate. When the sheep see Joe and his dog standing at the post this time, they instantly sense a handler who is in control, and has confidence and trust in the dog at his side.

As Joe's dog makes his approach this time, the dog remains on the outside of the stock's flight zone. It is obvious that they do not feel threatened by this dog and are not inclined to move until the dog actually turns in and applies pressure into their flight zone. A controlled approach makes an appropriate lift, and as long as the dog stays on balance at the edge of that zone, the fetch can be completed.

In the end, it all comes back to respect. The handler and dog must have mutual respect, the dog and livestock must have mutual respect, and the handler and livestock must have mutual respect.

The triangle is complete once again.