by Lori Herbel
"My dog has become really pushy lately. We seem to be in constant battle all the time. I can't figure out why!"
"I've never started a dog in herding before. I have no clue what to do. Help!!"
"Why does my dog quit when I try to teach him new things? I know he can do it, but sometimes he just fades off and wants to run to the gate!"
"Baxter won't walk straight up on a drive. He always wants to flank around and cover the heads. What am I doing wrong? It's so frustrating!"
No matter what your 'problem of the day' may be -- simple or complex -- relax! Help is not that far away. There are a number of professional herding trainers that give lessons, clinics and seminars that can help you and your frustrated canine friend through the rough spots.
Once you've started the research to find help in your area, you'll find that there are hot and cold spots across the country in regards to herding. Some areas may have a variety of trainers, clinics and trials to choose from at any time in the year. Other areas offer sporadic opportunities, and yet other areas are referred to as "The Black Hole of Herding". For novice handlers, just getting information on getting started can sometimes be as overwhelming as actually training the dog! Knowing who to contact isn't always easy. Trainers rarely put ads in the newspaper, nor do they have a brightly colored storefront on Main Street to entice your business in.
Today's internet and e-mail age have greatly improved this first herding stumbling block. There are a myriad of websites, trainer listings, e-mail discussion lists, etc. to help handlers find information. Don't see anyone listed in your general area? Contact the closest person and ask. Most herding people will be happy to make recommendations and pass along information if you are out of their area. If possible, find more than one source, just to broaden the horizons. And, be prepared to have to drive several hours to get to the 'right' instructor for you and your dog.
Who are herding clinics and lessons for? Everyone - from novice dogs with novice handlers, to experienced dogs with experienced handlers, and everyone in between. Do yourself a favor and invest some time researching in advance. Knowledge gained from this research will enhance your learning opportunity, hopefully help you avoid disappointment, and assure you that your valuable time and hard-earned money will be well invested.
Research history on the instructor. What breeds do they have experience with? How long have they been herding? What are their accomplishments (both past and current) with their own dogs? What venues do they compete in? How many dogs have they been successful with? What type of livestock do they have experience with? How do they treat the livestock? How do they treat the dogs that they work with? Do they adjust to different types/styles of dogs and livestock well? What size of areas are they comfortable working in? One of the best ways to evaluate an instructor is to watch them work their own dogs. How do their dogs respond to them? Is the quality of work what you would expect from someone in a teaching position? Is there consistency in their dogs' work? Do you feel comfortable with the instructors handling and training techniques? Does it appear to have the potential to fit in with your goals for you and your dog?
Go to a herding clinic as an observer once in awhile. Many handlers overlook the observer (no dog) option. Everyone seems to want to work their dog and not 'waste' the weekend just watching. However, handlers can learn just as much from the sidelines if they take advantage of the opportunity being presented. Watching other handlers work through their sessions can be just as educational as working your own dog. Tuck the knowledge you gain from those lessons away for the future. The observer option is also great for handlers who are not familiar with instructors and wish to evaluate training methods and handling techniques before committing to working with them.
Instructors who use wireless microphones that allow them to transmit from a distance enhance the learning opportunities. No more "I wonder what he's saying?!" or asking later, "what were you trying to do when the dog...." Instructors should be willing to discuss each dog after a work session and address questions. They should be able to explain the dog's working style, and how they were working with the dog to accomplish their goals for that session. Handlers should also be able to get advice from the instructor on what to work on in future sessions, as well as help in setting both short and long-term training goals.
Clinics should be limited to a reasonable number of working slots that allow each participant adequate, and (hopefully) low-stress learning time. Limiting to around ten to twelve working slots will allow two working sessions per day, with about ten minutes scheduled for each dog. Questions and short discussions may be held between runs, but lengthy discussions might be best held later in the day or during a late afternoon or evening talk session. Weather may dictate the length of the work sessions, or even the time of day that is suitable for working.
Know the different types of clinics there are available. There are general training clinics (for anyone, at any level), competitive handling clinics (for handlers with an already trained dog to improve their handling), judging clinics (to learn more about the details of judging - what the judge is looking for and where points are lost) and livestock handling clinics (for handlers to learn more about how to work stock properly and efficiently both with, and without, a dog).
Find out what type of working areas and livestock will be available. Less experienced dogs may need to work in smaller areas with heavier stock, while more experienced dogs and handlers may want lighter stock in larger, more open areas. However, keep an open mind. Working in less than what you would consider an ideal situation can present the perfect opportunity for learning. All handlers need to learn to work in small pens as well as large areas, and learn to work both heavy and light stock.
Dress for the weather! There is nothing more miserable, and less conducive to learning than being ill-prepared for a work session. Wear comfortable footwear that can get muddy or wet. Gore-Tex is a great invention for both clothing and footwear! Take along a lawn chair. Consider where you will secure your dog while others are taking their turn in the clinic. A crate, tie out chain, or ex-pen will provide your dog a place to hang out and relax until it's time to run.
Don't expect, or ask your dog to work perfectly at a clinic. No one is judging you at a clinic and you didn't sign up to prove to everyone how well you and your dog already work. You signed up to learn! A clinic is an opportunity to fix mistakes and solidify foundation and training. Work your dog as you normally would in a training session at home. Acknowledge and look at your mistakes as learning opportunities. Better to work through the mistakes during a clinic than to confront them for the first time at a real trial!
Handlers may decide that they would better benefit from working one-on-one with an instructor with private lessons. Most professional instructors offer lessons at their own training facilities, or occasionally clinic weekends offer additional days of private lessons either before, or after, the clinic. More advanced handlers and dogs can appreciate the opportunity to work longer, and more relaxed sessions with the lesson option. Novice handlers and those working with novice dogs, should realize that an hour long private lesson may entail a few minutes of work, and a lot of minutes of discussion. Most dogs do better working short sessions. Pushing dogs too hard to learn too much at a time can cause confusion and backsliding for both the handler and the dog.
Take advantage of the learning opportunities! Arrive early, and stay all day. Watch the other handlers' sessions, and learn something from each one. Don't just show up once in the morning and again in the afternoon when it's your turn! Would you pay full price to get into Disneyland and then just ride one ride?! No! Would you pay for an All-You-Can Eat buffet and then choose only one dish?! No! Clinics are like an All You Can Learn Buffet.... take advantage of it!