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Creating a Confident Herding Partner
by Tammie Rogers

I am amazed at a herding dog's courage. We often ask our dogs to control and pilot animals that can weigh hundreds of pounds more than they do. We ask them to manage ewes with baby lambs and cows with newborn calves. We ask them to move livestock that doesn't want to budge and contain animals that want to race away under the slightest pressure.

A self-assured herding dog can help a shepherd get out of an uneasy predicament or a potentially dangerous situation. That bravery often comes naturally to herding dogs, but our training methods and the situation in which we place our pups can help foster their natural strengths or, unfortunately, destroy it. When a dog is mishandled during early training his full potential might never be reached. That is why it is critical to train a herding dog with a very important goal in mind. Creating a confident herding partner is key to success whether the dog will be used for farm chores, will make a living working on huge open ranges or compete on the trial field.

As we train our herding dogs, we should strive to grow their confidence in us as their trainer, handler and partner. We are responsible for determining whether a pup can handle a particular type of livestock, number of head, field size, terrain and even a specific handler. We will grow a dog's confidence if we provide learning situations where the pup can master new skills, avoid injury and win over his charges. Learning often requires a bit of stress, but if the situation is overwhelming for the dog, he will neither learn the lessons we had hoped he would and he will most probably lose some confidence in his handler and himself.

We should choose livestock that is appropriate for a dog's skill level. In the early stages of training the pup should not be challenged with livestock that can outrun him, will turn and face him or that will ignore his presence. All of these situations are likely to diminish a dog's confidence rather than boost it. When training novice dogs, most handlers prefer stock that are well dog-broke, meaning that the animals will gravitate to the human in the presence of a dog. Dog-broke stock will often ignore the minor errors that a young dog makes and choose to move towards the human regardless of these infractions. This makes the session more predictable for the handler who can then focus needed attention on the dog. Well-broke livestock help make the dog feel confident in his abilities to control his charges. With time, a dog should be provided more challenging livestock so as to hone his ability to read them and to make that important transition from reactive to proactive herding.

Making good choices about the type of stock, the field size and the frequency of training will foster a dog's confidence in his partner. We should also strive to present training experiences that will help a dog become confident in himself. A confident dog knows that he can control livestock. This means that he is assured that he will get to the right place to affect the stock and he has his handler's permission to do so in an intelligent manner. A confident dog also knows that he can manage difficult animals. This means that he feels he has both the right amount of grit or tenacity to deal with belligerent stock while having the appropriate amount of finesse to handle sensitive stock.

A confident herding dog tends to be a good working dog. Some signs that indicate a dog may be lacking in confidence are gripping (especially grips that people call "cheap shots"), racing around stock and cutting corners or slicing on the outrun. When someone suggests that her dog has one of these "problems" she is usually describing a symptom of stress. The root cause of that stress is usually a lack of confidence. While corrections are very useful during the training of herding dogs, they are not appropriate to repair a lack of confidence. Using correction methods like tossing objects or a staff, shouting or running at the dog only tends to elevate the stress and decrease the dog's confidence in himself and his abilities. So, the problem remains or worsens.

To help develop a dog's self-confidence, here are some methods one can use.

In early sessions, always stop the dog when he is on balance. Do not attempt to catch a dog that is racing around stock by shouting at him, grabbing at him, or using his obedience to a down or sit command. Let the stock settle on balance at your knees by backing up against a fence and disallowing the dog to circle behind you using the fence as blocks. This allows the dog to feel that he is in control of his stock. Let him hold this position on his feet for a few seconds or a minute before you demand he take a more stationary position like sit or down. This helps him to feel balance and sharpen his sense of finding the right spot to contain livestock. This simple exercise sends the message to the dog that you expect him to hold livestock, control it calmly at your knees and that you will provide him the time to do so.

Expect and encourage the dog to cover escaping stock. Failure to do so is probably the number one reason that dogs do not reach their true potential. Handlers often fear the chaos of a less than perfect gather. So, they hold the dog back instead of allowing him to cover, control, and bring stock back. Regardless of how imperfect it is in the beginning, if the situation arises, I allow a dog to cover escaping livestock.

Personally, I think more handlers should fear the degradation of their dog's natural ability, balance and drive than a messy gather. When sheep split during training, the resolution is often achieved through better management of the situation. If the stock are too flighty for the dog's ability, get heavier (more dog-broke) stock. If the arena size or shape is wrong for a beginner dog, move to a smaller area. If the handler is not proactively getting in the right place, then attempt to reduce the effects of the deficiency. You may consider options like working in a smaller space, getting a longer or more visual stock stick, or finding heavier sheep. All these things will compensate for a handler's lack of proactively and offer opportunities for the handler to have a positive learning experience, as well. But, do not hold the dog back from controlling escaping stock because of a fear of disorganization of the sheep or lack of perfection. Let the dog know your expectations, deal with the chaos and reduce its occurrence in the future by more astute management of the training situation.

To address the issues of gripping, racing and slicing in at the top of an outrun I employ a very basic method. First, I recognize that all these problems are probably due to the fact that the dog lacks confidence in his ability to get around sheep properly. I am amazed at how many people increase the distance of the gather or outrun when the dog still has any of these problems. Dogs that can't get around stock properly when they are sent on a 50 foot gather rarely improve when the distance is increased.

This method can be performed on a fence or in the open. Start out with well broke stock that will settle at your knees and your dog in a stopped position on balance across from you. Take note of the exact place where your dog is positioned. Possibly there's a tuft of grass of a weed growing there that will remind you. If necessary, place a small marking cone there next to the dog. You need to remember where he was lying once he gets up.

The distance between you and the dog should be no more than about twenty-five feet. Remind the dog to stay. Step through the stock towards the dog, then slightly to the left. Stick out your left arm in which you may also be holding a stock stick. Take pressure off the dog by turning your head to the left, possibly turning your glance downwards, as well. Then, give the Come-Bye (clockwise) flank command. As the dog gets up and begins a clockwise flank do not move towards the dog. Do not enter his space as he travels around the stock. The method of moving at the dog is what most probably caused your dog to slice in and possibly grip on the gather to begin with. It's a common method, I know, to step in or at the dog to supposedly "push" him off his stock. It's often paired with a shouting correction as the dog slices in at his stock. If you have been doing this for weeks or months without seeing improvement in the dog, take that as a sign that it does not work. Your dog is stressed about getting around his stock, he knows he is going to get yelled at, so he expresses his stress by slicing in, racing around, or taking a cheap shot at the stock.

Your dog will welcome your remaining in your own space as you give him access to move freely on his side. Focus on that piece of turf where your dog began his outrun. Walk directly towards that location with an outstretched left arm. Your dog is traveling clockwise to get around his stock. There will be a point where you and the dog will be directly across from each other. He will be on your right doing his half circle flank. At that point, turn and face the dog, keeping your left arm out, and follow his movement until you have your back to that piece of turf where your dog began. You will have turned 180 degrees. Lower your left arm and make your stock stick invisible in front of your body. Walk backwards towards that piece of turf as you watch your dog turn into the balance point that was created because you are walking backwards on a straight line to the dog's starting point. Once the dog turns into his stock give him a stop command and continue to back up until you are on the same piece of earth where your dogs started out.

If your dog was a slicer, gripper or racer, he probably performed in true form and sliced, gripped or raced at the top of his outrun. Ignore it. Do not shout at him. This little outrun was only 25 feet in length. Most dogs should be able to accomplish this sort of gather of their stock. But, your dog doesn't know that he can get around his stock smoothly and effortlessly. He is not confident that he can proceed and find balance without ramifications. You have to let him know that he is capable by providing this very easy exercise over and over again until he realizes that he doesn't need to slice, grip or race. He needs to understand that you are not going to invade his space and you are not going to shout at him. You are not going to increase the distance of this little gather until he can do it well and assuredly. You are going to provide him with very simple work that he can accomplish until the stress in his face melts into a soft, tranquil expression. Many dogs improve in one session of ten to fifteen repetitions of the half circle flanks.

To make your dog feel comfortable with this new method, you must be absolutely predictable. As you do these little outruns, you must get to that same square foot of turf where he began his outrun so that he understands that you are expecting only a half circle of coverage. If your dog over flanks it is probably because you adjust your position to his instead of demanding that he adjust to yours. He has been confused because he was never provided a clear balance point. This exercise will correct that over flanking. You can send him both clockwise and counter clockwise, or you can work on just one direction at a time. If your field has a heavy draw, let your dog know you are an intelligent herding trainer by sending him to cover the draw, not the other way where he'll feel he has to race to get around his stock or they'll get away.

Once your dog can get around the stock properly at twenty-five feet and turns in on the balance point that you are creating as you walk to his starting point, and stops on command before pushing stock past your knees, you can begin to make the outrun distance longer. But do so only in five or ten foot increments. Wait until the dog is getting around his stock properly at that distance before adding a few more feet. With time, walk closer to the dog (leaving the sheep behind you) before sending him around the stock. Eventually, you will be at his side sending him on an official outrun that he will perform with a new sense of assurance. Anytime that your dog displays a symptom of stress, like slicing, racing or gripping, reduce the distance immediately. Perform this exercise quietly, calmly and without shouting at the dog. Remind the dog with your demeanor that he can confidently and properly get around stock.

Moving around livestock to a balance point is a critical component to herding whether working chores, executing an outrun, covering stock during a drive or controlling stock at a free-standing pen. If a dog displays stress while moving about his sheep, one can assume he's in need of a confidence growing experience.

As your dog's belief in his ability increases it's critical to continue to challenge him. Do so by providing access to more difficult livestock, more complex chores and distances he must travel. Add these exercises at a rate that does not overwhelm him or you. Expect him to cover and control his stock and don't worry that it might look a little messy the first time he attempts a more difficult task. The object is to communicate your desire that he takes charge of his stock and that you'll be there to help him.

Once the dog realizes that you have expectations of him that are fair and attainable, that you will teach him patiently at a pace and distance he can accomplish, you will see quick progress in your dogs skills and abilities. A confident dog is a more valuable herding partner. It is worth the extra effort and time to assure you develop your dog to his highest potential and greatest sense of self-confidence.

About the Author

Tammie Rogers and her husband Robert live on a fifty acre ranch in Brownstown, Illinois. Tammie has been training and trialing herding dogs for 15 years, is an AHBA herding judge and offers herding lessons and clinics. Her dogs have earned multiple HIT awards in ASCA, AHBA and AKC trials where she has attained those organizations' advanced titles on several dogs. A biologist by profession, Tammie left a 20 year career in the biomedical field to devote her full attention to DarnFar Ranch & Dog Training Facility where she raises meat sheep and runs a dog training school. The Rogers' also host herding trials and clinics at their ranch.