by Lori Herbel
Imagine taking on the goal of writing a novel and writing only chapters 3, 8, 11 and 15. Skip right over the introduction, write only random chapters, and stop before writing a conclusion.
Would that book make sense? No! Would it be marketable? Absolutely not! In fact, I can't imagine anyone that would even attempt to write a book in this manner, it's a very silly concept. Unfortunately, there are many handlers who unknowingly attempt to train their dogs the same way.
Just like writing a book, a herding training program should include a proper introduction, chapters in the appropriate order, and finally, a conclusion. This is a project that can, and should be, 'edited', or fine-tuned, throughout the dog's working years. It is a long-term commitment and should only be considered completely finished when the dog reaches the golden age of retirement.
Just as there are many different books on any given subject in the library, each dog's training manuscript can - and should - vary. One of the reasons learning to herd can be so difficult to grasp is that every dog is an individual, and care must be taken that the training is tailored to fit the dog's needs. As trainers, it is our job to apply the techniques and then watch to see if our results are positive. If they are not positive, then it is our job to back up a few pages and work on a re-write.
Proper introduction starts long before the pup is old enough to meet livestock. We should ideally begin our project when the pup is born. The amount of daily handling should increase in length of time as the pup ages. This will not only be beneficial for the pup's foundation training, it also helps us, as handlers, set up a daily routine which is vitally important. Lost time can be extremely difficult to make up, and in some cases is lost forever - thereby having a negative effect on the dog's final potential.
At weaning, start a plan to further the acclimation and socialization chapters. Introduce your pup to the world and acclimate him to the sights, sounds, smells and distractions. Teach basic manners - to walk on lead, recall dependably, and to wait patiently in a crate. Start early, and be consistent. Never ask the dog to do something that you aren't capable of following through with. Say a command once, and get what you ask for.
Make your dog's foundation a well-rounded one. Introduce him at a young age to various footings (linoleum, wood floors, carpet, concrete), teach him to ascend/descend stairs, jump from one level to another, to walk through gates and doors, etc.
Take into consideration the fact that he is a herding dog, and if he shows interest in the movement of birds, cats or squirrels during a walk in the park, take care not to discourage that interest to an extreme. This interest in the movement of other animals comes from their instinct to control, and can be stymied if constantly reprimanded.
There are many theories as to what age a pup should be when introduced to livestock. Consideration should be given to the pup's mental maturity, physical capabilities, handler experience, type of livestock available, facilities, as well as other conditions. A handler without a lot of experience in starting dogs may want to consider seeking out someone with a more extensive background, who will probably also have to offer proper facilities and livestock for the right start. Non dog-broke or combative stock, an area that is too large to maintain adequate control, or improper fencing can be setting you and your dog up for a disastrous beginning.
A more confident, outgoing, strong-willed pup can often be started on livestock at a younger age than a pup that exhibits shyness or a low confidence level. However, an experienced handler can use herding training to actually bring out, and build confidence. The line drawn between building and damaging confidence can be a fine one.
The chapters in your dog's book should be written to fit your dog's personality, with constant evaluation and re-evaluation needed. Both short and long term goals can be set, but continual evaluation should be used to determine if the goals remain realistic and reachable. Don't be afraid to change or adjust your goals to fit the dog's needs.
Save your competitive nature with your herding friends for later - when you're under the watchful eye of the judge with an official score sheet in hand. Your dog's basic foundation should remain individual to him and should not be compared with other dogs and their training progress. There can be tremendous differences between breeds, bloodlines, temperaments, working styles, upbringing, and environment, among a host of other variables. No two dogs are exactly alike, nor should be trained exactly alike.
Set a comfortable and achievable pace. Don't let yourself get caught up in a race to have the youngest dog to achieve a title, be tempted to enter a trial before you are ready, or be too quick to move up a level the weekend of a trial just because you completed a lower title the day before. All of these situations can put a tremendous amount of pressure on both you and your dog, which can cause a crack in the training foundation which will have to be fixed before you can go forward.
If you find yourself at a learning plateau, don't hesitate to seek out help from an experienced instructor. Addressing a stumbling block correctly from the very onset can help avoid confusion on both the dog and handler's part. Continuing to handle a training issue with the wrong perspective can set bad habits for both handler and dog that can be difficult to break.
As the basic 'chapters' of your dog's manuscript are written, control and consistency should become dependable. With this will come the desire to exhibit the results in a test or trial. The basic groundwork is done, the 'rough draft' is ready. Pay attention to, and polish up even the littlest of details - be comfortable with how your 'manuscript' (dog) reads at home before you pay an entry fee. Take your 'manuscript' to a few other training locations before your first test or trial to see how well it 'reads' in public. If there are problems, go back and figure out which 'chapters' you are missing, or which chapters are simply incomplete.
Now it's time to present your manuscript to the publisher - or in other words, you will be attempting to sell your product to the judge. A dog with only chapters 3, 8, 11 and 15 written won't be a marketable product. A dog with a proper intro, sensible chapters and a conclusion will!
Good luck for a future Best Seller!