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
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
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
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.