Couple weeks ago, I took Ty up to the Herding Center again, and put him on the easy sheep in the smallish pen again, after a break of six weeks. A big difference; he was much calmer and more fluid, was working with me easily without diving in and trying to grip. We did a bit of fetching and holding on the fence and it seemed pretty good to me. I was impressed with how much could be accomplished by simply waiting until my dog matured a bit more. He had just celebrated his first birthday.
On the strength of this improvement I got up my nerve to make an appointment with a trainer I had never worked with before, only had watched at trials. One of her big advantages to me was that she was only an hour's drive away. Gas prices had put a premium on this feature. Julie is a cattle and goat rancher who successfully runs Border Collies in the top echelon of cattle trials. She does work with Aussie owners on occasion, although it felt, in our conversation, that she might have a little reluctance to take on another one. Or maybe it was just my insecurity.
Julie had quite a different approach than any trainer I'd worked with before. The first thing she had me do was simply walk around with my dog on a leash in the driveway. "He's not paying attention to you," she pointed out. "He's getting in front of you and you're going around him instead of him responding to your movements. That's got to change." What did that have to do with working stock, I wondered. I was to find out.
Julie started her young dogs in a substantial, more or less square pen, on moderately light sheep. Ty was at first what I would describe as a hapless confused mess, and so was I. He plainly neither understood nor agreed with the agenda. The lighter sheep made him anxious, and Julie standing next to me made him more anxious still. Instead of working the sheep, he mostly tried to hide behind me, or went to the gate. Every time we could get him to work at all, he would race up and try to grab wool, on occasion succeeding. "He just doesn't want to play by the rules, so he's sulking," Julie said. "He'll come around."
But he didn't really, until Julie actually left the arena and was behind the wire fence. Then he finally got up the nerve to start working again. He was still very cautious and for awhile he was just watching the sheep follow me around, but eventually he began to actually move them himself. When he got too close I would wave the stock stick at him and he would stop dead. We didn't manage to get the sheep off the fence much, but at least he was working them. "He's going to be fine," Julie reassured me. "He'll be a good strong dog." I didn't quite believe her.
What Julie wanted to see in a beginning dog was simply the understanding that, as long as they moved away from the pressure of the handler, they got to work. Whatever else they did was more or less okay. She explained that, especially for pushy strong dogs, they needed to understand that they had give to handler pressure. And that meant at all times and everywhere. "If you have your dog totally responding to your pressure away from stock, it is going to make all the difference for you on stock. Trust me."
She demonstrated these principles with one of her Border Collies, showing me how she drilled him on leash away from stock, stepping into him and forcing him to get out of her way. When he was put on the sheep, yes indeed he was just as pushy and too-close as you let him, although he would work quite wide if made to.
She didn't do any fetching at all in the beginning. She just let the dog move around the "bubble" any way they wanted to, as long as they were giving to pressure. She just walked through the sheep and let the dog regather, over and over. Only when the dog was respecting her pressure would she begin to fetch a little, as a reward. She never raised her voice at all with her dogs, unless they were causing a wreck, and she never gave a command more than once. "First the command, then the verbal reprimand, and then you go out and fix it," she said. "In that order. No nagging."
I was anxious to try all this out on my own. Unfortunately, since I had no training stock now, with my goats all with kids at side, I had to wait for practice day at the Herding Center. In the interim I resolved to examine all the little ways that Ty disrespected my space and took charge that I had not noticed. I had never had a large, non-neutered male dog with a strong personality before, and I had obviously let a lot of things slide. That was going to have to change beginning right now.