ALLOWING A DOG TO LEARN
by Michelle Weese, Lock-Eye Border Collies
What we as stock dog trainers like to do most is COMMAND. “Go bye, way to me, down, walk up, what are you doing?, hey get out, get back, lie down, look back!” Did you ever notice that you feel the most proud when your dog gathers stock that’s out of sight and you can’t shout commands? Stockdogs have the instinct to work well on their own, we just forget to let them. ALLOWING A DOG TO LEARN and think for themselves starts the first day you begin training. When you turn the dog loose and it starts to circle, do you immediately say “go bye” or “way to me”? When things get a little bit hairy do you say “down”?
If you down a dog the first time things get a little exciting, what is that teaching the dog’? Perhaps to down when he gets a little mixed up! (Instead of TRYING SOMETHING to work through the situation.) Later on, if the stock are in a frenzy, the dog might just lay down and let YOU work it out yourself, instead of flanking out and fetching the stock back. It may take a little longer to see results, but if you just let the dog keep working and trying different things, he will eventually figure out the right way.
As an example: you turn the young dog loose and he charges the stock. Happens all the time. If you start yelling at the dog, he will just ignore you or will stop working. Rarely does he do the right thing when you yell. Either way, you have just distracted him from doing the one thing he is there for… to learn how to handle livestock.
Think back to the first time you tried to do something new. Say, this computer for example. You might have been a little anxious to start. That big CPU thing and the keyboard larger than life. Now enter your instructor … you’ve been out of school for 20 years now and you are hoping that he will be understanding and patient. But what? … it must be that drill sergeant you had in boot camp. He’s real loud and stands over you while you try to figure out this mice, I mean this mouse thing. When you don’t get it right the first time, he yells at you to click here and click there. “No, the left button!” Then he rips the mouse out of your hand and starts clicking away. Before long you bolt for the door and are never again to be seen in computer class. Now let’s think again about that poor dog!
When he crashes through the stock, don’t say anything, simply have your pvc stick ready and gently, but firmly push him away from the stock and say “shhh”. The shhh sound means for him to go around the stock. He doesn’t know what shhh means, but
certain sounds elicit an instinctual reaction from the dog. In the early stage I go in a circle one way and then the other. I hold my pvc stick out at a 45 degree angle ONLY when I desire the dog to change directions. If you hold the stick out all the time, it doesn’t have the startle effect.
If the dog charges past my stick, I back over and try it again. You may have to angle all the way over to the fence. When the dog does turn, say “shhh” again. (Not “go bye” or “way to me”) the dog is not ready to bear it yet, so why waste your breath? The dog is learning several things at this point:
1) that stick gets in my way when I try to eat my stock (not he gets mad… or I get cracked over the head every time I bite the stock.
2) the sound “shhh” means to go around my stock.
3) when the stick is held out at an angle, I need to go the other way.
I may work a yearling dog for two weeks like this. (Without commands.) As long as it takes for the dog to relax and feel comfortable around his stock. You may be wondering how I catch a dog that doesn’t have commands on it with this method. Even dogs who DO have a good recall on them away from stock sometimes go ape wild and the recall flies out the window. I may have to keep working the dog until it gets tired enough to stop on its own. (The longest ever was 35 minutes.)
Remember that you are in a round pen, there is only so far the dog can go. If you get mad with the dog at this point, coming to you will be less appealing for the dog the next time. Have a leash in your pocket when you start, so you will have it to put on your dog. I’ve seen some people catch their dogs and then drag them by the collar to the gate. Grabbing a dog by the neck could cause the dog to be afraid to come to you. It’s a very dominant way to handle a dog. (I do grab a dog’s collar on occasion, but not when the dog does something I want it to do.)
Anyway… back to how to end the session. I usually work a dog 8 – 10 minutes at a time the first few weeks. I have found that, with the amount of adrenaline going through the dog, this is long enough. On one of the circles, I position the stock against the fence and the dog in the middle of the round pen. My back is to the stock. I hold my stick parallel to the ground and out in front of ne. I block the dog as if to change directions and the dog usually does just that. So I then block it the other way. Since the stock are against the fence and my back is to them, I can keep the dog from circling. I may have to play “dodge dog” for five minutes the first time, but eventually the dog will stop and look up at you. When it does, I say “stay”. (Not “down”, even if the dog lays down) the reason I say “stay” is that the dog will be right. If I said “down”, I’d feel compelled to make the dog lay down. All I really want is for the dog to stop! (So I can catch my breath) and the dog might laugh if I said “come”, so, in the early stages I pick the battles I CAN win. “Stay” usually works, especially when the dog needs to catch its breath too!
As soon as the dog stops, I say “good doggie, shhh”, and send the dog back around the stock. Now you are probably thinking ‘not again’! But yes, send the dog around and do the whole thing over again. It will be easier the second time. (Maybe just a fraction better.) Working the stock is the dog’s greatest reward, so by sending him around again you are teaching him that if he minds you he gets to keep working. Then when you say “stay”, walk up to the dog and snap the leash on and say “come”. Then walk away from the stock and call it again. Praise the dog and pet it. Tell it what a good dog it is. Let it walk a few steps towards the stock and call it again. If it doesn’t come, give it a slight jerk and reel it in towards you. (Your attitude while doing this will make a big difference throughout the dog’s training. Have a positive one.) Do not yell at the dog. The quieter you can speak to the dog the better. Do this only about five times and put the dog up in its kennel. Out of sight of stock.
After the dog is reacting to your “shhh” command and changes directions as soon as you hold your stick up, it is time to add the side commands. I also reduce the use of my stick to get the dog to change directions. I hold my arm out slightly and say “go bye” or “way to me” when the dog turns. I gradually fade away the body language, and if the dog goes the wrong way, I step in and block the dog with my stick or my body and make it go the correct direction.
Remember, while you have been working the dog, any time he crashes into the stock, use the stick to push him out. When I first started training stockdogs, people would say to me “just push him out” and I’d be thinking `Yeah, but how?’ I’ll try to explain. Watch your dog’s body language and PAY ATTENTION! Most people watch, but don’t see. While he’s going around the stock, he may hold his tail up or hold his head a certain way just before he strikes. Be aware of his patterns and have your stick ready to counter strike. I don’t mean hit him. What I do is put my stick near his arm pit (do dog’s have arm pits?) and lift up, and away. This usually has the desired effect.
You do want the dog to work out away from his stock. Some folks might say, “but he’s going to be a cattle dog, I want him to bite.” Well, I train and sell cattle dogs and I want them to bite also, but I don’t want to repair fences. And if the dog bites the cattle for no reason or for the wrong reason, the cattle won’t be where I want them anyway. If you aren’t angry when you push the dog out with the stick and if you don’t crack him over the head every time he bites, (and if he’s bred to be a cattle dog) he WILL learn when to bite and when not to bite.
As the dog learns to circle wide around the stock, (still in the round pen) I start backing up and let the dog fetch the stock to me. I add another command, “Back.” YOU HAVE TO BE CLEAR YOURSELF WHAT A COMMAND MEANS BEFORE YOU TRY TO TEACH IT. “Back” means to stay back behind the stock. Later, when you add a “look back” command , the dog may become confused and think, well, I AM behind the stock — for this reason, I have replaced the words “look back” with “turn around”. It sounds like no other command , and they pick it up quite fast. (The word back is used in too many commands.) When the dog tries to circle the stock instead of fetching them to me, I block him and say “back”.
When the dog has learned these things, I move him to a larger pen. An arena or something similar. Shhh the dog to go around and step a little closer to the stock as the dog is running out. I expect the dog to be wild again. New places do that to a dog.
Now you need to concentrate yourself on being quiet and use only those SOUNDS you have used before. No words or commands. Just the sounds. You can add another — the GROWL. Don’t overuse it. When the dog crashes the stock or pushes the wrong way, growl or say “ayeeee”, the more guttural the better.
As soon as he whatever it is, shhh him back to his stock and let him try it again. Your dog learning how to work the stock in an effective manner, instead of just obeying commands. In the long run the dog will do better and you will think he has learned to read your mind. When the dog needs to be blocked with the stick, use it. As my dogs go to the pasture, I may not give any “English language commands” just use “K-9 language”. Shhh the dog to the stock, and when he’s wrong block and growl. When he is fetching properly, let him work.
I start to do things that will challenge a dog to think about what he’s doing. I have the dog bring the stock to me around obstacles, trees, gates, and put the stock in and out of a stall. Instead of giving the command, let the dog do it wrong and correct him with sounds, your stick, and your body language, as needed. Allow him to practice until he understands the goal.
The less you command the dog at this stage, the more he will learn. If you need to pen the stock and you are always saying “go bye,” “way to me,” “down,” the dog will be reluctant to do anything on its own. And if he doesn’t react when the stock move, they might get away. Another point is that if you are constantly talking, it could affect the stock. They may be spooked and not go in the pen because of you.
One of the reasons people over-command their dogs is that they are afraid the stock will get away. This does happen. One of the ways I allow my dogs to learn to cover the stock is to ride a horse when they start working in the pasture. If the stock get away, I encourage the dog to go after them. Since I’m on a horse, things don’t get out of sight. I don’t call the dog back if he’s in pursuit. If you did, he may forever think it’s ok for the stock to get away. If the dog tries to return to the wrong bunch, I say “turn around” and shhh the dog onto its stock. If you don’t have a horse you can use a four wheeler.
As your dog learns to think , you can add more stock. Fresh stock is great for dogs to learn from. A dog has to react differently with fresh stock. Broke stock does NOTHING to teach a dog to think for itself. If you set aside a few critters to switch out and keep fresh, it would help advance your dog. I rarely give my dogs any commands when they work fresh stock. Humans simply cannot react quickly enough. Hey, isn’t that the reason we use dogs in the first place?
After your dog has learned how to handle stock on its own, go ahead and teach it more precise commands. I always wait until a dog understands the gather before I teach off balance flanks and driving. These require a dog to respond to commands. Remember why you got a stockdog. Wasn’t it so he could do most of the hard work’? I don’t think I’d like the taste of a cow’s nose in my mouth or heel dirt either!
(Working Aussie Source editor’s note: Michelle Weese is a full-time breeder and trainer of working Border Collies in Westville, Oklahoma)
this article was first published in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer magazine