BALANCE AND PACING
by Bruce Fogt
Throughout the entire training process and the life of the dog, I am always trying to build balance or keep it in the dog. Balance can be taken out of a dog if you never let it develop, or if you don’t let the dog think on its own. A dog that is trained only to take commands and is not allowed to work on its own will never have a chance to develop balance.
Balance is perhaps the most important feature bred into a Border Collie. Balance is simply defined as the position the dog must be in to bring the sheep to you and keep them to you. This also involves the dog being the proper distance from the sheep to keep them under quiet control. A dog that does not have balance would push the sheep around the field with no concern as to where you are. A dog that does not have balance can be trained to take commands and move the sheep where you want them, but they will always need to be told what to do. A well bred Border Collie, with balance, that is trained properly, will not need to be told every move to make. They know instinctively to bring the sheep to their handler. A large percentage of Border Collies will do this without any training, however it may not be done as quietly or as efficiently as a dog with training.
The first time I take a dog to sheep, I begin to develop the balance of that dog. I start working the dog at short distances, making it go around the sheep to the point of balance. The dog should stay on the opposite side of the sheep from you. If you move around the sheep in a clockwise direction, the dog should counter your move with a clockwise flanking movement of its own, always keeping the sheep between you and it. If the sheep go past the handler the dog should then take the shortest direction around, either clockwise or counterclockwise, to stop the sheep and once again hit the balance point and bring the sheep back to you.
The dog that runs around the handler before continuing on around the sheep is not balancing properly because it did not take the shortest route around the sheep. The dog should be repelled by the handler, much the same as two magnets will repel from each other, with the sheep always in the middle. If the sheep make a break in any direction the dog should counter them by going around to balance, or if you make a move the dog should counter it, but YOU should not counter a move that the dog makes to hold balance. The dog should work the sheep to you, not vice-versa. You must be the point the dog is working the sheep toward. If the dog is off balance it must be mildly corrected for it and pushed back onto balance.
Most Border Collies are naturallly repelled by the handler, it is their instinct to stay on the other side of the sheep, but some dogs need to be reminded of that instinct. Normally the best thing to do when a dog won’t go around, is to just stomp your foot at them and use a very commanding voice, saying something like, “Get back”. Don’t be too meek, as this is a correction and you will confuse your dog. Remember you are just trying to remind it to do something that it already knows, it was bred into the dog. All you are trying to do is make the dog do it. Sometimes on tough dogs, it works well to swat the ground in front of the dog with a leash to push the dog around.
Don’t be afraid to chase the dog around the sheep, go stomping at the dog like you are going to run it over. You won’t stomp on your dog of course, but the dog doesn’t know that. The point you are trying to establish is that the dog is on your side of the sheep and it shouldn’t be there. Once this point is learned by the dog, you will find that it will take less of a correction each time the dog is off balance. The dog knows it is wrong, it will amaze you to watch the dog correct itself and find the balance point on the sheep.
As the dog goes around the sheep in the proper manner, you should be backing away from the sheep, giving the dog room to work and the sheep room to move. With the dog on balance, move clockwise and counterclockwise around the sheep and let the dog find its new balance point on the sheep each time.
The only difference between a dog that will go around sheep and balance them to you up close and a dog that will go out and gather sheep in the field, is the distance. The principle is the same. The dog should go around the sheep and stay on the balance point to bring them back to you. Also the method of correction is the same at a distance for the dog that is off balance, run at the dog and push them back onto the balance point.
There is much more to training a Border Collie than just balance, but I feel it is the main ingredient in training a dog to handle sheep. A dog with good balance can handle many tough situations on the farm.
One of the problems many people have in training is to teach their dog to walk up on the sheep slowly. Often young dogs want to push the sheep too fast causing both the sheep and dog to become overly excited. Using a “down” command when the dog is moving too fast will give the sheep more space, allowing them to slow down, but it doesn’t solve the problem. When the dog is asked up it will again move up too quickly starting the problem all over again and causing the sheep to move at a choppy pace.
There are several methods for teaching the dog to take time on command. One of them is to give the command to “take time” and if the dog moves up too fast give it a “down” right away, then ask it up again and repeat the process until the dog gets the idea. This method, however, does not communicate to the dog what you want it to do as well as some of the other methods. It also encourages the kind of choppy work that you are trying to get away from.
Another way to teach a “take time” is with a leash and choke chain collar using the same method as used in training a down, give a sharp jerk and then the command. Often, after the first session, the dog will lie down when given the “take time” command, but with a little encouragement to keep moving the dog will understand that it is to slow down, not stop. Using this method you can teach your dog that the command is to be obeyed immediately. I feel it is better to be firm and get the idea across quickly, maybe even overdoing it a little, particularly when teaching a “down” or “take time” command. I treat the “take time” command much the same as a “down” because I want the same type of a reaction from the dog on a “take time” as I do on a “down”; the dog should slam on its brakes, not stopping as it would on a “down,” but still changing its pace drastically.
So far the methods described are used to teach the dog to take a command; however, I feel that it is always better if the dog learns to work correctly on its own without being told what to do through commands. The dog should be trained to move onto the sheep with a steady even pace without being told. The method that works the best to do this is simply running through the sheep chasing the dog back off as it is coming on too fast.
There are two things that make this form of correction work. The first is surprise; the dog’s attention will be on the sheep, not on you, so if you do not say anything to the dog until you are running through the middle of the sheep he will not know you are anywhere around. The second thing is that you will be invading the dog’s territory by running at the dog. Your position in relation to the dog and the sheep will communicate to the dog whether it is right or wrong. By running at the dog you are telling it that it is wrong, and by moving away from it you are telling it that it is right. Consequently, when the dog is moving too fast on the sheep and you run at it you are telling it that it is wrong. I also use my voice to let it know it is wrong. When I run through the middle of the sheep and chase it off I will also be yelling at it, most anything loud will work. This adds to the surprise effect.
This method seems to communicate very quickly to the dog that it is to think about what it is doing and not rush the sheep. It also will help to make the dog walk with an even pace, which in turn will keep the sheep moving at an even pace. Any time the dog starts to move too fast, all you need to do is take a few fast steps at the dog and shout something loud; using the dog’s name works well for this.
There is a big difference between teaching the dog to pace itself on sheep and making it do so with a command. Dogs do not learn from commands, they learn from corrections. When a dog is given a command such as a “take time,” it will respond to it, but not learn from it. The next time the dog will need to be given the command again. However when given a timely correction the dog will learn that it was working improperly. For some reason dogs do not seem to associate a command with something they are doing wrong as easily as they do a correction. When they hear a command such as a “take time” and respond to it, they do not seem to associate that what they were doing was what caused the command to be given. There are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part you will find dogs do learn faster and retain it longer when corrections are used to make a dog work properly, versus when commands are used.
You will also find you have a dog that works properly on its own without the need to be told every move to make.
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