Starting Training

Creating a Training Partnership

By February 17, 2015August 31st, 2017No Comments


by Mari Taggart Morrison

Training a working sheepdog is an art form as well as a sport and necessity. We marvel at the racecar driver’s abilities, or at the basketball player’s fine jump shot, but tend to overlook the complexity of the sheepdog trainer’s job as a sportsman, and the dog’s as an athlete. The trainer must work in exceptional harmony with not just a dog, but with sheep as well.

There are some trainers who don’t understand how difficult this is and they forget that there are three agendas out there in the training pasture — only one is human. The other is their dog’s and a third agenda belongs to the sheep. The goal of a great trainer is to create an environment where all three agendas flow together and all parts are working toward a common end. This may be the difference between a great trainer and a merely good one — the human trainer (who is presumed to be the most intelligent part of the team) is responsible for creating this partnership between human, dog and sheep.

There are some components to creating these ideal partnerships between human, dog and sheep that are the product of knowledge and understanding, timing and lots of miles as a trainer. These components are humility, practical skills, trust and kindness, and timing. Let’s look more closely at each.

There are basically two schools of thought in sheepdog training. One says that you make the dog a robot of his master’s will, tell him every move to make, and blame the dog if something goes wrong. This is the master-slave relationship. You can always tell this kind of trainer by their response to questions about their relationship with their dog. “I just want him TO DO WHAT HE’S TOLD,” is their definition of a relationship.

If you look at the world’s best trainers, however, those gifted people who could take any dog given them and bring out the greatness in it, you find an altogether different relationship. In this school of thought, the trainer is humble because he or she knows that the dog is a partner, not a slave. This kind of trainer realizes that the job of training is to bring out the good qualities that each dog possesses, not create the same dog in each dog. The goal of training, then, is to bring out the natural abilities in each animal, and suit the course to the pupil -remembering that even experienced trainers have plenty to learn from each dog.

Many trainers pay lip service to this ideal — few achieve it. The ones who do, w call magicians — each dog they train loves them, gives them their best and we loo at this and marvel at how these trainers create no “wash-outs,” no dogs that don’ make the grade.

The trainer’s primary job is to “learn the dog” — find out what helps and motivate the dog, how the dog learns best, and create conditions to give the dog the ability learn and succeed, gradually increasing the difficulty to suit the dog’s new skills. It is more than timing — it is becoming a student of your own dog, studying him or her and attempting to understand the dog as you would a partner. A master-slave trainer never asks what the dog is thinking or feeling — it is immaterial to him. A humble trainer does ask these and other important questions because it is only through the answers to those questions that the greatness in the dog can be brought out.

Those of us who have been training for awhile realize that each year we look back on where we were and the level of knowledge we had and recognize that we know more this year than last or the year before. Some trainers learn to do something certain way and they just keep doing it, over and over again, with every dog. The’ practical skills never improve because they don’t know there IS something to improve. Many of these trainers can only work with a particular type of dog, but not all types. Great trainers keep learning, from their dogs, from other’s dogs, from attending clinics and especially, through the experience of many, many practical miles.

This practical approach is one that can be easily overlooked. It’s no coincidence that the greatest trial dogs are not trained only for trials. The more practical experience the dog has, doing real practical work, working differing kinds of sheep, the better a trial dog he will be. The same is true of the trainer. The trainer who knows sheep, knows how to deal with real-life situations, and has trained many dogs from the ground up, will always be a better handler than one who only handles dogs for sport alone.

Now is a good time to mention the phenomena common (as far as I can tell) only to Border Collies. Not all the dogs that are shown in trials have been trained by their handlers. In fact, in some trials, few dogs have been trained by the people who handle them. Often, trials handlers buy dogs already trained by masterful trainers elsewhere, and just show the dog. It’s a mistake to think that these handlers all possess the knowledge of how to train a dog from start to finish, although certainly some do.

The joke is that wherever that handler ended up with the first dog they ever tried to train (and when they first got into buying trained dogs to show) — that will remain their skill level as a trainer till they put in the practical miles of training another dog from start to finish. Although it takes skill to handle a dog in trials, it takes far more (and more time) to train your own dog and handle it. The practical knowledge a trainer gains from starting and finishing many dogs (each with their unique qualities) may take longer, but such a trainer is not left without resources when problems occur, or when his dog starts to unravel.

There is a huge market of “re-cycled Border Collies” out there — trials trained dogs who have had ten or sometimes more owners by the time they are four or five years old. Some of these dogs have been passed from handler to handler (often gaining
more problems as they go) because the handlers don’t have the practical knowledge and understanding of how to train in the first place or re-train problems or even avoid them as they first begin. Too many of these dogs have been seen as means to end instead of an end in themselves. Too many are disposed of when they don’t win everything or they have a problem because they are not treated as a practical partner but as a cash machine.

Practical experience and knowledge of both dogs and sheep is crucial to becoming a good trainer, and is only gained by time, seeking out new ways of doing things and by treating each problem as a chance to learn how to solve it. The practical experience of solving problems with dogs and sheep makes for a great handler, since new situations don’t frighten or cripple them.

Trust and kindness are three-way in the sheepdog’s world. The human trainer must have kindness and trust toward his dog and the sheep, and the dog must have trust and kindness toward his trainer. Also, the sheep must trust the human and dog, trust that is established through kindness and fairness towards them.

Animal’s trust is a fragile gift — ruin it through inhumane treatment and it is lost forever. The human trainer gains trust from the dog and the sheep by spending time with them, studying them, and treating them in the kind and humane ways they

I once met a man whose dogs were all afraid of him if he raised a hand in the air.Not too surprisingly, the sheep he raised were perpetually terrified of him too. Not settling in his presence but literally climbing the fences to try to get away from him. I met this man after he had decided to “discipline” his stockdog by picking it up dropping it on its back (the dog’s back was broken in the fall.) This man thought anyone who talked about trust and kindness to a dog or stock must be crazy.

I mention this abusive trainer because not all “good ole boys” are of this mold. M men and women raised on ranches have learned from childhood to look after needs of their dogs and stock before their own, and they know that you don’t get best production from dogs or stock by making them afraid. Quiet, gentle handling with kindness creates quiet, contented, top producing sheep, and also top performing dogs.

I recently got the chance to see a videotape made of the late, great Border Collie man, Arthur Allen. The film was made about a year before he died. Although his health was clearly failing, the thing that most struck me about him as he worked with a totally beginning dog was how incredibly encouraging, gentle and even tender he was.

Here was a very masculine and very experienced trainer who knew that sweet talking a dog got you much more than throwing things. And within minutes the dog was working like it was ready for a trial! In the tape, Mr. Allen was working with some of his purebred Suffolk sheep — all of whom treated the man as though he was their flock leader. They showed no fear of him, but followed him willingly, knowing that he would not let the dog hurt them. In just a few minutes of quiet gentle handling he had a dog that would have done anything he asked and looked like’ a trials champ, and he had sheep that were following him around like he was their mom. The entire picture was of calmness and control. This is the goal of good training, to make it look easy and have it be truly harmonious.

Trainers who let young dogs chase and bite sheep fail to create trust in their sheep at all. The sheep fear the trainer and dog, and when they are afraid they are NOT LEARNING. The purpose of a sheepdog is to train the sheep to trust and respect him, so that they will do and go anywhere he asks. This is gained through teaching the dog that he is to be kind and fair to the stock, using his power only enough to teach an animal to not disobey, but never terrorizing any animal.

I heard recently of a “trainer” who tied a sheep to a post with a chain in order to teach his dog to walk up and bite it. He complained that after awhile, the sheep literally “fainted” from sheer terror — it just lay down, passed out and tried to die. The question becomes: what was this man’s dog learning? And what was the sheep learning? Nothing useful is learned through cruelty. Sadly, I fear that this man probably didn’t learn anything either, and I pity the next sheep he tries this with.

There are two ways timing figures in sheepdog work — the trainer’s timing, and the dog’s timing. If the goal of our training is to create a dog whose natural abilities have been realized and developed, and we trust that dog, then it figures that the dog will also be making some decisions and using his or her own timing out there, especially where the handler just has to trust the dog to do the right thing. I recently was at a trial that had a long, difficult outrun through a deep valley where there was a big “dead spot” where the dogs couldn’t hear anything. There would be several long moments when the dog was out of range and sight, where handlers had to trust their dog’s timing to be right. You could see the handlers standing out there, sweating bullets, to see where and how those sheep would come over the ridge! A few of dogs worked beautifully — they hit the correct balance, put the sheep in gear, and flock came over the ridge right on the money, straight at the handler. Of course some dogs didn’t — some got lost, some lost the line, some lost their sheep back the set out crew! The difference was that some dogs knew their stuff and had timing ON THEIR OWN, and some didn’t.

In a recent trial with one of my dogs I found myself leaning on the pen, watching in awe as she had a “conversation” with the sheep. The sheep had been uniformly awful in the trial, and she just walked them backward step by step — not fighting mind you, but surely guiding. It reminded me of the movie “Babe”, where the she just walked through the panels because their leader was “speaking sheep” to them! I have no idea what Ninja was saying to her sheep that day, but clearly there was some sort of communication going on that I was not privy to. There was no way I could have handled her any better than she was handling herself!

In ranch work this becomes even more crucial. If the dog’s timing is bad, it could prove a danger to the flock. Knowing where to stop, where to turn, and HOW to do it (fast, slow, very cautiously, with great power) all make a difference.

Likewise, the trainer’s timing factors in and is perhaps the hardest thing for beginning handlers to learn. When to command the dog, and when to let him think for himself— when to move into a harder level of training, when to recognize too much or not enough pressure, when to turn a dog, stop a dog and HOW it should be done — all are factors of timing that must be learned. The easiest way to learn is to become a student of your dog. I recently began trialing a new dog, and she is quite different from another dog I trialed. Each trial and each practical situation, I learn a bit more about her, even though I have worked with her from the start.

If you find yourself having a similar problem with all your dogs, look at timing as a possible reason. I have met handlers whose dogs all quit and run off the field on them — this can be a timing problem, because the handler doesn’t realize when he or she has crossed the line and scared the dog until it’s too late. Their timing is bad, and they don’t read the dog’s eyes and posture and time their actions accordingly.

There are hundreds of other timing problems. Do all your dogs stop short of their outrun? Do all your dogs lack power? Do all your dogs run too close or too wide? Do all your young dogs pull wool? (I met a man recently who was afraid to shear his sheep — they had three years growth of wool. When I asked him why, he told me his dogs would just rip the sheep up if they didn’t have the wool to protect them! Without pointing out what else is wrong with this reasoning, this could also be a timing problem of the trainer.)

Knowing how fast your dog is, how obedient, how powerful (or not) and how well your dog reads sheep are keys to handler timing. Is my dog fast enough to cover that area if I send him left? Does he have the power to face off those sheep if they turn on him? Have I just asked too much of him for his level of training — or not enough? Am I over-handling or under-handling? Did I just scare the sheep or let my dog do so?

It’s hard to be a student of your dog if you’re not humble, or if you don’t have trust that he’s trying to do the right thing. So timing is not a thing that you learn separate from other things, it is woven into the very fabric of dog training.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1999