SOME COMMON MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE WHEN TRAINING THE LOOSE-EYED DOG
by Dana MacKenzie
The term “Loose-eyed” refers to dogs which do not work with the intense eye or concentration of the Border Collie type dog or its derivatives. In general, we are very “early ” in our attempts to train dogs, having only started with the emergence of ASCA, AHBA, and AKC trialing programs. Our teachers have been Border Collie trainers, books and tapes authored by Border Collie trainers and by trial and error. All of these sources are good and valid, but often times we have made some fundamental mistakes in our application of what we have learned. This article attempts to point out some beginning training problem spots with possible solutions.
A TRAINER MUST NOT STOP LEARNING
The biggest mistake any trainer can make is to stop learning and growing, by becoming mesmerized and very possessive of one training method to the exclusion of all others. When this happens, no more progress can ever be made and dogs that can’t fit into that mold will be lost to herding.
THE MISUSE OF THE SHOCK COLLAR
The misuse of the shock collar can be devastating. The collar is supposed to be a shortcut, but I really wonder. I’m seeing more and more dogs that have been ruined by it. Some can be saved, some can’t. At any rate, it takes five times as long to bring a dog back than it would to train it right the first time. Loose-eyed dogs work, in general, through a trust bond with their handler. How can that bond be formed if the dog is zapped rather than talked to and worked through the problem?
NOT LETTING THE DOGS CONTROL THE STOCK
Not allowing the dog to learn to control his stock can be a function of the type of stock worked, or a misunderstanding of what “controlling the stock” means. A dog controls his stock by holding them together, somewhere near the handler (when fetching) or somewhere other than near the handler (when driving). The key word is “holding together”. The dog must be allowed to learn to stop the stock from escaping and where to be to do this job without unnecessarily disturbing the stock.
Sheep that have been chased and nipped by dogs soon learn where safety lies, that being attached to the nearest person! When the dog and person are on the same side of the flock, instead of running over the next hill, like normal sheep would, these sheep are moving toward the dog in their effort to reach the handler’s legs. Let’s call these sheep “pseudo sheep.” Pseudo sheep are wonderful for the first few exposures of your dog to sheep. They are not trying to escape and you can easily control the situation.
BUT, as soon as you are sure the dog is not going to cut one off, chase it down and feast, normal sheep are a must. Since pseudo sheep do not move away from the dog or handler in a normal manner, they can teach the pup little about controlling his stock. You can remedy this situation by adding one or two “real” sheep to your working group, when past the first few exposures of your dog to stock (It is hard for a beginning trainer to go directly to flighty stock because he has yet to learn how to move to protect the stock plus help his pup.) When you and your dog can handle this situation, add more of these sheep until all are normal.
Most first time trainers want to have absolute control over the dog. Basic obedience is important but not at the expense of your dogs learning to manage his stock. Total dog obedience control comes later and is a long slow process.
Holding the dog on the same side of the stock you are on, when starting your training, is the most common mistake seen in the trial arena, and perhaps the most damaging to the beginning dog. This can often be a function of pseudo sheep, which have taught the dog nothing about controlling his stock. Typically, the handler will be walking in the center of a group of pseudo sheep while insisting that the dog follow along behind. In this situation you are violating your dog’s instinct. It is his instinct that makes him capable of doing a useful job of herding. Otherwise you have to tell him every move to make and that is very difficult.
We speak of a balance point to describe a dog’s natural instinct to contain is stock. This point is located where the dog needs to be in order to bring and keep the stock near his person. It is an innate or natural quality in most herding dogs, but often must be developed in those loose-eyed breeds that have been bred for other things for years. The location of the balance point can vary. If the sheep are trying to escape to a certain spot, like an open gate, the balance point could be off to the side at right angles to the handler. However, for practical purposes, we can think of it as being across the sheep from the handler.
If the dog is working a flock of sheep, he cannot stay in one location but must move back and forth on either side of the balance point in order to keep the stock coming to the handler. This is called “wearing” and is a function of the distance the stock is away from the handler. The dog moves only as far as he must off of the balance point to make eye contact with the outside sheep and turn it in toward the handler.
Where is the balance point when you are walking in the middle of a bunch of pseudo sheep? You’re right! There is no balance point per se and your dog is correct to ring or circle around all of you to keep the sheep from escaping. But, if this is all your dog ever does, he will never see you as an object to bring the sheep to. You will remain a “sheep” to him forever and he will continue to keep you in the group with all the rest of the sheep.
After talking about what “stock control” means, lets go back to keeping the dog on the same side of the sheep we are on when starting our training. Most of us start with a group of “Pseudo Sheep”. These sheep are scrambling to stay next to our legs and are all around us. In our effort to make a smooth trial run, we insist that the dog follow along behind this group, violating his instinct to stop the sheep that have passed you from escaping.
The INSTANT a sheep’s nose passes you, it is the same as if that sheep had run over the next hill. It is your dog’s job to stop that animal from escaping. He does this by playing out to your side or even in front of you to tuck that animal back behind you.
If you do not allow your dog to use his instinct to control, one of two things will happen:
1. The dog will give up and follow along behind. You have carefully taught him NOT TO CONTROL his stock and when one runs off, he’ll watch it go, doing nothing, just as you have taught him to do.
2. The dog will become more and more desperate as his instinct (to keep the stock from escaping) is violated. He will run out of control, trying to do his job of bringing the sheep back to you. To the “young in training” dog this can turn into a chase, grab, fence crash, or lunch.
If you see yourself in this scenario, go back to the basic fetching exercises. Let your dog control the stock and keep them with you as you walk around in the open. When one animal starts to pass you, let your dog play out to your side or in front of you, to stop it and tuck it back.
Only when your dog understands control and fetching very well, will you start driving exercises. Driving means taking the sheep any place other than to the handler. Begin and end each training session with a long relaxing fetch. Make the two moves fetching and driving, two completely different things, by always stopping the dog before changing from one to the other. Never, never let the dog make the decision as to when to change from driving to fetching because you will never be able to trust him to wait for your command if you allow it.
RINGING OR CIRCLING THE STOCK AND HANDLER
Allowing the dog to continuously circle his handler and stock, usually in one direction only, with no allowance for the balance point, is a common mistake.This is similar to the above problem, but note the handler is not in the center of the sheep but out to the side of them. A trainer can get away with a certain amount of circling when working with the strong-eyed breeds (Border Collie type dogs), because of the strength of their instinct, but it should be very limited in loose-eyed dogs. Care must be taken to work the dog around his stock in both directions. Actually working the dog twice as often in the awkward direction is a good policy.
The instinct to balance must be enhanced rather than removed in loose-eyed dogs, because some have been bred for things other than herding for years. When this type of breeding occurs, traits are muted or lost. It might be instinct (knowledge of how to do the job), intensity (desire to do the job), biddability (trainability), or parts of all. Because of this, mistakes can not only be damaging in the loose-eyed breeds, but also can often be permanent.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TIGHT AND LOOSE-EYED DOGS CAN LEAD TO PROBLEMS
This note is for Border Collie trainers who are working loose-eyed dogs. Most loose-eyed dogs need to be your buddy before they will give you their all. (Within the Border Collie type breeds, some dogs are spoken of as loose-eyed, but these individuals have much more eye than the loose-eyed breeds.) Dogs that work through eye are comfortable at a distance from their stock and are still working. This is a basic difference between the two types of dogs, and can mean success or failure in your training.
Some loose-eyed breeds take distance away from their stock as punishment, and when pushed off, think you don’t want them to work. They also confuse correction for flanking distance with speed. Ask loose-eyed dogs for flanking distance off the stock in increments, rather than all at once. The minute you see any slowing down while your dog is moving around the stock or any disinterest, you are on or past your dogs distance limit. Do not ask for more until the dog is comfortable where he is. You may have to let him come back in closer to get him going, then ask for distance again. Remember to let the dog hit balance as soon as possible. Within the limits of their different breeds, loose-eyed dogs can be developed into very useful stockdogs with time and patience.
LETTING YOUR DOG WORK BEHIND YOU CAN LEAD TO PROBLEMS
Allowing the dog to work behind you is very similar to several of the above mentioned problems. It is much better not to train a young dog on stock like this, because you are limited in what you can teach. When stock are just trying to escape, with no place in mind, they don’t usually run toward either the handler or the dog, and the dog can work on the opposite side of the stock from you. Working behind you will be a taught move later on, when you start driving exercises.
Letting it happen in the beginning is very confusing to the dogs and with pseudo sheep can lead to a dog that only works the head, not the group, or a dog that will not go to the other side of the stock from you. These mistakes can easily become permanent problems in later training.
TEACHING TOO MANY THINGS AT THE SAME TIME
Pushing a dog too hard and too fast can be a major problem. This often happens in an attempt to get titles on the dogs. Because both the AKC and ASCA courses require driving in their intermediate and open divisions, many handlers attempt to start their dogs in a semi-driving mode. This is to the detriment of their dog.
The vast majority of loose-eyed dogs are natural gatherers rather than drivers. The two instincts are in direct opposition to each other and should be taught at separate times, usually fetching first. Otherwise, the dog ends up in a state of mass confusion. Trying to shortcut for titles will often get a person through the beginning levels, but very rarely through advanced. Sooner or later, the trainer will have to go back and pick up the missing steps if he wishes his dog to be a top-notch herding dog.
All those learning to train dogs should be encouraged to attend any clinic available, watch any training tape, or read any training book. The very best trainers maintain an open mind. Dogs differ as much as people, one method will work for one dog, another for the next dog. You will learn something from every dog and almost every clinician. Go to someone who is successful in your field of interest. A person who has not been successful will teach you his mistakes, and mistakes can sour your viewpoint and damage your dog.
One note of caution — do not let any person handle your dog until you have watched him handle several others. Some people are unnecessarily rough. If what is happening doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t Also don’t be afraid to attend a clinic as a spectator. You can learn by watching others.
But, above all don’t give up. Stockdog training is a frustrating thing, especially for a beginner. You will learn. It is all worthwhile. When your dog becomes a part of your mind and the two of you act as one unit to accomplish a job, the pure pleasure you’ll share is indescribable.
This article was originally published in the April/May 1997 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine (reprinted in April 2003 in Stockdogs Magazine)
For information about this author go to Hearthstone Aussies Breeder Page.