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The Difference Between Herding And Obedience Training

By February 17, 2015February 1st, 2016No Comments


by Tenley Dexter

A list member posted me privately that my described method for getting an obedient working dog sounded very much like the method used by top Obedience competitors, but I wanted a thinking dog and they wanted the dog to display complete blind obedience and reliance on the handler.

Al, the person’s alias, said they have a dog that has Obedience titles and loves to please, a thinking dog but early obedience training whipped a lot of the “thinking for himself” out of the dog. They cannot take the dog somewhere off leash because, if tempted, the dog won’t stay with them. Al’s been told that his desire to not have the dog “argue” with him about doing what he wanted when they were young and giving them real consequences “took the spirit” out of the dog and made it no longer think for itself. So how do such similar-sounding methods of raising and teaching a pup to be a good citizen result in such different results?

OK, I’m going to dive in but please excuse me if these thoughts seem a little jumbled. First, training formal obedience and herding are very different ends of the spectrum of a dog’s behavior. Herding relies on a dog’s inherited instinct and obedience does not. I have often heard people comment that a lot of obedience ruins a dog for herding. My dogs are very obedient, but they are also very good working dogs. Some of this probably has to do with genetics, some with the fact that my obedience is not the formal, pattern type obedience that people train for competing.

In formal obedience, you form and mold behaviors, repetitive behaviors…you create the behavior you want with the handler becoming the dog’s focus. In herding, I don’t create anything… hopefully all the information is already in the dog’s brain. I do take parts away I don’t want, but I rarely add parts. Linc once described it as a sculptor taking a solid piece of marble and then slowly chipping away the undesirable parts so that the shape becomes more and more like the finished piece of art. That is what you do with a working dog.

The only time a trainer would add information is when a dog doesn’t have enough genetic material and so mechanical behaviors must be put in the dog to make up for the lack of genetic behaviors. So even though obedience and working trainers might start with the same idea of early obedience on their pups, once the training of either the formal obedience or the herding work begins, we start down completely opposite paths that don’t have a lot in common.

Now let’s go back to the statement that a lot of formal obedience ruins a dog for herding. I do train and see a lot of people at clinics that have top and very competitive obedience dogs wanting to do herding with their dogs. I one thing that I have observed with these dogs is that some of them are very intensely focused on their owners. Some of these dogs seem to have a hard time focusing on the stock rather than the handler.

The handler has created this through their training but this would not be natural for the dog had it not had all this formal obedience training. So, I would say that molding this “dog with eyes always on handler” behavior is a detriment to working stock. I’m not saying it cannot be overcome–easier for dogs with more DNA material to work, harder for dogs with less DNA material to work. I see other high level obedience dogs that have a command for the dog to watch the handler. These dogs seem to have less trouble focusing their attention on the stock as their handler is only the focus when given a formal command.

Second, environmental differences…my dogs work stock from the time they are five weeks old, first on ducks then to other stocks. When they are very small puppies, once a week they basically play with the ducks, sometimes showing genetic traits such as eye, stalk, heading, but mostly play. When the puppies get old enough, usually 3-4 months and big enough that their play is getting dangerous enough to hurt a duck that is the end of duck work.

Depending on the pup’s size and mental maturity, I might not put them on stock at all for a while or I might start to put them on very calm, quiet sheep once a week. I will do nothing but allow the pup to wear sheep to me. At this age the pups are usually a little quiet around the sheep because the sheep are 2 to 3 times their size but that is OK because I like a thoughtful dog that isn’t rushing in to be foolish. These sessions are nothing but positive and very short. I might have the pup down outside the pen while I open the gate, then come in the control pen and down again while I close the gate while I stand on their little cord in case they decide to start before I do. By doing this I’m already training the dog that work is done on “my” terms. It is not a free for all.

Please remember that it only takes a doing a behavior three times for something to become a habit, so if a dog is allowed to run and chase stock the first three times it sees stock, the dog has learned to run and chase rather than working stock. Can this run and chase mentality be stopped? Yes, with hard work, but why let the dog get the habit in the first place? I allow the pup to go around the sheep or I pick up the line and show the pup to get around the sheep if it doesn’t do so on its own. If the pup is high drive and pulls on the line, it gets corrected until it can go around the stock on the line without pulling on me, very short sessions. If we don’t get it done in 5 minutes, there is always next week to try and hopefully some of it will sink in by then. I don’t talk a lot to the pup, just hand out silent corrections and verbal praise, lots of praise for a job well done.

So already at this young age, the pup is learning to focus on the stock, not me. I am there simply to insert myself if things get too out of hand, I correct and then fade back so the pup can again focus on the stock. Unlike formal obedience I am not the main focus for the dog.

Third, Al’s been told that his desire to not have the dog “argue” with him about doing what he wanted when they were young and giving them real consequences “took the spirit” out of the dog and made them no longer think for themselves. Poppycock! I don’t allow my dogs to “argue” with me and they have plenty of spirit for their work. There is a difference between a dog arguing because it is confused and a dog that knows what you are asking and doesn’t want to obey. The confused dog is again shown what I want. The dog that doesn’t obey, even though it knows what it has been asked, has made a conscious decision to not obey and so it is corrected.

Dogs like black and white, shades of gray confuse them. I set parameters for my dogs with crystal clear black and white type, yes OK, no Not OK boundaries. Consistency is also important and the one thing I find most lacking in people when they try to train a dog. One moment the dog gets corrected for a behavior and the next time the handler lets it slide and the dog is in the gray area and confused.

Al also said they cannot take the dog somewhere off leash because, if tempted, the dog won’t stay with them. How can a dog be considered obedient if the dog does not come when called? I might take my dogs on a walk and they might come across a squirrel or such and take off to chase it but when I called “leave it” they would break off the chase and return to me. Their genetics tells them to have prey drive so it doesn’t surprise me that they would be interested but they know when I call them off they’d better comply or there will be consequences. So is your dog obedient or is it an obedience dog?

This article first appeared as a post on the Yahoo group Aussie-Herders