USING “AGGRESSIVE DOMINANCE” TECHNIQUES
WITH CLOSE- RUNNING SHEEP DOGS
by Mari Taggart Morrison
The ideal gathering dog is one who runs as wide as we ask him to so that as he circles the sheep they are unafraid of his approach. Many dogs respond well to the body movements and cane position of the trainer – they are easy to get out wide and sensitive to simple things like the trainer moving toward them, urging them away from the sheep. This is the tried and true method of getting dogs to flank wider, but what works with a very hard-running, intense dog that is NOT sensitive to body and cane position?
In lines of Border Collies and Aussies that are bred for power there will be those dogs who are close-running and insensitive to the trainer’s position, and if the trainer moves into the dog, slapping the cane, the dog may ignore it or allow himself to be hit without much notice because his intense focus is on the sheep and because the dog may simply be the sort that is somewhat insensitive to pain. This is important to realize because some of these dogs end up being trained with very brutal methods (such as someone whipping them with a cane) and these brutal methods are actually very counter-productive — in fact, most of these “hard” natured dogs get more excited by a trainer being aggressive than if the trainer uses a less overtly aggressive approach.
What is more apt to work with this sort of dog is a technique that has been dubbed by Bruce Fogt as “aggressive dominance.” This is a technique that has been used in Scotland end Australia for many years (without a name for it) because there is a recognition that it works with these very hard-running close dogs. Let’s distinguish here between a fairly hard temperamented, close running dog with some talent and one that is just trying to chase and eat sheep. NOTHING will help the dog that just wants to chase and kill sheep, but a dog with talent that wants to get in too close has something to work with.
In fact, many breeders and handlers of Border Collies recognize that one reason these dogs want to get in close is that they are unafraid. This type of dog can be a bit more trouble to train, but the result is usually a dog that isn’t afraid to walk up to sheep and that can move any kind of stock under any circumstance. That insensitivity to body position and outright pain also translates into a dog that won’t cut and run the first time a full grown ram plows into him. These dogs are also good at forcing large flocks or herds of cattle. Sometimes a dog runs wide naturally because he doesn’t want to get in close to the sheep — he may actually he afraid to get too close.
There are also some close-running dogs who really don’t have the right sort of temperament – they can’t take a correction. If you raise your voice or slap your leg with a leash, they just leave. These soft, close running dogs probably won’t do well with this technique. In order for this technique to work, the dog must be able to stand a correction well and not quit on you. For that reason, I would never recommend that a novice trainer use this technique with any dog other than a hard natured one. Some soft dogs will not respond well to it in general, no matter who’s training them — but in my experience, soft dogs usually respond to the standard “cane and body” technique of getting them out wide in the first place, so it’s rarely needed.
I’m working with a young bitch right now that is a very hard-running, insensitive
kind of dog and like most of her kind, she ignores sticks, humans walking at her and the usual training ways but she responds well to this technique of aggressive dominance and should make a fine trial dog. It is a bit of extra trouble to take the time to teach this to her, but it is worth it to me to have a dog that can move anything but a train! My best trial Border Collie years ago was similarly trained and he not only learned from it but kept the power that is the driving force behind the close running and could move anything he was asked to work, ranging from sheep to cattle to buffalo!
You first notice this attitude from the dog at the beginning when the dog is learning to balance sheep. Whether working in a round pen or in the open, this sort of dog works close and fast. When you approach him to chase him out wider he doesn’t “give” to the pressure — he ignores it! In fact, he seems unfazed by canes and may crash right through bamboo or fiberglass canes, even as they are breaking over him! I have seen people actually beat this type of dog with a cane and have the dog come out battered, but unrelenting. (NEVER beat a dog with a cane, it can cause serious injury to the dog.) The more aggressive the trainer becomes, the more aggressive this sort of dog is likely to become, and a lot of flailing at this dog may cause him to pull wool on sheep. I’m not sure why this is — it may be that the dog is excited by the trainer’s energy and generalizes it to the sheep, or it may be that the dog misreads the cues from the trainer and thinks the trainer is trying to attack the sheep.
What I like to do with dogs like this is to remember one crucial rule — STAY AS CALM AS POSSIBLE. I talk to my dogs a lot and use my voice to correct and reward when the dog is working and find that rewarding a dog with praise causes a dog to learn faster. There are trainers who believe it’s unnecessary to praise a dog — the working of sheep is its own reward. However, I have found that (like people) dogs learn faster if we give them a contrast between good and bad, and reward the good in an overt way. Reinforcing their good actions leads to quicker learning and elimination of faulty behaviors.
Think about how hard it is for us humans to learn a new job if we have no feedback on what sort of actions are good and which are bad Imagine working at a new job where the boss only tells you what you’ve done wrong, but refuses to let you know what he actually wants. It takes much, much longer to learn by trial and error than if he’d just TELL you what was right! Dogs are the same.
Although the working of sheep is a reward of sorts, the dog is working on instinct, and some of those instincts are not what we want (like biting the sheep.) Instinct does not always lead to greater attentiveness to the trainer’s commands. Getting a dog used to listening to you and learning what makes you happy does lead to greater response and faster learning.
When I’m sure that this hard and close running dog is 100% interested in balancing sheep and has a good, solid lie down command, I will begin to teach him that ” back”really means BACK. It helps if you have a relationship with the dog and he knowsthat you do in fact want him to work and are happy that he lies down on command. Also, it helps if you think of this lesson as one that has parts to it. At the beginning,it will look different than when you’re finished, but it has to look awkward before it looks smooth.
The aggressive dominance technique says to the dog that he MUST back off when you say. Instead of pushing the dog to run bigger circles thedog will be forced back directly off thesheen. You are saying to the dog (in body language and growling tone of voice) “These are MY sheep — you get away!”
The way to do this is to take the dog into a small area (a round pen or paddockis good so long as there is room to getthe dog to go a ways back. (Don’t do this in too small of a pen — that leaves the dog no choice but to go around the sheep.) After the dog has brought thesheep up to you, lie him down. Then walk at the dog with a gruff, growling voice and attempt to chase it all the way back to the fence, and directly back off of the sheep. In other words, it’s going to look like the dog is quitting the work for a second.
As you approach the dog, give the command “back” or “get back over there.” I will slap my thigh with a leash or wave my arms — you want to look forbidding as you approach. The dog may try to run around you and toward the sheep. Say “No!,” and then have the dog lie down. Move directly toward the dog again and block any movement to the sheep with your body. Be prepared to praise the dog for the correct behavior (moving straight back off the sheep to the fence.) You may have to do this several times. Don’t give up and be sure you look dominant to the dog. This works the same way a dominant wolf can chase a submissive wolf away from food. You are saying to the dog in body language “These are MY sheep, and you must stay back away!”
One reason this works is that these very hard running, close dogs are so focused on getting close to their sheep that they really aren’t noticing what’s going on with you. By making them back off and lie down, you break the focus for a second and they’re more willing to think, instead of just responding to instinct.
Remember to PRAISE the dog as he turns and runs back. Because this is a strong and sometimes scary correction, the dog MUST learn what you want — what the correct behavior IS that he must do. If you just correct but don’t praise he may just give up. So each time the dog moves forward to the sheep or tries to get around you, you say “No!,” stride toward him with a growling voice and command “get back over there.”
When the dog turns and goes back away from you and the sheep, praise him. If he tries to run around again, make him lie down and then command again “Get back over there.” Some find it useful to wave their arms or point at first. I like to make the dog go all the way back to a fence in the beginning because it gives them a reference point. This will be eliminated soon but at first the dog will find it easier if the desired action isn’t too vague. This is NOT a pretty lesson to watch and not very enjoyable to do, which is one reason some trainers won’t do it.
Some novice handlers don’t put enough aggressive body posture into it because they fear that their dog will always look as unhappy about leaving the sheep as he does the first time you do this. They don’t want to make their dog unhappy — not even for a second. This is NOT the right altitude you want to project. You MUST move at the dog like the aggressive pack leader you want him to think you are! If you do it right you can eliminate months of training and nagging and often, intense frustration with a dog that could lead to a blow up of the trainer’s temper — which can result in worse things happening to the dog.
Plan for this stage to take a few days or weeks and remember to give the sheep hack to the dog for doing the “get back” the way you want. Here is where the work DOES become a reward of sorts. Each time the dog does go all the way back to the fence, you have him lie down. Then give him back his sheep by either flanking him around front that position or having him approach the sheep. So if he does it wrong, you will chase him back off, using an aggressive body language and your voice, whereas if he does it right he hears praise and gets his sheep back. It doesn’t take long for a smart dog to figure this one out.
Your goal is to be able to give the command and the dog will wheel off the sheep and go straight back until you tell him to lie down or give a flanking command. As I mentioned before, this will not look too pretty at first, it will look like the dog is just turning tail and quitting, but if each time he does it right you give him back his sheep (either let him flank or walk up from that position ) he will soon learn that the back command is followed by fun so he will run with his head pointed at the sheep and a bend in his body to be ready for that fun action command. This of course becomes the prelude for wide flanking under many circumstances — on his outrun, at the pen and shed or anywhere you need him off his sheep.
At the point that the dog is going back to a fenceline and lying down on command, I move into a bigger area and teach him that the going back is `until further notice’ since there is now no fence to stop him. You can begin to apply the get back command on his flanks, especially to widen out any point of his outrun. It is extremely useful when you begin penning, to teach the dog to take pressure off since this kind of dog has a tendency to push too hard on sheep at the pen and later, at the shed. Later on, when you teach the shed, this command is great since this forceful dog will probably keep the sheep huddling together too much to split. Applying the “get back over there” command causes the dog to turn and go off the sheep until you say to stop, relieving the pressure and creating a more relaxed attitude from the sheep so the split can be made. In fact, you can send the dog far enough out that the sheep string out the way you want, leading to an easy shed.
If the dog is used to always being given back the sheep if he does it right, he will go back with his eye on the sheep and be ready to either walk up, flank or come in (whichever you command) from out of the “get back.”
In time and with practice, the command becomes fluid and looks much moreelegant. When trainers see this command at the beginning they are liable to worrythat their dog is always going to look unhappy as he goes back or look like he’sturning tail to the sheep. But these hard, close dogs generally figure out fast thatthis command always leads into a more exciting command and soon their heads come around and they look eager, not hang-dog about it. Done correctly, he will come to view this just like the lie down command — a thing he has to do to be allowed to keep working.
You can now teach a whistle to it, so that you can correct the dog’s outrun in mid-run and blow him back as far as you need. Though this might lose a point or two in the trials, it’s far better than having the dog slice in at the top and send the sheep stampeding, which is what dogs like this love to do. Smart dogs learn that each time they slice in, you’re going to do the aggressive dominance routine with them and after awhile they start to self-correct, leading to a nice wide arc at the top of their outrun because they anticipate that you’ll make them do it!
I find that the harder natured the dog, the longer this command takes them to learn. Working the dog every day, for example — some dogs take a week to learn it, while others take a few months. If your dog looks confused when you first ask him to do this in the open — say, you ask him to run to the right on an outrun, he starts to come in close and you ask him to get back out and the dog runs on and on, just going out… with this sort of dog you may want to re-say the original flanking command (the “away to me” to the right) to steady him and give him a sense of where he should continue on from. A few dogs will just run, looking for the fence you’ve been using, so be sure to help him at first. It won’t be long before you can phase out the extra command, and he won’t look for anything but sheep.
In teaching the better outrun, each time the dog attempts to cut in, stop him, go to him and make him get back off. After just a few repetitions a smart dog will anticipate that you’re going to make him do it, and will often start to cut out on his own without being asked. Or the dog will begin to just flank on out as a matter of course because you’ve drilled him so much on it he anticipates it. The more he does it on his own, the less you have to command!
Is this type of training worth it? Very much so! Although everyone’s ideal is a naturally wide flanking dog with lots of power, sometimes it’s more of a trade-off with getting a dog with power and self-confidence to burn, but with the close-working as a by-product of the dog’s strong temperament. I wouldn’t trade that kind of dog for any naturally wide, but weak dog. The strong, but close dog may be frustrating at times early on, but such a dog is also usually fearless and dependable under even the worst circumstances. Don’t give up on them –just change the training plan to include this lesson.
this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer April/May ’98