General Info

Commands and Corrections

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments

From the Unpublished Works of El Rojo

by Red Oliver

DO NOT confuse commands with corrections. Commands have very definite and precise meanings while corrections are physical or tonal in nature, a “growl”, a “uh uh”, or an “eh”, expressing pleasure or displeasure with the pup’s behavior. It is as important to let your pup know he is doing right as it is to let him know he is doing wrong. If properly applied, neither praise nor correction has to distract the pup from carrying out his next move properly.

Hand/Staff signals and body blocking. Physical; arm waving, pounding staff on ground, waving staff or actually moving the body to block. At the very first, you might use about 70 percent physical cues and 30 percent vocal (corrections). When starting a pup on stock, take advantage of his breeding (herding instinct and desire to work) as the force that makes him do both what you want him to do and what you do not want him to do.

We use these physical gyrations in the beginning of training to help our pup coordinate his actions with his instinct development — to keep the pup on the opposite side of the stock and fetch them toward us. Later, we will introduce the vocal corrections to teach him right from wrong. Once our pup is beginning to understand the vocal, we should begin weaning ourselves from giving the physical cues and encourage him think about what we are saying to him — which he’ll never do as long as we do not require him to.

Tonal corrections. When our pup does the right thing, we reward him by letting him work and denote approval by the tone of our voice. When he makes a mistake we give a correction. That is, we let him know through a negative tonal sound or a physical motion that we do not approve of that behavior. All training is based on this premise (i.e., reward when doing right and correction when doing wrong).

These are not just words and sounds. They are the stimulus that initiates a specific behavior from our dogs. They are the communication link between our pups and us. In training, commands should be of two syllables: two words or the dog’s name as the first word. The first word is to get his attention and the second is to tell him what you want him to do. Commands must have very distinct meanings and should be very clear and not garbled. Until the novice trainer has his dog pretty well trained, he should restrict his commands to: “Come”, “Down”, “Away to me”, “Go by (or come bye)” and “Walk on”.

All but the command “walk on” are positioning commands. Think of them as tricks, nothing more and nothing less. We first teach our pup to follow these commands so that we might position him around stock. If we did nothing more but perfect these commands, our pup would soon become mechanical. Therefore, as he matures, the positioning commands become a form of communication so we can direct our dog to go somewhere — where there is a problem or a task developing — and, once there, he will use his instinct and experience to correct the problem or carry out the task.

There are two methods of giving commands.

Verbal: As soon as our pup begins learning to balance the stock off of us, to circle in direct relation to our movement around the stock and to leave our side and make a short outrun to the far side of the stock, we gradually introduce the commands that tell our pup to do these things. As we increase the use of commands, we phase out the physical cues.

By the time you are ready for penning stock on the farm you should have gotten rid of the staff and be able to literally keep your hands in your pockets. Your dog will never actually listen to you as long as you give commands with hand and body. He will develop the habit of looking back at you, causing him lose contact with the stock. Even though he knows where the stock are at all times, his concentration on the stock is broken and he actually gives up control when he looks away and will need to regain control over them after each such break.

The whistle: just a nice refinement of the verbal. It comes through a clearer and cuts out a lot of verbal monologue. The dog reads it a lot easier and he should have no reason to turn and look at you even at a considerable distance. For best results, teach the verbal commands first then transfer to whistle by giving the verbal command (or the physical) followed by the whistle. When starting to teach the whistle command, go back to where you started teaching the verbal and teach the whistle at a level where it is easy to learn.

If you suspect that those early physical corrections you used continue to have a place when giving your dog commands, then try this test: Stand in one spot. Do not move around. Keep your verbal commands to a big zero and see if the use of your hands aren’t really just a habit, and a bad one at that. The most common reason why a dog continues to turn and look at the handler is because the handler is still giving lots of body cues, just like he did the very first day the two went to stock.

Blocking the dog with one’s body and the staff and not allowing him to think on his own requires the dog to turn and look at the handler. In looking at the handler, no matter from what distance, he is simply signalling that he was taught to look for a physical indication of what he should do. Looking back may also indicate that he has either lost confidence in his own understanding of the task, or he has lost confidence in you. A dog processes one command at a time, so don’t give him two hand signals (one with each hand), or a staff signal, a body cue, and a verbal all at the same time. All it will do is confuse him.

Probably the most exaggerated example of this, and one sees it in every trial, is a handler tapping the ground with his staff, which is in his right hand, while he is waving or pointing with his left hand, and at the same time he is moving his body in tune with his arms while from his lips flows a monologue that would stump a linguist.

My first suggestion is to list all of your commands on paper and below each write in every meaning that command might have between you and your dog. If there are several meanings for any one command then you have to eliminate all but one meaning. Find a unique word for each message you want to be able to use with your dog. Some of the most abused commands with more than one meaning which one often hears are: “there”, “steady”, and “get back”. This last one is probably the worst.

Each command should have a specific meaning and you should never use two commands for a single behavior. One quite often hears handlers ordering their dog to “get around”, or “get through there”, or “get ahead”. We all know that”go by” or “come bye” means for the dog to go to the left around the stock, and “away to me” means for the dog to go to the right around the stock. Now, if you were to give your dog either of these commands, he should not even stop on the far side, but should keep going clear around on a ful circle.

If you teach your dog on these principals then one must ask the question, why the other commands (“get through there”, “get around”, etc.)? Or, how do these other commands differ in intent from the normal side commands? And, why not stick to the normal side commands instead of forcing your pup into learning this complex, and to me, meaningless extra jargon? In every situation where I have observed a handler using these extra commands the dog obeys none very well. When the handler is questioned as to what their exact meaning is, his answer is a weak excuse. In addition to commands such as these there are many instances when handlers use a variety of short sentence instructions that are obviously not a part of their standard commands and can do nothing but confuse the pup.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Way to me walk on get back” all in one breath? Have you given conflicting signals to your dog by giving a verbal command while blocking the dog with one hand and pointing with the other? The dog takes in only one command at a time. Multiple commands can do nothing but confuse him and get the handler’s adrenaline flowing because the dog didn’t do whatever it was the handler wanted it to do.

“Get Back” is the most abused. When we put our pup on sheep for the first several lessons, our main concern is that we stay on opposite sides of the sheep from each other. When our pup has turned the sheep and they are being fetched toward the handler, the pup will, at first, want to flank around to their heads to stop them, which turns out to be where the handler is. We, at this point in training, hold out our outside arm to break his concentration and use a tonal correction to let him know that his correct position is behind the sheep and we simply force him back.

Too often we use the words “GET BACK” as our verbal correction because this makes sense to the handler. As the handler trains himself to the fact that this command means for the dog to get in the rear of the stock, he starts using it as a command instead of a correction and too often keeps on using it as the dog progresses beyond those early stages. Here are some of the meanings attached to this command that the handler thinks the dog should, through ESP, understand:
“GET BACK…to the rear end of the herd or flock.”
“…to where you were just before you moved to where you are now and where I don’t want you to be.”
“…to where you were just before I gave you the last command which was the wrong command for the situation.”
“…to the other side of the herd or flock from me regardless of which way the stock are facing.”
“…because everything is going wrong, so it must be that you are in the wrong place.”

And, finally, “Get back out of there!” I often wonder what that statement might mean to a dog.

Another bad habit that cheats the dog. Example: a young dog is driving the sheep down the fence line and he starts flanking to his right to head the sheep which he thinks are going too fast. The handler, instead of a “stop” or a “Go by”, yells, “BLACKIE! NO! NO! BLACKIE!”

By this time the dog is at the head and is turning the stock back when he realizes that he is doing something wrong, even though he is turning the stock as he has done hundreds of times before. After some confusion you will hear the handler give a belated “Go by”. Actually the “no” is being used as a correction. A correction in training is fine, but these words, given too late, are an awful example of a correction.

If you hear such correction/commands while you are watching a handler work his dog you will seldom see any reaction from the dog unless it is one of confusion, even if the choice he makes, to get back to driving, is the proper one. The correction (and it could be a “no”) should have been given when the dog was thinking about flanking. This is easy to see in a young dog, so watch him carefully in order to time your corrections properly. If you are too slow in giving the correction, go with the flow and give him a side command to reposition him. This, at least, gives him an opportunity to obey you.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1992


We all know what this means. Our pup should know this and obey instantly and happily when called. The two commands “come” and “down” are the foundation commands for all future training in the non-eyed breeds and will be in the Border Collie or Kelpie as soon as he is started. For the novice they both require near perfect obedience before starting on stock.

There is a problem I should warn you of that may arise later on. It occurs when we are teaching our pup to balance the stock while driving along a fence and we ask the pup to come away from directly behind the stock and move out to the side or when we are teaching him to flank off balance between the stock and ourselves. To encourage the pup to maintain a good distance we often use the words “come” or “here” as an initial aid in getting him off the fence and out and back off from the stock or to flank wide toward the handler. If you use this method, you must drop the word “come” very soon or your “come” will change from “come to me” to “come toward me”.

This is the other command that we all know, and another one that needs to be perfect before we go to stock. At some stage, our non-eyed breeds, who hate to down, start to stand (and stay). When this happens, we often continue using the word “down” for a “stand/stay” and soon we have no “down” when we need it. Once your pup starts stopping in a stand, start using either “stand” or “stay” for an on-the-feet stop. Also, teach your pup that “down”, “stand” and “sit” do not require an additional “stay” command. They are complete in themselves.

I am putting this in here as by this time you will want your dog to stop in the gate while on his feet and watch so that the stock do not come out. Too often the down (because of its finality) means for the dog to lie in the gate without moving even if the stock are escaping past him. If from puppyhood you have taught your pup with a simple “stay” to stay in the car, or in the back of the pickup, or on one side of the door as you are carrying in groceries, or to stay in a pen when you open the gate until you call him by name, this command will be old hat by the time you get this far in his training. Normally, you give this command when you do not care whether your dog is standing on his feet, lying down or standing on his head.

(Walk up, get up, there, some even use the word “steady”.)
Means for the dog to advance toward the stock from wherever he is when the command is given whether fetching, driving or flanking. In early training, when the dog is flanking the handler will most often give a stop command before the “walk on”. Some trainers use the word “there” to mean the dog should stop flanking and move toward the stock without any other command. In my earlier days I did this, but have quit because it is a lot easier to teach the dog one command to “walk on”, regardless if he is running hard or standing still than it is to teach a pup to understand two commands for the same behavior.

The reason the word “there” is so often used to stop a dog when he is flanking and to turn in toward the stock instead of the words “walk on” is that it is part and parcel of the human brain-set. We watch our dog as he is flanking with nervous anticipation and when he gets to the right spot we yell “THERE”. Why not “walk on”? Because it is not as nice a clear, concise sound in our minds.
If you do actually teach your dog that “there” means to walk toward the stock from wherever he is when the command is issued then you should drop the use of any other commands for this behavior.

This command normally means one of three things depending on each trainer’s methods:

1. When the dog is flanking or when moving from one position to another, it means “stop where you are, on your feet and wait for another command”.

2. A nice way of telling the pup he is in the right place when you are trying to position him a little differently than he is. Example: You’re trying to pull the pup out on the balance point from behind the stock and when he does get there you say, “There! That’s good!”

I use this word a lot in tracking when my pup has lost the track and crosses back over it, but may not hesitate there long enough to catch the scent and my “there” slows him down until he can take a good sniff. I also utilize this word in teaching a dog to position himself in preparation for doing something on his own. Example: I send my dog to the shoulder of the herd (near the head, but off to the side) with a side command (left or right) and when the dog gets to where I want him, the flanking is stopped with a “there”. As I do not want my dog to actually stop in a “down”, or to move toward the stock, and because is always a reason directly connected to my sending him to that spot in regards to controlling the stock, the dog learns this very fast and soon will take care of whatever it is that I sent him there for.

If I wish him to move farther away from the stock (take pressure off) or to move in toward the stock (add a little pressure) or to move a small amount to either left or right, or to hold that position, I will command him to do just that, but until I give another command he is free to use his best judgment in doing what he was sent there to do. If I do change my “walk on” command to “there”, I will have to find some other word to use as described in this section.

3. When flanking: “stop the flank and move in toward the stock” (a combination of “stop” and “walk on”). Most people that use it this way are, when asked, unsure of just how they taught it and often times have difficulty in remembering when they taught it. A much more effective way to do the same thing is to use either “there” or “walk on”, but not both.
If you are like so many handlers I know who find the words “walk on” inadequate when their dog is flanking and they want it to cease flanking and turn in toward the stock, I recommend replacing the traditional “walk on” with the command “there” at all times. It is, however, as easy to teach a pup to first flank one way, stop and then flank the other way and eventually to change directions without stopping as it is to teach the dog to “walk on” when stopped as well as when flanking.

The big command is the whole command (“away to me” and “go by” or “come by”) and means for the dog to go clear around to the far side, while the small commands are meant to move the dog just a few inches or feet. The big commands should be well established before the small commands are taught.

1. Away to me: This is the full command and means for the dog to circle the stock to his right with his left shoulder toward the stock (counter clockwise). If the dog was taught this properly, it would mean “turn to your right and go to the far side of the stock”. If given again, the dog should keep right on circling. If given during an outrun, the dog should widen his outrun.

2. Go By (or Come By): This is the big command to the left around the stock with the dog’s right shoulder toward the stock. A good way to remember this command is to see it as “go by the clock”.

When the dog is mature in his training, there will be many times when you will want him to move just a few feet to one side or the other without moving one inch forward. You teach this by giving a soft partial flanking command and when your pup has moved just a few feet, you stop him and then give another soft command for the same direction. Later, you will stop your pup and then give him another soft command for the opposite direction. Finally, he should change directions without being commanded to stop first. A very easy way to teach this is to put the dog on the outside of a round pen with stock on the inside or to have him fetch the stock to a fence corner and then get between the stock and the dog where you can control its movements.

1. Way or Waay (slow and soft): This is the small command and when
given quietly and calmly means for the dog to make a small movement
(a few inches or a few feet) to his right instead of the big movement. If
taught properly, both this and the “byy” (see below) will move the dog
a few feet 90 degrees sideways without an inch of forward movement.

2. By or Byy (slow and soft): This is the other small command to move a few inches or a few feet to the dog’s left.

Back on the farm, there are several task-oriented commands that tell the dog what to do, but not how to do it. Fortunately, the ASCA trial course incorporates a number of these in all three divisions: Started, Open and Advanced. I mention this here because as you get into post-advance competition, you should have these task commands well established in your dog’s repertoire. The most important and useful of the task commands are:

1. “Bring ’em” (the fetch command): This is the universal command to have your dog go down in the pasture and get the stock. You open the barnyard gate and say, “Bill, bring ’em”. You go about your other chores not caring which way he went and, lo and behold! like Santa’s reindeer, the stock appear out of nowhere with of Bill in total command of their destiny. If you have reason to have him go left or right, you would have added the proper side command, such as, “Bill, away to me. Bring ’em”.

2. “Take ’em” (the drive command): Again, you’re in your farmer mode and this morning you want of Bill to put the cows in a new pasture. The gate’s about a half mile down the fence and you opened it last night in preparation for this morning. You now open the barnyard gate and have Bill bring the cows out. You have Bill get them started in the right direction and then you simply say, “Bill, take ’em” and Bill drives them down the fence line. When he gets to the gate, you can direct him to turn them in if you have to or just give him that old recall whistle you learned from your daddy and the job is done. In both of the above instances, the farmer would never put up with having to tell his dog to “go right”, “go left”, “lie down”, “wait for a drift”, “get up”, etc., etc. Like a famous Texan once said, “That old hound just won’t hunt.”

3. “Bring ’em out”: To do just that from a pen. Most often, you will open the gate and be holding it, waiting to shut it when ol’ Bill has done his job.

4. “Put ’em in “: To put them back through the gate into the pen once the gate is opened.

As stated in each of these four instances, the ASCA trial course is set up for their use: The take pen; the drive and cross drive; pulling the stock from the number two obstacles to the center obstacles; in penning the stock in the free standing pen; and the re-pen.

GET (Used as part of a lot of two word commands.)

1. Get Back: this and the word “THERE” are the two most abused commands in herding. They very seldom have a single meaning and are very seldom taught as a specific command with a specific meaning.

This command should mean for the dog to move straight back away from the stock when he is driving, fetching, holding the stock against a fence or up to the handler. But it too often means get to the rear of the stock; or get to where you were before the last command; or get to where you were before you just moved; or to widen the dog’s circle when flanking; or anything else when the handler has run out of commands. Or so it seems.

2.Get Out: This should be reserved for a dog to widen his circle as he flanks around stock. It often means for him to move straight back away from the stock, or to get behind, or not on this side, or you’re too far around, or to get out of the pick-up, or to get out of the house or kennel.

3.Get Off: This is an alternative command to push the dog out when circling the stock.

4.Get On Out of There: I’ll let you figure this one out.

This should mean for the dog to slow to a walk. When the dog has reached a sophisticated level of training, the good trainers will have introduced a lot of secondary commands that make the dog seem to be thinking rather than operating on blind obedience. The command “steady” is quite often used
instead of a “walk on” as it is given when the dog understands what is wanted and the handler is merely asking for quiet cooperation. It must be taught just like every other obedience command, by physical example and repetition.

The easiest way to teach it is to put a leash on your pup, take him into an alley with some flighty sheep and make him obey by giving the command and then giving a few short sharp snaps on the leash as the two of you go from a trot to an exaggerated slow walk. You can do the same when he is in the round pen and moving the stock too fast or even along a straight fence. Yelling “steady” at him when you have no control over him will not work. This will take several weeks and a lot of persistence. It is too bad that this command is not taught in obedience classes.

For most corrections, an “UNH-UH!” or a “AAGH!” are much more informative to your
pup and have far greater tonal versatility than the “no”. When you really have reason to jar your pup (when he is about to bite a sheep or duck), “EH!”, loud and intensive, will do the job quite well. The “NO” should always be reserved for when the dog does something wrong, knows it is wrong and fully understands the alternate behavior. At any other time, it never tells your pup what to do, just that he is doing something wrong and you don’t like it.

This does not mean for your pup to get the one slow old non-exciting ewe that he just passed as she was standing there. That requires a correction. He shouldn’t leave any sheep. The turn back is taught by first having your pup facing you and then as you command “turn back”, you lift him and turn him so that he is facing away from you.

When in the field, split the flock into two halves and have him fetch one bunch to you. When you are about 20 yards off, give the “turn back”, stop him and then give a side command. Later, when he is pretty well-trained, but has a tendency to take off before you can direct him to the left or right, you can give the turn back command and then follow with a walk on and a few yards later by a side command. This will teach him to listen to you.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine October/November 1992