Let Them Work
Learning by doing and making mistakes
To begin, ask yourself first how much do you know about dogs; about their domestication and evolution, the selection process to develop a good strong working herding line. As a seasoned dog person who has shared more than half of my life with a pack or two as part of my family, I can honestly say they have taught me more than anything I have ever read in books.
Over 25 years since I began my journey into sheepdog herding, my students with their dogs, have also given me the chance to understand human behaviour and how people learn as well. I have learned that each person , just as each dog, is unique in how they learn and even though I can repeat the same phrase, offer similar exercises to students, and yet each one will have their “epiphany” when they are ready.
3 days ago – epiphany definition: 1. a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something…. Learn more.
Even though I present structure in my approach to training both people and dogs, it isn’t really a formula and certainly isn’t fixed. The Foundation Approach is one that you will have encountered in the Herding Foundations Course. It explains the importance of starting with the most important of bricks in your wall and building upwards from there. It doesn’t say which brick is first and which is next because your dog might come with their own and little needs to be done but to help them build on their own natural skills.
In saying this, there is however many very important foundation skills I will suggest, or existing natural traits in each dog, that will help you move forward successfully without having to keep coming back to patch holes in your wall. The Foundation Approach allows you to asses natural instincts,
When I first started, I worked with many people and I was shown a variety of ways to “train” my dog. The one that stuck with me the most came from my mentor and friend the late Bob Vest. He was the first person in a list of probably 4-5 in my first years, to say “Let ‘em work”. He had many neat expressions such as “It’s his wreck, let him fix it”.
My first clinic with Bob and my first dog Tucker who periodically liked to split off a sheep but always returned with it. I would have completely ruined the dog on my own if I had shut down his attempts to re-group the sheep. Tucker became one of the best all around farm dogs when it came to keeping things together (without asking) while retrieving my sheep from the vast expanse of creeks, and fields and trees and forest which were my back yard. I learned how to properly set up an electric fence eventually.
Bob taught many people around N America and it’s always fun to run into people who worked with him s we often shared the same sentiments about training. And we could share the catch phrases. Sometimes, the expressions varied a little but the message was the same.
Bob told me there were two ways to train a dog and each were equally important:
1) The first was where you set out a plan to work on something specific. You chose the right kind of livestock to make the work successful. You also chose the location for the exercise, whether it was a small pen or large field depending on what you wished to accomplish. But the message was, set out to do everything you can to get the dog to achieve success. (Note – rarely in herding does exactly what you plan to do turn out to be what you do 😉 but it is always fun to try)
2) Second most important way to train a dog was through observation. Bob’s suggestion was to just go for a walk about. Take some stock and take the dog and walk. Leaving the dog alone to think about his stock without being nagged.
So walk about were very specifically about shutting your mouth and letting the dog show you what he was made of. How he handled his stock, did he work close, wide, split off individuals etc. There was only one rule, not to harm the stock. But little grips and even splits were fine as long as the dog attempted to make things right again. You could step in if necessary, but nagging wasn’t allowed. So training dogs is always about some structure, but equally as important, taking the time to let the dog make mistakes, fix them, and learn.
Bob gave me a good example one day of a mother looking over her Childs’ shoulder while they attempted to complete their homework – chattering away to the child… “OH Yes that’s good. No!, There you need a space! no not there! Oh OK ! that’s good, well done! Quit tapping your knee! Pull your chair up to the desk! Sit up straight! Sharpen that pencil!!
Allowing mistakes is inadvertent when you first start training dogs. It happens because our timing is off or you lack experience in working with dogs and livestock. But an experienced handler can take a newbie dog out and do little to influence the dog and still see the dog’s inherent style with little more than pressure and the release of pressure at the correct time. All the while just letting the dog work. In fact introduction to stock should involve little else but making certain your presence is known to the dog and having the dog’s respect enough to be able to apply and remove subtle pressure and get what you want to see. In some cases of course, a light training line is a good insurance policy.
Selecting the appropriate type of sheep such as dog broke sheep for close working energetic dog might be just as important as perhaps dragging a line to prepare for the unknown. In addition, some dogs will work far better in a smaller space than a large open space and vice versa. A good suggestion would be to try a smaller space but be aware that small dark spaces might prevent a dog from opening up and cause more issues than are naturally present. Take this same dog, if they are trustworthy, and into an open area, again with the approbate kind fo sheep, and see what kind of difference this makes.
I am a strong believer dogs should be able to handle all kinds of spaces, tight, small, large, open etc. I personally use my dogs for everyday work so need a dog to be able to handle pens, chutes, small holding pens and to feel comfortable moving stock in and out of these spaces. I also like a dog who can go into an open field without sending all the stock over the fence.
The importance of being able to know what kind of sheep to use and which pen to work in to get the best out of your dog when training is a bit of a skill in itself. Over time you get better at making these choices and a very good tool to accelerate this skill is a journal. Like the Herding Log Book. If you haven’t already noticed, you can take the same dog out to the same pen having had success earlier in the day and have a completely different experience. A lot has to do with the individual nature of livestock. (See the Three Ring Circus article). Recording every training session can help you understand what’s going on in the dog’s mind. Small spaces, lighter sheep, windy days, all these are variables to take notice of and record for future reference.
Sample pages from the Herding Log Book Below
Allowing a dog to work seems to be first nature for me. I am always amazed when I teach a clinic or work with students who have never ever considered letting a dog just take sheep with them in a field or arena, without telling them what to do. I think it’s critical for a handler to communicate to the dog what he wants but not need to issue a ten step program for each task. This leads again to a very mechanical dog who might not even enjoy his work. I personally can’t understand how I could ever find joy in something if someone was over my shoulder telling me what to do the whole time.
Working dogs all come with different talents – traits – skills that come naturally to them while others gathered a different basket at the gene pool. Again, it can take some time to understand what kind of dog you have and therefore deciding to just “let it all hang out” on a walkabout is scary for most people. They are afraid that the dog will bite or split sheep, or never come back, or run an animal into the next property. And it has all happened to one of us at one time or another.
While I am not trying to encourage you to just drop the line and let her rip! I am hoping that you will consider how the dog feels listening to constant babble from you. And that proper learning as you well know as a human being, requires ,making mistakes and most importantly – learning from those mistakes.
So the question is, if you aren’t comfortable letting your dog be a dog, where can you go to do this? If you don’t own your own stock, or lack the experience or confidence to go for a walk about, many people have to travel a good distance to see a ‘professional trainer’. Usually this is a timed lesson and doesn’t really allow you to just go for a walk. But a good trainer will at least offer a suggestion that you limit your conversation with the dog and let him work, stepping in only when necessary and allowing the dog to Learn about sheep or the livestock you are working.
Can you imagine trying to learn to swim or skate or whatever the activity and having someone from the very beginning.telling you to put one arm over the other or foot or, and never ever having the joy of doing it without noise interfering with your focus and getting that natural high from doing something you were perfectly born to do? Arrggghhh how frustrating that must be! Even though I appreciate direction, and enjoy clear instructions so that I might execute a task to please my boss, I would hate it if she was leaning over my desk all day. Yuck!
Allowing a dog to work and enjoy his job makes a far better stock dog who can still think for himself. You will never be as fast as the dog, you will never pick up on the subtle cues the dog will detect from each individual animal in the herd or group, you will never be a dog. But you will do well to try and at least Look at Things From the Dog’s Point of View. A great phrase from Vergil Holland’s Book, and an excellent Herding Mantra – “You are in Control of the Dog, and the Dog is in control of the Stock.”
To successfully think like a dog might be impossible but worth considering when you go out to train, or walkabout. Walkabout’s taught me so much about my dogs. It is the tried and true approach I take when evaluating my pups. I say nothing, I walk out into a field until we see the sheep. When he notices the stock I make a small motivational sounds – my first “actual command” like shwt shwt, and see what he does. At this moment when the dog leaves I can tell a lot about his style and character in the next 10 minutes and allow me to build his foundation based on the knowledge of the skills and traits he already comes with, and the ones I know I must get to work on quickly to ensure that my future building blocks are supported well.
See Herding Foundations to better understand the Foundation Approach to Herding and to maintain your perspective by looking at things from the dog’s point of view.