Herding Concepts





Are you “Muggable” in your dog’s eyes?

Ever wonder why your herding instructor or clinician can walk in with your dog and make it look easy? 

A couple of years ago I was teaching a clinic and a student asked “When did you reach the point where you walked into the pen and didn’t get “mugged” by your dog?”

As it would happen, more than one of my students at the clinic were retired teachers.  The question prompted a discussion about how student or substitute teachers with limited teaching experience, were treated which then led to a discussion about HOW actual “muggers” in real life  human situations, pick their victims. Since some of the research was passed along by educators to help teachers avoid being seen as vulnerable or less capable of handling classroom situations where students “tested” the strength and confidence of their “substitute” teachers and thus avoided harassment.  

We’ve all been there!

You might be starting to “get” what this has to do with your dogs and sheepdog training. But back to teachers…

I’m sure no one reading this can recall being present or even having participated in the grueling test of a substitute teacher when the opportunity presented itself (cringe, blush).  As students we weren’t inherently mean, but the opportunity to see what we could get away with in order to get more of what we wanted (more fun, goofing off in class, avoiding serious work) was on the table.  And the more weakness a substitute teacher showed, the less credible they appeared and the more we got to get away with.

So how do you as a handler avoid being “Muggable” in your dog’s eyes?

To be continued…. 

Part 2 of 5 Are you Muggable in your dog’s eyes?

Of course, we aren’t talking about actually being mugged by our dogs.  But I think most of us can relate to the feeling of being “Mugged” when our dog is unruly, shoving sheep on top of us, being rough and unnecessarily pushy. I am certain the sheep also feel “assaulted” and worse they cannot distinguish whether the dog has genuinely bad intentions or that they are just behaving naughty (we might describe it as plain rude).

Studies in human behaviour addressing why muggers mug, and more importantly, who they chose to mug has some interesting revelations. Obvious tips like avoiding back alleys, not wearing expensive jewelry or flashy clothes and handbags are offered.  But here are other things that these research studies revealed and that was how people walked, how much attention they were paying to their environment, whether they walked tall with confidence with their heads up or slouched over staring at the ground.

From an article by Tom Stafford in BBC.com Nov, 2013

“Back in the 1980s, two psychologists from New York, Betty Grayson and Morris Stein, set out to find out what criminals look for in potential victims. They filmed short clips of members of the public walking along New York’s streets, and then took those clips to a large East Coast prison. They showed the tapes to 53 violent inmates with convictions for crimes on strangers, ranging from assault to murder, and asked them how easy  each person would be to attack.

The prisoners made very different judgements about these notional victims. Some were consistently rated as easier to attack, as an “easy rip-off”….  But even among those you’d expect to be least easy to assault,….there were some individuals who over half the prisoners rated at the top end of the “ease of assault” scale (a 1, 2 or 3, on the 10-point scale)”

ASG Magazine in July 2019 posted an article on tips to avoid getting mugged.   

In the article they refer to The “Weird Walkers”;

“When picking a potential victim, muggers will first look at the way a person walks. Much like the way predators scope their target from a herd of prey animals, muggers look for anyone who walks in an “unusual” way, one that denotes weakness. This includes slouching, dragging feet, or eyes that are cast downward instead of eye-level.

The key to not being targeted is to appear as “normal” as possible. Walk confidently but not arrogantly, avoiding any unusual movements like shuffling, nervous or jerky movements, skipping or any otherwise “weird” or unusual mannerisms. Walk and act naturally – these not only project confidence, but allow you to blend anonymously among pedestrian traffic.”

Back to your dogs and why they feel you are “Muggable” in sheepdog training. I’m sure there’s a few of us out there that have experienced the “Tilt A Whirl” that can be herding sometimes.  Sheep flying here and there, their normally obedient dog gone deaf, instructors shouting suggestions to you that have words in them you have never heard… Sometimes even being meaner and louder to your dog than you ever would have expected you would need or want to do!

So, what is my dog keying into when I enter the ring with him verses someone who perhaps has more experience?  Am I certain and confident with my movements – well, let’s be honest – the first few years even that I was learning herding I felt awkward, clumsy, clueless sometimes… I didn’t know where to be, when to move, and often what it was I wanted to teach my dog (yah right!)  or see as an END GOAL.   

My obvious lack of clarity and confidence was clear to my dog and the opportunity to take advantage was wide open… and thus began my “Muggable” phase….  To be continued…..

Part 3 of 5 ….. Are you “MUGGABLE” in your dog’s eyes? 

In parts 1 and 2 we talked about unruly dogs and we’ve even looked at the science behind the behaviour of muggers and victims in the people world. 

The question was what really causes your dog to be unruly around livestock, and not be able to obey some of the simplest commands? 

And more to the point, why does my dog take advantage of me but he can walk into a ring with the clinician or trainer and generally look like a totally different dog, with manners, slow pensive responses, and really look like he knows what he is doing, sheep calm and cooperative? 

There are some dogs that don’t behave even for the clinicians and experienced handlers either so take heart, you are in good company.

This doesn’t happen all the time as each dog has a different level of arousal and each dog will behave differently outside of the pen, some differently on a leash and some again, differently off leash. Some dogs are triggered by the mere act of driving into the farm where the lessons are, others not triggered but aroused in a positive way igniting instinct and a joyful experience for everyone concerned.  

What we do during the lesson sets the tone.  How much motion or vocalizing we do will either begin a positive conditioned emotional response (CER for those of you into the modern-day geek speak) or one that triggers too high of arousal making the experiences stressful for the sheep, the dog and for you.

But what do you think is the primary difference?  The articles on what muggers look for is the way a person walks.  Most of the research advise walking confidently, avoiding jerky movements.  

Walking naturally and acting naturally isn’t always easy in sheepdog herding as it is when we train other things with dogs. But definitely the way you talk to your dog, having presence, using a confident posture, and let’s add – “actually knowing what you are doing”, will all make a difference in how the dog responds to you or anyone at the other end of the leash.

For one thing, the third variable – SHEEP, change their apparent actions every nano second, causing a different reaction in the dog.  Then we often over react rather than respond to the dog’s actions, and then the dog can over react, causing us to rise up, creating an over anxious dog, and with enough repetition, a “Habit”, and so on…  Certain sheep can overreact to dogs and cause an overreaction (like a chain reaction but worse) by the dog and so on and so on. (See “The Three Ring Circus” article https://thetalkingdog.ca/herding-the-three-ring-circus/).

Let’s face it – herding isn’t easy – it’s a lot to keep on top of at once.  Unlike many other dog sports, you not only have to mind what the dog (technically a predator) is doing, your handling skills, and now throw in livestock (technically prey).  And last but not least – the invisible companion – INSTINCT.  Training dogs in sports where instinct is heavily relied upon to execute the tasks, is not like other training.

We as trainers and the people we select to help us learn and help train our own dogs, can also create a negative CER (that nerdy term Conditioned Emotional Response) to sheep dog training or the tools we use to train with.  Over use of stock sticks, over correction sometimes cause by poor timing, improper albeit well-meaning handling, of certain breeds because they do not work like other breeds, can cause a great deal of anxiety in our dogs. A seemingly perfect correction for one dog or one working style, can be perceived by one dog as too much and by another as not enough!  

In basic terms, there is a reward and there are corrections in every other training activity. In Herding the big reward lies in gaining access to sheep, the greatest correction might be removing access to sheep.  Where “timing is everything” in other training and shaping or classically conditioning a behaviour – In sheepdog training terms – TIMING IS COLOSSAL. 

And everything is moving so fast – INSTINCT – “my little herding buddy”, doesn’t allow me the time or opportunity to ask my dog to do something – more often I am asking – nay telling – (nay yelling) him/her NOT to do something… It’s like everything else I’ve ever done requires me to motivate, while instinctive activities, like herding, hunting, scenting, can require me to demotivate my dog to prevent him/her from doing something THEY CAN’T HELP themselves.

So, it’s not easy and even when some make it look easy, it’s years of experience with many different dogs, reading livestock well, timing perfectly the opportunity to reward a dog for doing what you like by allowing him access (BIG reward) to the sheep. Add not allowing him to be rewarded when he’s not doing what you wish.  

But say, how do you do this when the sheep are all over the place? It’s a little like tossing a box full of treats and toys on the ground and then asking your hungry puppy to pay attention to you. Actually, it’s far harder because until you grasp what’s going on in the instinctive mind, you will likely be opposing it.   

So inadvertently – we often over correct and more often reward – allow access – when we really don’t want to be rewarding – – and until we are more sure of what we expect to see, our instinctive dog’s brain is often just playing out like a Fixed Action Pattern (their genetic version) and doing what they feel, while we get knocked about, tuned out by our ordinarily obedient dog, and generally a feeling like you are being mugged.

a little more on Fixed Action Patterns, Instinct, and eating a Pineapple

to be continued…

PART 4 of 5…. Are you “MUGGABLE” in your dog’s eyes?

So, I promised a little more on Fixed Action Patterns, Instinct, and Eating a Pineapple whole. You are probably tired of this subject which was supposed to be about why you feel MUGGED by your ordinarily willing to please partner. In the meantime, you might be thinking a little more about your role as the “Muggee”.

But all these ideas connect as to how your dog sees the big picture. Instead of feeling annoyed at your dog – worse – thinking he’s plain naughty, it’s important to see things from their point of view.

In order to look at things from the dog’s point of view you would truly have to be a dog and since that’s not possible, it’s best to understand at least something about instinct and herding instinct to be precise. I’ll sum it up in as few words as I can.

Instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a particular behaviour in response to a given stimulus the first time the animal is exposed to the stimulus. … does not have to be learned or practiced. (Source: random google search).

Instinctive behaviours, have a series of interrelated acts found in all, or nearly all members of a species called fixed action pattern or FAP, often a species-specific behaviour, formerly called instincts. Instinct or FAP have a strong genetic component, and often once they start, they have to finish, or will at least be harder to interrupt.

Some examples in dogs are suckling responses in puppies, digging and burying, and in herding dogs; chasing fast moving objects.

Like hunting behaviour has a sequence based on research that begins with “Orient” or notice, then Eye, Stalk, Chase, Grab or Bite, Catch, Kill, and finally Dissect and Eat (see Coppinger and Coppinger – Dogs).  So then herding instinct is a modification of that sequence without the catch, kill, dissect and eat part, we hope. However, through selection we can still get the odd herding bred dog who has the full repertoire to our shock and surprise.

I could go on and on about how all  this works and I’m not even completely sure we understand enough about herding as an instinct since it’s thought to be ‘modified hunting’. It’s not so important but it is helpful to understand what we call “prey drive”, and it is extracted from this. 

We do know that all animals exhibit certain species specific FAP partly defined by how they are meant to survive in their wild environments. Even domesticated animals exhibit these FAP which can be crucial to survival. It’s no surprise it is often those behaviours we as humans find hard to break; chasing moving things, digging in the garden, guarding.

So your particular dog may or may not have been keenly selected to “herd” but that can mean a lot of things; he may be more of a heeler, a header, a gatherer or a driving dog. He/she also may be geared more to please you than the next dog, meaning you will have an easier time working with his “Instinct” when it’s engaged.

The point is that they are not intentionally trying to piss you off. Make no mistake however, the dog has assessed your level of skill in managing the situation, but many of the mistakes made by herding dogs are handler error.   

It is your job to learn a little more about instinct AND about the prey animals (livestock) you are working with as well. It helps to understand your particular dog’s kind of herding instinct and the FAP if you will, that go along with his style… Some will never bite, some you can easily cue to bite, some will bite under certain circumstances and so on.

Never try to eat a Pineapple whole….

There are ways of looking at herding training a little more in pieces rather than trying to eat the pineapple whole…which is when you might be adding more confusion and also when your dog has more opportunity to mug you! Try to learn to break it down.

Sheep dog training is like the final frontier for really studying the parts and pieces, the foundations and the criteria for increasing desired behaviour for rewards. And that’s because hopefully at least more than 50% of the behaviours we desire are instinctive and less are based on training and obedience. 

Sheepdog training can be far more challenging than other sports for a couple of really big reasons.  1) it is based primarily on instinctive behaviours we rely on for the dog to perform tasks we ask them to do. 2) Livestock can behave predictably if you have spent enough time with them but they can also stray from ‘predictable’ behaviours as well, which requires both dog and handler to switch gears and react appropriately often on the fly.  All livestock have their own brand of responding to herding dogs based on their own instinct, experience, and also show variation among breeds or sheep, cattle, ducks and so on. 

In many other dog sports, we have stationary equipment to train with, props, tables, matts, and other things that don’t move, or have an instinctive reaction to your dog. In herding we are on the moving ”Tilt A Whirl” that involves at least 2 species utilizing instinct and one human handler who may have little to no instinct whatsoever.

In herding it’s a little harder to set things up, particularly if you really haven’t considered establishing criteria for rewarding, since there really is ONE main reward in herding (access to stock).  

It won’t ever be like shaping the small steps to training a trick, or training a longer duration of a long sit or down (although shaping and conditioning do play a role).  It is however possible to be better prepared for a training session when you have some idea of where you are, what you did last time, and what you expect in today’s session. Goals in other words, and specific goals might lean towards specific exercises. Specific exercises can lead to levels or changes in criteria such as longer outruns, longer drives, extended downs, and so on.

In essence – planning your herding training and being accountable for understanding your role is key. These are part of the strategies for your training but also effective in reducing the amount of time you spend not communicating well with your dog. Thus less time feeling muggable for those especially starting out.

To be continued…

PART 5 – Be less  Muggable and more Huggable….

When I felt most muggable years back I noticed a few things about my own dog and other peoples’ dogs that fascinated me. Apart from my dog looking better when he/she worked with a person with more experience than myself, they would even tend to try to be closer to that person off the field.  There seemed to be this sort of admiration and relief my dog showed when they had a chance to work with someone who apparently knew something about herding! 

One of mentors, Bob Vest, told me never to take someone’s dog and show them how nice they could be – because it might make the handler feel inadequate.  I ardently disagreed with him as I liked to see what he could do with my dog.  It gave me a chance to see how Bob behaved and I could maybe mirror that and get the same result. 

I occasionally go in to work with someone’s dog if they ask or if I feel I might be able to help prevent the dog and handler from developing bad habits or triggers in future caused by poor stick handling etc.  The purpose would not be to make the person feel inadequate but to prevent bad behaviours beginning to become patterned, and also to show the handler the dog is very capable in executing a task.

You can even offer a person a chance to work with a trained dog so the handler can get a feel for how it might be if they are just not getting it.

I think by now you might have established that you can reduce your mugging incidents by going in armed with more knowledge about your dog’s instinct, and about livestock, and therefore entering with greater confidence, a clear plan and biting off smaller pieces.

As I mentioned naming a particular exercise – like – the “Half Moon” exercise or “Outruns on the Fence” or “Packed Pen Exercise” etc., can help you with the parameters of a goal for a training session.  These kinds of sessions you can use a criterion for increasing the difficulty or challenge with each try much like you can train other things. Keeping record of where you last left off (using a log book https://thetalkingdog.ca/herding-log-book/) and trying only to change as few criteria as possible all at once. 

Lists are always good for storing information…. And acronyms are even better for recalling items in a list.  So here you have the UNMUGGABLE acronym for keeping all your parts intact!

U – Understand your dog’s Instinct

N – No unnecessary Body language or Verbals

M– Move with Confidence

U – Understand Livestock

G – Get your shit together

G – Go in with a plan and log sessions

– Access to sheep is the BIG REWARD – so constant cookies means rewards for bad stuff too!

B – Be Clear and Fair with Rewards, Criteria, and Corrections

L – Look at things from the Dog’s Point of View!

– Expect to learn more from your dog than he’s learning from you 😉

Often the answer to a short question is a LONG answer!