Herding Dog Trainers, Part One (Good, Bad & Thugly)
From sheep! July/August 2016 — Subscribe for More Great Stories.
Originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of sheep! magazine.
By Denice Rackley – There are many different ideas and approaches to training a herding dog. Some folks “specialize” (one breed). Others will train them all. Some use one way to train every dog, expecting the dog to adjust. Others have a basic method, adjusting it for each individual dog.
How do you determine if a trainer is good? This is especially difficult with your first working dog. Maybe you’ve never even seen a herding dog work and have no idea what you’re aiming for. Just maybe you’ve seen some videos of working dogs: How do you know what you’re seeing is right or not? How do you differentiate the dogs that are doing well and those that aren’t? How do you judge the training methods being used in a video, or on your dog?
I believe the goal of a good trainer should be to assist the dog-and-owner unit in becoming the best possible team they can be. Neither partner will ever be perfect, but it’s the trainer’s job to bring out the natural abilities that exist, to help each with the areas that are more of a challenge.
A good trainer should be willing to make adjustments for each dog and person.
For the purpose of this article I’ll assume you’re a livestock producer
interested in using a dog to help manage livestock. Keep in mind training the dog is only one part of the equation; you’ll need help, learning to work and use the dog.
Really good trainers need to be good teachers—leading by example.
Your best trainer:
• Has years of experience
• Has worked with many dogs and different ages of dogs
• Has worked with your breed of dog
• Understands dog and sheep behavior
• Is a good stockman—keeps the welfare of the stock a priority
• Allows dog to use its instinct
• Allows and encourages dogs to think.
• Corrects dogs’ mistakes (doesn’t avoid them)
• Doesn’t use constant pressure to keep the dog right
• Is very conscious of his or her tone and body movement and placement
• Doesn’t keep the stock from the dog
• Allows dogs and their handlers to make mistakes, correcting them with the least invasive correction.
• Doesn’t use a “lie down” as a correction
• Doesn’t need gadgets; rakes, prong collars, shock collars, etc.
• Encourages both dog and handler
• Supports handlers’ learning experiences, from other avenues
• Keeps the dog eager to work the next lesson and keep improving
• Has dogs of his or her own that work well
• Does what’s best for dog and sheep, not his or her own ego
• Has a basic training philosophy, but is willing to try different ways or approaches to training to get the best from each dog-and-handler team.
The ideal is to find a trainer who uses his or her own dogs the way you hope to use yours.
Finding Good Trainers
Locating a good trainer can be difficult. If you know someone who has purchased a nice working dog, you can start by asking how that dog was acquired and who trained it.
Once you find prospective trainers, go watch them use their dogs for chores.
I’d want to watch their most experienced dog first. If that dog works sheep well—listens to direction, stops and “calls off” when asked, doesn’t rush sheep, works respectfully—then I would ask to see younger dogs work. Seeing trainers work several different dogs should give you an idea of how they train and what they feel is important. Ask a ton of questions, have them explain what the dog is doing and why they themselves do certain things while working the dog. If any corrections are used, ask why. The dog should respond to corrections, changing its behavior, but not acting worried all the time. It’s less about the dog doing exactly what it’s told and more about how the dog and sheep respond to each other and the situation.
Ideally it all should flow smoothly; the dog should be working happily and the sheep move calmly.
Good Training Principles
As a trainer, it’s my job to get the dog to understand both the sheep and what I want them to do. Once they understand, most dogs will happily do as asked.
I want to work with a dog to do a job; I don’t want to be fighting it all the time or making it do things my way.
Most novice handlers have a very oversimplified idea of “herding.” They incorrectly assume it’s simple.
It would be nice to have everything predictable like a math equation or recipe: “A + B results in C.”
Herding doesn’t work that way.
The dog, sheep and trainer may all do the same things that worked just fine yesterday. Yet today it isn’t working.
Small things make a big difference. We can’t know what the sheep or the dog are feeling or thinking. Attitude can make a big difference—everyone’s attitude: Dog, sheep and handler.
That’s why training dogs to think and feel while they’re working is so helpful. The dog learns it can adjust to the sheep and to the situation as it’s working, as opposed to just doing what it’s told and working mechanically.
The effort I put into a young dog—taking care that it understands what I want and how to interact with the sheep through respect and confidence—will pay off a thousandfold. Honestly, if a dog is really talented, it knows and feels sheep; it just needs experience. Often the hard part is staying out of the way and allowing the dog to work.