Bear and I went to another herding lesson today. The skies were clear and the sun was shining so we got to work outdoors. I decided to go in for the early class which would get me home earlier and ensure I got my beauty rest – I do have a rally trial this weekend, after all.
Our first session was in a small round pen – maybe 50’ diameter – seemed tiny. Bear was on to the sheep from the minute we went in. The pen was small enough that it seemed to me like Bear was on top of the sheep or like they were on top of me. After a few minutes of back and forth with some intermittent driving, Bear started Sheep Bowling (diving in, nipping and scattering them) so I asked the trainer with me of that was okay. She told me it was okay at the beginning as it helped new dogs gain confidence. Not long after that he grabbed a sheep hard enough on the leg to draw blood. That a great sign that he was way too far over the top and we ended the session. The sheep was examined, and I can only assume her wound was deemed minor because they applied something to it, took her out of the pen for some rest and carried as if something like that happens fairly frequently. Since dogs take turns in the pens (much like we take turns on agility equipment in agility class) I had some time to settle Bear down. We moved into some shade where the sheep were not nearly as visible and he was able to settle for a time.
As Bear was cooling off I noticed a barn swallow nest and got to see baby barn swallows pop out of their nest, mouths agape, as momma bird came in to feed them. I’ve never seen this before and it was really cool.
I also got to watch a boxer herd the sheep. He was vary laid back with the sheep but clearly, knew his job. The Canadian Kennel Club permits all breeds to enter herding tests which I think is kind of neat. Since herding is, essentially, prey drive (without the killing, dissecting and eating) it stands to reason that many dogs of many breeds have retained this instinct whether herding is actually one of their historical purposes or not.
Buy the time our second turn came around, Bear was considerably more relaxed. We entered the ring on leash and I noticed one of the farm border collies laying in the corner, just watching. I was worried that Bear might go after that dog but was assured the dog would stay put. the dog did not stay put 100%, she moved when the sheep got within 30 feet of her. Bear just looked at her and continued doing his work. You could have knocked me over with a feather. For him to leave a strange dog in a strange place in a very high arousal situation, especially when I knew he was wound up enough to bite, is AMAZING.
This time we worked in a larger field and had space to move the sheep around, in a pattern similar to that which we will see in the herding test. The herding tested course is basically walking around the ring and keeping sheep between the fence and a few panels.
As we worked I was told that I when Bear got silly I could ask him to down until he settled and then release him to gather the sheep. I actually used this same kind of thing to build stays and start line stays in agility so Bear knows that dogs who stop, get to go and dogs that try to play their own game, leave the ring. Because we have done so much work that has required me to be very much in tune with Bear’s behavior, I have the added benefit now of knowing when he’s starting to go over the top before he actually does. For these reasons, I think the downs, more than any pressure or physical correction, are more meaningful to him because it’s a system and a structure he understands. We finished our turn on a very good note, and once the sheep were penned, Bear walked away calmly with me.
After this lesson, I have a few things to think about including:
Keeping Bear’s arousal at it’s optimum – Somewhere lower than biting but higher then sniffing/rolling in sheep poop.
Working on downs, at a distance, with some added arousal – We usually only practice downs in the rally context which is relatively laid back but I can think of a few ways to get Bear wound up to help him learn to think through his arousal. As I write this, the Off Switch Game in Control Unleashed comes to mind.
Teaching Bear to move away from me (any by extension the sheep) on cue. In a test/trial situation I have my body, my voice and a stock stick. In these classes dogs are taught to move from pressure buy the stick hitting the ground in front of the dog (or the dog if he is too close). I don’t doubt that this works (many dogs are trained this way) but I prefer to train Bear to use his brain to make choices rather than force him to change his behavior through intimidation, fear, force or pain. From what I have seen at class no one is overly heavy handed with dogs so I don’t think the corrections are abusive but If I can find another way I will – and I already have some ideas – more on that later.
We likely won’t get out on sheep again for the next few weeks, between a very busy work schedule, a rally obedience trial and a tracking test but I hope to work on a few of these skills to see if they make a difference for next time.