I recently had someone online ask if anyone had any experience with using markers, like a clicker in herding. These days, most trainers that use positive reinforcement can think of multiple ways to use a clicker to shape behaviours in other sports like agility, obedience or scent work but we struggle with how we might use it in the context of herding.
In response to that request, I’ll share here my experience with observing the use of a clicker and using one myself to teach herding behaviours.
I witnessed the first example of the use of a clicker at one of my very first herding clinics. The instructor was working with a dog and handler team that were trialing at the advanced level. My memory is fuzzy on this one but I will share what I remember, how I remember it. The issue this team was having was that the dog was not taking his flank commands at a distance. This team had a number of accomplishments in other dog sports and worked well together, in general, but were struggling with this specific skill. Once the dog took the correct flank, it was able to complete the work, but getting it started, from a distance; behind the dog was a challenge. The instructor knew the team well and knew that they had experience using a clicker to shape other behaviors so she suggested that they use a clicker to mark the dog’s correct choice of direction. A food reward was used, but I do not remember where or how the food was delivered. What I DO remember was that in a matter of a dozen repetitions, the dog was moving in the correct direction when asked and it moved confidently.
The second time I witnessed a clicker being used in herding is much clearer to me. A clinic participant had a dog that had plenty of courage and is really comfortable moving stock away from it’s handler in a drive but was having difficulty balancing sheep to the owner in fetch position. This work was done in round pen and the instructor had the handler clicked the dog at the balance point and offered a reward from her hand. the reward was twofold, food and coming to the handler pushed the dogs away from the handler, which she liked. after a few repetitions, the dog started to pause near that point and maintain control of her sheep. The instructor stopped the session at this point and discussed options for going forward with the handler. They discussed tossing the treat as an option and progressing to working on a down at the balance point, then gradually holding off the click as the handler backed up and the dog kept balance. I know the owner of this dog and she did report back a few weeks later that she was able to take this learning into her larger arena with success.
My third clicker herding experience was with a dog that was having difficulty working through it’s handler asking for flanks while in fetch position. Every time the handler would turn to face the dog and ask for a change in direction (with or without a stock stick to block the wrong direction) the dog would disengage from the stock. In this case, they went to the round pen and planted 3-4 people outside the pen with food rewards. Our job was food dispenser and we did not look at or engage with the dog, unless she had been ‘clicked’ and was close enough for us to offer her a reward. The handler would ask for a change of direction and any behavior that indicated the dog was going to move in that direction was clicked by the instructor, and the dog received a reward from the hand of the closest person to the dog in that direction. There was a bit of ‘food seeking’ once the dog realized those of us standing outside the pen were food dispensers, but once the dog realized she had to work for us to offer rewards, she was able to offer behaviors. Like before, the reward here was twofold: moving away from pressure AND food. After a few repetitions, the instructor was able to delay the click long enough for the handler to ask for a flank, and stop with the dog in fetch position at balance.
The final clicker herding experience was with my own dog. We were working on inside flanks at a clinic with my 5 year old Rottweiler bitch, Epic and she didn’t quite seem to be getting it. The more we tried, the slower she got. Eventually she stopped working. The instructor wasn’t 100% certain what was going on but she shared that she had worked through a similar issue with another upright herding dog and asked if I would mind experimenting in the round pen with a clicker. Epic was exposed to a clicker in the whelping pen and we have used it as a communication method since the day she came home so I was more than willing to give it a try. Food dispensing people were placed around the outside of the pen. We began by asking for a flank in fetch position. If she moved in the correct direction, the instructor would click and the food dispensing human outside the ring closest to her would offer rewards. After a few repetitions I asked for inside flanks, the instructor clicked and food was offered from outside the pen. By the end of the session she was taking her flanks and not even looking for food from the dispensers, which I took to mean that the work became more meaningful to her than the food. What I really noticed about this exercise is that my dog relaxed and she worked. In hindsight, I think that when I would block her for taking the wrong flank, she interpreted that action as me telling her that she could not have stock and she disengaged. The clicker (and the smaller pen) allowed us set her up for success and to communicate effectively that she could have stock. I’m sure that without having that particular communication device with the years of reinforcement history behind it, it would have taken us days much longer to get her back to the same point that took us only 20 minutes with a clicker.