That Very First command
By Claudia Frank

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Many years ago I read an article by Bruce Fogt in the “Working Border Collie” magazine. It was titled “The Winner” if I recall correctly. It was about how the blue ribbon in hand doesn’t necessarily decide the winner. The accomplishment of a specific skill, progress in handling and numerous other upswings from previous runs can make a “winner” even though a blue ribbon is not in hand.

The part of the article that stuck with me the most though was Bruce’s comment about how important that very first command on the trial field was to the run’s total outcome. If the dog was allowed to run through that first command the dog was more than likely to run through following commands which would not be of benefit to the settling of the sheep for the later parts of the work like the pen and shed especially.

This lack of enforcement can be seen in all levels of trialing but is rarely seen in those that consistently do have good runs and that do end up in the winner circle frequently. That first command sets the tone for the balance of the run both in the attitude of the dog and the livestock.

First, make sure you are very clear to yourself exactly what you expect from each command you give. If you are involved in more than one dog sport make a chart where you record each command, how you want the command to be honored AND what the dog actually does when you give this command. You certainly cannot expect your dog to obey instantly if there is a direct conflict between the actions required in stockdog work and trialling and those involved in another sport. Cleanup your expectations and then take some time to work with the dog until your requests are clear to it and honored consistently correctly. Then add distances, distractions, changes in location, different types of stock, etc. to provide you and your dog a well rounded background. Only THEN think of competition.

When you step onto the trial field you should be thinking about noting what areas need to be improved and what areas your dog has improved consistently from your previous work. This list should be your first goal for the run. Keep your mind connected to the task of not only giving commands but being conscious of what the dog is doing correctly and where your trained skills have lapsed or what skills may be needed that you have failed to solidify as a team. Your goal is to put the best run you can on the course that day with what training skills you both have. Then when all is done you find out how your run compared to the best run of fellow competitors and maybe be awarded a win or placement. Your goal is to do the very best you can that day. You should wish the same for your fellow competitors.

Most frequently when you start to trial you will ask your dog to stop at the top for the lift with a whistle or verbal command. The ultimate goal in training is to have your dog schooled to correctly read the sheep, stop/slow and carefully lift correctly on its own but that does take training and lots of experience over time. Initially you may have to work as a team to get the correct lift rather than taking a chance on the dog making an error and learning to have the wrong attitude and make the wrong moves when they are at a trial distance from you. The whistle at the top means “stop” for most handlers of young inexperienced dogs. You must make up your mind before stepping on the trial field that that first command, the “stop” at the top will be honored. If not fully respected you will do what is necessary to get that command totally in your skill tool basket. What does that mean? It may mean a raised voice with a “hey you”, a wave of the arm or a march out to the dog to enforce the down that you requested. “Ah,” but you say, “then the run will be over if I leave the post.” Yes, but the run was over as far as being a positive experience for your dog and you the minute you allowed him to disobey your command. A string of un-obeyed commands do not provide any positives for the experience. Once you have gotten the response to your first command that you had wanted you may continue the course for the balance of your run time if the Course Director allows knowing that your scoring ended when you left the post. Or, you may need to take your stock to the exhaust area. Even if your run is cut short you will have gotten your dog in hand and you can make that march to the exhaust pen in an orderly fashion with the dog carefully handling the stock with the correct mindset, slow steady speed and quick response to commands. Your run the next day may prove to you that your dog took your decision to make that first command the only command to heart giving you not only the command response but also the other things that are part of the package… correct mindset, careful lift and slow steady pace.

If your instance in obeying the first command does not improve quickly most likely the dog doesn’t really understand the requirement as yet. You may need to go back and retrain the command, work in many new situations smaller areas where you are in control and perhaps work harder on getting the correct mindset and respect from your dog.

Rarely will a dog that readily obeys the first command on the trial field ignore or not comply with following commands BUT the handler has to be ready at any moment when disobedience occurs to no longer think of the situation as a trial but step forward away from the post to whatever position tells the dog that you will not give up or give in until he obeys that command before you go on to the next command or requirement. By focusing on this in a smaller area you can direct your attention on the dog when obedience fails and not have to worry about the sheep escaping.

In summary, your success with a run is determined by your goals for the day and not the evaluation given by the judge. And if you are constantly aware of insistence to every command before going on to the next thing your dog will never develop a habit of running through your commands.

Page Updated 02/16/2011

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