The goal of all herding is to move livestock efficiently and with the least possible stress from one point to another along a designated route and to perform various livestock handling tasks efficiently and with the least possible stress. This goal should be uppermost in the Judge's mind, and thus his primary criterion should be the ability of dog and handler to accomplish the route and tasks while keeping the stock as "settled" and controlled as possible.
The key to success is to keep the stock "settled", i.e. relatively calm and only minimally intimidated by the dog. Livestock, being prey species, move away from a dog only because they perceive the dog as a potential predator who is potentially capable of killing them. Prey who perceive a predator who is just casually strolling by at a distance, not currently interested in hunting, will remain quite calm about his presence, merely keeping an eye on him and strolling away if he approaches uncomfortably close. Contrariwise, prey who perceive a predator who is actively hunting, running directly towards them in hot pursuit and with lethal intent, will become most fearful and will, if possible, race away as fast as they can; if flight is impossible (as for the mother of a newborn too young to flee with her) or if the predator seems too weak to win, the prey will stand and fight with last-ditch desperation. So one key to keeping the stock in a "settled" frame of mind is to keep the dog's demeanor and actions that of the casual not-on-the-hunt predator.
Keeping your stock "settled" is easier said than done ---rather like the ancient advice to "buy low and sell high". I offer a few maxims to help you along the way.
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL
When your dog is just starting, you will feel
impelled to keep your eyes on your dog in order to see whether or not he is
obeying you so as to keep him under control. As your dog becomes more and more
reliably obedient, you will be able to keep your eyes on the stock. You will
then find that you can read the dog's position and movements by seeing it
reflected in the actions of the stock. The reactions of the stock will mirror
the actions of the dog. Also as, through progress in training, you are able to
slow the actions of the dog and the reactions of the stock, you will find you
have more time to read your stock and to think about what to do.
YOU NEVER GET A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A
Those aspects of a dog which are likely to alarm the stock are large size, unusual appearance (relative to the stock's prior experience), predatory intensity (aggressive state of mind), and the manner of approach (speed, straightness, closeness, and bouncy/bounding gait are alarming). Now size and appearance are beyond your ability to change; but the other qualities can be altered, increased, or decreased by a well-trained and widely experienced dog in response to his own judgement and in response to your commands. The "wide" command (to increase his distance from the stock) the "walk" or "slooow" or "easy" command (to move slowly , smoothly, and ready to halt at any moment), and the "whoa" or "stand" command (preferable to a sit or down as a stop for most dogs other than Kelpies and Border Collies) are your principal tools to regulate your dog's manner of approach in the initial outrun-lift-fetch sequence and during later maneuvers.
Even for cattle, which may need a more forceful approach at times, an initially low-keyed approach by a highly confident dog often works better than a challengingly aggressive approach that often provokes self-defense and a real rodeo.
HASTE MAKES WASTE
Whenever you read that your stock are about to unsettle, ie are a bit anxious, take the time to "re-settle" them. Re-settling consists of positioning your dog so that the line of escape to the pressure point is blocked, then halting for a moment or for quite a few moments to let the stock relax and think about their situation. Don't try to assertively move them towards your goal, but simply prevent them from fleeing elsewhere.
Never be afraid to "waste time" by giving the
sheep a short "breather" and chance to re-settle. These pauses also give the dog
a chance to "settle" as well.
The calmer you can keep the stock, the less the incentive for your dog to go crazy and ignore commands. The more controlled and calm the dog, the less the stimulus for the sheep to panic and run. The calmer the stock and the dog, the less the stimulus for you to panic or get angry, to shriek and display body language which will arouse disobedience and excitement in the dog and panic in the stock.
LEAD OR FOLLOW, BUT GET OUT OF THE WAY
Thus the most natural reaction of the stock to the handler is to perceive the handler as a threat and to move away from too close an approach. Again, as with the dog, an excited, angry, screaming, shrieking, arm-waving or fast-moving handler will appear to be actively hunting and will thus be much more alarming to the stock than will a very calm, low-voiced, and casually slow-moving handler. So keep yourself as low-keyed and "non-hunting" as possible most of the time. Think of yourself as a second dog and be aware of your influence on the stock so that it assists, rather than interferes with, that of the primary dog.
You are doubtless already aware that some stock, chiefly sheep which have been used a great deal for training novice dogs, will have acquired the unnatural, learned reaction to the handler of regarding the handler as a protector and a safety zone. If every time the stock move away from the dog and towards the handler, the handler halts the dog for a moment (relieving the threat to the stock) and if while the stock are near the handler the handler uses the long pole to keep the dog at a bit of a distance (relieving the threat), the stock will learn to seek the handler as a refuge from the dog. Such sheep are called "dead dog-broke" or "kneecap kissers" or "pup-trainers" or "spoiled" (as they are useless for training more advanced dogs).
You have probably used "kneecap" sheep for most of your early training of your dog; but except for Instinct Tests, such as the AKC Preliminary and Principal Tests, and possibly the AKC Pretrial Test, you should not encounter such sheep at a Trial. If you have not done much training and practice with normally reacting, handler-avoiding, sheep prior to your first trial, you and your dog will find yourselves totally unprepared for the considerably different tactics required. All you can do is to think of yourself as a second dog, stay low-keyed, and do the best you can -- which won't be wonderfully well.
Whatever the type of stock, whether handler-avoiding or handler-attracted, when you come to the gateways, chutes, pens, etc, remember not to block the opening! If you are blocking the hole, the stock will have difficulty perceiving it as an escape route. If while you are blocking the hole, the dog gets impatient and adds pressure, the stock may run through you or over you -- and Barbados sheep will leap right through you, with very painful consequences. If you are leading handler-attracted sheep through an opening, get yourself well enough ahead that they have a clear view and the widest possible opening. If you are repelling handler-avoiding stock, make sure that neither your body nor your threatening influence gets in the way of the opening. If you are adequately skilled at reading your stock, you can use your repelling influence to assist the dog in funneling the stock into the opening by using your influence deliberately to inhibit the stock's potential escape towards your side. Sometimes a very minor movement, a crouch, or a hard-eyed stare from the handler can turn the head of the critical individual into the opening. Some tapping of your shepherd's crook against the ground behind the stock or to one side can inhibit escape in that direction; however you won't be able to make full advantage of this until your dog is advanced enough that you no longer use the cane as a signal to the dog for flanking moves.
LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS
At a trial, the stock are different in character from those you've trained with, the stock have never seen your dog before (and maybe never one of your dog's breed either) and vice versa, the stock are spooky and screwball because they are in a strange place, and --- worst of all --- you, the handler, are incredibly nervous and have left your brain outside the arena gate.
So concentrate on keeping your dog under control and on terrorizing the stock as little as possible. Concentrate on keeping yourself under control and keeping the panic out of your voice and demeanor. While a calm voice doesn't guarantee a good run, a shrieking voice does guarantee a rodeo.
If things are getting too wild and crazy,
remember that you have the right to quit. If you can see that things are going
from bad to worse, be smart and dismiss yourself. Grab hold of your dog in any
way you can and put the leash on him (it should be on your person, not hanging
on the arena gate); then turn to the Judge and tell him that you are dismissing
yourself. By quitting before the Judge does it for you, you will minimize the
damage to your dog's training, you will avoid incurring vet bills or market
value payment for an injured or killed head of stock (don't think it can't
happen to you), and you will gain the respect of all knowledgeable observers.
AFTER THE TRIAL IS OVER
It is never possible to be fail-proofed prepared for a herding trial, nor to be as well prepared for a herding trial as for other working dog sports. The stock in a herding trial are always a "wild card" and they are the single most important factor in the difficulty of a run. The range of potential behavior of stock is enormous and unpredictable. A very seasoned dog-handler team, with several years of widely varied experience, may cope well with most trial stock; but as a beginner, all you can really be sure of is that the stock will probably expose all your faults and weaknesses.
Be prepared to do some "repair work"! Some
wise trainers say that every trial sets your training program backwards at least
somewhat. If your run got truly wild and crazy and your dog ran amok, then it
may well have set your training back quite a bit! Be prepared to temporarily
return to an earlier stage of training to review, reconfirm, and repair the
basics. Whatever fell apart at the trial must now be re-built. Wise trainers
frequently review the basics anyway; a lesson may consist of 3/4 review and 1/4
advancement. Create a firm foundation of basics and be prepared to inspect and
repair it frequently. You might even want to think of a trial as being an
"inspection" rather than a "competition".
Unfortunately there are very few "matches" or
"play day" trials in herding to serve as an intermediate between training
sessions and real Trials. We all need them. Once your dog has a good enough
foundation and is under good control during training session, begin to seek
opportunities to work strange stock and to work in strange places. If you have
your own stock, trailer them to a strange place; they will behave far more
spookily than at home. Keep alert for opportunities to work other peoples' stock
--- and be prepared to pay well for the privilege.
If you can arrange to videotape your run, do so. If you can arrange to (sound) tape-record your run do so. Watch videotapes of good and bad runs. By watching in slow motion several times, you may be able to spot those critical moments, just before things obviously came unglued, when dog or handler just might have been able to salvage the situation. Very tiny errors of timing or positioning, which you missed recognizing during the "live performance", may become quite clear on replay. Also try merely listening to the handler's voice with your eyes shut: key your ears to catch that "problem pitch" until finally you can catch your own voice while you are actually working your dog.
But no matter how sophisticated the dog and handler, the stock will still remain a "wild card" and you and your dog will still make those micro-second and milli-inch mistakes that blow an otherwise lovely run. If you can accept this uncertainty and ever-present potential for debacle as being part of the challenge of herding, you will find trialing very rewarding. Certainly you should never find it boring.
IT'S EASY TO BE HUMBLED WHEN YOU TRIAL A HERDING DOG!
Page Updated 10/22/2007
The Border Collie Society of America, Inc. was founded in April 1993. This site is owned by the Border Collie Society of America, Inc. and was established 12.94.