The Straight Line (It's Not Magic)
 By Claudia Frank

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Having trained many Border Collies and Shelties too I’ve had a chance to observe numerous canine efforts at getting the sheep to me in a straight line from where they started or to a goal point in a straight line away from me.

Occasionally, you will find that special dog that from the start of training inscribes a straight line on the ground to you and holds the sheep to that line adjusting themselves. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a couple such dogs. One was early on and I came away from training her thinking that was the behavior of all stock dogs. Then on to other nice workers. I struggled when they did not show such precision immediately and had to be encouraged through steps in training to a point where they understood the job and were very adequate at accomplishing it.

Generally dogs, when left to themselves, have a tendency to move to the side of the stock where there is a draw or pull but will not take charge to make a needed change in direction until the sheep stop or are slowed by an obstacle such as a fence. At that time the dog may move over and then bring the sheep to the handler. I’ve observed many young dogs needing lots of assistance from the handler to keep them on the line but as they progress need less and less assistance as the job becomes clear to them.

My intention is not to tell readers how to train their dogs as that is best done by someone knowledgeable in the ways of the particular dog and handler but to outline frequently seen steps in the progression of learning to take flanks and to hold a straight line resulting in their maintaining the line on their own. Many times the person new to training assumes that the dog should automatically know how to do this chore, as I did, but that is most often not the case. The steps needed are progressional and the same errors are frequently seen and not problems that newer trainers may presume are specific to their individual dog. It would also seem that the same sequence of events are observed when the dog fetches the sheep to the handler as well as when they drive the sheep away.

Keep in mind the goal is to have the dog move out next to the sheep and hold them coming to the handler, in a straight line from where they were picked up, regardless of the strength of the draw to the side of the field for example. After your dog learns to move to that spot and hold it on command they get a “feel” for the sheep’s pressure and what it takes to hold the line and then become capable of positioning themselves in that spot… both holding them on a straight line and keeping them moving forward.

The introduction to the flanking command, while moving sheep, should move the dog just enough around the sheep to start changing direction. What usually happens after the dog reaches that place you indicate with a stop command is that the dog will flank back behind the sheep to keep them moving forward. See Figure #1. Keep remembering your final goal is the sheep moving in a straight line. This is what seems to be a normal process in learning correct performance.

As the dog progresses they will get to the desired spot where you stop them. Instead of swinging immediately back behind the sheep they hold the position where you stopped them but then as the sheep move forward they drop in behind again. See Figure #2. The dogs are worried about not being where they can move the sheep forward so there is a strong desire for the dog to get in position to do just that… keep them moving forward regardless of where the sheep may be drifting.

Once the dog learns to take a flank to a position to hold the sheep in line to you and not allow them to move toward the dog, the dog will add the next step which is holding that position. They “feel” the sheep as they are drawn to the edge of the field and readily take flanking commands and hold their position altering it somewhat to maintain the goal. See Figure 3.

The final step comes when faced with a strong draw that would pull the sheep away from a straight line to you the dog, on its own, repositions itself to the side where it can maintain the straight line as well as steady movement forward. The dog will alter the position somewhat as the strength of the draw changes.

If you are working through the training of one of your first dogs remember that though the dogs are all different there seems to be a progression of learning that is quite common and has to be gone through by all but a few particularly talented individuals. Your dog is not unusual, being difficult or doing something unusual. It is just going though routine steps in learning to handle a draw on the sheep until it becomes habit where it is performed without commands.

Good luck!

Page Updated 12/27/2009

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