By Claudia Frank

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As your training moves forward at some time you may come to “the wall”. The wall is a place in training where you don’t seem to be able to go forward. This does not happen to ALL dogs but frequently enough that you should not become surprised or emotional when it does occur. There can be several demonstrations of “the wall” from something that is overcome in a few moments of insistence to a situation that may take several days and lots of effort to overcome. The wall may be very thin or it can be very very thick. The size of the wall is often determined by how long the dog has continued the wrong behaviors causing lack of progress and the dog’s determination that what it is doing is correct. The dog’s basic temperament and biddability and the handler’s determination have a lot to do with the ease at which the wall is scaled, torn down or gone through. The good word is that you “will” go through to the other side and you and your dog will be better for the effort you have demonstrated. If someone is newer to training and/or hasn’t come to a wall in the past it is easy to take the attitude that it is insurmountable and that nothing good could possibly come from the efforts necessary to get to the other side or even that there is no getting to the other side.

It is best to deal with “the wall” immediately when you first get an inkling that it is starting to form rather than waiting for it to be really high, very thick, well established and very difficult to get through. Rarely, if thoroughly torn down, does a situation arise to confront another wall. The dog’s attitude will have changed for the better.

What are signs of “the wall”? It is a point in your dog’s training where he says “no, I will not do it that way” or “no, you can not do that to me”! Some people refer to this perhaps with the term “shutting down”… I prefer the word “disobey”. The situation described by either word is not a dog option. Again using generalities, a dog will get worse and worse as you try to break through the wall but as in any type of training it is often seen that the dog will get worse at what you are trying to teach him before he gets better. The dog has included a wrong perception in his way of performing. Once that perception is changed he will most likely need to be retaught to perform the behavior or skill which now “includes” the correct aspect that was missing prior. Now his attitude has changed and he is working “with” you and not looking for ways out. In fact, pluses may be evident by the dog demonstrating skills which you had tried to teach and now the dog suddenly willingly performs.

An example….

An example is the dog that has been well trained. Despite the lack of practice on long distance outruns it naturally casts on the outrun and puts in good performances on the outwork part of the field course. In normal day-to-day working, training and trialing the dog is fairly close to the handler. No unwillingness or problems were observed in the dog’s actions. There is seldom an opportunity to drive the distances seen on an Open field though the dog displays knowledge of the correct responses to commands necessary for the drive. During the trial run the dog would take a flank other than the one called for by the handler. The flank would be correct in form and speed but not in the correct direction! This would happen a couple times per run… just enough to cause missed panels and poor lines. A training situation was set up that required the distances and draws of the trial field. When sent the dog displayed a nice gather and on the drive she made the same mistake as at the trials… taking a flank in the wrong direction when commanded. The handler moved out on the field to shorten the distance and requested the same direction again and again the dog went the wrong way. Pressure was applied when the dog went the wrong way and was ready to be released if the dog would even start in the correct direction. With a repositioning of the handler the dog’s door was open to go in the correct direction but again she wouldn’t go that way. There were repeated efforts made in repositioning of the handler to get the dog to take the correct direction but the dog was now displaying concern and wouldn’t take the direction or if she did she overdid it attempting to leave the area. She would be walked back on her sheep, the direction given and she would refuse. Without much success the dog become to hot and the session was ended.

The next session was in a small area about 60 x 100 feet and the dog was on a line. During some thinking after the first session it was decided that the dog had been getting more “hints” as to which direction to go from body English than was suspected by the handler. The goal of the session in the small pen was to get the dog to take that direction command with the handler holding still. The dog still wouldn’t go in the desired direction and pressure was applied to the dog for not moving or going in the wrong direction. Soon the dog wouldn’t go in either direction and tried to exit the training area… the problem had grown worse as expected.

The dog’s actions escalated and so did the handler’s making it clear that what it was doing wasn’t to be accepted. Emotions were left out of the handlers reactions. The door was open for the dog to go in the correct direction… all else was met with intimidating actions… pressure. (Because every dog and handler is different, no attempt is being made to tell HOW to handle the type of pressure, or the amount, duration or location. I’m trying to outline that there IS A WALL and that it has to be overcome.) Finally, the dog gave up and went in the correct direction a couple times and the session was ended.

The following day there was a “new” dog brought into the same small pen. She was not apprehensive as she had been, she took EVERY command eagerly and thoughtfully with the handler standing virtually still… the attitude was correct, the speed was correct, the path was correct and in the CORRECT DIRECTION! Only a light amount of work was done where no corrections of any kind were necessary.

The handler then went out into the big field and the “new more willing” dog prevailed. Also, the dog that had been trained on the “look back” but would never release the sheep in front of her now flipped right around on the command to the amazement of the handler. The dog was now more biddable meaning more willing to do as asked and not compromising on what she would give the handler.

This was quite a struggle for the handler to remain steadfast in her belief that the dog DID know the commands and just was opting to do what she wanted… not making the effort to do the correct thing. It was also a struggle for the handler to remain emotion free even when the situation worsened.

The dog came through this struggle knowing there would be no more compromise… that black was black and white was white. She blossomed into a more willing partner that was making great efforts to do the right thing.

If this handler, seeing the dog at the wall, had felt that the only route was to compromise and work around what the dog would do possibly only minor corrections would have been made that would further toughened the dog to resist. They would have hit the wall and made no further progress. In this example the dog hit the wall, broke through it and came out with a shining future on the horizon.

Another example…

Some dogs seem overly sensitive to the use of a stock stick or whip used as an extension of ones arm in training. When they view the stock stick or whip they may leave the field or find concentrating on the correct action when given a command and just do anything to stay clear of the stick or whip. The dog is saying, “Keep off! If you do that I will quit and not work”. “Quit” is another word for “disobey”. Some handler’s reaction is to leave the stick or whip at the gate and say, “The dog won’t let me use the tool I feel needed as an extension of my arm.” Now who is training who in this scenario?

Not working, because of an aversion to a particular training aid, is not an option the dog has available. If you compromise what you are allowed to do by the dog this will carry over to many other areas where the dog will tell you what you are allowed to do while training. Again, leaving emotions out of the training session set it up so the dog cannot escape the working area. Then with a line attached to the dogs collar work him in the manner you wish using the stick or whip as a training aid in the manner you deem necessary. If the dog spooks, refuses to take commands or runs to the gate you can apply pressure and bring them back to working. Things may get worse. The dog may try to climb the fence, bite at the stick or whip or rope… or you. Use whatever type of pressure you find necessary to make the dog get back to work regardless of what training aid you are using.

In this example the “wall” was the dog’s attitude that it could dictate what could be done and what couldn’t in its training. By going through the wall, in this case, the dog has learned that it must keep on working regardless of whether it likes something going on around it or not. The dog will be steadier for this lesson and would not be liable to react negatively in a new situation just because he thinks he can!


I’m sure now you can see many many times when you have seen a wall in your training. Hopefully, you did not stop there and allow your dog to determine the outcome. No emotion, planned lessons, realizing things may get worse before better, plan to retrain and you will come out on the other side moving steadily toward your ultimate goal… the well trained biddable team player.

Page Updated 11/17/2008

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