By Claudia J. Frank

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Livestock dogs are capable of responding to commands, whistles, body language and situations. Do YOU have a clear impression of what YOUR commands, whistles, body language and situations should mean to your dog? If you do, does your dog share that meaning?

While watching a herding competition or observing someone training their dog try to determine what each command/whistle or gesture means to the dog. If you are watching a true "team" both dog and handler are working in harmony. The handler is very consistent with his requests and the dog knows exactly how to respond. With a little concentrated attention to this team the basic commands come to the fore followed by variations on these basics. For example, right/left are embellished to mean fast or slow, wide or tight and long or short. Stops may also include a down, stand, stay, or hesitation. Fast, slow, steady and push harder may be variations on the "walk up" command. Defined in training and then used during regular work the wide range of instructions a stockdog is able to perform is surprising.

If you and your dog are not such a harmonious team look at what communications you give your dog, how you expect your dog to respond and then how does he respond. Take a moment to write each communication with your dog. Then add exactly what it SHOULD mean to your dog. And, finally record precisely how your dog DOES respond. Make sure you include commands and/or gestures used with the same dog in any other dog sports such as obedience or agility.

You may be surprised to find that you don't really have a crystal clear idea of what you expect from the commands or gestures you issue. Often, "get back" and "out" or other similar comments may, from one situation to the next or even moment to moment, vary drastically. How is your dog to know exactly how to respond to your demands if you aren't sure of the response you want?

As an example I use "get back" to mean go to balance. It is what my dogs hear as they are first sent around stock. My body English tells them what direction to go in the beginning. "Out" means to move directly away from the stock. Now once these commands are thoroughly learned they can be combined with each other or other commands but should not be lost to a clear individual meaning. Returning to clarify commands or variations as more are learned can be expected.

While watching a young dog with a novice handler fetching sheep around a field I observed the dog retreating to the gate when the handler turned and raised their arm. This was a gesture often used to indicating the direction the dog is not to go and allowing the dog freedom to move to the open side, usually to balance. It turned out that while introducing the flanking directional commands the handler had started pointing in the direction the dog was to go. Now, in the dogs mind the uplifted arm meant, "don't go that way" and "go this way" all at the same time. No wonder the dog decided not to play the game.

Also, watch carefully how you teach something to your dog because your dog may perform exactly what he was taught. This may present surprises. When I started my young Border Collie, with a strong eye and excellent balance, she would stick between the sheep and where they were determined to go. I went up and snapped on a lead and tugged her forward firmly with a "walk up!". We went though this several times. She was very smart and very willing. My intention was to teach her to walk forward, turning reluctant livestock in my direction and then bring them to me. What did she learn? She learned that on the "walk up" command to LEAP into the middle of the sheep and scatter them everywhere then run around frantically gathering them up. She did exactly as I had taught her. My error not hers.

If you repeat a routine with your livestock on regular intervals these routines become situations that the livestock dog feels comfortable and remembers well. Be aware, that if you change the routine you must be patient if your dog resists commands necessary for the change. Our farm is set up to take stock out to pasture in the morning and bring it back in the evening. The pasture used varies but once started in a particular direction my dog will take the stock through the gates, along the farm roads, make turns and stop with the sheep at the farthest corner of that field whether I am accompanying them or not. When choosing a different chore that starts by going in the same direction I must be on my toes to alert the dog to changes and make my commands clear.

To make a harmonious team displaying full communication takes a handler with a clear idea of what each command/whistle or gesture means, has taken time to train his partner exactly how to respond to these commands and is aware that they will need to be reviewed or reinforced from time to time.

Page Updated 10/22/2007

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