Balance is a term used by sheep dog handlers, but I find myself thinking of its value in so many other contexts related to dogs.
In sheep herding, “balance” refers to a dog’s ability to place itself exactly where he or she needs to be to take control of the sheep without frightening them. It refers to two things really. One is the distance between the dog and the sheep. Too far away? — no control, no pressure. Too close? — forces the sheep to run away in a panic, or to turn and fight. Just right? Exactly at the point at which the sheep will turn and move away from the dog without panicking.
The other aspect of balance is side to side, left to right. For example, does the dog stop at exactly the right place on an outrun to move the sheep directly toward you once he begins to walk directly toward them? Novices tend to believe that a dog should always stop at 12 o’clock, but that’s not always true. If the sheep want to go to your left (as you face the dog and the sheep), then the dog needs to stop at 1o or 11 o’clock, not 12.
Dogs can learn better balance, but there’s little more valuable than a dog who just “has it,” and early in training, finds for him or herself that perfect position to manage the sheep. The perfect position is different for every flock, in every context and even at different times of the day, so it’s not easy at all. It just looks that way when a dog is really talented, just like great dancers and ice skaters make it look effortless.
But easy it’s not, it takes skill and experience. And while thinking about balance (see the photos below), that finding it in many other contexts isn’t so easy either. That’s as true in dog training as it is in sheep herding (not to mention the rest of life). And as with sheep dogs, some balance is innate and some can be learned. Over twenty three years of working with aggressive dogs helped me find a balance between reinforcing good behavior and practical, humane ways of inhibiting ‘bad’ behavior (often just management, but if we’re talking about biting people, the word “just” should be deleted).
Here’s another example: I’ve learned that Willie needs a balance of quiet time and exercise, more so than any of my other dogs. Too much fetching, for example, not only hurts his shoulder, but it makes him overly aroused, rather than relaxed. Too much stimulation (for example, leaving him loose to bark at noisy trucks passing by when I’m gone) makes him crazy; too little makes him fearful and neurotic. Granted, Willie will always be my special needs dog, but I think this general concept applies to all of our dogs in some ways.
I also need to balance my voice with Willie. Sometimes Willie needs me to use my voice to quiet him down, and so I speak with a low voice, either quiet, long words like “Slooooooooow” or “Eaaaaaaasy”. Other times I need to speak sharply to stop him (“Whoa!”) because, well, he’s being an idiot and about to get himself hurt. Other times, he needs encouragement, and I’ll use a completely different voice, higher pitched, more modulated and often short, repeated notes.
What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this: Take the word balance and play with it awhile: What have you found you needed to balance with your dog? Yourself? Your methods? Open ended I know, but sometimes that leads to the most interesting conversations. (And if you have figured out the whole “work-play balance thing,” let me know how you found it.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The unseasonal heat has left (yeah) but now the frosts are back a few nights a week. It got down to 24 F last week, low enough to cause some serious damage. But it’s lovely even in the rains we’ve had lately, and feels very spring-y indeed. The lambs make it even more so, here’s Rosebud’s triplets a few hours after birth. I’ve just dipped their umbilical cords in iodine, you can see them still attached:
And here’s Willie (if he’ll forgive me for advertising his error), illustrating a glitch in the balance I was talking about. I sent him around to the right to bring the flock to me. This was the first time I’d worked him on the flock since they lambed. I don’t work a dog on the sheep for the first 2 weeks after lambing, the ewes are understandably too protective around their lambs and it causes fights that I think are unnecessary. The ewes below have lambs over 2 weeks old, but are still willing to give Willie a hard time. He knows that, and in addition, Willie has lost confidence on sheep since his injury, surgery and lack of work for over a year.
Is that why he stopped short here? I don’t know, but you can see that he did. I sent him and waited to see if he’d pick the right place to stop and walk in on the sheep. He didn’t. He stopped short; see how the sheep are still heading toward the left? Some have turned their heads at least, but the dark one in the middle, Lady Godiva is still facing left, and she and Barbie are the 2 leaders.
I stayed quiet, and Willie balanced himself, moving counter clockwise to get into the correct position. You can see how some of the sheep have already begun responding.
And here’s where he choose to walk in again. This time it was perfect. See how the sheep are facing me head on and walking directly toward me now? Good boy Willie.
You might have noticed that 2 of the sheep have their heads down grazing. That’s because I asked Willie to stop so that I could get a photo. His stopping took the pressure off, so they put their heads down to eat. Always a good choice (eating) as far as I’m concerned. Time for me to go do that now! As always, I look forward to your comments.