Working Willie on sheep in preparation for tomorrow’s trial reminded me of the first time I made a connection between the way Border Collies herd sheep and dog training in general. As you all know, BCs control sheep by what I call “space management.” They don’t bark, rarely bite, but “take the space” away from sheep in the direction they don’t want sheep to go, leaving only one route open for the sheep to move. It’s a bit like the way sculptors define their art: the work is as much about the space around the sculpture as it is the object itself.
When you learn to work dogs on sheep, you learn a lot about managing the behavior of another animal without any physical connection. Dogs have no leashes on sheep, and dog handlers have no way of physically effecting their dog’s behavior (unless they don’t have a clue how to train a herding dog and, ugh, use an electric collar). You learn early on that one way to influence your dog is to control the space around it. If she dashes toward the sheep, you need to be ready to block her access to them with your body. If you want her to run wide and free, you learn to back away from both the dog and sheep (oh so hard at first) and create an opening for your dog to move within freely.
It’s that early work that started me on what I called Body Blocks as a way of teaching dogs to Stay. When I started in dog training in the 80’s, we were all told to immediately run back to your dog if he broke his stay, grab his collar, jerk it as a correction for his disobedience, and then drag him back into place, usually grumbling your displeasure as you did. After working with dogs on sheep, I simply started asking for a stay and then using what I call a Body Block to “manage the space” and teach a dog that wonderful things happen if they stay still. As the years went on, I got better and better at combining understanding canine ethology (in this case, their innate understanding of how to respond to you “taking the space”) and the use of positive reinforcement. (Early on I used to give a treat when I released the dog. Now that seems so foolish! What were we thinking!)
Here’s a video, also on my website along with some other videos, of me using treats and Body Blocks with the lovely dogs of a dear friend, Beth. I should mention that what you see here — me tossing treats behind me after putting the dogs on stay — is an intermediate step, not a beginning one! Both dogs have learned the basics of stay, but now are learning to hold their stay even when distracted. Notice how close I am and how short the stays are: always set your dog up to win when you are working on something new. Make it fun, and they’ll want to do it again.
Speaking of “fun” and setting up to win: Willie and I are in our first herding dog trial tomorrow. It’s a very small one, which is perfect for his first trial. Yesterday we worked sheep on a trial course, and [warning: proud owner with expanding heart speaking now] Willie was so good I could’ve carried the car home. No matter what happens tomorrow, I know that he and I have both improved immensely on what we’ve been working on this summer, and that’s all I really need to know. He is working on pace (slow but continuous), I am working on timing and blowing my whistle consistently.
I don’t expect we’ll do as well tomorrow as we did yesterday. I’m a terrible competitor, getting idiotically nervous for no reason whatsoever. Why I can give a speech to 1,200 people with my image projected three times my size on either side of me and only be mildly anxious, but be so nervous in a competition that I want to throw up, I’ll never know, but there it is. So it’s somewhat inevitable that my foolishness will spill over to Willie, but we’ll both do the best we can, and most of all we’ll cherish being together, me and Willie and Jim, on a gorgeous day with wonderful people and amazing dogs.
But enough about that; I’d love to hear if you’ve had a training breakthrough, no matter how small, that you’d be willing to share. I think that trainers, and dog lovers everywhere, are so often frustrated with ourselves for not being perfect, that we all need to remind ourselves sometimes how far we’ve come. I’m hoping to savor some of your stories soon. And if you don’t want to write a comment, do take minute to ask yourself what you’ve done with your dog that you are proud of . . . even if it’s resisting strangling them when they won’t stop barking when you’re on the phone . . .