It helps me in training to have a plan. Otherwise I doodle around, and afterward think, I'm going nowhere. The truth is, I don't care for drilling much, and wish I didn't have to do it. It isn't fun for me or for my dogs. I grind in the wrong lessons through my bad habits, my timing is lacking, and the artifical enthusiasm it requires I find difficult to dredge up. I have also gotten hopelessly confused by other people's advice. Let your dog work! Always get after him for that! Go to your stock! Never go to your stock!
Unless my goal is directly about a piece of real work (such as how to correctly clean out a take pen), progress is usually somewhere between ridiculously slow and nonexistent. I am a lousy stockdog trainer. The reason my dogs work with any competence at all is because they were born that way; I can take no credit. I admire those trainers who can do much with little, and make a dog with big innate deficits look good. I'm more the opposite.
In the end, for me, it's about getting a job done. That, I can understand, and my dogs can understand. It is obvious to them and to me when it doesn't go right, and when it does.
I seem to communicate the most clearly when simply 'intend' a behavior than actually train it. I find that is true off stock as well. If I want to go through a door first, or have my dogs stand still to have the mud washed off, or leave them behind, or take them with me, I don't use training exactly. I use gesture, body language, and if necessary, a correction sound sort of like 'anh!' Of course they know word commands. But it isn't about word commands.
Even more so when working stock. It's about intending, it's about having a clear image in my mind of what I want, and using body language to communicate if it isn't something totally natural like bring 'em, hold 'em, or put 'em in. In my ideal world, I would be living in such a way that through daily work my dogs would learn what I wanted without any formal lessons or goals having to be artificially set up. That of course is not how I am living right now.
So I try to set little goals, and mix those up as best I can with something that feels real. I have two small goals I've been working on with Ty, for example. One is bringing stock quietly through gates into an open field. The other is stopping off balance. Not surprisingly, given my druthers, I'm making more progress with the former.
Stopping off balance at any point on a circle in the middle of a field is drilling, plain and simple, and we all find it tedious, sad to say. The gate challenge, though, is work, and hence filled with purpose and fraught with unpredictability. That is to say, fun.
I've managed to adhere to my plan of starting with my doggiest sheep and adding one or two lighter sheep day by day, on my gate project. This has been successful. A couple days ago, since Ty had done well with four doggy sheep, I added a pretty light one to the mix. Then I made a dumb mistake, and when I went through the gate with the sheep I moved left toward the creek instead of right, toward the mountain. There is a narrow path which is bordered by the creek on one side and the arena fence on the other, and this is where the sheep took off as Ty went on a way-to to gather them, because I drew them there where they could see that escape hole, and there was no physically possible way for Ty to head them before they got there.
There was no other way to catch them but to let Ty tear after them down the path to get in front; he is not naturally wide in that situation anyway, and this was just going to worsen that habit, but that was the only choice. I bit my tongue and let him work, and yes, he got ahead of that lead sheep very shortly and turned them all back. After we all breathed a bit we set off again without incident. When Ty is in fetch mode he settles down to prowling along behind at a distance, like a lion. It's kinda cool.
He's really getting the hang of gates now.
After our walkabout, my real job that day was to catch and bring home a buckling weighing maybe fifty pounds that Kam was lending me for my does. She'd left him with a couple lambs for company in a paddock about 25 feet wide and 75 long. "He's real tame, you'll have no problem catching him," she told me. Right, then I'll leave my dogs in the truck.
Many domestic animals are docile right up to the point that they sense you have intentions beyond an idle scratch behind the ears, and this guy was like that. I couldn't get within fifteen feet of him. No possible way for this human being to catch him in that size pen.
So I get Bonnie out. She doesn't like goats much. Once he butts her, she quits. He has a set of pointy little horns that hurt (as I found out for myself later). Okay, bring Ty out then, although I do not exactly trust him on this kind of job. Ty's perplexed because I keep shutting him down when he tries to block. I'm afraid of him biting. Finally we corner the elusive little sucker. After successfully driving Bonnie away, he clearly figures dogs are less dangerous than people, and promptly butts Ty. A bad decision. Never butt the blue dog.
Ty instantly grabs him under the ear, flips him over, and settles his grip. Buckling is now screaming like his spinal cord is being slowly severed. Kam comes out of her house and calls, "need any help?" I hear her only with part of my mind, but call back "No, we're fine!" while I am sitting on the goat trying to convince Ty to turn him loose. He has a solid grip on the neck skin and has an expression of absolute determination on his face. I know that I can only penetrate his mind with calm confidence, nothing else, so I say with no anger or excitement in my voice, "Ty, give." As though that goat was a tennis ball. Ty lets go, backs away, and waits. I check: no blood. Not even a puncture. Nothing.
I walk the buckling to the truck on his hind legs and hoist him in. That's when I get clobbered on the side of my head with his little spikes. I find a scab inside my ear later and some bruises in various places. Typical. I am considerably more banged about than the goat.
Ty has a strong natural proclivity to solve problems in two ways. First, by waiting and watching carefully, and if simple presence doesn't work — which it very often does — using force. Way more force than I'm usually comfortable with, but I had to admit, Ty had identified and then solved my goat-catching problem for me by the most efficient possible method — maybe the only possible method.
And when I see him work cows, I see why he is this way. Last time I had him on cattle, I was trying to gently coax some steers out of the back of a dead-end alley, and one of them decided that he was going to take my dog out (like the buckling, he had just chased another dog off). He launched suddenly out of the group straight at Ty, head down. I wasn't too far behind Ty, so he might have mown down both of us.
My cowdog charged forward, nailed that steer on the nose and put him back with the rest before I even begun to gather my wits. It all happened in seconds.
When I got mister buckling home, he was a careful and cautious goat, and even though my does were cruel to him, as is invariable with goats, he was anxious to stay with them and with me, and keep well away from that dog of mine. That blue dog with the gleam in his eye.