TRAINING SECRETS OF THE PROS

by CynDee Cooper

They must have secrets! They consistently train dogs that are useful, willing workers. Some of their dogs have become legends. “They” are the renowned trainers. A wealth of knowledge and an insight into their training secrets can be gained by spending even a few minutes working with trainers such as these. Having had an opportunity to observe, talk to and, in some cases, work with these sages of stock dog training, I believe that I’ve discovered their coveted training secrets. The biggest “secret” is they have no secret! Perhaps that’s not quite the way to put it. Here’s another way: their secret is they use a combination of common sense, discipline and knowledge of canine and livestock behavior in training their dogs. These tools are available to anyone who desires to have a top-notch working partner.

The biggest problem with most of us is that we’re looking for a simple recipe for training. We’d like to pick up a book or watch a video that tells us when the pup is a certain age, do this. A week later, do that. After step three, do step four. We’d like to see a gradual upward progression from untried pup to a dog that can handle 100 cows and calves or one that, at 18 months, wins the National Finals. Not only that, but we also want that same recipe to successfully apply to every dog. It sounds great, but it just doesn’t work that way.

No matter what level of training you would like to have on your dog – whether you only want a “get back” and “come” or want to teach it the full range of commands, enabling you to fully utilize the dog’s capabilities – a certain amount of basic principles still apply.

Common Sense

Here’s one principle that should be easy for all of us, but far too often is totally overlooked. Just a few common sense training rules to remember are:

Don’t expect more than a young dog can physically or mentally do.
An eight week old pup cannot be expected to outrun flighty sheep in a 40 acre pasture. Nor should a four month old pup be expected to tackle stubborn Angora wethers or an eight month old be used to work cows with new calves. The knowledgeable trainer sets up situations in which to assess the young dog, but not to destroy its budding working instinct. They will put a few head of mild stock in a small enough area so they can easily control both the stock and the pup.

Use the right kind of stock.
Quite possibly the most underrated element when training a young dog and one usually ignored by the first-time trainer. How can you teach the dog anything if you’re trying to use wild sheep that are careening off the fence from the moment you walk toward them with your dog? Of stock that are constantly attacking a young dog’? If you can’t buy dog-broke stock ask someone with an experienced dog to come over and work your stock. If the breeder of your pup lives nearby, don’t hesitate to ask him to help. If you’ve purchased your dog from working lines (rule number one in buying a stock dog) the breeder certainly should have one or more dogs that can do the job. Most dog people are happy to have the opportunity to work their experienced dogs on fresh stock.

Don’t leave the dog in a kennel or on a chain for a year and then expect it to be trainable.
Many trainers will advise, “Don’t start training the dog until it’s about a year old.” But they don’t mean that you should ignore the dog until that time. Take the pup with you, play with it, teach it its name and sonic manners. By building a relationship with the pup, training will be far easier in the long run. Even just five minutes a day will make a big difference later on. If you don’t have time to spend with the pup, don’t buy one! You’ll be far happier (and so will the dog) if you purchase a dog that is ready to go to work for you.

Know when to quit.
You can quickly ruin a dog by continually hammering on a specific point. Learn to accept little successes. Mentally consider the small bit of width on a flank as a success, not a failure. Become too adamant about the distance a dog keeps off its stock and you may end up with a dog that works too wide or won’t come on to its stock properly (it’s been taught to stay off). Naturally, you want a dog to stop or down when it’s told. But don’t overdo this to the point where the dog is afraid to get up or drops every few steps.

When the dog becomes “hot”, stop immediately.
Don’t continue working a dog who mentally is unable to absorb commands. Remember, a dog can become “hot” due to stress even in cold weather. Learn to recognize when the dog has had enough. Is he looking for somewhere else to go’? Has he lost his enthusiasm about working? Has he stopped watching the stock and is too concerned about your movements? A sure telltale sign is when the dog stops reacting to a simple well-learned command or does not respond to the movement of the stock as it normally does. Back off, do something you know the dog likes and can successfully accomplish, then quit.

Good trainers never lose their tempers – or, if they do, they stop the training session.
If you’re angry, you’re not teaching the dog anything – you’re only bent on punishing him. The dog’s actions may require a harsh punishment but, once he’s administered it, the good trainer immediately wipes the episode from his mind and goes on with the training. If you find yourself still mad over something that happened ten minutes ago, it’s time for a coffee break!

Discipline

You wouldn’t allow a child to grow up without learning to behave, would you? Same thing applies to the young dog! Because the working instinct can be so strong in a pup it sometimes overrides everything else, your basic means of control is to establish yourself as the pack leader early on in the dog’s life. And discipline need not be hard or nasty!

Sometimes the best discipline is simply not allowing the pup to get into a bad habit. For instance, most little pups will come when you call them. But when they become four or five months old, they start to test you. By that time they’ve learned you may be calling them to go back into the kennel and they are having far too much fun playing. Or they may simply want to see if you really are the “top dog”. Don’t wait until this “catch me if you can” behavior becomes firmly established. If you need to, put a light line on the dog every time you take him out. Then, be in a position to control him with the line if he doesn’t come to you the first time you call him. It takes far longer to fix a bad habit than it does to prevent one. Do not aIlow the pup to do anything you don’t want him to do as an adult dog.

One of America’s most successful trialers will tell you, “the dog must do as he’s told.” This attitude may be why clinic instructors can take a dog the owner cannot control on stock and in a few minutes have the dog stopping, flanking and quietly walking up. There’s no “secret” to this — they simply control the situation and let the dog know they are in control and dispense appropriate measures of discipline. In short order, they let the dog know untoward behavior will not be tolerated. If you have the dog’s respect, he will willingly do as he’s asked.

Canine Behavior

Obedience instructors are quick to insert information about canine behavior into their training classes. Few stock dog instructors do. It’s not that they ignore the importance of understanding canine behavior — most of the time they instinctively understand this behavior but arc unaware that other people (to not.

A dog operates as a pack animal. The trainer, to be successful, must establish himself or herself as the “alpha” or top dog. It’s far easier to do this when the pup is young than to challenge a dog when it’s a year or two old. Watch documentaries of wolf packs — punishment is sharp, swift and then over. Top dogs don’t carry grudges and neither should we.

One internationally known trainer advises to watch the dog’s eyes. You can tell a lot about the impact you’re making on a dog this way. Does he continue to challenge you with his look? Does he drop his head and eyes, glancing up only to gauge your reaction? YOU can stare a dog into submission in the same manner that an alpha canine does.

This same trainer talks a lot about properly using one’s voice. When the dog is misbehaving, say his name or some specific word with a deep growl. Several top trainers will tell you to start off with a normal tone of voice and gradually work toward the deep-throated growling command if the dog is not responding to your wishes. Here again, an understanding of canine behavior comes into play — the submissive dog emits high-pitched tones; the top dog dispenses discipline with deep-throated growls.

Livestock Behavior

You can make your training and working sessions easier by knowing how your livestock will react to a given situation. For instance, cattle often are reluctant to come through a gate if you’re standing near the opening. But if you back up, enabling them to see a way to get away from you (i.e.., through the gate opening) the job of getting them into the corral is a lot easier. A few months ago, I watched about six different people work cattle with young dogs. The cattle were brought across a pasture and were to be put into a small pipe corral. Two of the handlers stood right at the gate, shouting commands to the dogs. They never did get the cattle in the corral. The more experienced handlers moved well away from the gate opening and quietly directed their dogs. They all penned the cattle.

Talk to sheep and cattle producers. They make their living handling livestock efficiently. They may tell you things like: Sheep don’t like to go into darkened areas. Livestock are harder to move if they are higher up than the dog (i.e.on the top of a pond bank, for instance). During the middle of a hot day all livestock are difficult to move from shady areas. It’s easier to move large numbers of livestock through small openings if you allow them to gradually filter through the gate rather than trying to crush the group into the opening. Keep these things in mind when starting to train your young dog. Set up situations in which the stock are more likely to move where you want them to, allowing for as much success as possible for the dog. For instance, if you’re teaching a dog to pen sheep be sure there are no deep shadows inside the pen, which will make penning far more difficult than necessary.

Additional Training Secrets.

Each dog is an individual and needs to be treated as such.
The good trainer learns to recognize the variances in each dog and adjusts his training method accordingly. “It’s not how a dog starts that’s important, it’s how it ends up,” advised one trainer. Ten dogs may start off needing to be dealt with in ten different ways. But all ten can very well turn out to be great working dogs! Find methods that work well with the type of dog you have.

Start out each session by backing up from where you left off the previous session.
In other words, if you’re trying to lengthen the dog’s outrun and ended a session by sending him fifty yards, start out at twenty-five yards the next day. This ensures a successful beginning to each training session. Much of your training can be accomplished close at hand. If the dog is doing exactly what you’re asking when working close to you, this will carry over at 500 yards. But don’t get in a big hurry to work long distances! If the dog isn’t stopping when told on the far side of the stock at 25 yards, he’s certainly not going to do it from across a 40 acre field. In any case, be ready to go back to working close up the instant he stops responding farther away. You may still find yourself dashing across a field sometime to correct the dog but at least you will know that he knows why you’re coming to correct him.

Training is walking!
Better said, perhaps, is that stock dog training becomes a fitness program for the trainer. Almost all trainers will tell you that many miles need to be traveled while teaching a dog to fetch, drive and to properly pace his stock. When teaching the fetch you’re there, moving just ahead of the stock, controlling them almost as much as you are the dog. On the drive, you start out near the dog, gradually dropping back further and further, but still moving right along. The novice trainer attempts to accomplish it all by staying in one spot; the experienced trainer is walking, walking, walking.

Learn how your position affects the dog and the stock.
One trainer I know is particularly adept at knowing precisely where to be in relationship to the dog and the stock in order to teach the dog to flank squarely off the stock. Often the distance of just a couple of feet makes the difference of whether or not the dog starts his flank squarely. An observant trainer will quickly learn where he or she needs to be in order to accomplish certain things.

Be consistent.
Don’t allow the dog to ignore a command on one day and then come down hard on him for the very same thing the next day.

Timing is one of the most important aspects of training.
A well-timed correction is worth 100 poorly timed ones. If you realize you simply can’t effectively correct the dog when he’s wrong, let the incident pass. Then work on setting up a situation so that you can execute a correction at exactly the right time. For instance, if the dog is ignoring your down command (and you know that he really does know what the command means), you can use a good sized bunch of sheep so that he can’t readily see you. Send him around and then start through the flock so that you can time your command and your presence for maximum effect.

Don’t use the same command for several actions.
This sounds simple enough to adhere to but you’d be surprised how easy it is to fall into this trap. One young man was using “get back” to mean keep off the stock, get to the back of the kennel, don’t jump on me. and as part of the command “get back here” when the dog would start to run across the road. Until he realized this, he didn’t understand why the dog would not move off the stock when told to “get back.” Each command should require a specific reaction.

The “secret” to training boils down to deciding what you want to teach your dog and then using common sense, along with discipline, coupled with a knowledge of both canine and livestock behavior.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1994