BOPPING AND REBOPPING: Is It A Requirement? Is It Ethical?

by Red Oliver

First, a Pre-Postscript; Recently, on the internet (SHEEPDOG), there has been a healthy discussion on the merits and demerits of physically correcting a dog in training; i.e. hitting the trainee pup with a staff, in order to impress on him those behaviors that the handler does not want repeated. Cyn-Dee (editor/publisher of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine) has asked me if I would put a few words together, summarizing the various thinking expressed by at least 70 or so interested internet subscribers, along with my own experience. Never one to be shy behind the typing ink, I grudgingly agreed to give it a try. Sitting here over the old coffee mug, I wonder if I can do justice to the subject, so ably dissected by so many. Wish me luck.

Let me start with a few basics that I think are pretty well accepted as fact. Being a strong believer in “positive reinforcement” (having given a number of copies of Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot The Dog” to friends at Christmases past) I would like to break training into two very separate and distinct areas.

1. Teaching those behavioral actions that have nothing to do with herding instinct, i.e. “down”, “come”, etc. These can be taught one hundred percent with positive reinforcement rewards, which is anything the dog likes (food, petting, etc.)

2. The modification of instinctive herding behavior, i. e. dog’s instinct is to go to the head and stop sheep from running off, but handler wants to modify this so dog will loop way out and come in from farther out in front. As there is nothing the dog likes better than being allowed to follow his instincts, food and a nice “good dog” won’t modify this behavior so it is here that negative reinforcement enters the picture.

Herding instinct is nothing more than a dog’s instinct to prevent escape of the prey animal; sheep. No animal ever did anything without an expected pay off. The role of pack leader is reserved for the number one dog in the pack. The role we humans must play is that of surrogate leader, more commonly termed “boss.” There is a big difference. Here are six near-quotes from off the internet that I think will bear heavily on reducing the question at hand to an understandable dictum:

1. Speaking for myself, I am going to do things my way till someone gives me better reason to do it their way. Border Collies are no different.

2. Every novice, no matter how skilled, has real tools available to him: tools which, may not bring the dog to the trial field as quickly as “bopping” but are risk free and will always be successful in the long run; they are patience, determination, and the willingness to seek the best advice.

3. Dogs live by intermittent reinforcement. If they get a payoff every once in a while, they are quite willing to risk the correction.

4. Unlike the people who try to breed dogs that want to do it our way for trials, these people (breeders of strong dogs) pride themselves in breeding dogs that can take it and dish it back.

5. We call our dogs “working” dogs, not “sport” dogs. If they are working dogs then are they not secondary to the stock? Are they not in a way less important than the stock?

6. I don’t think it is a problem of hearing, but one of listening.

As I mentioned above, positive is taking advantage of the fact that many desired behavioral actions such as “down”, “come” “go left” and “go right” have nothing to do with instinct and the dog can be conned into performing them for a reward such as a chunk of aged cheese and a pat on the head. Negative is when we enforce a behavior with something the dog doesn’t like, such as loud, angry verbals, or a scud missile, or a “bop” on the head. Positive says “you did right.”

Negative says “what you just did is wrong and you better not do it again.” We somehow, still have to help our dog understand the alternative behavior to the one for which he was corrected and the one we wanted him to do. There is no greater reward than the dog answering the call of the wild. Consequently positive reinforcement, like a food treats, won’t work to entice him to modify his actions. So, in walks the negative side of things.

I accept the fact that one needs to use negative reinforcement in training the herding dog, but just what tactics are needed and applicable and what are excessive is the question before us.

There are three areas in our training schedule where we can use a number of tools, with some of them being interchangeable. These areas are: breaking through our pup’s concentration on the sheep so he will listen to our verbals and react to our body language; close-in work such as when taking sheep out of a corner; pushing the pups off, or out, or wanting squarer flanks.

In the first phase there are a great number of objects we might wave above our head: staff, cap or hat, or throw: a milk bottle with a few rocks in it, pieces of water hose, our staff, or shout #%$@#%$, or slap against our leg a rolled up “boogie bag”, coiled lead, or our open hand. In the second phase we might use a lead, if the pup is just starting or if it is too aggressive it may call for the “bop” on the nose, though such a requirement in this action is more of a fault of the set up than of the pup.

The third phase is where the question on the internet was fought the hardest. Most concern is in getting our pup to not come in so close (“get back”), or to widen out on his flank, instead of slicing in, or to square his flanks. We might use all the objects that are throwable: milk bottle, pieces of hose or PVC, sticks, rocks, or our voice. We might even try throwing the new scud missiles that a couple of the top trainers have introduced in their clinics.

Throwing everything but the kitchen sink was not really the heartbeat question. Hitting your dogs with scud missiles or when up close with a staff is the heart of the conflict. I would agree that if necessary, a sharp, but not injurious clip on the noggin might be very productive in letting a strong-willed young dog know that certain tactics are not allowed. Also, a well thrown scud missile can be very productive in impressing on a young dog that when the handler ordered “get back” he means for the pup to get back.

I think I have used every possible technique to teach my dogs what they have learned and I have given up on all but a few. I do not think it is reasonable to have to expect the use of a club to discourage a young dog from gripping when he is working in close. Other tactics such as a quieting voice, careful use of body position etc. are much more productive.

Now how about the scud missile in the infield? I think I know most of the top trainer/handlers, and there can’t be more than four or five who are capable of throwing one of the new slim fiber glass sticks fifty feet with ninety percent accuracy and I know a lot of others, including myself, who can’t throw it twenty feet with any more than purely accidental accuracy. The greatest learning experience my young dogs get out of my throwing one of these scuds at them is being called off while I spend thirty minutes trying to find my staff in the deep bermuda.

I don’t think most dogs get upset with a little harsh treatment if the handler has a responsible attitude towards his dogs, but I also don’t think the great majority of our dogs get much in the way of a positive learning experience from objects flying every which way and kind of in their general direction. As far as tough corrections, not abuse, are concerned we must remember that dogs, being member of the “pack” order, are lost souls unless they know where they sit in the pecking order, and testing the system is a part of their genetic makeup.

There are some very good alternative tactics to throwing and hopefully “bopping” that we can all use: for instance the “aggressive dominance” of Bruce’s (Bruce Fogt, ‘Lessons From a Stockdog’) book or what Virgil (Virgil Holland) recommends in his book, which are in tune with “patience, determination, and seeking the best of advice.”

this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine, December ’97/January ’98

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