CONCEPTS IN DRIVING
by Tenley Dexter
I like to use middle of the road sheep to start driving with, not too light and not too sticky to the handler, the reason being that they drive the easiest. Once the dog starts to understand the concept of driving on these fairly easy sheep, I start to ask them to drive harder and harder sheep. I might next move on to the stickier sheep that don’t want to leave the handler (for me these would be my lesson sheep) and so the dog needs to get assertive to be able to drive these sheep off of me and to keep them going away from pressure (their buddies in the holding pen).
By now the dog has a pretty good understanding of driving vs. fetching and so it is now time to move to light sheep. The light sheep aren’t hard to take away from pressure so the dog has an easy time with that but then I start making the dog drive the light sheep “toward” the pressure which is no easy feat. I have natural fetching dogs so the idea of sheep running away is usually more than they can bear. The dog starts to drive them but as the sheep gather momentum toward pressure, the dog wants to get to the heads and shut them down. This is perfectly normal. What I have to do as a trainer is show my dog that he doesn’t need to go to that extreme to control the stock, after all that is what the dog craves . . control, not really shutting them down.
This can be done is several ways. For some dogs one thing works better than another and I use all these exercises at one time or another. Just be prepared for the long haul. This concept of controlling rather than shutting down stock is a very hard concept for a lot of dogs. It’s a fine line to say the least.
First, “balance” on an animal is the heart area right behind the elbow, not the head. If the dog puts pressure ahead of that area, the stock stops. If the dog puts pressure behind that area, the stock goes forward. We are talking about the difference of a couple of inches here. For those of you that are familiar with lunging a horse, this is common knowledge as the person must stay behind the horse’s shoulder in order for the horse to go forward. A sheep is pretty small to start with (not to mention a duck) and if you realize the difference of forward and stopping as a matter of inches, you can see how much finesse a dog needs and finesse doesn’t come overnight.
I start by getting some really light sheep, go to a fenceline (the fence simplifies and aids the dog by taking care of one side of the stock for him) and have the dog (this is a dog that understands driving already) get comfortable with fetching (yes, I said fetching) the sheep to me on the fenceline but insisting the dog keep the stock in front of me in a correct fetch and on the fence. Away from pressure is usually easy but toward pressure is very hard as the sheep want to run in front of me.
I’m insisting on the sheep being held in the correct place so the dog needs to figure out where he needs to be in order to keep the sheep walking, but not allowing them to break in front of me. Usually the dog needs to be somewhere out a little to the side of the stock and he will need to figure out that zone that keeps the sheep from running but still allows them to keep walking. This is a trial and error process for the dog. I cannot put him in that correct place. He must find it for himself. If he hangs back the sheep get away. If he goes too far, the sheep stop and I correct the dog for stopping the sheep and tell the dog to ‘walk’ (my command).
I’m looking for the dog to allow the sheep to flow at a semi-controlled pace toward pressure. At first this exercise will be stop/start stop/start but eventually it gets smoother. Make sure you work both sides of the dog. This exercise allows the dog to start observing small nuances in the stock related to his position and his pressure. The dog must have a controlled pace or walk to be able to do this level of work. A dog in constant motion cannot observe nuances in stock. When the dog is starting to get comfortable with this, I start to move out of the picture a little at a time until the dog is truly in drive mode (usually crossdrive mode). This doesn’t happen in a month or two months. This takes a while for the dog to get truly comfortable and truly understand what he needs to do. Driving toward pressure is sort of like “controlled escape”.
This article first appeared as a post on the Yahoo group Aussie-Herder