FOR LOVE OF CODY
by Mari Taggart Morrison
When I got the call about an Aussie that needed rescuing I really didn’t want to pay attention. I’d recently purchased a wonderful, well-bred Aussie pup and had another on order — I needed another dog like a hole in the head. But something about this dog’s story tugged at my heart. A wealthy family had got an Aussie because they wanted a beautiful, intelligent dog but they hadn’t bargained on the dog’s herding instinct. When the young dog began to try to herd their horses and goats, they were outraged, and when frequent beatings didn’t end the problem they resorted to an electric collar to “aversively condition” the dog to never look at stock. Frightened and confused, with no idea of right and wrong, the dog was about to be put to sleep — solely because of his owners’ ignorance.
“Cody” turned out to be a sweet two year old black dog who stuck to me like Velcro when I went to see him. Maybe he knew it was his last chance. He was well-bred (going back to one of my all-time favorite Aussies, Rowe’s Commanche Warrior) and his attentiveness and desire to please were amazing. He climbed into my car without a backward glance for the ride home.
His first weeks were spent getting to know me and learning about life in the house. He continually amazed me by learning everything on the first try. There was a calmness and wisdom to his personality that was more like an older dog. As our relationship grew I wondered — could he be reclaimed as a working dog? I had retrained dogs for owners who had inadvertently taught their dogs not to work by using an electric collar — but could a dog that had been DELIBERATELY aversively conditioned to working over a long period of time be turned around and learn to enjoy working again? And could it be done without stress or pressure of any kind to the dog?
In order to try I knew that as a trainer I’d have to completely let go of all expectations and make a deal with Cody that everything would be pressure-free. I’ve had the privilege of working and training some superior sheepdogs of several breeds and these dogs had incredible talent and natural ability. I would have to let Cody be himself, wherever he needed to be, and not compare him to any other dog. I would need to be patient with mistakes, and lavish with praise. Cody watched the sheep with a wistful look each time we were in the barn. Could he do more?
I took him out with the sheep initially on a line and walked around the sheep praising Cody. The line was to prevent mistakes like biting the sheep — I didn’t want to correct him for anything. Cody acted totally fearful — not of the sheep, but of me! You could just see his thinking — he thought I was setting him up for a correction and he wasn’t going to fall for it! Each day, for about five minutes, I’d take him with me among the sheep. After a few weeks he would pull a bit on the line toward them, but not very hard or long.. I just praised and reassured him. He was thrilled, but still wary.
After a few more weeks he was definitely pulling on the line and I took him to a friend’s sheep to help generalize his new interest in herding. He was starting to learn that it was actually O.K. to do this! I was teaching him to lie down using treats and praise and he loved the attention. I knew any form of correction at this stage would be disaster — he needed to be reliable and willing without me coming on too strong.
The day came when he was ready to go off the line. Surprisingly, the dog who by now was dragging me down the paddock after sheep on a line was a different dog off the line. In fact, his gentleness was my first big surprise. He would wear for a minute then come back to me for reassurance. After a pet he’d go back with renewed vigor. I kept these sessions to only 5 minutes. I was working very dog-broke sheep to give him a sense of confidence and so he wouldn’t have to grip.
He was running too close, but I couldn’t introduce a cane because the very sight of implements such as brooms, sticks and other objects, that had been used to beat him in the past, caused him to quit. Body movements toward him caused the same reaction. I was banking on his ability to re-learn better habits later. Even though he was too close he had a rather calming effect on the sheep, and this was my second big surprise. He could instill trust in the sheep. Though he was powerful and could head and heel, he used his power wisely and only if the sheep were really disobeying.
I was getting so happy about this dog I had to remind myself to take time and be patient. Here was a young dog that in many ways was as reliable as some of the well-seasoned veteran sheepdogs I’ve owned. I found myself using him for all sorts of things I’d never put a just-started dog on. He worked with me on ewes with young lambs, he helped out at herding clinics when sheep got away from human handlers, he worked young Katahdin lambs that were as fast and bouncy as bunnies. He would work as long as I asked, but was easy to get away from the sheep and didn’t go bothering them when my back was turned. It suddenly occurred to me that here was a dog with no flash and dash but he was HELPFUL. I used him like a second person, putting him on a down in the barn aisleway and turning sheep out. He worked escaped baby ducklings and never tried to bite, just held them in the comer till I finally noticed and brought them in.
In fact, Cody made me think about my first Aussie. Back in 1962 was when I got “Jimmy” and he just followed me about and made himself useful in every way. It was easy to put commands on him and though he could bite a cow’s heel he could be almost tender with sheep in the lambing pens. Like those dogs back in those days, Cody was so, well … steady.
Cody and I are still a work in progress. He teaches me to be humble and quit pushing. He’s so different from what I usually like in a stockdog but maybe I’ll have to revise my concepts. He reminds me that it’s the RELATIONSHIP between me and the dog that is everything and determines what a dog can be. He makes me realize there are still Aussies out there that any child can train and that are useful because they’re so darned intelligent and honest. It also makes me shudder to think this wonderful dog was so close to death.
Nowadays some people are buying Aussies because they’re fashionable and pretty but they don’t understand the heart and soul of the breed. Not all will be as lucky as Cody. Some will be in shelters and euthanized because someone didn’t understand that Aussies need a job and a master who loves and trains them.
Will Cody ever be a trial dog? Only time will tell. He’s raising my future trials prospect puppies like the gentleman he is, and if the pups end up with one tenth his personality I’ll be happy. Maybe one day we’ll go to a trial but until then I’ll be just as happy if the only accolade he wins is the place he has won in my heart!
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1997