ROUNDPENS, WALKABOUTS, AND CHORES

by Maarten Walter

Question: I’ve got a 9 month old girl that I’ve been letting work sheep about once a week or so. She’s worked ducks a little too. I haven’t been doing any overt training, just trying to block her with my body to get her to flank back, and give her time on stock to keep her interested. And boy is she interested. We’ve been working in an round pen tho’, where she is getting more and more into circling (with a clear preference for the ‘come-by’ direction).

My thoughts lately have been to maybe give her little jobs to do, like moving stock from pen to pen, or from field to pen, just to put a little variety into things so she doesn’t just settle into orbiting-is-fun mode. I don’t want to start any serious training with her yet because she’s not mature enough mentally yet, so I was leaning towards finding simple stockwork for her that just didn’t lend itself to letting her circle-circle-circle.

At the same time, I know that pups need to get comfortable with keeping stock together, but I’m not sure just how much leniency that gives them to orbit. About 60-70% of the time I can flank her back if my timing is right, the rest of the time she just kicks out farther than I can block and lopes by.

Any suggestions? Comments? Am I thinking in the right direction? I’d hate to pull her off stock completely while she grows up because she is so motivated and really sticks to it, almost too much. Very nice work ethic, just doesn’t quite understand the goals of the work. At the same time, I’m not planning on working her much more than once/twice a week of low key exposure stuff because she is just a pup.

sorry this is so long! Bekka & Blue & Belle, Iowa

Bekka and everybody:

My advice would be to get out that round pen as soon as possible. Round pens, like any training tool, can be overdone. They’re great for certain things but also can easily be the cause of problems too.

Dogs, regardless of them being Aussies or BC’s, like to have space to run into. Wide open spaces. Young dogs, if they’ve matured physically enough, and you’re using nice, calm sheep, will do just fine out in a larger fields once the dog has learned to not split the sheep and not go ballistic in working them. I know, not a normal Aussie training comment but it’s true, our dogs do good out in the open once they’ve got the basics sort of figured out.

So I like to get a dog out of the round pen real fast, given the above criteria. Take the sheep for a walk with your dog just walking behind them. They should eventually wear, settle down and really start minding their stock. They’re called “walk-abouts”. Good exercise too.

Walk-abouts or just plain fetching teaches a dog how to control stock. Circling (flanking) doesn’t really teach a dog how to control the stock. It teaches them how to get around the stock so they can then start controlling them by fetching, at first. This means the more you can let the dog fetch, the more they’ll learn to control the stock on their own. And the more circling they do the less control they learn!

Taking the sheep for a walk should not be hard-core training, it should be just a casual, get out there and get some exercise. If you have an older, experienced dog around that can help, in case you’re worried about the sheep, that is ok. Personally, if the dog has got it’s real basics, meaning it won’t split the stock and is beginning to understand the balance point, I’ll start taking them out into the field and working a larger flock. Lots of fetching. Long, straight lines. The bigger the flock and the bigger the field, the better. Well, let’s say no more than 25 sheep anyways. But five or more will work too.

You’ll see that once they’re comfortable, or more comfortable anyways, in fetching and controlling the stock, they’ll be easier to push out into bigger flanks too. That’s because they’re more confident about not losing their stock. Young, pushy dogs that are taught to circle can frequently become circling fools because they are constantly worried that they’ll lose their stock and haven’t learned that control really is something different than circling.

Doing real chores with a young dog is great too. Any chance you get to expose the dog to stock, the better off the dog will be. Yes, don’t push too hard if they’re young, keep it real light. I like to take a young dog with me to do chores. If things get out of hand I’ll put some twine on his collar and tie it to my belt. That way he can’t get into trouble. Just go real slow. Don’t yell, talk softly and nicely to the dog during chores.

This is where they learn to think on their own. Very few commands. The less you say the more the dog will learn to figure things out. Aussies are very, very smart when it comes to that.

So yes, keep working your young dog, but carefully. Go light on the training side. I had a young, very hot dog about 6 years ago. I made the mistake of not letting him work stock at all from the time he was 6 months old till he was 12 months. For the sake of the sheep. Bad move. That only made him worse. Next time I’ll do it differently… Ahh, there’s always next time, isn’t there? Makes me wish I had a young dog I could start right now, it’s a lot of fun. Hope that helps somewhat.

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. . . Ok, how long to spend in a round pen? This is a pet peeve of mine. Not very long, as short as possible, I’d say. Yes, a rookie handler needs to learn a few things in there but don’t do the same thing over and over in there. Like that backwards two-step thing or pushing a dog around with a rake in his face forever. To me, a young dog needs to learn a few things where the round pen is good. First, to relax around his stock. If he goes bonkers on you the round pen is a good place to get a grip on that. No pun intended.

Also a young dog (or an inexperienced dog) needs to learn not to blast through the stock. In other words he needs to learn to get around the stock in a nice fashion. And perhaps stop and get called off.

That’s it. Once a dog knows those basics, perhaps not perfectly, get out of the round pen as soon as you can and do the same things out in the open that you did in the round pen. Gradually increasing the difficulty, distance, etc.

But at the same time, if you have a problem, go back to the round pen, especially if it points back to a very basic thing that the dog is doing wrong.
this article was first published in the Yahoo discussion board Aussie-Herders