“UNBRIDLED ENTHUSIASM” or TEACHING TO GRIP

by Mark Hodges

hallie1_forwebAd Astra Halcyon or “Hallie” had a firm grip on what the command “Get Ahold” meant in the context of our play in the house and the back yard. She knew that whatever target object I held in my hand was the focus of her bite. It was time to apply this skill to the stock.

A friend had been coming to the farm to prepare her dog for its first experience in an AKC herding event. Her dog was not especially strong, and by the third visit the old experienced ewes had the dog’s number and had chased it off with a few stomped feet and a couple of lowered-head charges. When we went out five days later on Easter weekend, the sheep tried the same scenario with Hallie and me. That was not going to happen!

When the three problematic ewes backed themselves into a corner and refused to move, staring directly at Hallie. I walked right up to the ewes and then gave her the command to go in and force them with a bite. She came in fast and hard , . . and bit my crook! I called her off, and was roaring laughing. She had done exactly what she knew to be right.

I hung the crook on the fence, and instead grabbed one of the sheep’s tails. I again called “Get Ahold”and Hallie did what she knew and latched on to the tail. The sheep bolted, pulling Hallie towards the next corner. Hallie held on until she heard the release command. What a good dog! The next time I held the ewe’s head and forced it into a lowered head pose. On command Hallie hit right between the ears, and released on command. I did the same practice successfully with a ewe staring straight ahead and then with a sheep’s leg in my hand. After a dozen or so practice trials, the sheep were now quite respectful of Hallie and they moved off quickly.

Two days later, when we came back to the farm to work, the ewes were up to their old defensive-posture tricks, and they were keeping the yearlings from moving as well. Ahh, I knew that Hallie could fix this! I hissed her in and emphatically said “Get Ahold”. She immediately went completely nuts, biting tails, heads, butts, noses, anything and everything. I would call her off one body part, and she would lock in on another. She was as jazzed as I have ever seen her. In 30 seconds, I had six sheep running for their very lives. I caught Hallie, and she was looking like she was on drugs. Her eyes were completely dilated, ears at full attention, sheep hair and fleece sticking out of her saliva-dripping mouth, and with blood speckles all over her chin and cheeks. I leashed her up and went to get the sheep repair medical kit.

While I treated the three cuts on the sheep and stitched one tail underside I had time to think about what had happened, and my contribution to the disaster. I concluded that the combination of Hallie’s drive to do what she was asked; with her natural inner herding/prey drive had completely overwhelmed her. So she did both. This was surely a case of completely unbridled enthusiasm.  When family and friends came to the farm for a spring visit, they looked with puzzled faces at the sheep, and wondered how it had been possible for me to get them colored pink for Easter.

Over the next two weeks I formulated a plan to solve this error in Hallie’s training.  Instead of “Get Ahold”, a command with some negative behaviors already firmly associated in Hallie, I would transition her to an entirely new command, “Hit.” This command would mean to Hallie to bite once, release, and wait for a secondary command. I would use the tried and true method of “successive approximation” in getting this new learning going.

I began this process by teaching Hallie on a stuffed toy again, only not held in my hand.  I set the stuffed horse on the floor several feet away, and gave her the “Get Ahold” and “Let Go” commands one right after another.  After five or six repetitions with Hallie doing exactly as she was commanded, I substituted the word “Hit” after hissing her in, and the moment she bit, I called her with a “Here Come,” a command she was always willing to follow.  She immediately knew to bite with the “Hit” command, and after every proper performance of the bite and release, I laid her down, walked to her, and gave effusive praise for a job well done.  As we continued over the next few training sessions, I substituted a variety of new commands to follow the “Hit” directive.  She learned to wait for “Out,” “Back-Back”, “Here, come,” “Down,” and eventually her flanking commands, which would always come immediately on the heel of her hearing “Hit”.  On a few occasions, Hallie began to anticipate the secondary command, so I would sometimes alter the timing and variety of the how and when, just to keep her honest.

Once Hallie was very consistent on the ever more destroyed stuffed horse, and I could Hallie_ewes_forwebmove freely away from the target item, I moved her on to some troublesome ewes.  I placed them in a small pen with square corners and allowed them to back-in and assume a defensive posture. Hallie was sent in and when overtly challenged, she was given the “Hit” command followed by “Out.”  The command gave her permission to bite once, and her instinct guided her to the ewe’s faces.  Every day for a week we reviewed these command combinations until she knew exactly what to do, whether the sheep were facing her or turned away.  I have made it a point to never give the bite command without a follow-up command right after it.

After this period of bite-specific training, my sheep know and completely respect this little black dog.   She is now consistent in her action and specifically targets the top of the nose when heads are lowered, and very low on the sheeps’ legs.  This process has elevated her confidence, even with the bit of restraint tossed in to the mix. When we start her on cattle, this process should be both familiar and applicable.  Now I never have any issues with the flock not moving off of her.

June 2006