TRAINING THE UPSTANDING BREEDS: Driving

by Linda C. Franklin, Belgian Terveren breeder/trainer

Provided your upstanding dog is now comfortable with and efficient at going to balance on an inside flank without sacrificing depth and width on outruns, he may be ready to start driving training in earnest.

Fetching is still important
As mentioned before, until you also teach your dog how to shut and lock a pasture gate, you most likely will still find it necessary to walk out to the area to which your dog drives stock and safely confine them. Thus, in the majority of cases, herding stock is most often handled by fetching.

I once delivered a dozen sheep to an unfamiliar destination and lady in Michigan . Since I had underestimated the length of time it would take me to drive there, I arrived well after dark. With no yard lights to illuminate our progress, we made our way over a half mile to the newly erected barn through rutted pasture, great patches of boot-sucking mud and “exciting” areas of balance-defeating ice. Driving sheep to an unknown destination in pitch blackness is not my choice nor my sheep’s!

To me, the only intelligent way to handle this situation was to lead the way with our flashlights and trust the dog to keep the stock pushed up to us. In the dark, everything startles sheep and were it not for the stock’s obedience to the dog and familiarity with me, this would have been an uncompleted job.

Another time, arriving in New Jersey the day before I was to conduct a test, I had to unload my sheep and walk them to strange confinement pens – again in total darkness. First, I walked over to the pens with my dog to get the feeling of where we needed to go and, hopefully, spot any disadvantageous pressure points that might sabotage our efforts. Nothing suggested particular trouble except that it was very obvious that we were distractingly close to the New Jersey Turnpike.

The constant din and lights of vehicular traffic would have awakened the dead. I returned to the trailer, opened it up and the sheep, for a change, seemed eager to exit. With my trusty flashlight, I started to lead the way, only now appreciating how poor the weather was; light but driving rain with high winds that snapped and buffeted the plastic tarps surrounding the holding pens. Standing water (another high on the list of things-to-avoid-at-allcosts by the average ovine), residue of a recent hurricane that had passed down the coast that week, changed into white caps in both the hotel parking lot and the grounds we needed to traverse. The sheep gave serious thought to hoofing it back to Illinois !

Driving in this instance would not have been my preference either, no matter how capable my dog might be in that ability. We accomplished this job in short order, although going into the pens was a tad tricky since the sheep couldn’t see where they were being led and tried their hardest not to enter. By morning light, I realized the pens contained too much standing water as well, so the sheep were right; it wasn’t a great place to spend the night, even if it had been light.

The above should serve to illustrate that no matter what trial course you’re training your dog for, reliable fetching will still most likely be the work your dog will need to do much of the time. When in doubt, fetch to keep things under control. It’s a lot easier to lead sheep where they’ve never been before than to drive them to an unfamiliar place.

The Parallel Drive
With your upstanding dog’s ability to do inside flanks, parallel driving, in my opinion, should be the next thing you perfect. In this work you, as the handler, adopt a three point grouping with your sheep and dog. The dog brings up the rear behind the stock and you are somewhere between the stock and the dog, although below and parallel.

Again, I don’t prefer to use a fence for such work. Your moving with the dog and sheep makes this normally unnecessary as the dog realizes you are coming along too and so all is right in his world. If his inside flank training has been properly effective, he should be quite agreeable to parallel driving. If you need to praise the dog for staying behind in the driving position, do so – quietly and calmly.

Rating at a walk
If he tries to head on either flank instead of drive, use the “there” and “in” commands to stabilize his position and require a very slow trot or (preferably) a flat-footed walking speed. Slow him down and require him to stay off his stock Make him keep a steady pace. Do not frequently stop him, letting the sheep drift off and then let him start again. The up-down, up-down stuff is not good form. The dog must learn to rate his stock on the drive.

Even more so than on a fetch, herding should consist of smooth, fluidly continuous movement. Stopping and starting is stressful to both the stock and the dog. It is also normally unnecessary and undesirable if the dog has been properly taught to rate his sheep. As soon as you give him his first “walk up” command, if his speed is greater than a walk, go to the dog and convince him that if his next step isn’t appropriately rated, he will definitely regret it! Don’t nag him; go to him and make him understand when you give him his slowest speed command, you will see that speed and nothing else.

Parallel drive only a short distance before allowing the dog to head and start back in the reverse direction; or stop him, go to him and praise him to the skies. Call him off the stock with you and bring him around to their rears and start parallel driving again.

Circling
Or parallel drive in a very large circle, 75 to 100 paces, continually demanding the dog to stay in the driving posture with you paralleling his progress. Don’t underestimate how big your circle should be; too tight and the dog will head before you know it. Different dogs need different sized circles. Reverse direction of the circle so you accompany the dog and stock on both sides, not just one or the other.

Get the dog used to making his inside flank adjustments on either your right or left side. Periodically reward the dog for good driving position and pacing by letting him head on both flanks, not always the one furthest from your position. Sometimes just stop him in the driving position, go to him and after the necessary (for that particular dog) praise, leave the field and go enjoy your companion somewhere else.

When driving through obstacles try for a straight line all the way through the obstacle.

As the dog becomes more relaxed with driving, the handler should attempt to subtly drop back closer to the dog’s position than to the sheep, although still parallel to both and below. Gradually expose the upstanding dog to the fact that you and he may be basically in the same relationship to the sheep, on the same side, and this is all right with you so it should be all right with him. Don’t be in a big hurry to fall behind the dog; once behind his line of vision, you intensify his desire to head again so he can keep both you and the stock in sight.

Working with external pressures
Unless you tell the dog to head, he should maintain his driving position, so always clearly indicate when you’ve finished wanting him to drive and when it is all right for him to return to fetching. Don’t let him just cheat his way back around in front of the stock.

When doing the above work, be sure to understand the pressures (attractive and repulsive) that may exist in your working area. Let them guide you as to which direction to attempt driving. Make the pressure work for you, not against you. Trying to push sheep toward objects they don’t want to approach by driving is putting unnecessary hardship on your dog and will not simplify driving training initially. When the dog becomes proficient, then you can try the hard things.

Pushing (driving) sheep in the direction of the barn at normal feeding time is going to make them pick up speed which is bound to make the dog want to head and return them to you. This is a common sense axiom: Know your working environment. Also, use sheep that move readily for a dog at their stern, not sticky sheep or sheep that are too light. Such sheep may be used after your dog becomes efficient in driving.

Adding difficulty
When your upstanding dog seems content with parallel driving in a circle as well as a straight line and in many different directions, and you are able to walk along behind him (rather closely still – perhaps no more than ten feet) without his reverting back to fetching, stress him mildly by now driving where pressure is working against you, as mentioned above. Don’t hesitate to move up again to where your dog can see you and realize you still expect him to drive. Knowingly choose to do this. Don’t let difficulties catch you and your dog by surprise.

Increase difficulty factors until you and your dog can handle just about anything because he has learned for himself that driving sheep back toward their barn will definitely require his balance point to not be at the infamous “six o’clock” position, otherwise he can kiss his stock goodby! Balance points change continually according to geography, distraction potential, type of stock worked, time of work and virtually everything else in the sheep’s environment. They don’t have their reputation of being screwballs for nothing!

Driving through obstacles
If everything is going swimmingly now and your dog just can’t get any better than he is (that may take months though), you can start practicing driving through obstacles. I advocate this work rather than long driving trips into big, open fields with no perceivable goal – to the dog, particularly. This is very important to the upstanding dog because he is invariably and keenly aware of his environment. A big, plain, open field will trigger his desire to fetch again to keep things under control so the stock won’t “get away”.

Set your dog up about 20 feet away from his stock that are, in turn, about 30 to 40 feet away from an obstacle, similar to the AKC “B” course drive gates or the Ranch/Open drive panels in Border Collie trials, well away from any fence line. Start the dog walking up on his stock heading toward the obstacles with yourself in whatever position is necessary for your dog; parallel to him, parallel to the sheep, or just behind the dog. Insist that the dog’s speed be correct for the situation, and try for the straightest possible line from the start all the way through the obstacle.

If the stock starts to zig-zag, either the dog is going too fast (he is zig-zagging himself), and almost assuredly he is too close to his sheep to see their heads which will tell him where their rears will end up! If the drive was collected and correct, let the dog head the stock and fetch them to. you only with the smoothest, most collected lift possible. Or stop after the sheep are well-cleared of the obstacle before they start to turn and go in another direction. Go to the dog and pour on the praise! Alternate between these two so the dog will never quite know what to expect and will be more receptive to any command you give.

In the Border Collie and AKC HX level trials, your dog needs to keep his stock settled after each drive panel in order to move on to the next with a correct and cooperative mindset. Too frequent and madly excitable fetching after each obstacle will not accomplish continued, efficient work.

Correcting looking back at the handler
Start being aware as you attempt to drop back by the dog or behind his line of vision while driving that if and/or when your dog turns to look back at you, you do not give him a command to work. If he gets “rewarded” with your permission to work or extra commands every time he looks back at you, he will come to think this is a logical sequence of events. He isn’t sure of what he should do or the stock stopped or he just doesn’t like you out of sight, so he looks back and voila! you re-enforce this undesirable action by giving him permission to move on.

When he looks back at you, or preferably, his body English told you he is about to do so with an ear flick, ears folded backward listening to your movements, or his forehand has started to bend left or right, you should continue to look at the sheep and only peripherally at him. Wait until he turns his head back towards his stock before you give him a command. This may take quite some time with some dogs. Be ready and willing to wait him out. Sooner or later one of the sheep will move or make a noise that will distract your dog and turn his attention back on them. Then give him whatever command is necessary. I have spent many, goodly moments out in a field waiting for the dog to decide I had been struck dumb and since I was not part of the equation any more, perhaps now would be a good time to move toward those sheep and have a little fun! It’s worth the wait to win your point!

Unless you tell a dog to head, demand that he drive if this is what you’re schooling him on. You decide whether the dog drives or fetches, not him.

As soon as your upstanding dog realizes that you are heading toward a very obvious goal – the panels – he should start to relax and work farther off the stock so he can easily see their heads, anticipating an intent to veer off direction. He should learn to make small changes with his own body, squaring his flanks, which will turn the sheep to the initial line without the dog moving closer to them. In time, he will learn that flanking his body will save him time and steps; this will come with maturation and experience with many different working types of stock in various locations.

This driving is just about the last, brand new sort of herding you’ll try with Friend Fuzzy, so enjoy the time necessary for such and let the dog keep his enthusiasm for herding without building up too much pressure by expecting him to become an overnight success.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine June/July 1995