PREPARE YOUR HERDING DOG PROPERLY FOR HIS WORK:
The Importance of Avoiding One-Sidedness

by Linda C. Franklin

Frequently I notice in testing dogs for herding instinct that a dog is appreciably stronger and freer-moving in one direction than the other. Those new to herding don’t always pick up on this point early on and often fall into the habit of allowing their dog to select which direction he wishes to travel. If you’re going to need two directions on your dog—and which of us does not—do not allow such a preference to develop even at the onset of training.

It is my opinion that a dog is most receptive to your insistence that he move in his least preferred direction at the onset of his training exposures, when he is— hopefully— very keen and wants to reach his sheep any way he can (that is, any way you’ll let him.) If the dog isn’t keen enough to accept your wish that he travel in his less-preferred direction, he is most likely too young and immature for such training.

Stress happens in herding training, either from you requiring that the dog move in the direction you wish, or from stock that has decided they can call your dog’s bluff, sensing his inexperience. Mature, dog-wise stock can size up your dog in a trice, knowing intuitively by his location and movement how much he knows. They will stress your dog and either hang up on a fence or in a corner, knowing full well your dog doesn’t have the experience to work them out of same. Hesitation in flanking authoritatively in both directions will give the stock power over the dog. Sensing such an advantage, some stock will actively threaten your dog.

The point is, don’t allow your dog to give the stock the upper hand. Those who use young stock that is fearful of dogs in any position and will give ground to a dead gnat may get the wrong idea of their dog’s abilities as a youngster. Such stock won’t hang up in corners or on fence lines, defying your dog. Well-broke stock that respects a dog will most often work for just a little while for a green dog before they will realize he has a weak side (direction), and then will start to take advantage of same.

There are those who believe you shouldn’t force a dog to work his weaker side until he has had a good deal of stock exposure. If we are talking about a dog with proper, herding instincts, the ability to balance either to us or to some other point, then the dog must be able to travel in both directions equally well. If one lets the dog go only as he wishes until much later down the road, he has become now firmly entrenched in the use of his favorite direction and will often quit working if you now start insisting that he move in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar direction.

If a dog maintains his preference for only one direction of travel, I have to doubt that he will be on balance or in control of his stock. Balance, to me, means covering your stock efficiently. Circling (ringing) is unproductive, a waste of time and energy, and particularly troublesome in upstanding dogs. Ringing keeps their feet happy but doesn’t do much in the way of demonstrating that the dog has a “plan”. The earlier you require a loose-eyed dog to balance properly instead of ringing inanely, the quicker your dog will become of real use to you.

Strong-eyed breeds of dogs line out and balance much easier than do the looser-eyed dogs. Too many people allow their upstanding dogs to circle too much and too long before they start concerning themselves with balanced fetching or driving work. First- established habits are difficult to modify, necessitating tedious retraining later on.

The need for both sides being equally strong can be appreciated more when you realize that many times there is a right side and a wrong side to approach a job if is to be done efficiently and safely. For example: what if the stock to be fetched was in a big field, on the right side of which was a 200 foot drop-off into the ocean? What if the stock were grazing closer to this right side of the field than to the middle and you wanted your dog to gather them up and bring them to you but his strong flank (or, the one you had allowed him to practice to the disadvantage of the other) was his come-by? Or what if you sent your dog on the away-to-me and half way out on the outrun he crossed over and took the come-by? What if your dog was a tad flat and cut in about 9 o’clock? In this instance, it should be clear that the best way to send the dog would have been the away-to-me—provided you and your dog were familar with the field and knew about the drop-off!

Know your working environment! Know what potential hazards are out there before you send your dog. Be fair to your dog! It may cost a little time, hoofin’ it out there to see where what is, but it’s better than having to bury your dog or your livestock or both, because you didn’t know what harm could befall your animals in that environment.

Having to work stock strange to me and my dog in strange environments more than a few times, I can tell you I have always been glad I was careful and took the time to learn as much as I could before starting work so I could properly help my dogs. If there is no right or wrong flank to take in a working situation, I simply tell my dogs, “in” if the working environment is tight, like stall work or stock trailers. I use “Get Back” if the working space is substantial. By these two generic commands, my dogs understand they can choose (using their own discrimination) the best direction to travel as long as the task gets accomplished efficiently. Our superior height over that of a dog can often let us see something the dog cannot appreciate until he gets well into his job.

Whenever possible, help your dog. Be fair to him by not putting him no-win situations. You are a team; help him learn to make the right decisions.

this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer magazine December 1996/January 1997