TRAINING THE UPSTANDING BREEDS : Inside Flanks

by Linda C. Franklin, Belgian Terveren breeder/trainer

A few of our upstanding breeds are referenced as droving (driving) dogs as opposed to fetching (gathering) dogs, but even a true driving dog can only benefit from correct fetching training as well. Having seen only one true driving dog out of the well over one thousand dogs I’ve worked with in herding, I have to believe this is a relatively rare natural quality. Who’s to say that the person using such terminology even knew the distinction between driving and fetching? If all he or she saw was a person, livestock and a dog in the same area, I suspect it is at least a possibility that such observation may not have been sufficiently long enough to witness the times when the dog may have needed to, and did, fetch as well as drive.

“Droving” could be a term adopted to merely distinguish a dog working livestock from a dog pulling a milk wagon, leading the blind, doing police work, jumping through burning hoops, etc. Let’s not call a dog a driving dog because he is too lazy, too badly built, too poorly trained, or too lacking in herding instinct to get to the head of his stock.

Assuming that your upstanding dog has strong herding instincts and reliable basics (outrun, fetch, three different speeds of movement and a good stop), I do believe it is imperative that your dog become comfortable with and responsive to inside flanks before serious driving training is undertaken. Driving stock directly away from his handler is stressful enough to the upstanding dog because his instincts tell him this is dead wrong; that the stock will get away if both you and he are on the same side of the stock. (He invariably thinks you’re not bright enough to realize this.) Let’s face it; you’ve been insisting that he not cross over in front of you all along, ever since you started trying for those nice wide, deep outruns, so it is pretty understandable to expect the dog to have some difficulty in accepting this new wrinkle.

If the following offends some people I’m sorry, but it is truly the way I view this matter based on my wide experiences with so many different sorts of dogs. Upstanding dogs are typically and invariably quite handler-oriented and extremely devoted to same, part and parcel of why we wish to own them. They value their association with you, their owner, above their love of herding. They herd to help you. They have another life, besides herding. Unlike the eye breeds, looking up a sheep’s rear while it travels over the horizon is probably not what the average upstanding dog perceives as heaven-on-earth until such time as they are convinced that such, in fact, is what you want. Heavy eye contact with livestock triggers vastly different influences and thus ingredients in the process of driving training.

Understanding this should make it easier for you to realize that while the goal of driving may be similar between eye and non-eye dogs, how you accomplish such will be most likely dissimilar and, in particular, probably in the amount of time required.

I prefer to start teaching inside flanks by using the command “in”, although any command may suffice which clearly denotes the action you wish your dog to perform. I use this word to cause my dog to move just slightly “in” toward a centrally vertical line between the stock and myself, the well-known but not always understood “balance point”. I use this command instead of the flanking command(s) at first to differentiate this movement from a flank and to suggest that speed and distance are not required herein, only a few steps at a walk or very slow trot usually sufficing. I may need to pat my leg on the appropriate side to get the dog moved in toward me, between me and the stock.

At first, I place my back against a fenceline and have a calm group of sheep settled in front of me, about eight to fifteen feet away. My dog, on either side of me at about seven or five o’clock, waits for my command. I prefer to not have a lead on her, although if you need to and/or feel more comfortable with one on, you may do so but I find such action increases the odds of your dog looking at you, not focusing on the stock as he should do. As long as the dog can hear you, he need not look at you, I feel. Depending upon the dog, three sheep might be better than ten or more; light sheep better than heavy. It all depends upon the dog you’re working with.

Because the dog is a bit away from you, not at heel, he may realize something different is about to happen. I would not preface the “in” command with the dog’s name as I might do for the outrun command because I don’t want the dog tearing off because he didn’t wait to hear the actual command, just anticipated what he thought was going to be an outrun command. Or the opposite could be helpful, if you don’t use his name before sending him out on an outrun; contrast helps dogs learn.

Upon giving the “in” command, I expect the dog to try to take a flank behind me but my body against the fence prevents this so I try to talk the dog over in front of me from either side until he is almost in front of me, on balance, looking at his sheep. Depending upon the dog, I’ll praise him softly, shortly, or excitedly. Softly, if the dog seems upset by this new maneuver – just enough to let him know I appreciate him putting himself in this strange, perhaps uncomfortable position but not so much that I distract him from his stock.

Shortly (in a monotone), if the dog seems content and calm in this strange position and is well-focused. Excitedly, if the dog has focused on me instead of the stock; as soon as I get him to look back at the stock because he suspects from my tone of voice that something fun is about to happen, I will send him to get around the sheep by telling him to start the opposite flank and outrun from which he started (i.e.., if he was at seven o’clock and I brought him into the center line or balance point, I’d send him out on the “away to me” flank, letting him go to the balance point at the top of the stock, where I would stop him. Vice versa is equally applicable.) I would then go to him and praise him. I’d call him off and return to my position on the fence again.

When the dog hits the balance point close to you, the word “there” might be used to denote that is where you expect him to pause because it is the balance point. Again, depending upon the dog, “there” needs to be spoken softly, almost subliminally or, in contrast, firmly in order to get past the dog’s excitement or pressure level.

One might do several repeats of the same direction, then switch to the other side and repeat the same maneuver in the opposite one, but, depending upon the dog, make sure he is actually learning what you’re trying to teach him. Don’t let him think geography is the sole deciding factor as to when this maneuver is going to be required of him. Its application is not limited by your backside being against this particular part of the fence or indeed any fence. Whenever you say it, wherever you say the “in”, the dog must move toward the center line or balance point on your side of the stock. However, it may take many repetitions for the dog to become schooled in this response before you can accomplish same without something against your back to prevent him from flanking all the way around behind you.

Change frequently what is at your back, change directions you face, directions you send the dog to or from, stock you use and environment. When the dog will reliably come from seven or five o’clock into the center line or point of balance position no matter where you are, start increasing his distance from you by placing him at eight or four o’clock, then three or nine and so on. The farther towards the top of the clock you ask your dog to come from to the balance point, the more the tendency builds up to try to circle around behind you, particularly if you’ve changed to the common flank commands instead of the generic “in”.

Learn to read your dog’s expression as he flanks toward you and the base of the clock. At the right time, when you get a strong suspicion that he’s going to try to bow out and continue past and behind you, repeat the “in” command and make sure he turns in front of you by stepping backward and blocking his effort to get behind you. If need be, stop him the moment you see he’s up to no good; give him a moment to think about what you told him to do, then repeat the “in” command and insist that he do so.

Teach the dog to expect a pause command on balance, not necessarily at six o’clock. This is where you need to be watching the stocks’ heads, where you need to understand where the balance point is, depending upon where you want the herd to go were you to actually move them. You haven’t been actually driving them anywhere, just putting the dog in the right position to do so had you wished. If you still don’t understand balance (another whole article!), delay the above training until you do! One of you two is supposed to know the right way to do this stuff! For the dog to have faith in you and want to obey you, you need to convince him that you are always right. If you are right, things should progress smoothly and the dog will feel, “what’s not to like?”

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1995