TRAINING THE ESSENTIALS
by Charles O’Reilly
In the last issue I covered two of the more common mistakes that owners of working dogs make during the first year or so of the dog’s life. Those two mistakes are: (1) Allowing the dog to work on its own without any supervision. So many bad habits develop because of this poor management practice that it may be impossible for you, the owner, or anyone else to correct them after several months of the young dog working on its own; (2) This mistake has to do with the owner who won’t allow the dog to work during the initial training stages using its own natural instinct. For the Border Collie and all of the other heading breeds, this would mean not allowing the dog to gather the livestock and keep them in a group. The mistake is that the owner will only allow the dog to drive the livestock — which is okay as long as the driving training is done after the dog has learned how to gather properly.
Why Use A Long Line
When you first start to use your dog in working or in training situations, you must insist on complete control of the dog. My method of getting the right kind of control is to have the dog dragging a 10 to 20 foot line so that if I want to stop the dog or call the dog to me, I can instantly do so without intimidating the dog in any way. A high percentage of the dogs we get in for training have had no prior training and I don’t like to waste a lot of time doing obedience training away from the livestock. In other words, at some time during the first week to 10 days of the dog’s formal training I will have the dog dragging a rope so that I can stop the dog or call the dog to me at any time and make sure the dog is not allowed to disobey either of these two very important commands. Now, I am not saying or suggesting you should not or cannot do some obedience training prior to taking your dog to the sheep — that is okay as long as you don’t overdo it and your dog gets so keyed in on you as a handler that he forgets about watching the livestock.
There are so many dogs in their initial stages of training (say the first 10 days) that do so many bad things that you need a bit of an edge to control the whole training situation — even if it is only to be able to walk away from the livestock when you have decided the training or the work is done. It can be a bit hazardous for a dog to be dragging a rope of any length around a group of livestock but in my experience I have never had a dog hurt, although I will admit that I have seen some awful mixups when the rope has gotten tangled in amongst the calves or sheep.
For some reason, some trainers I know have a phobia about having a dog dragging a rope around for a few days and I guess most of them think that they are above having to do that because of their special expertise in handling or starting dogs. They may be right — but most trainers who say that haven’t trained a large number of dogs of various bloodlines or of different breeds.
Basic Rules for Starting With a Long Line
So, how do you as a novice handler use a long line properly in the initial training or working situations?
(1) Never try to hold the dog by the line in a working or training situation unless you are attempting to train your dog to peel sheep away from a fence or a corner. The first few times you try to get your dog into tight corners or try to take livestock out of tight pens or away from fences you might need to take a short hold of the rope the dog is dragging and literally help the dog get the stock away from the fence or out of a corner. Once the stock have moved away from the fence far enough so that when you let go of the rope the dog can go around the stock and cover them properly. The use of the long line can be a good training tool in this type of situation.
(2) Another use for the long rope is to be able to stop the dog at any time by stepping on the rope and telling the dog to either stand or lie down. The real purpose is that the dog has no choice but to obey your command because you are in control of the situation. Once you have caused the dog to stop, all you need to do is walk toward the dog while you are stepping on the rope and once you get to the dog, you can either push the dog onto the ground for the “Lie Down” command or keep the dog on his feet for a “Stand” command. The key to this whole procedure is that you are not allowing the dog to be disobedient. I see so many novice handlers stop their dogs with a lie down command then immediately praise the dog so the dog is right back on his feet, mixing it up with the livestock. You need to stop the dog and make sure the dog stays stopped until you decide it is time for him to do something else.
Tone of Voice
It is not necessary to be constantly praising your dog any more than it is necessary to be always scolding him. Most good-quality working dogs know just by the tone of your voice when you as a handler are satisfied with the work he or she is doing. This brings to mind another thing you need to watch — try to speak to your dog in normal conversational tones that are audible enough to the dog for the distance you are away from him.
It does no good for you to be always shouting at your dog. If you need to raise or lower your voice, it should be done only when you want to emphasize a command. Eventually, your dog will learn to recognize the tone of your voice or whistle and respond to those various tones correctly. For example, most trainers will draw out a side command if they want their dog to run wider. If the handler wants the dog to run tighter and closer, the command is given quicker or crisper.
The initial training sessions should be done with fairly easy livestock that are use to a working dog and will not fight or challenge your dog. When you take your dog to the stock the first few times, you should try to get your dog to move freely around the stock in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions. Your position in relation to the dog and livestock is very important during the initial stages of training. Generally, it is best for you to stay close to the stock so that when you move, the dog is on the perimeter and holding the livestock close to you. By doing this, you are establishing in the dog’s mind that wherever you are, he must bring or hold the livestock to you.
Lie Down and Come
After a few days of letting the dog work freely around the livestock with you being part of the focus for the dog, you can practice stopping him at any time while he is working. To do this easily the first few times you may have to let the dog hold the livestock in a corner or along a fence. Tell him to “Lie Down”. Then, if necessary, step on the line the dog is dragging to ensure that the dog does lie down.
The other command you need to practice in the first few days of training is the command to get your dog to come directly to you. Here again, with some of the more ambitious or keener dogs, it can be a problem to get your dog to come to you. Have the dog bring the stock into a corner then stop him. Give the “Lie Down” command — keep yourself between the stock and the dog, about 10 to 20 feet from the dog — kneel down on the ground (on the dog’s level) and call your dog to you.
If he doesn’t come right away, you can use the line to reel him in to you after you have given the “Come Here” command. It is very important that eventually you are able to get your dog to come to you no matter where you are in relation to the livestock.
Some dogs are just not trainable and it is almost impossible for the novice handler to make a good evaluation about the trainability of their dog. Experienced trainers can usually tell in a short time whether or not a dog that is a year old or older is worth training.
If you have doubts about the trainability of your dog, then I suggest you seek the advice of a trainer who can help you make that decision. It just isn’t worth the time and effort in this day and age to spend six months or more trying to train a dog that wasn’t trainable to begin with. There a lot of good people-oriented, keen working, trainable dogs around. If you get one with the right qualities, then with lots of persistence and repetition your success in ending up with a well-trained dog will be well worth the time and effort.
this article was first published in the June/July 1991 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine