Monday, July 11, 2011

Disposition: Busy and Bossy

If I ever strike it money rich, chances are that my days would unfold pretty much the same way they do now. I love my job, and every day I meet new or existing clients is a good day. Within that realm though there are good appointments, better ones, and some that are absolutely fabulous. Which is which I can typically predict when someone first contacts me.
I love all dogs, really, I do. But my favorites, my heart dogs, belong to the herding group. Whenever someone is seeking my help with their collie, or Aussie, or heeler, or Spanish water dog, or Corgi, or Sheltie, German and Belgian shepherd, it foretells, with almost 100% certainty, a fantastic consultation.
No exception to that rule with recent clients. I was the second pro they hired, which is not unusual cause I am not cheap and barely advertise, so sometimes folks find me after the other trainer failed to improve the dog’s behavior, or even made it worse. Without elaborating why this particular one didn’t work out, a comment he made totally bewildered me. He said, according to my clients, that training doesn’t work with an Australian shepherd.
What? Trust me, not true. Not at all true. To the contrary: done right, Aussies are a pleasure to train. That is why I have a fabulous day whenever they are my ruff customers.
Okay, I grant that my affinity for herding dogs not everyone shares, and I know that they can be a challeging.
As a group, they were and are bred to organize or move sheep, cattle, geese, goats or pigs, and although fervently ready to obey the ultimate boss, their person, they are also not opposed to taking command. Human and canine shepherd are a team, collaborators in bossing other animals around. From the dog’s point of view, they are playmates with the human setting the rules of the game. Person and dog are in it together, all de live long day cooperate in organizing chaos-in-motion, telling animals that are often physically bigger and stronger where to go, and when.
What traits a successful herding dog must possess is evident: Endurance, intelligence, determination, an intense motivation to work with his person but an equally strong drive to control. Herding dogs are brainy, busy and bossy beings, and much tougher than their little bodies suggest, which means that they withstand physical force. A dog able to pressure animals that have horns and can kick won’t be impressed with a flimsy correction, and loses interest in an owner who comes down hard.
Someone who is controller instead of collaborator, overpowers instead of outsmarts, and believes that an hour-long leash walk sandwiched between the office and taking the kids to piano practice is enough stimulation, is ill-matched with a herding dog - any herding dog, but Australian shepherds have an extra quirk I love so much, but can present an additional hurdle for a stern Type A human personality.
Even when on the job, an Aussie likes to put his own spin on things. They are masters in self-amusement. I would have given a month pay for being able to enter Davie’s brain when she, unprompted, charged straight into a flock of perfectly organized sheep. Out of boredom, grinning I swear, she scattered them, just to round them up again. Our herding clinic instructor called it Aussie-bowling, cause only Aussies do it.
They are not willful, but often lack the seriousness of other herding breeds, are the jesters of them all, are creatively obedient. When teamed with a person who doesn’t have a sense of humor, the relationship easily slides in the ditch, and incompatible teams are more common than one might think cause Aussies are darn good looking. If you take one for a stroll you’ll magnetically attract the attention of passersby. People stare, inquire, google, and then get one. All kinds of people, including the dog inexperienced, mentally and physically retired, and busy-with-other-stuff ones.
So, what can one do with a bossy and busy canine joker when there are no sheep to be organized, and when time is limited?
Any kind of dog sport will do. All herding breeds are excellent candidates for agility, Rally O’ and Freestyle dance, but there are other, less obvious activities that can help to turn an initially mismatched relationship into a mutually rewarding one.
For example people gathering. If there are several members in your family, have your pooch wake each one in the morning, and maybe even teach him to usher the individual to the breakfast table.
Instead of shouting for your partner or child, let your four-pawed Pan relay information with a note tied to his collar.
On off leash walks, spread out on purpose and allow your herder to regroup everyone. Herding humans isn’t the problem, nipping them is, but with a little training your pooch will learn space balance.
Herding dogs love toys. Scatter his stuff throughout the house and make it his task to collect them all, placing them on a mat, or in his toy box. Every Aussie or collie loves to chase after a ball. I swear our Davie was born with one in her mouth, and she fetched and released into our hands at 18 weeks of age, without any training. Your Border collie might not bring the ball all the way in, but likely tosses it in your direction and instantly runs out to where he expects it to land again.
Job creation is paramount for your herding dog, and equally important is, while keeping the Aussie’s comic nature in mind, that he understands that a task is something you facilitate, and not sporadic, self-generated entertainment. That is what commands are for. Don’t just throw the ball, tell him to “fetch” it. Don’t just let him trudge behind you, tell him “let’s go”. If you have a mailbox at the end of your driveway, send your pooch ahead with a “mail” command and then have him carry it in the house.
On hikes, teach him to “jump” over logs or across a brook, “balance” on a sidewalk curb, “up” on a park bench and “weave” around trees that stand close together. Davie learned to “pick” her own Saskatoon berries when they were in season. None of that takes a lot of extra time, but increases attention, obedience and the bond between you, and challenges your dog’s mind and body, important for most any dog, but vital for the innately busy ones.
Herding dogs are sometimes labeled dominant, hyper, stubborn and, wow, even untrainable. Nonsense! They are just inexhaustibly looking for a job, and seeking information from their person how to do it properly. When they get that, the inherently controlling pooch doesn’t get out-of-control, and his intense drive won’t turn into obsession or aggression.


  1. Great post, as usual!

    Once I was hosting an info table at a Western horse show. A man with his daughter (showing) had an Aussie in tow. That dog was trained to the teeth, not in a friendly way, but with all the absolutes and the owner was constantly on him, too. I watched as the dog, put in a down stay bc dad had to help daughter, scootched around to sniff things. Even though he was Mr Obedience, i could see he had his own opinions! It was funny to watch.

    I have pugs, so i have had the pug herding techniques: doorstop to cut me off and bumping my heels to move me along. ;)

  2. Even to the end Davie still wanted to do things even though she couldn't. I can see her now waiting for us at the rainbow bridge with a ball at her feet saying I am ready when you are ready. Aussies rule all the way. an excellent Blog.

  3. Thank you Paillette and Mike. Pugs' spunk is often underestimated - great dogs as well.

  4. I'm with you--I just love those herding pups. Wish I had known about positive training when my heeler was a young girl--but it was 15 years ago in New Mexico, so everything i heard was silly stuff about "dominating" her.

    Glad I'll know better next time I find myself with one of those high-energy, hardworking little troublemakers...thinking the next foster heeler may not be far off. Thanks for the great post.

  5. I love your post. We adopted Suzy when she was an older puppy in November 2001. She passed away August 2016. She was sweet, loveable, smart, funny and stubborn too. From the day we brought her home she would not fetch a ball. ShedS fetch a rope toy or a kong till she was about 2 1/2. After that if you threw it and told her to fetch she'd look at the ball, look at you and while snorting she'd look at the ball again. This meant, "If you wanted the ball/Kong/rope you shouldn't have thrown it. I'm not getting it for you."
    She invented her own sign/body language. She'd try to tell us something and if we got the wording right she'd give lots of reinforce mentioned, tail wags doggy smile,dancing. If we got it wrong she'd turn her face away then look back and wait for us to try again. If we were really wrong she'd snort and turn her head sharply. She had signs for allergies, turn the light off, cover me up, yes, no, hell no, your an idiot (she had an attitude, she was cool). She also used her dog tags clicking on her water bowl for freash water or on a stair in the laundry room when she wanted out.
    She knew a few minutes was the length of a TV commercial break. A little while was 30 minutes (we never figured out how she knew how to measure 30 minutes) and a long while was how long it takes to roast a turkey.
    She had jobs when she was younger. But when she turned 10 she stopped being a watch dog and turned into our homes version of a Walmart Greeter.