Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sheepdog Training Not Just For Sheepdogs

It is no secret that I have an affinity for sheepdogs, particularly Australian shepherds, followed by Border collies. I ever only owned one, but know and worked with many, and as soon as I have the time – and when the time is right, we'll invite another Aussie into our home and hearts. Because I love sheepdogs, I am fascinated with things sheepdogs do, like herding.
In 2006 I participated with Davie in a herding workshop with Randy Dye in Bowden, Alberta - there is not too much info online about him, but if put Randy Dye Border collies in your search box, you’ll find a couple of blurbs. Davie and I had a ball, metaphorically, but what I found most remarkable was how much of what I learned is applicable to all dogs. That sentiment recurred a couple of months ago when I read Lorna McMasters book “Dancing with Sheepdogs”. Trust me, you don’t have to have a herding breed dog to appreciate the lessons in this book.

For starters, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters train without pain. McMasters says: “You build reliable obedience and behavior with patience, not force, and the dog will love to work with you.”

Lorna McMasters uses her voice – verbal commands, and that is something I also preach. One of my biggest peeves with traditional, pack leader, and e-collar trainers is that they let the tools speak for them, and the words they do use are warnings rather than information: Heel! Sit! Come! And you better, or else!
As one of a few force-free trainers who does not use a clicker, I feel validated by the author’s statement that you should use your voice to support your dog. The voice, then, becomes a feel-good trigger for your dog, and whenever you open your mouth you raise work attitude, draw your dog to you, and you can decrease momentary distress.
Like every good force-free trainer, Lorna McMaster is not permissive. She emphasizes the importance to always enforce a command once it is given, so that the dog doesn’t learn to second-guess you. But she has nothing against repeating a command, because it verbally encourages the dog to keep doing what he is doing. This, too, corroborates what I’ve teaching for quite some time. For instance, when I recall I don’t repeat the word “come”, but egg my dog on with a high-pitched “yip-yip-yip” or “quick-quick-quick”, especially with the beginner learner, and especially when the dog is presented with a huge distraction in opposite direction to where I am.
Both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye explained that the speed and intonation the request is made matter. Drawn out words slow the dog down, and conversely rapid short words speed him up. Randy Dye taught us that the duration of the whistle cue has to correspond with the verbal one: short and sharp for directional changes, prolonged to keep the dog methodically going in the same direction.
By the way, Patricia McConnell talks at length about tonal inflection and speed in her really good book “The Other End of The Leash”. Don’t confuse that with the TV show “At the End of My Leash” that stars Brad Pattison, Canada’s answer to Cesar Millan. The former is an accredited and internationally much respected behaviorist, the other an alpha male upshot physically skilled enough to punish dogs into submission and temporary compliance.
Lorna McMasters warns to never raise your voice because it raises your energy and signals loss of control, which can cause the dog to escalate. I agree with that too. Yelling and screaming conveys anger or anxiety, and neither is favorable to learning, the relationship, or to defuse a conflict situation. That said, and contrary to common data and wisdom, my very loud and deep-toned “enough” has so far successfully broken up dogs in a tiff.

When dogs work, they aren’t always visually connected with their human in charge. A collie has to keep his eyes on the sheep, the pooch doing dog sports on the equipment, and the hunting companion on fowl or game. Lorna McMasters believes that dogs should learn to respond to verbal commands without looking at you. Indeed, that’s when verbal commands make most sense because obviously the dog will not see your hand-signal or gesture.
I almost exclusively work with people who, all they want is a well-mannered family member they can take anywhere dogs are allowed to go. For that purpose, visual connection between dog and person is important, and I aim for eye contact the dog offers whenever she needs direction, and eye contact given when I call my dog by name to direct her. I do have one command, though, that allows Will, who sometimes just can’t shift her visual attention away from whatever in the environment holds it, to keep it, while I still get the control I am after: “Halt” means: “Don’t move and wait till I catch up with you”. Perhaps I should elaborate in my next post, or the one after.
Interestingly, Lorna McMasters also likes to catch up with the dog after a herding lesson instead of recalling him. She places the collie in a, for a collie natural, lie-down and as she approaches gives lots of repetitive verbal reminders to stay in that position plus pays attention to her breathing so that he knows that she is calm and he has done nothing wrong. Calm, not assertive, just calm and relaxed, makes a person appealing rather than repelling. Even when the dog breaks, she doesn’t discipline, but repositions and tries again. It is never about letting a dog do as he pleases, she says, but to help him understand without creating resistance, ambiguity or nervousness in relation to the handler and the work they do together.
And this surprised me: After three tries she reinforces even if the dog is still not getting it right to avoid that he becomes “stale”. Rewarding a behavior you don’t want counters positive reinforcement rules, but I think she on to something: The long-term goal of a functioning working relationship must overrule laws established in a laboratory.

Aside from using verbal commands, both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye use their body to make their intentions clear. In the beginning, they exaggerate gestures, and as the dog becomes more skilled, they become subtler. For example, McMasters invites the rookie dog with open arms and moving backward when she recalls.
Randy Dye had an indoor arena, and at our workshop all dogs were off the leash right away. Instead of using a long line to influence the dog, he taught us how to use body movements. Always the whole body, he stressed, not just hands. Facing and blocking the dog makes him change directions, and being at his flank causes him to move out. Being at the dog’s tail, he said, only makes him run faster away from you. If the come command is ignored, he walks in as close as he must to get the dog’s visual attention, and then entices him with whatever works to follow. He doesn’t grab the collar to pull the dog away because he wants him to follow voluntarily. After the workshop, I implemented that right away with my group clients.
Lorna McMasters does use a leash and long line with dogs not yet off leash ready. I wish the general public would do that too, instead of taking the dog they adopted 24 hours prior to the dog park. A leash and a long line for managing and training purposes is a must until the relationship is established and the dog reliably responds to his person’s requests. However, and especially with puppies, I do prefer to work off the leash, especially regarding following, but it must take place in the house, and areas outside that are securely fenced-in.
McMasters says that a dog should always wait for a release command, active permission, before allowed to interact with the environment, and that he should never completely disconnect from the owner; that the person should never be excluded from the relationship the dog has with other dogs, or animals. I totally agree with that. If playing dogs don’t respond when their names are called, it is high time for a play pause.

I was also surprised by Lorna McMaster’s take on leash tension. In a time when everyone preaches to have a loose leash, she says that leash tension is not always a bad thing because it signals connection, and like voice can provide support when the dog is confused or nervous, but she stresses that it must be even tension, not jerking.
Ideally, I don’t want any information coming through the leash. Ever. Loose leash, ideally, is my tune too, but I also know that ideal isn’t always realistic. Our Will, without our doing, does perceive the leash as connection and support around unfamiliar dogs and small children, and when there is a passing bus or truck. And I must admit that I like a slight tension in the leash because then I don’t trip over it.
Even pulling a dog along McMasters doesn’t see as a problem, but again advises that it must be without a correction, and that praise and reward ought to follow as soon as the dog mentally connects with the handler again. I heard and saw that at a Suzanne Clothier seminar a few years ago. Truth is that with most dogs sooner or later a situation arises where there is no option but to pull the pooch along with you, and it is important that laypeople, my clients, understand that it is not all that bad when it happens; that they are not messing things up forever as long as they don’t discipline as they pull him away, on the leash, from a situation he can’t handle – yet.

In essence, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters are heavy on relationship, and controlling the dog by controlling what the dog wants: his drive, his instincts, instead of setting traps and punishing for mistakes. The sheepdog must heed to the human’s directions to access the sheep, and because sheep are important to any good sheepdog, it works. Herding is advanced obedience without the use of food treats. If you find what floats your dog’s boat, and then make access contingent on behavior, it will work for you too.
Is a punishment ever warranted? Not in my world, but both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye do not shy away from adding something unpleasant when absolutely necessary.
Sheep are a shepherd’s livelihood. Not just that, but the human has the moral responsibility to care about the welfare of all animals, not just the dogs’. A bad herding dog is not only useless, but harmful. Lorna McMasters uses one type of correction, a whip across the nose, but only when the dog aggressively violates a sheep’s flight zone, and only when he persistently disregards commands and body pressure.
At Randy Dye’s workshop there were 17 dogs, and only one had to be corrected in the same way: an out-of-control, non-responsive Groenendael who was about to rip a sheep apart.
Personally, I prefer to manage the dog until the desired behaviors are established. Nevertheless, the sharp corrections didn’t compromise the value of Randy Dye’s workshop and Lorna McMaster’s book. One must remember that these are knowledgeable handlers who correct correctly, a skill lost on all lay owners, and many of the punitive trainers who take a six-week course somewhere and then let themselves loose on dogs with behavioral issues. Those quickly “certified” folks lack the experience, knowledge, and even general interest in dogs and behavior, and rather than sending one clear message, like McMasters and Dye do, they punish ineffectively, on an ongoing basis, or so harsh that they mess up the dogs and the relationship with their owners even more.


  1. I wish many many fun filled days of Aussie Bowling. As usual an excellent article about another subject. Thanks for always opening our eyes in all aspects of the doggie world. Your number one Fan.

  2. Any training course like that in NS?