On Becoming Human: Lessons from my dogs – Part I

Today I was asked what I get from living and working with my dogs.  While the list is so long that it could take all day to enumerate, the short answer is simple: They are my teachers.

Teachers of what?  Why, of how to be human, of course.

I honestly don’t know who I would be without my canine teachers.  Each one has helped me along my path, opened new doors, introduced me to new ideas, given me new insight.  More importantly, they act as mirrors, reflecting back to me what I project out to the world and – gently, lovingly, non-judgmentally, and forgivingly – showing me how to make that output something kinder, gentler, more positive.


Today I am going to share the story of one of my canine guides: Mojita the Malinois.  Moji came to me as an eight week old pup, a gift from a breeder friend who had a left over puppy needing a home.  I was excited to get her, but it was a terrible time for me to be getting a puppy.  My beloved Jake was in end stage renal failure and needing all my attention and energy, and died a few weeks after I got her.  We also moved from Boston to Chicago and then back to Canada in our first few months together.

Malinois are very high drive, intense, fast, and powerful dogs who can also be exceptionally sensitive in their nature.  Mojita (pronounced mo-HEE-ta) was particularly soft, with a very sweet and kind nature.  She was a really incredible dog, although at the time I didn’t appreciate it.  High strung and hair-triggered, she was very difficult to live with.  She never stopped moving. She would bark non-stop when bored, or separated from me.  She chewed.  Especially expensive things like my designer sunglasses and critical power cords.  She peed on my bed.  Often.

The more I worked this dog, the more energy she seem to have.  I would train and exercise her up to three hours a day, only to have her spin in her crate all night long while I attempted to sleep.  I taught her all the obedience I could think of, invented games to tire her brain, and then discovered nose work.  She learned to track almost instantly.  We taught ourselves the foundation for search and rescue work and at our first practice she out-performed all the dogs in the group, including the instructor’s.


Today I would give my left arm for such a dog.  At the time, I found her overwhelming, exhausting, and, much of the time, annoying.  Desperate to find more outlets for her, I decided to try agility.  I set an appointment for our first lesson in hopes of finally finding something to calm her down.

When the day came, I was stressed and rushing around as usual.  I popped her into the cab of my pickup and sped out the driveway.  When we got to the first stoplight, worrying that I was going to be late, I looked over to see my dog plastered against the passenger door. Her ears were stuck to her head and she was leaning as far away from me as possible, avoiding eye contact.  Stupid dog! I thought.  Quit acting like I’m going to beat you!

Fume, fume, FUME!  Boy was I cranky.

I then reminded myself that I was supposed to be doing this for fun, and perhaps it would be best for me to calm down a little before meeting my new instructor.  So I took a few deep breaths and focused on relaxing.  The light turned green, and I gently drove on, keeping to the speed limit.


What happened next changed my life: Mojita quietly unstuck herself from the door and sat in the middle of the seat.

I didn’t notice.  I was busy driving and working on my breath.  I had recently started a yoga class and was learning how to relax through breathing.  So I practiced the rhythm we’d been taught: Deep deep breath in, hold, slow release over a count of five.  Repeat.

By the time I had taken a half dozen such breaths, my dog had moved to the center of the truck bench.  A few more deep breaths, and she lay down and put her head in my lap.

That I noticed.

This was over twelve years ago, but I can still feel her head on my knee.  And my heart exploding with the realization that this dog was a reflection of the energy I was projecting to the world.

Oh.  My.  God.  It hit me like a wall what a miserable person I must have been to be around!  What a giant, seething ball of anger and stress I was, launching energy daggers at anyone within close proximity. No wonder so many of my friends were fading out of my life.  Who could blame them?


All of this I learned from my sweet, soft, gentle girl.  Mojita was my mirror, showing me exactly what kind of energy I was out putting at any given moment.  All she had to do was pin her ears, tuck her tail, or silently slink into a corner for me to recognize that my mood was darkening.  She showed me quite clearly when I was unpleasant to be around, and helped me begin to control my negative outbursts.

What was particularly healing was how she unconditionally loved me, even when I was hard to be around.  The second I changed gears, took a deep breath, calmed myself down, she would come to my side and lean.  She forgave my temper each and every time, letting me know that I was still a good person even if I had bad moods.  Letting me know that she saw who I really was, deep down, and who I could become all the time if I could just let go of my stress and allow myself to be happy.

I wish I could say that I changed in that moment and that Moji and I lived happily ever after together.  Unfortunately, this is not how the story ends.  What she taught me was just one step toward becoming a better human, albeit a critically important one.  It took many years, many changes, much work on my part, and several more canine teachers for calm to become my norm.

Not long after our inaugural agility lesson, I moved to a new city to start my PhD.  Once living in a townhouse I discovered that she had extreme separation anxiety (she barked non-stop when I was out, to the great distress of the neighbors sharing my walls), and, with a turbulent mixture of relief and sadness, I re-homed her.  Mojita died in a tragic freak accident two months later, at just over the age of two.

Thinking about her at times still brings me to tears, and always evokes deep feelings of both guilt and gratitude.  The lesson she taught me changed me forever, even though it has taken many years to fully sink in.  I now realize that all my animals reflect my energy, as do the humans in my life.  Thanks to Mojita, I now understand that we receive what we project, and so if we want joy, love, and peace, we need to find it in ourselves first.


Thank you, Mojita.  You were an incredible teacher and will forever be in my heart.


There Are No Short Cuts: On building strong foundations

Tonight I did a little training with Clayton.  He’s well on his way to becoming a really great stock dog, but we still have some foundation work to complete before taking this show on the road.  Specifically, impulse control (yes, yet again!).

Clay is a very level headed, calm, steady, yet powerful dog who is a delight to work on stock.  Except when he’s not.  He has two modes: dream dog, and sheep-seeking missile.  The former is what I see most of the time, when he is thoughtful and all is under control.  The latter happens when he goes over threshold. And then there’s no getting him to listen until he’s through his explosion.


My handsome boy!

I created this problem through skipping proper foundation work.  Instead of teaching him self-control off stock, proofing it with distractions, and building this into his stock training, I went right to letting him work.  Additionally, due to a lack of fencing and of careful management, Clay has on a number of occasions had a grand old time getting into stock all on his own and having a blast chasing them around. Even just happening once would have been enough to teach some bad habits.  But this has happened more than once.

There’s also a matter of genetics.  Both he and Desirée have strong prey drives and the sheep seem to know it.  If they get in with the stock, especially as a team, the sheep panic. This makes for great fun for the dogs, heavily reinforcing their desire to make this happen again.  (Yes, I know this is really bad for both dog and sheep, and I do my best to avoid it.  But still, sometimes it happens).


When all is under control, this dog is a dream to work. 

I do not have the same issue with Kes’ puppies, which come from completely different lines.  Raven and Griff will sometimes sneak through a fence and round up stock, but then they lie down quietly.  And if I don’t go get them, they’ll leave and come find me.  Completely different dogs.  Fascinating.

Back to Clay.  Tonight’s session started with him being unable to sit still long enough for me to snap his leash on before leaving the house.  That should have been enough of a red flag for me to abort my training plan and devise a new one.  I am guilty of this oversight a little too often.  I want to get to the sexy stuff.  To letting my dog work sheep.  I know he can do so beautifully, and look forward to admiring his gorgeous square flanks and lovely pace.  We just have to get started with our head on straight. And tonight, Clayton’s head was anywhere but where I needed it.

What I should have done was forget about training and work on some impulse control games around sitting and having his leash put on.  Around holding a sit at the door (or wherever I ask for it) while I move around, while I open the door, while I step outside.

While all of these things seem to have nought to do with working stock, nothing is farther from the truth.  A dog who can’t hold a sit when you open the door is certainly going to struggle to take a clean down when stock are bolting down the field.  Teaching your dog to develop strong self-control is done through building a strong foundation, layer upon layer, starting with simple games around the house that you generalize and proof around stronger and stronger distraction.


Clay, demonstrating a lovely square flank

I’ve done some of this kind of work with Clay, but not nearly enough. He’s super smart and keen and way fun to play shaping games with.  But it’s even more reinforcing for me to work him on stock because he’s so talented. Des, his sister, is fast and pushy and a little stressful to train, so I have no problem doing off-stock training with her.  In fact, I tend to prefer to do agility work with her because that is what I find reinforcing. It’s where she shines, and also minimizes the number of times I get run over by sheep.

But Clay… well, he is making great progress on stock, and for the most part is easy and relaxing to work. I get all excited when I work with him and want more.  I look forward to working him.  I think about it throughout the day, devising plans on what we’re going to do.  I dream of showing him off at trials. So I keep skipping the foundation work and going straight to the good stuff.

Except we’re not making great progress where we really need to be improving: Keeping a calm head and clean flanks when things get exciting with the sheep. When the sheep bolt, instead of kicking out to gather, Clay goes into missile mode.  It’s like he has a turbo booster that propels him at warp speed towards the sheep, splitting them up and scattering them every which way, typically leaving him chasing one sheep down the field while the rest of the flock slips away through the bush line. Just a teensy, weensy hole in our training. Big enough to drive a transport through.

Even worse, he has the terrible habit of starting out in stealth missile mode.  He walks onto the field, calm and cool as a cucumber, sauntering on loose leash at my side.  He lies down with grace, stays steady and quiet with no sign whatsoever of the quivering mass of ready-to-launch muscle under his sleek coat.  Until I quietly remove the leash and… we have zero to launch in 0.025 seconds.


And definitely not something I want him to keep practicing.  Let alone do at a trial. In fact, until we work through this to 100% reliability, we cannot trial.  No matter how beautiful his flanks and pace and outruns, if the first 20 seconds of our run involves him streaking straight up the field and busting up the sheep, we’ll be DQ’d faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

Yes, I can play the leash click game, where he thinks he’s been released but hasn’t.  But that doesn’t teach him self-control.  It just improves his hearing and teaches him to test his collar before bolting. I need to go back to foundations. BOR-ing!  But we’re not going to get through this otherwise. Well, unless I resort to using aversive and punishment.  But the goal here is to not go there.


Learning patience

But despite all of the above, I still ignored tonight’s flapping red flag warning me that it was Mr. Missile instead of Mr. Dream at the end of my leash.  And when I unclipped his leash, of he bolted up the field and through the sheep.  And I was left with two options: ignore the behavior, or run up the field hollering like a cave woman. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which option I chose.

That I keep repeating this scenario is an excellent example of how punishment is ineffective. Despite the frustration (punishment), 20 seconds after this event everything is under control and we’re back to being a team.  And so my behavior does not decrease. And neither does Clayton’s.

The good news is that it really shouldn’t take us very long. And hopefully it won’t preclude working stock, or at least not for more than a few days.  So starting tomorrow I’m going to set up some strategic games and a training plan to get him to keep himself in check. He doesn’t have the agility foundation that Des does, or much value for toys or other things I can use to reward him.  He wont even look at food when excited. So I will have to put some thought into how I am going to do this.  I may have to start with going way back to square one: (re)building value for tugging.

This will teach me not to skip foundation work! I have a three year old power house of a dog who is half way trained to pro-novice, who has to go back to puppy kindergarten. Never again.

Applying It’s Yer Choice in Herding – Step 1

As I continue down along this path of trying to used reinforcement based methods for training a dog to work stock, I have been experiencing some amazing ‘ah-ha!’ moments.  Right now I am focused on training my three green dogs, and putting a foundation in the two puppies I have from my latest litter.

Building the foundations with the blank slates that are my puppies is providing me with wonderful opportunities to explore and experiment, and also to learn.  The first big ‘ah-ha’ moment I had was around the concept of It’s Yer Choice (IYC), a game developed by dog trainer extraordinaire Susan Garrett that involves showing the puppy (or dog) a treat and having her choose to do something other than dive in and grab it.

Now I have played this game with all my dogs and used it to teach them to not bite my hand or lunge at their food dishes but the light suddenly went on the other day around just how much more this game offers.  Let me explain.

First, I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much I alter MY behaviour to keep my dogs from doing things I don’t want.  I keep my counters clear of food so they don’t counter surf.  I put food up high while training so they don’t get fixated on it.  I don’t let my livestock out in the morning until the dogs have had a leg stretch so they (the dogs) don’t get in with the sheep and give chase. And on, and on, and on.

Then I noticed while watching Susan Garrett train her dogs that she has food and toys all over the floor and they keep working with her.  So I tried leaving the food dish in the middle of our training area while shaping one of the puppies.  After two or three tries to dive into the bowl – with my response being to quietly put my hand over said bowl – the puppy stopped paying any attention to the food and just carried on.  WOW.

But it gets a whole lot better.  A few days later I took the same puppy out to do chores, including tending my ducklings in their pen.  I filled their food dish and didn’t the puppy immediately dive in and start wolfing down the feed.  I was just about to put the bowl up when I decided to try simply putting my hand over it.  It was a big bowl and I couldn’t cover the whole thing, so I just made the same shape with my hand that I do in training and placed it above the bowl.

The puppy backed off.

I pulled my hand away, and he dove back in (Mr. Naughty Pants!).  So I simply put my hand back over the bowl.  He backed off again, and I similarly pulled back.  He then took one step towards the bowl, stopped himself, then turned and went about his business and ignore the food for the rest of the time we were in there.  O.M.G.

How simple is that?!

So how does this translate to herding?  Good question.  Here’s my thinking…

When working stock, our dogs are constantly having to make choices.  One of our biggest challenges as handlers is to convince our dogs to choose to listen to us, rather than their own instincts.  This can be done through domination and intimidation – in effect, forcing them to do our bidding and thus not giving them a choice – or it can be achieved through having a dog choose to listen because doing so is reinforcing.  The difference is subtle, but critical.


On paper, getting our dogs to choose to listen to us rather than follow their own impulses is no different from the IYC game I was playing with my puppy and a bowl of food.  However, the stimulation levels are a whole lot higher and so we need to find exercises that can build up to this challenge.

Before I share what I have been experimenting with, I need to raise an important aspect of this training.  IYC is not about having the dog be stationary.  It is not about having the dog go into a sit and stop moving.  It can be, if that is what you are looking for, but that is not the goal of the exercise.  The purpose is to get the dog to exert self-control in face of stimulation.

To be effective in a herding environment – which is highly dynamic – the dog needs to be able to make her choices while being dynamic.  In motion.  I know many dogs (mine included) who can hold a sit or a down around stock but lose their minds as soon as they get into motion.  So we need to be training our dogs IN MOTION.

To do so, I have been playing around with a few options.  So far I have come up with two approaches.  First, if you have a dog who is trained to do other things (agility, tricks, disk, etc.) you start working the dog in that sport within sight of the stock.  You start as far away as you need to be to have the dog still focus on the task assigned.

I like to push it just inside that threshold so the dog struggles a little but is capable of success with a little effort.  I think experiencing the frustration and pushing through is part of what builds the ability to think and make good choices in face of high distraction.

This is what I did with Desirée, who is also my agility dog.  Here is a video of our second attempt at this method.  Amazingly, I saw a big difference in her ability to stay level headed on stock after doing this only once!

When the dog CHOOSES to focus on a job we ask her to do, rather than simply acting on impulse, the act starts to reprogram their brains to do more of the same.  Every choice a dog makes leading to something it enjoys results in an endorphin release that serves to build neuropathways that, in turn, increase the probability of that same choice being made again.

This is why it is so critical to avoid letting them make “bad” choices (from our perspective)  – even once – that result in them experiencing something pleasurable (chasing a squirrel or a car etc.).  Once I understood how powerful making a choice is, I have worked very hard to try and set things up so my dogs make the choices I want them to make.  One single unfortunate choice can require dozens of repetitions of doing something else to counter condition.

Fortunately, the reverse seems to also be true, and it appears to generalize as well!  So Des learning to enact self-control (by her own choice) by doing agility in sight of sheep has translated to her being much more mindful, relaxed, and able to enact self-control while ON sheep!  I am thrilled with the result and looking forward to where this will take us.

The other approach, if your dog is not trained to any degree of intensity in another sport, is to use the Premack Principle.  Specifically, you reinforce a lower probability behaviour with a higher probability behaviour.  This is what I did with Clayton, who does not have the agility training that Desie does.  I will talk more about this approach in a future post.

Living in a world of ‘no’

I have lately been reading a lot of very passionate arguments against the use of strictly reinforcement-based training.  I take this to mean that people who are using +R methods are doing so in large enough numbers to start to cause the dominant paradigm to shift.

In a rant against ‘purely positive’ methods (as applied to herding), one of the discussants argued that punishment is not only ok but necessary, because our “dogs live in a world of ‘no’.”

I thought this was quite poignant. And true.

We are constantly telling our dogs what they cannot do. What we don’t want them to do. What they’re not allowed to do. When they are bad. When they are wrong.
The more I move away from this model of training, the more I notice it in other people. Punitive language and interaction with our canine companions is so normalized that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.  People come to my house, for example, and immediately start correcting my dogs. They almost always say “no” or express some other form of negative, telling the dog what they don’t want it to do (usually “don’t jump up”). It almost never occurs to people to tell my dogs what TO do (“down you get!”).
It’s quite fascinating. It’s also sad.

The more I study learning behavior and dog training, the more parallels I find myself drawing with our human education system, and our social systems in general. We live in an incredibly punitive world. We are constantly punished for trying anything new, anything out of the norm. If not socially reprimanded, then typically economically so. More often than not, both.


I’m not sure where I’m going with this. My brain just keeps ruminating on the subject, and noting more and more examples to support this overarching observation. Reading that angry rant against R+ training on a site I regularly interact with left me needing to find an outlet for my thinking. And that forum was not the outlet.

I’m left wondering what kind of world we’d have if we could make the shift to a more positive, rewards-based way of interacting with one another. Not just in dog training, but in our schools, our work environments, and every day life.  I wonder…

Shaping a Mindful Dog: Teaching Impulse Control Around Stock

You know that moment we all dread while working stock? The one when our dog shuts us out of his mind – along with everything else in the world except for those sheep he’s laser locked onto – and goes ballistic? If you’ve taken a dog to stock, you know what I’m talking about. It’s one of every handler’s worst fears, especially if their dog is a serious gripper.

A common approach to keeping our excitable dogs under control is to apply sufficient external pressure – from the handler, from a long line, from a variety of “aids” including noise makers, rakes and lunge whips – that they stay under threshold.

While these methods can be quite effective, they don’t necessarily work on all dogs.  The application of an adversive can have unintended consequences ranging from making the dog more excited to shutting him down or even turning him off stock work altogether.

What if we could teach our dogs to control themselves?  To stay under threshold without force or threat?  To keep themselves in check, mindful and clear headed, fully present for learning?

I have a young Kelpie – Holly – who is particularly prone to reproducing the scenario described earlier. She’s actually not that young anymore, having turned five in September. Holly is a rescue who had been bounced around a few times before coming to live with me at around a year of age.  She is one of those dogs who becomes easily overstimulated, and gets worse with the use of adversives.


I started Holly on stock almost immediately, and saw both wonderful talent and an absolute devil in the making. Along with the many challenges she brought with her, Holly had nearly zero impulse control coupled with jaw dropping jumping ability and a strong and resourceful inner Houdini.

More than once (or twice, or…) Holly managed to get herself in with the sheep without supervision. I’d be alerted to the trouble by her high pitched, excited barking that lets me know that while Holly’s body may be chasing sheep, her brain is somewhere in outer space.

When in this state, there’s no getting her to listen. World champion dog agility trainer Susan Garrett (one of my key mentors) calls this phenomenon being ‘too aroused to respond’ or TAR.

I believe Susan coined this term to describe border collies frozen in a herding crouch, starting at, well, whatever they’re starting at, but TAR also describes the other end of the spectrum. The one Holly has so clearly demonstrated each and every time I have taken her to stock. For the past four years.

I tried everything in my standard bag of herding tricks to get her under control: I chased, I blocked, I hollered.  I made myself big. I flapped things and cracked a lunge whips. I put her on a line. I cursed and threatened to never take her to sheep again. I promised myself I’d never take her to sheep again.


The only reason I kept trying, over and over, was that once Holly got all that running and barking out of her system, once she was tired and panting, then she would show me brilliance. Her eyes and face would soften as she’d slide out of TAR and into something more comfortable for both of us. And then she would be amazing.

Talk about positive reinforcement for the trainer! 20 minutes of frustration followed by 5 minutes of joy and I would be willing to do it all over again. Convinced that eventually the ratio would reverse itself. Except it never did.

Until now.

So what changed?

I have.  Or rather, I’ve changed my mindset.  Now, instead of me trying to control my dog, I’m helping Holly learn to control herself.

While I could sometimes pull her out of TAR through the use of aversives, most of the time their application made her worse. Getting her to control herself, however, keeps her out of TAR without me having to do anything!

We started away from stock, with Crate Games and foundation agility training. Everything is taught as a game, using shaping techniques and rewarding with toys or treats.

I wasn’t even thinking about herding to be honest. I had largely given up on it with Holly, and had turned to agility to see if I could find another outlet for her energy. But she would need impulse control if I was ever going to trial her, especially given her track record of trying to nip pant legs of fast passers by.

We worked on sits before going over a jump, and stands before diving for a toy. We did shadow handling with Holly prancing in ‘reinforcement zone’ or RZ (i.e. at my side), and weaved figure eights around barrels and trees. We played ‘it’s yer choice!’ and learned to take treats, not fingers. Holly began to enjoy tugging and to come every time she was called. Even when she could see livestock.

Then one day, a few weeks ago, it occurs to me to apply these games to herding. Holly’s first love is sheep, and I have never given up my secret hope of getting her to work.

So I put her on a leash and practiced having her walk in RZ, first outside the fenced field and then within. We played Crate Games at the gate, then shadow handled our way to the sheep.

I moved slowly, asking for stands, lie downs and flanks (turning left or right). If Holly could hear me and respond correctly, we’d move forward. If she started getting stuck in TAR, we’d move back. We kept session short, 5 – 10 minutes tops. Twice a day when possible.

Instead of toys or treats, in this scenario the stock are the reward. A key rule of reinforcement-based training is that the student chooses the reinforcement. For Holly, this is definitely sheep. There’s no way she’d be interested in toys or treats that close to the woolies. It worked when we were outside the fence, but once in the field what mattered to Holly was moving forward.

Holly has done so much work with staying at my side (i.e. in RZ) that when I step back, I don’t even have to pull the leash. My movement is enough to keep her engaged and she steps back with me. The leash stays slack the whole time, existing almost exclusively as insurance. Lately I have dropped it completely, and even taken it off.

Slowly we danced, day after day, back and forth, side to side, gradually getting closer to sheep. Then one day, about 5 days into this experiment, the sheep broke hard to the left. Holly reacted, and I let her go, curious to see what would happen.

I was definitely premature with my test and she quickly slipped into TAR, circling and barking like a fool. But then I said ‘Stand!’. And… she did! My jaw dropped. I think she even surprised herself.


Fast forward two weeks and Holly is now doing flanks calmly around the sheep, and stopping reliably when asked. She’s driving and even able to work the sheep at a (short) distance from me, while not losing her cool. We continue to do a lot of impulse work, especially at the beginning but also peppered throughout our sessions. And the difference is amazing.

Seeing this dramatic transformation has inspired me to further explore the power of shaping, impulse control and other positive reinforcement techniques around herding.

We’re still a long way away from my goal of having her be a useful dog on the farm, but the change I have seen in the last month has launched me on this path of discovering new ways to work with my dogs. Of taking the learning theory I have studied and practiced in agility, and applying it to herding. To eliminate the use of aversive from my practice to the greatest extent possible. Completely, if I am able.


Thank you, Holly, for inspiring this journey, for walking this path with me, and for showing me the way.

And I’m Back…

I think it’s time to start writing again.  So much has happened that I don’t even know where to start.  Has it really been nearly four years since my last post?

There is too much to catch up on in a single post, and perhaps much of it is unimportant anyway.  That which is will come to the fore as I write, provided that I keep writing, which remains to be seen.  But hopefully I will as I miss being here and sharing my adventure with the dogs.  For the moment, a short summary of the time gap:  I was in a major car accident about a month after my last post and between that, more than full-time work hours, commuting 2 hours a day, managing the dogs and trying to finish my schooling, keeping a blog going was beyond my capability.  And so I stopped writing.

After a bitterly cold winter, I moved from my wonderful but poorly heated house back into the city.  I lived in town for a year and worked even more.  The dogs suffered, my relationships suffered, my health suffered.  By spring of 2012 I was a disaster.  My doctor ordered me to stay home from work for a full week because I was exhibiting such intense signs of physical and emotional stress.  In that week I found peace, calm, and a return of my sanity.  My energy levels rebounded and I suddenly remembered that life could be enjoyable.  What a thing to forget.

I decided not to renew my contract at work, which ended in April.  I decided not to renew the lease on my apartment, which ended in May.  I decided not to renew my relationship, which had fallen to pieces.  I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what still mattered to me (my books, my clothes, my kitchen, my dogs) and moved “home” to Eastern Ontario, the region to which I’d been wanting to return for nearly 20 years.

My first stop was with a friend who had a spare room in her house and a soft spot for my dogs.  We spent the summer there, mostly sleeping, taking long walks and doing some herding and agility training.  I competed with Hannah in agility and she qualified for the AAC nationals.  Hannah and I also moved to Open in herding and entered a few big trials which were scary but fun and I was proud of how we did.  Perhaps I’ll write more about the experience in a future post.

In October 2013 we moved to our own place. I found an apartment on a farm which allowed me to have some sheep.  My dream come true at long last, even if it wasn’t quite as I had envisioned.

I started with two sheep, a couple of Shetlands.  They were soon joined by a pair of wonderful dairy goats and 6 more sheep.  I figured while I was at it, I should add a few chickens.  And so my farm was born.




Two months after moving my landlord gave me notice.  It turns out that my apartment was illegal and a neighbour they had a conflict with had tipped off the authorities.  I had to live with blacked out windows for the next 5 months, pretending I really didn’t live there, until I found a new home.  And so, chickens, goats, sheep and dogs in tow, I moved again.

moving the animals


The next place lasted a month.  The new landlord was supposed to be living up north while I managed his farm, but his plans fell through and he evicted me 24 hours after I moved in.  I stayed for a few weeks until I found a temporary solution just down the road, a farm with people much kinder and a far better set-up for my animals.  A local farmer with a pick-up shuttled my sheep and goats the 6 kilometers down the gravel road and once again we set up camp.  This time I knew it to be temporary so I didn’t even bother unpacking.  My room was not winterized and the barn just a machine shop.  We were to be there only for a month or two while I found a long-term solution.

We stayed for nearly a year.

Finally we found a new farm as of June 2014.  This place feels like home and I hope we are going to be here for some time. I am still renting, and we live on a fast road, so another move is inevitable.  But hopefully not for some time.  In the meantime my sheep, goat and chicken population has grown, and I’ve added ducks to the menagerie.




As for the dogs, there have been substantial changes here too.  Mira died suddenly in an accident the spring of 2012.  She broke her neck while doing an outrun at a sheepdog trial.  If a meteor had fallen out of the sky and killed her it wouldn’t have been any more shocking.    One minute we were competing, the next she was dead.  Likely I’ll write more about that at some point as well.

The kind couple who were hosting the trial helped me bury her on their farm and insisted I stay for the night.  Enter Holly.  They brought out some puppies to cheer me up, including a pair of 9 month old Australian Kelpies they had recently rescued.  Long story short, 6 weeks later Holly came home with me for some “rehab” in hopes that some training would help her find a permanent home.  It worked.  Holly immediately filled the gaping hole Mira’s death left in our home and little family, and we now share our life with a Kelpie.

In January 2013 I decided to breed Hannah.  She has been such a fantastic dog for me that I really wanted a puppy from her.  While I didn’t want, or need, another dog, Hannah had just turned seven and I didn’t want to wait any longer.  She was running in Open in herding and in Masters in agility.  A fantastic dog to live with and one I could take anywhere and introduce to anyone, I felt it would be a shame not to carry on her line.  And so I bred her and together we raised a litter of puppies.




What joy that was!  And how I loved those puppies.  I loved them so much that I ended up keeping two.  And so now I have six dogs: Ross, Hannah & Kess are the old guard, Holly, Clayton and Desiree are the new.

The dogs are all doing well and continue to bring joy into my life.  Having moved 6 times in the last three years, we’re not quite where I had hoped to be with respect to training but everyone is in good health and condition.  Hannah and Kess are both working daily on the farm, and I’m putting the final touches on getting Kess ready for Open.  Hannah and I are such a team that she’s become an extension of my arm getting work done around here.  Kess is rapidly becoming the same.  We do need to polish up our trial skills, which differ from farm work.

Last summer and fall I put a lot of work into getting Holly up and running, with limited success.  I’m only just now back to training after the winter that would never end, lambing and this most recent move, so we’ll see where we get to this year.  She may end up remaining a pet but I at least need her to recall reliably off stock and occasionally be helpful if I need an extra dog.


Holly working


The puppies, now 15 months old, are just getting going.  Both are working on their foundation in agility.  In herding, Desiree was a breeze to start but Clayton is proving more challenging.  I’m waiting for help to get him up and going in a few weeks as his inner wolf is strong, and I don’t have any fencing.  The last thing I want or need is sheep all over the county with a powerful young border collie in hot pursuit.


The puppies


Last but most certainly not least, I added one more canine to our team: Sophie.  Sophie is our guardian dog, a wonderful Maremma who lives out with the sheep and goats and keeps an eye on the ducks and chickens in her spare time.  Such a wonderful, gentle and devoted dog she couldn’t be more different from the border collies (and Kelpie) if she was another species.  I have learned to deeply respect and admire her natural instincts and innate knowledge of how to keep everyone safe.  What a wonderful team of canines I have to help me run this farm, and accompany me in this new adventure I have undertaken…

Sophie & Cea

What Happened to Summer?!

Well so much for writing regularly!  I tried, I really did.  But life just keeps going at mach speed.  Plus I have been spending very little time at my computer of late.  This will change now that I’m back to work full-time.  Most days will now be spent in front of this machine, so likely I’ll be able to write more frequently.

So what have I been up to?  Well, all sorts of things!  I’ve been visiting with friends, camping, cooking, eating, and training the dogs.  I’ve also started a new relationship, which I’ve wanted to focus my time on while I still was on flexible summer hours.  In short, I’ve been really enjoying myself and remembering what it is like to have a balanced life!  What a treat.  I am hoping I can hold on to this balance, or some semblance thereof, throughout the coming months.  Between now and next April, things are going to be pretty crazy.

The dogs have had a pretty darn good summer. At least I think they have.  I can see the improvement in Ross, who’s coat has turned soft again and who is behaving in a much more relaxed manner.  His weight and energy are good, and even his eyes look better.  Most of the time they are a soft, almond shape rather than the round, stressed out sad shape with saggy lower lids (that indicate a thyroid imbalance).  I’ve had him on a new homeopathic remedy this summer, but I really think his improvement has come from me being home nearly 100% of the time.  Or him being able to come with me when I go out.  Ross is a real mamma’s boy and he likes to be close at all times.  Mira is like this as well, and is similarly behaving much more relaxed and happy.

Hannah and Kess don’t seem to be as bothered by my irregular schedule during my work year, but they have both enjoyed quite a lot of training and work this summer, making them quite happy dogs.  We managed to get out and train at the farm 2-3 times a week most weeks.  Last week we farm-sat this farm for 8 days, and Hannah was over the moon with joy at having so much work.

This farm is a working, commercial farm with somewhere between 200-300 ewes and lambs.  Every morning we had to get up and put them all out to pasture, and every evening they needed to be brought back into the barn and locked up for the night.  This is because of coyotes, which have been very destructive this year.  More on that later (or perhaps in a separate post).  Hannah had to also hold sheep off feeders while I filled them with grain, and otherwise move sheep here and there depending on where I needed them to be.

What amazed me was just how brilliant this dog is at farmwork.  She is so, so keen to work.  Every morning she’d be sitting by the front door, waiting for me to get ready and go out.  After dinner she’d start to pace and bounce about in anticipation of evening chores.  Then we’d head out and she’d get down to task.

All I’d have to do would be to show her what I wanted, and she’d do it.  Once she understood, I wouldn’t have to say a word.  The first morning I guided her carefully around the barn, gently lifting sheep out of nooks and crannies, carefully moving the whole flock out the small gate without causing panic or chaos.  After that, she knew what to do.  I just sent her in and she’d come out, walking quietly, behind 250 sheep.  She’s lie down and wait patiently while old or lame ones would limp along at the end.  She’s flank to one side or the other of the flock to tuck in wayward lambs.  She’d stare down those who didn’t want to move, and – on a few occasions – nip at the noses of the really stubborn ones to convince them she was in charge.

Once all the sheep were out in the pasture field, Hannah would lie down in the gate and watch them trot away.  After that she’d look back at me, very clearly asking “OK, what’s next?”

Bringing in the flock at night was equally lovely to watch.  I’d send her from the gate and say nothing more until the last lamb disappeared into the barn.

Of course one danger with Hannah is that once she is sure of what needs to be done, she will often think she knows better than I do what comes next.  As such, I made sure to sometimes change things up, or at least to do some training on other things – where she needed to listen and work with me – throughout the day, in order to keep her listening.  My biggest problem with Hannah is her tendency to work on her own, and just letting her do barn chores would certainly make that worse.  But doing the chores + things that she cannot anticipate made for a good balance.  All in all, I think we both came a long way in that week.

I did work with the other dogs as well, but I let Hannah be my main working partner.  I know it would be really good for Kess or Mira to do the same, but with only a week, I decided to just focus on one dog.  Kess is only two, and Mira has enough other things to work on, so there will be time to let them be my right hand.  Plus Hannah just loves it so much.  Her desire to work is so much stronger than theirs.  The other two love to work when you bring them to stock, but Hannah clearly sits in the house thinking about her job.  I can’t say the same about the others!

I am noticing some big improvements in all three dogs.  Hannah is working incredibly well, although we still need to improve our whistle performance and her shedding is still hesitant.  Kess is coming along and starting (finally!) to develop an outrun.  It’s still spotty and I never know if she’s going to walk straight up the field or cast out when I send her.  I have been doing my best to always set her up to cast out, but not everything can be controlled.

Mira has recently surprised me by her increase in confidence.  She remains very tough to manage around stock, behaving as if she really doesn’t hear me (and I suspect she really doesn’t) until I have hollered at her several times and the stock are totally in the wrong place.  But she’s now going in to all sorts of tight places and pushing stock around and out of corners she would never have considered only a few months ago.  She almost never barks while working, and her tail stays down most of the time now.  We still have a long way to go, but her improvement is noticeable.  While she’s not an ideal dog to train by any standard for breed selection, she’s teaching me a tremendous amount by her challenges.  I know I’ve said that before, and I will say it again many times I’m sure.

Last week I also decided to put Ross on stock.  Why you ask?  Well, because he has really turned on to stock and is so fixated on them that I decided it would be prudent to do a little training to at least get a lie-down and recall off stock on him.  Who knows when he might actually get through a fence.  It has never happened, but anything is possible.  Now that I’m traveling more with the dogs to farms and trials, I need to be confident in my dogs.

Ross on sheep was quite entertaining.  The first time I tried I put him in a round pen with them.  He went round and round, tail up, singling out one ewe and cornering her.  Once she stopped, he’d walk up to her tentatively and sniff her nose.  Just like I’ve seen a lot of young dogs do.  In short, he’s behaving like a puppy.  No surprise, really.  I would have been far more surprised had he gone around the sheep and brought them back.

The next time I brought him out, I tried it in a larger field to give him more room.  That was probably not the best idea because there simply was a lot more running.  He’s still not gathering, although he did start to turn back the singles he was chasing and bring them back to me.  And once he started getting tired, he did show some inclination to go around.  He may never do more than this, but then again more instinct might come out in time.  It doesn’t really matter either way.  What I want is to be able to call him off, and that I was able to do.  I also established that he is no sheep killer.  Quite the opposite in fact.  While he enjoyed the chase, he’s very gentle with the stock. Good boy.

I have plenty of other stories to tell and I will do my best to tell them over the coming days.  I also have a bunch of photos to share.  I just downloaded them to my computer, and once I have formated them for posting, I’ll start putting them up.  Those might be the fastest way to get caught up after my long silence.

Still Here!

Very quick note before hitting the hay.  My last post was on July 17th.  On the 18th I had visitors arrive and I’ve had non-stop visitors ever since.  My last guest left yesterday, and then I drove 2 hours to spend the evening with yet another friend who had flown to the area from the West Coast.

I think all visiting is done now, at least until the end of the month.  Hopefully I will have time to get back to regular writing again now!  I do have some things to report on the dogs’ training.  I’ve been getting out to the farm when I can, and even had a wonderful friend and Open handler spend some training time with me last week that helped tremendously.  He’s a very kind and sensitive trainer and Mira actually would work with him on the field, and even worked for him!  Finally someone who can help me wit her.

I’d love to write more but I’m beyond tired and need to get to bed and back into an early to bed, early to rise routine.  Good night!

More on Learning

Further to this post on learning theory, here’s a little video I recently came across that offers some challenge to the basic ideas put forth by Skinner.  Now the video does say that the classic reward based positive reinforcement seems to still hold true for mechanical activity, but when it comes to more mentally challenging tasks, this theory falls apart.  At least for humans.

The conclusions drawn in this video are pretty self-evident, but from a “scientific” perspective they had to do experiments to come to this conclusion (just like they had to do “scientific” studies to prove that goats were efficient at eating back shrubbery – this ideology of sciencism is really getting out of control!). What I like about this “new” understanding of motivation is that it flies in the face of the dominant theory that we (humans) are only motivated by self-interest and gain. Our entire economic system is built on this belief, and is failing the vast majority of the global population quite spectacularly.

How -or if- this applies to dog training is something I’m still mulling over.  Would love to hear people’s thoughts if anyone cares to comment.

Saturday morning rambling…

Oh my it’s been hot!  I think it’s finally cooling off however.  I’ve done my best not to complain about the heat, considering that most of the year we’re complaining about the cold.  But it’s been hotter longer than it’s been in a very long time and that’s made doing any kind of physical activity a challenge.  That said, I did find myself adjusting to it and my energy levels picking up a bit by the last few days.

Still, I’ve done very little with the dogs.  I’ve hiked them a little, and taken them to the farm and worked them a little.  A very little.  That was more because of circumstance than heat.  The sheep had all been mixed together into one big flock – the working group and the main flock.  The main flock comprises the ewes with lambs, and some of the lambs are still fairly small.  This means ewes with big udders, and bad tempers.

I don’t like pushing around ewes with big udders (I assume it can’t be good for them to have to run fast unnecessarily) or small lambs who could be trampled or get heat exhaustion in this weather.  I tried to sort out some of the working group but it was pretty much impossible without some kind of containment or shoot set-up. The sheep were being kept in the barnyard with its attached side field which makes a U-shape with a narrow channel about the width of a one lane road at the bottom of the U (the barn yard makes one side of the U and the small pasture makes the other).  When I brought a dog into one side of the U, the sheep would stampeed to the other.  The channel is too small for the dog to get ahead of the sheep so we have to go all the way around to the other side of the U, at which point the sheep stampeed back into the baryard.  The pressure is very intense and it is very difficult work for the dogs.  It’s also stressful on the sheep.  I decided not to put anyone at risk in the heat and just went for a hike.

This weekend I’m farm sitting so we’ll get to do more.  The owner of the farm ran the sheep through this shoot yesterday and separated out the working group and put them in a separate pasture.  So now it will be easy for me to get a suitable group to work with.  And it’s cooler.

On Wednesday a friend of mine came to the farm with her young dog to take a lesson.  Not with me – with the owners.  She had picked up this dog from the pound as a puppy last summer.  They said he was a Shepherd mix of some sort.  When I met him he was about 7 months.  I took one look at him and told her I thought he was a Kelpie, and not a Shepherd at all.  Or perhaps a Kelpie mix, but mostly Kelpie.  She has since taken him to a duck herding clinic and he did fairly well.  On sheep this week, he did quite well.  Definitely some genuine herding instinct in this dog.  First time on sheep and he immediately did a gather and brought them back.  She was pretty excited and plans to continue with training.

Other than that, not too much else to report right now.  I’ve been spending a lot of time at the books, both researching for my work and preparing courses to teach in the fall.  I’m working more than full-time hours right now, and I’m not even getting paid!  This isn’t exactly how I had envisioned life as an academic.  I’m discovering that this notion of having summers “off” is a fallacy.  But at least I am working from home almost all the time.  I go into town roughly once a week for meetings and that’s it.  It’s lovely.

The dogs are generally doing well.  Ross seems to be relaxing a bit, although I am still unhappy with the condition of his coat and the droopiness of his eyes.  His thyroid is definitely still off.  We started him on a new homeopathic remedy but I don’t think it is doing anything.It can take months to reset a thyroid, and so I am being patient.  I really want to get his blood tested and possibly get him back on thyroid meds but until I have an income again this is not an option.  His hypothyroidism is very, very marginal so another few weeks shouldn’t hurt his health in the long run.  But it does affect his moods and I don’t like to see him moping about.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on the thyroid lately and am wondering if my own thyroid has been off as well.  I’m am currently reading The Thyroid Solution, which is an interesting lay-oriented book written by an MD.  I have a lot of the symptoms – mostly mental – typical of low grade hypothyroidism.  Much of it is resolved now, with only a residual level of fatigue and slightly sluggish metabolism.  I was diagnosed as having adrenal malfunction, but the adrenals and the thyroid work very closely together and typically if one is off, so is the other.  I wonder if going on thyroid meds would have sped up my recovery.  I’ll talk to my GP about getting tested when I go for my annual physical in a few weeks.  I suspect I’m too close to normal for test to pick up any imbalance. When I was really unwell I had a whole battery of tests done and everything came back “normal.”  My diagnosis was then ‘depression’ due to ‘stress.’  Fortunately I knew better and kept changing doctors until I found one who actually helped.  You really have to be your own advocate in health, both for yourself and for your animals.

No health issues to report in any of the girls.  They are all doing well, and are stable and happy.  Kess seems to be maturing a bit and is showing more interest in being affectionate with me.  This makes me happy.  She mostly spends her time in isolation, off in her crate or lying in the kitchen or out in the yard while I work in the dining room. This is her choice and I’ve let her be.  I started to tie her to my chair for a while but stopped.  I figured if she wanted to be off on her own that was fine with me.  Now she is seeking me out of her own accord with greater frequency.  She’ll be two in August.  I think she’s starting to grow up!

I was supposed to be at a trial this weekend, the one I didn’t get into because I sent my entry in too late and it was full.  I have since decided to scrap the trial season completely.  The next one is the August long weekend but they only have one run for novice classes and it’s a 6 hour drive.  I wouldn’t mind going and watching the rest of the trial, and then the really big trial  that starts 2 days later.  But I don’t have the time right now to go and sit for a week watching a dog trial.  I have too much work to do.  I will likely go and watch the Nationals in late August, and that will be it.  They are being held 3 hours away and I can go just for the day if I wish.  We’ll see.  Otherwise there’s a trial in late October which I might try and compete in.  I’ve decided that I may have to bite the bullet and put Hannah into Open so that we can actually attend trials.  There are simply too few around here that have any novice classes.  Only three this year, and the only one that was convenient in terms of location or date was the one this weekend.  So shooting to run Hannah in Open in October is my new goal.  At least it gives me something to work towards!

Now I’m off to market and then to pick up milk.  I’ve been getting enough milk lately to make yogurt and cheese!  Cheese making is really exciting.  But that’s a different post.  I’d best get going or I’ll miss the organic potatoes.