I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again many times I’m sure: herding is very, very challenging.  But what I find the most difficult is how different the approach to is from what I do in dog sports.  And this is what I find myself pondering after today’s disastrous session. 

In agility you break down each component and work on it until it is very, very solid.  You use only positive reinforcement and if your dog can’t get something right you break it down into smaller, simpler steps until he can.  You then start to put the pieces together, but not until you are ready.  This way the chances for success are high, and failure is minimal.  It is a fun and positive way to train, building confidence in the process. 

In herding, a skilled handler would actually use a very similar philosophy.  They would keep everything under control, working with the dog’s natural instincts to shape what is needed.  The sheep and the work are the reward, and things would be set up such that the possibility for success is maximized, and dog and handler both have a positive experience.

Unfortunately I am not a skilled handler.  I am a novice at herding and the outcome when I train is very different:  we put quite a few pieces together all at once and then muddle our way through with lots of hollering and corrections.  Some people find this fun, but I find it stressful and at times, upsetting.  When things come together it is very rewarding, but most days I leave the field feeling like a complete idiot.  

Today, for example, I can’t think of anything we did right in four hours of being on the field.  Of course we did things right, but do I even know what they were?  Not really.  And of all the things we did wrong, I feel I did very little towards fixing any of it.

I wish I could come home and train the pieces until we get them right, but I can’t.  I wish I could work on the lie down, over and over at close proximity, until Hannah is perfect.  Then work on our sides, over and over.  Then start putting things together, again up close, step by step, until we can do it with our eyes closed.  And only when we are really, really solid, would I start to move further away.

Unfortunately I don’t have my own sheep, and I can’t do this kind of practicing.  It’s very hard to work on just one piece in herding, because there’s just too much going on.  The sheep aren’t like jumps that just stand still while you work on the same thing over and over.  Each moment in herding is different and almost impossible to replicated.  So I can’t take things at the pace I am comfortable with, and that fits my philosophy of training.  

Now I am faced being pushed to “get tough on my dog” because I don’t have the means or skill to teach her what I want slowly and positively.  I find this very stressful and am trying hard to think of ways to fix this problem without resorting to compulsion and corrections (which I will not do, by the way). 

Hannah ‘blows me off’ because I am not being consistent (i.e. with the lie down), I’m often wrong, and we’ve moved beyond my ability to stay one step ahead of the game.  All of this leads her to feel the need to take charge.  She lacks confidence in my ability to keep things under control – with good reason – and I need to fix that.  But how? 

One thought is to put her on Ruff Love at home and see if that translates to the field.  It’s hard to be so restrictive with her though as she is so good around the house.  The ONLY time she doesn’t listen is on sheep.  Otherwise she a tremendously obedient dog.  Maybe I’ll just implement it when I take her out, i.e. no more free running with the other dogs for a week or two.

My other thought is to do a lot of focus training, like I would for agility.  As the snow is all but gone now, I can take her out and do some dynamic focus work.  This would include a lot of shadow handling, recall games where she is rewarded with lots of tugging (her fav) and lots of ‘lie-downs’ peppered in.  I will also do obedience work while playing with balls.  She is nuts about fetching and playing soccer, and those may help simulate training and focus under distraction.  

Hopefully this will help.  I’ll be sure to post the outcome.  Fingers crossed!