Today I took the dogs out to the farm to train. I have been granted permission to train a couple of times a week during the day (while everyone else is at work) on my own over the summer. I’ve very excited about this! I really enjoy working the sheep on my own; this way I can practice what I am learning during my lessons, without worrying about messing up. When I am training with my instructor, I feel I need to be perfect. Then I get stressed and stop thinking straight. When I am on my own, I am very relaxed and even if we do mess up, I don’t worry about it. This allows me to push our limits, and it is also improving my relationship with Hannah.
Hannah is a very sensitive dog. She can seem stubborn at times, but I don’t think that’s actually what is going on. I think she tends to zone out when she gets anxious and then she stops listening. On Friday, during my lesson, my instructor had me get after her for not taking the lie-down. By this I mean she had me run up the field and yell at her when she didn’t listen. Well, she took her lie downs after that, but she also shut down in general, going out slowly in her outrun and sniffing the ground while bringing the sheep down the field. These are both signs of stress and I don’t want my dog to be stressed.
I often hear handlers talk about how if a dog doesn’t listen, it doesn’t ‘respect’ you. I suppose that can be a reason, but I can also think of many other reasons for a dog not to listen. Being distracted for example! Or worried. Or overly excited. None of these has anything to do with whether or not the dog respects you. I think many people mistake “respect” for fear. If the dog fears you, then it will likely pay more attention to not getting on your bad side. But this has nothing to do with respect. Personally I am not interested in training with fear. I don’t want my dogs to fear me for many reasons, not the least of which is that if they fear me, they aren’t going to trust me. And working as a team is all about trust.
I did not want to punish Hannah for not listening on Friday night. Like I said, I don’t think she ignores me on purpose. And me running up the field doesn’t teach her to listen, and it doesn’t teach her to lie down. What it does teach her is that when I get a certain tone in my voice, or when I run towards her, she’s going to get heck. Now what is going to happen if I need to run towards her for some other reason? Or if at a trial my voice starts to get strained because I’m nervous? My dog is going to expect she’s going to get in trouble and that will affect her behaviour. Maybe she’ll run away, or refuse to come to me when it’s really important. I don’t want any of this to happen.
So today I worked on our lie downs another way. First, I took her for a short hike before working, to shake out the beans so to speak. I did this at the trial, by the way, and played fetch with her in a back field, even though playing ball with your dog is apparently “frowned upon” at sheepdog trials. Unlike many people I’ve heard talk, I don’t expect my 2 year old dog to come out of a crate calm and quiet. She’s going to be full of beans, and if I’m smart, I’ll get her to shake a few out before going to sheep. It sure saves on a lot of screaming and yelling, that’s for sure.
After we hiked, I had Hannah separate out some sheep. This was easier said than done, and also helped to tire and focus her a little. The working group is being kept in a small corral that is tight to work in, and with tons of pressure. Hannah actually does very well under these conditions and seem to really like that kind of close work. By the time I got the sheep sorted out, she was relatively cool headed and then we started to train.
Overall thing went well. She still wasn’t listening well at first, but that changed as we went along. I did my best to encourage her enthusiastically when she was right, and limit how much I corrected her when she was wrong. I just think that’s a more pleasant way to train. When she stopped listening, I called her back to me, or laid her down and walked over to resend from up close. No need for corrections; stopping working is punishment enough.
Once I was done with Hannah, I put the sheep in the round pen for Mira. Mira hasn’t been out since I was farm sitting a few weeks ago, but she did really well today. I was quite pleased! She is very focused on her sheep, but also responding well to my body pressure. She’s even learning to stay off them and not zoom in and bark. Her tail is down and after she shook out her beans, she actually stopped when the sheep where stopped and balanced. I was tempted to take the sheep out of the pen and see how things went in the larger field, but decided to stop while we were ahead. No need to rush this. I’ve never started a dog before so I need to take this one step at a time.
Working on my own is helping me see so many things that my instructor would point out but that I would miss before. I am looking forward to continuing to do so over the summer. And some day, on my own sheep.