For the first 1.5 years of training with Hannah, my instructor was with us every time we were out on sheep. This was primarily because I don’t have my own sheep, and so only could train when I took lessons, but also because I had no clue what I was doing and was terrified I’d screw up my dog. As the saying goes, “everyone screws up their first dog” and I didn’t want that to happen to my Hannah.
Quick caveat: I don’t believe this is necessarily true – dogs are very forgiving and can be retrained if you mess up. In my opinion, especially in hind sight, it’s better to try and be wrong than to be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes and thus never get anywhere.
Back to training Hannah. As a result of the above, I think I have been way, way too controlling of Hannah and I think this is affecting her confidence and also preventing her natural talent from really coming out. A few days ago, a good friend suggested that I just try letting her be. I joked back that I would have to put duct tape over my mouth to get myself to shut up. I really have been barking out way too many commands and quite seriously considered doing this as an interesting exercise. With Mira, I am letting her be natural as she doesn’t know verbal cues as of yet. So with her I am quite silent, and surprisingly, things are going well! (why am I surprised that things improve when I shut up?) So why not try that with Hannah?
Today I decided to give that a try. No, I didn’t put duct tape over my mouth; putting a whistle in it did the trick. I took the whole flock out into a new field that was just hayed (the only one with grass short enough to train easily in now), let the sheep go, then sent her to get them. And then I shut my mouth. I said nothing at the top, and nothing on the fetch, and just let her bring the sheep to me as she pleased. I did a number of outruns and some wearing. With driving I have to speak as she just doesn’t do it naturally so voice cues are the only way to keep her moving them away from me, but otherwise I manage to stay very quiet.
The results were interesting. First, my blood pressure stayed very nice and low and I found the whole experience to be quite relaxing! Second, I discovered some things about my dog. For one, she had a lot of trouble moving the sheep when they string out. I brought out the whole working group of 17, with some light and some heavy. They quickly split off into groups and Hannah would either freeze up, not knowing which way to go and which sheep to get, or would pick a group and forget the rest. A few times she just sat there, looking back and forth, and then at me. When she really got stuck, I would give her a flank to help her decide, but most of the time I let her figure it out for herself.
I also discovered that when left to her own devices, at the top she would go to pressure and then lie down. She was very very patient and would just wait for the sheep to lift quietly, at which point she would get up and start walking. I don’t know if this is natural, or constructed. I know that before I insisted on always lying her down at the top, she used to not lie down, but would come in quietly and lift them nicely. My instructor had me put the lie-down in because once the sheep got going, she would sometimes chase. So I think this lie-down is constructed. I’m not sure if it’s ideal because with heavy sheep she loses momentum in the lift, making it more difficult. It would be fine with light sheep though, I suspect.
Coming down the field she would flank to keep them straight, but often over-flank so they would zig-zag. I have been correcting this by stopping and flanking her myself, but perhaps just letting her do her thing will teach her to flank less as zig-zagging down the field is tiring and inefficient. I guess time will tell!
She generally was slow – slow on the lift and slow on the fetch. The sheep were heavy, but she also took her time. This would be a problem on the trial field when we’re on the clock, but certainly kept everything quiet and calm. All very different from how she behaved only a few months ago. So maybe she is more confident? Or maybe was just thinking things through. Hannah is very much a thinking dog, and one who moves slowly when she is thinking. Actually, that’s probably what was going on. She speeds up as she becomes more confident and decisive.
I have to say, she really worked her little heart out. She tried and tried and pushed and pushed. I thought her head was going to explode at one point. But in the end, she did really well and I am proud of her. While physically she didn’t do more than we typically do, she was exhausted by the end of the session.
I really wish I had an experienced handler to come and watch me do this. I had so many questions, and the only way I’m going to get them answered is by trial and error. For example, Hannah was more than happy to leave sheep behind when some got too heavy. What should I do about this? Yes I can verbally correct her and prevent that from happening, but when I shut my mouth, she left sheep. On a positive note, today she learned to ‘look back’! Sometimes I’d send her three times to get all 17 sheep. That’s really not very impressive. So, how do I fix it? She won’t take a look back when actively bringing sheep to me, only after they are at my feet (after all, she only learned the cue today!). I did try and flank her out and back, but she wouldn’t go. So do I lie her down when she looses sheep, walk out to her and tell her to look back? But what about the sheep she was bringing? We’ll probably lose those as there’s a lot of pressure.
Also, was this tendency to leave sheep created by my working on shedding with her? Since I never just let her be before, I have no idea what her natural inclination is.
Next, on a few occasions she flanked 360′ around the sheep. I have been doing this in training to get her to take off-side flanks, but did I go overboard? I think perhaps I have, or maybe she’s just now ‘freer’?
I think overall today’s experiment was a success. The two most important thing I learned are as follows. First, I discovered that I don’t know what my dog’s natural abilities are. Of course when I started training her none of this would have meant anything to me anyway. But I will be sure to let Mira be more natural so I know what’s there intrinsically before trying to shape what I want. With Hannah I have to figure this out 1.5 year years into training, so I may never know what’s natural and what’s constructed with her. Does this even matter? I’d be curious to know.
Second, letting the dog figure out a lot of stuff on its own is how one ‘shapes’ herding. This may be obvious to those with more experience, but for me this is a revelation. A dog trained through shaping will learn more quickly and be more confident and natural. Training through just giving commands for the dog to follow leads to a mechanical dog who is dependent on you to know what to do. In agility or other sports, you shape by letting the dog do what it wants (although generally setting it up for success), then rewarding what you want. This teaches the dog to offer behaviours, and to problem solve. I shaped Mira on jumps yesterday, for example, by standing quietly by a jump with her in front of it, then releasing her (“free!”). At first she just snifffed around, but after a few moments, she jumped over the jump. As soon as she did that, I threw her toy and she got to play. Of note, beyond releasing her, I said NOTHING. Very quickly she started jumping over the second she was released, and then was happy to jump several jumps in a row.
With herding, a dog with any natural instinct will know where the sheep should be. If you let them try stuff on their own, they will experiment until the sheep do what they want. So with Hannah, letting her over-flank should get her to figure out not to do it, since what she really wants is the sheep to go straight. Of course you need to help them somewhat, and prevent what you don’t want as much as possible. That’s where the art of knowing when to speak, and when to shut up, comes into play. Of course that comes with experience, and experience is what I’m lacking. But there’s only one way to get it, even if it’s not pretty.
I have been reading through training discussion lists and blogs and over and over, experienced handlers advocate being quiet and letting the dog be natural. I am going to continue reading, continue experimenting, and continue shutting up. Next time we go out, however, I think I will take a smaller group of more uniform sheep until Hannah and I both have a little more experience.