I’ve heard a lot of discussion around training tools for herding.  Some people use nothing, just their voice, and perhaps wave or throw their hat from time to time.  Others use a herding stick or crook.  Others still use any variety of objects, ranging from rakes to paddles to pool noodles.  

The need for such tools varies with the trainer, but basically, seeing as you are working in a highly dynamic situation that moves much faster than you are able to most of the time, you occasionally need extensions of your arm or voice to keep things in control.  This is mostly true when starting out.  It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve needed anything other than my voice to train with Hannah.  

Herding is about shaping instinct.  It is very different from training agility, for example, or flyball.  These latter dog sports involve creating a behaviour in a dog, such as the desire to jump over things, go through tunnels, or race at break-neck speed down an alley and back to fetch a ball.  Dogs don’t have natural instincts to do these things, but if you make it fun and exciting for them, they will typically develop a taste for it.  Because of this lack of natural born instinct, it is paramount to make these sports fun and positive; a dog who is worried for any reason is not going to run fast, which is the foundation of these activities.  They are therefore best taught through positive means.  Furthermore, there is no reason for a dog to do agility or flyball except for the fun of it, so there is no reason to use anything other than positive means of training.  In short, it makes no sense whatsoever to use compulsion when training dog sports.

Herding is very different.  As much as I have been lamenting the fact that I have had to use some compulsion when training my dogs on sheep, I have yet to find a way around it.  Perhaps when I am more experienced and talented, I will manage to avoid it, but for now I simply can’t.  Herding involves shaping a dog’s instinct to go after livestock in such a manner as to move the stock where you need them to be without harming them.  This is modified prey instinct, modified wolf-pack hunting behaviour.  In other words, you are playing with fire. 

This weekend a few of the dogs ended up grabbing and gripping the sheep during training.  The sheep had been recently shorn, so that they would stay cool while being run around the field, but this left them with little but skin for the dogs to grab onto should they try.  Try they did, and some succeeded.  Some of the sheep ended up with gashes and tears that had to be tended to by a veterinarian as a result.  Nothing life threatening, but it was certainly eye opening.  No wonder most of the sheep farms around here refuse to allow dogs near their stock.  As my trainer has drilled into my head since day one, sheep are fragile.  You need to keep your dog under control around them because they can get hurt pretty easily.  

This is where the training tools come in to play.  Sheep are naturally afraid of the dog and want to run, and border collies naturally want to go after the sheep and (ideally) bring them back to you.  It is pretty much impossible to outrun sheep or a border collie if you are a human, so you need to find other ways of keeping the dog under control so the sheep don’t end up getting hurt, or hurting themselves.  

Training tools are used as visual distractors for the dog – the rake or the stick or the pool noodle get waved in the direction of the dog so that the dog hesitates when it starts thinking about diving in at the sheep.  Essentially these tools lengthen your reach by 6-8 feet, so you suddenly have a very long arm you can wave in front of their faces as they dash around supposedly out of your reach.  The problem I have found is that the timing is difficult with such things.  My original instructor puts a basket ball in a garbage bag, tapes up the excess bag like a handle, and swings the basket ball towards the dog, or even throws it.  Effect, yes, if your timing is right.  But the basketball is a slow, heavy object and if you don’t see things happening quickly enough, they can be over before you even start to swing.  The same, I expect, is true of the rake or paddle.  I’ve tried throwing my hat or coat at a dog, but the only thing I succeeded in doing was losing the sunglasses I had perched on top of the hat.

At the clinic this weekend, we used a new tool: a whip.  I have to say, I never in million years would have thought I’d ever use a whip in training my dogs, but it was surprisingly effective.  Now don’t get me wrong – the whip is not used on the dog.  Not a single dog was touched in any way other than with affection throughout this whole weekend.  But you need to be tough and block them with your body and your voice.  And when first training up a dog, if you can’t out run it, you need an extension to help you.  This is where the whip comes in handy.  You don’t touch the dog with it, not even close.  You can use it to make a snapping sound that punctuates your voice I typically stamp my feet or slap my stick on the ground, but the sharp snap of the whip is far more effective.  Or you can use it to flick in front of the dog as it’s about to dive in to the sheep. The whip has a small pice of leather on the end that makes a very strong visual cue, and if you flick it a few feet in front of the dog, the dog hesitates and backs off.  The whip is probably the fastest and most precise tool I’ve seen used, and was exceptionally effective.  It’s as if you were able to leap, with lightening speed, in front of the dog for a fraction of the second.  Used once or twice, the dog stops thinking it can outrun you, and things carry on much more smoothly. 

I of course didn’t need it with Hannah (when she was just getting started, however, we used a makeshift flappy thing we waved in front of her face, and the basket ball in a plastic bag), but it sure came in handy with Mira and Kess.  With Mira it kept her going around when she wanted to stop short and stay on pressure, and it kept her from diving in at the sheep.  With Kess, who earlier in the weekend caused a lamb to break its leg (which I then had to pay for, more on that in another post), it kept her off the sheep nicely too.  There is a certain amount of wolf in a border collie, and it is really, really important to keep the dog from harming them. 

I still would like to use exclusively positive methods in training my dogs, but I don’t presently have the precision and skill to be precisely at the right place, at the right time, all the time.  I can’t do it in agility when things are stationary, and I certainly can’t do it in herding when things descend into chaos in seconds.  When that happens, I end up racing around, hollering at my dog and getting really angry and upset.  Nothing positive about that, let me tell you.  When I used the whip, however, everything stayed under control, and I stayed calm.  My dogs didn’t like it, I have to say, so that is something to consider.  But they didn’t like the flippy thing or the basketball either.  They prefer to be allowed to do their own thing, but around sheep, that simply can’t happen.  

Lots to think about for our future training, that’s for certain.