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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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