Tonight I did a little training with Clayton. He’s well on his way to becoming a really great stock dog, but we still have some foundation work to complete before taking this show on the road. Specifically, impulse control (yes, yet again!).
Clay is a very level headed, calm, steady, yet powerful dog who is a delight to work on stock. Except when he’s not. He has two modes: dream dog, and sheep-seeking missile. The former is what I see most of the time, when he is thoughtful and all is under control. The latter happens when he goes over threshold. And then there’s no getting him to listen until he’s through his explosion.
I created this problem through skipping proper foundation work. Instead of teaching him self-control off stock, proofing it with distractions, and building this into his stock training, I went right to letting him work. Additionally, due to a lack of fencing and of careful management, Clay has on a number of occasions had a grand old time getting into stock all on his own and having a blast chasing them around. Even just happening once would have been enough to teach some bad habits. But this has happened more than once.
There’s also a matter of genetics. Both he and Desirée have strong prey drives and the sheep seem to know it. If they get in with the stock, especially as a team, the sheep panic. This makes for great fun for the dogs, heavily reinforcing their desire to make this happen again. (Yes, I know this is really bad for both dog and sheep, and I do my best to avoid it. But still, sometimes it happens).
I do not have the same issue with Kes’ puppies, which come from completely different lines. Raven and Griff will sometimes sneak through a fence and round up stock, but then they lie down quietly. And if I don’t go get them, they’ll leave and come find me. Completely different dogs. Fascinating.
Back to Clay. Tonight’s session started with him being unable to sit still long enough for me to snap his leash on before leaving the house. That should have been enough of a red flag for me to abort my training plan and devise a new one. I am guilty of this oversight a little too often. I want to get to the sexy stuff. To letting my dog work sheep. I know he can do so beautifully, and look forward to admiring his gorgeous square flanks and lovely pace. We just have to get started with our head on straight. And tonight, Clayton’s head was anywhere but where I needed it.
What I should have done was forget about training and work on some impulse control games around sitting and having his leash put on. Around holding a sit at the door (or wherever I ask for it) while I move around, while I open the door, while I step outside.
While all of these things seem to have nought to do with working stock, nothing is farther from the truth. A dog who can’t hold a sit when you open the door is certainly going to struggle to take a clean down when stock are bolting down the field. Teaching your dog to develop strong self-control is done through building a strong foundation, layer upon layer, starting with simple games around the house that you generalize and proof around stronger and stronger distraction.
I’ve done some of this kind of work with Clay, but not nearly enough. He’s super smart and keen and way fun to play shaping games with. But it’s even more reinforcing for me to work him on stock because he’s so talented. Des, his sister, is fast and pushy and a little stressful to train, so I have no problem doing off-stock training with her. In fact, I tend to prefer to do agility work with her because that is what I find reinforcing. It’s where she shines, and also minimizes the number of times I get run over by sheep.
But Clay… well, he is making great progress on stock, and for the most part is easy and relaxing to work. I get all excited when I work with him and want more. I look forward to working him. I think about it throughout the day, devising plans on what we’re going to do. I dream of showing him off at trials. So I keep skipping the foundation work and going straight to the good stuff.
Except we’re not making great progress where we really need to be improving: Keeping a calm head and clean flanks when things get exciting with the sheep. When the sheep bolt, instead of kicking out to gather, Clay goes into missile mode. It’s like he has a turbo booster that propels him at warp speed towards the sheep, splitting them up and scattering them every which way, typically leaving him chasing one sheep down the field while the rest of the flock slips away through the bush line. Just a teensy, weensy hole in our training. Big enough to drive a transport through.
Even worse, he has the terrible habit of starting out in stealth missile mode. He walks onto the field, calm and cool as a cucumber, sauntering on loose leash at my side. He lies down with grace, stays steady and quiet with no sign whatsoever of the quivering mass of ready-to-launch muscle under his sleek coat. Until I quietly remove the leash and… we have zero to launch in 0.025 seconds.
And definitely not something I want him to keep practicing. Let alone do at a trial. In fact, until we work through this to 100% reliability, we cannot trial. No matter how beautiful his flanks and pace and outruns, if the first 20 seconds of our run involves him streaking straight up the field and busting up the sheep, we’ll be DQ’d faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Yes, I can play the leash click game, where he thinks he’s been released but hasn’t. But that doesn’t teach him self-control. It just improves his hearing and teaches him to test his collar before bolting. I need to go back to foundations. BOR-ing! But we’re not going to get through this otherwise. Well, unless I resort to using aversive and punishment. But the goal here is to not go there.
But despite all of the above, I still ignored tonight’s flapping red flag warning me that it was Mr. Missile instead of Mr. Dream at the end of my leash. And when I unclipped his leash, of he bolted up the field and through the sheep. And I was left with two options: ignore the behavior, or run up the field hollering like a cave woman. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which option I chose.
That I keep repeating this scenario is an excellent example of how punishment is ineffective. Despite the frustration (punishment), 20 seconds after this event everything is under control and we’re back to being a team. And so my behavior does not decrease. And neither does Clayton’s.
The good news is that it really shouldn’t take us very long. And hopefully it won’t preclude working stock, or at least not for more than a few days. So starting tomorrow I’m going to set up some strategic games and a training plan to get him to keep himself in check. He doesn’t have the agility foundation that Des does, or much value for toys or other things I can use to reward him. He wont even look at food when excited. So I will have to put some thought into how I am going to do this. I may have to start with going way back to square one: (re)building value for tugging.
This will teach me not to skip foundation work! I have a three year old power house of a dog who is half way trained to pro-novice, who has to go back to puppy kindergarten. Never again.