Lessons from a Stockdog in Training–Mace
Follow Mace’s stockdog progress from his first days on the ranch.
January 28, 2006
This weekend we had to run the cows into the corral to wean some calves. I took Mace with me on a leash out in the pasture. He got to gather them with me, help turn back a reluctant heifer, and then wear along behind the herd as they made their way to the corral. As long as we don’t have little calves, those open pasture settings (on a leash) are also a pretty good way to introduce him to the real work he will be doing. I still need to figure out how to get those verbal commands though…..
February 6, 2006
This weekend, Mace and I went to a Pat Shannahan herding clinic for puppies and young dogs. I really had no idea what to expect from Mace, he IS only 5 months old. I had decided to go to the clinic because Mace is very interested and very intense about cattle, and I wanted some insights and help getting him started right.
Saturday morning we started in an indoor arena with 5 Katahdin sheep. I had visions of Mace running them wildly all over that arena. But with Pat’s help, he was soon circling them – and barking wildly the whole time. Pat said that would quit when he figured out he could move the sheep without barking. So, for that session – 5 or 10 minutes – we worked on circling both ways, reversing direction when we asked him to. And he DID it!! Good boy! My friend Sue’s comment later was that as soon as she saw Mace work she thought “This dog is going to be EASY to train!” Sue owns Mona.
Saturday afternoon, each dog worked again. This time, Pat would get each owner started, then fade away and let the owner work the dog. The goal this time was to review the morning lesson – circling and turning – then start moving down the arena and see if the dog would bring the sheep along. Again, Mace did great. He has a good feel for the balance point, but is still moving in and out of the flight zone. He would wear the sheep just a couple of times, then settle down to WALK along behind them, at the balance point, and generally at the edge of their flight zone. And, all of this with almost NO barking this time. Smart dog! When I turned, he automatically swung around to stay at the balance point. It was just amazing to me to watch this little, intense puppy looking like he knew what he was doing! Thank you Mary and Sandi (and Raven and Boston)!
Sunday morning we were in an outdoor round pen, again with 5 Katahdin sheep, but these were not dog-broke (read that as much wilder!). We basically did the same lesson as Sat. morning (circling), but with the wilder sheep. At the start, Pat also had me tell Mace to sit and stay by the gate while I moved toward the sheep then released him to work. This session looked more raggedy – the sheep didn’t stay bunched up as well, and there was some shedding one or two off and chasing….. But again, Mace *ended up* circling nicely, turning when asked. He seems to work both directions fairly well, without a real preference for one or the other. And no barking (except from some of the dog-spectators who wanted their turn at those sheep!).
Sunday afternoon was again in the outdoor round pen with the wilder sheep, and a review of the Sat. afternoon lesson – circling then moving around the pen. Mace really gets the following along, at a walk, keeping the sheep headed to me. This time I was able to correct him a couple of times for getting too close to the sheep, and I think he understands staying at the edge of the flight zone better now. Most of the other dogs tended to continue to wear along behind the sheep, which Pat explained happened when they got to/just into the flight zone, but they didn’t want to slow down.
Some of the “philosophy of training” that Pat shared over the weekend included:
– The dog WANTS to do what is right. The person is the one who needs to figure out how to tell him what is right.
– Don’t try to correct all the mistakes at once, work on one thing at a time so the lesson is not confusing.
– Let the dog make a mistake then correct him. Don’t nag at him trying to prevent him from making a mistake. That just keeps constant pressure on him and is discouraging to him.
I feel like I have some tools to work with Mace now. I know more about what to do to help him along. I think this clinic may have been more useful for ME than for Mace. He seems to know more about what to do than I do! Since he is destined to be my cow dog here on the ranch, I will go slow with him. He’s not ready to work our cattle yet, maybe by mid-summer he will be old enough. Sue and I have already started planning the logistics for getting some hair sheep to practice on. That would be fun, and helpful for Mace and me to develop that herding communication link we will be needing.
All I have done with Mace is teach him basic obedience – come, sit, stay, wait here (I tell him that when I leave the house, and he has to stay behind), down. He’s not solid on any of them yet. He certainly doesn’t know the herding lingo. The only commands we used in the clinic were “there”, which we used to tell him to go the other direction around the sheep, and “ahnn-ah” when he wasn’t doing what we wanted him to do.
I wouldn’t trade this little guy for any of the other dogs there! He was such a good boy! He did at least as well as the BCs there, and better than many of them. And he was about the youngest dog there. I’m bustin’ my buttons over this guy, and grinning from ear to ear!
April 25, 2006
Our corral has dried out enough that I have been able to start working around the weanling heifers with Mace. I’ve been taking him with me to do chores for awhile, working on a leash and working on following me around and not going haring off to chase whatever (bulls, horses, calves, cows, chickens). I see improvement. As long as I am not paying attention to the critters, he will ignore them too. We can go through the gate or over/under the fence, and he will be calm and listening to me.
However – if I ask him to move any of them, he uses WAY too much pressure (except for the bulls, he needs most of his oomph to move them). I have worked a bit with walk up and steady when we are out on our walks, not around any stock. But they are not in his vocabulary when we work with stock. So, my question is, how to best teach him more self control. I’ve gleaned several approaches from comments here and elsewhere.
1) When he pulls at the leash and wants to run after the heifers, tell him “walk” or “easy” and make him do it. (I tried that, he mostly continued to pull on the leash, focused on the calves, but sometimes he calmed down).
2) When he pulls on the leash, after having told him to walk or easy, and he continues to pull, take him out of the pen and quit working.
3) Same situation, but tie him outside the pen and make him watch me move the calves around, then let him try again.
Anybody have other ideas that might work here? He’s getting to be pretty obedient in most situations, but add the excitement of working cattle, and he forgets a lot. I know that’s somewhat expected at his age – he’s coming up on 8 months. I’m just looking for ideas on how to teach him that self control he needs.
Advice from Mary Peaslee:
Lack of self-control (or unwillingness to assert it 😉 is typical of young dogs. It isn’t a reflection of any failure on your part. It is a predictable part of the process of growing up!
Self control comes with experience AND — very importantly — confidence. Until a dog feels confident that they can handle a situation (or control your cows), they are likely to come on too
strong as compensation. In time, with experience and guidance, he’ll “get it”. It sounds to me like you are handling it appropriately.
Comments from Erin Hischke
I completely agree with what Mary says about maturity and impulse control!
A lot of it will just come along with maturity.
When my dogs start to lose control, I remember to speak calmly (works for Blondie) “easy Blondie easy”. If she doesn’t hear me I say it louder and more firmly but with no excitement. Then she will come back to me or lay off (we haven’t gotten a working stay yet). When Shooter is excited it is VERY difficult to slow him. I used to think he was an unbiddable dog because he didn’t
*listen*. Last summer I realized that he *watches* what I’m doing and gets his command from that. When Shooter gets very excited and works too hard I will sit. If it is shitty and I don’t wish to sit ( 🙂 I will turn around and walk away. When he sees that I’m backing off, he will too. Then I call
him back to me, talk to him softly and help him relax. Then I stand up and advance slowly.
Whatever you do *DON’T* get excited. That will just feed their enthusiasm.
Tish Toren’s Thoughts
It doesn’t sound to me like Mace lacks confidence, he is pulling Kris around trying to get at the calves! Herding for him has been fun and rewarding, and he has shown good instincts and lots of enthusiasm (good boy) and Kris has been working diligently with him, but it does sound as though he does not yet have it through his head that this is a job and not play, and what his job as a farmdog *means*.
If there aren’t enough reasons to go into the pens to work (or even just SIT) with your dog (on a line for control) until he can learn to relax, heel on a loose lead without acting the predatory buffoon as you go about your daily (non-herding!) business, the thing to do is make up reasons to get him in there, take a lot of time now, while he’s relatively young and malleable, and keep working him until the silly novelty of chasing the stock for his own gratification has been replaced by respect for you, respect for his flock… And respect for himself, because a good shepherd, human or canine, does not do anything at the expense of his flock.
So the root of the problem is, IMO, that Mace needs to understand that his is a job to be taken seriously, not a game. If he is hardheaded about submitting to you, I don’t think a scruffshake, ten scruffshakes, or even a really scary roll if he’s being a jerk, is out of line. It sounds as though he has some respect for you, but that that respect is not yet sufficient to override his desire to hunt your stock.
Some advice from Adeline Shackles
Is he still on the leash when working? If so and he was mine I’d have him off the leash in order to find his own pace. He needs to respect you on and off the leash first and focus where you focus – like you say, if you’re not focused on the stock, he needs to ignore them too.
He needs to experiment to find out what he *should* be doing. He could offer to do all sorts of unexpected stuff in the early days. Unless there is risk of damage or outright panic, he needs to go through this process because HE needs to find out what he needs to do to get control, you can’t tell him. It’s a bit like showing and explaining to a kid how to swim, likely all your instruction will help but they won’t suddenly be able to take to the water and swim lengths just because you told them how! Try not to yell at him or get het up yourself, give him a ‘good dog’ when his try is getting more what you had in mind, every time, so he is reassured – if he thinks you disapprove of all he is doing you might get a situation where he is dashing around causing more and more mayhem as he desperately tries to find a way he can please you. Try and use your position and tone of voice to indicate to him where you want him – this is the bit I can’t help much with, you two will have to experiment a bit to work it out.
1) When he pulls at the leash and wants to run after the heifers, tell him “walk” or “easy” and make him do it.
2) When he pulls on the leash, after having told him to walk or easy, and he continues to pull, take him out of the pen and quit working.
I’ve found that having a short stick in my hand an gently stroking/tapping their back to distract focus from the stock back onto you sufficiently to obey works well. If above does not work, alter the command to lie down ***and enforce it***. This gives you an emergency stop even if nothing else is working. Instantly you ask for the lie down he must do it, be tough but praise when he does. Teach “steady” and “stand” this way on the leash first without stock on and off the leash and then in the presence of stock before he is allowed working too much. But be realistic with the stock, first few times he’s working proper he isn’t going to be listening to you much in any case. A short reminder every day before you start your work session to make sure he is listening to you. Praise well for **any** try at slowing at first, but get more strict quite quickly once he has got the idea.
I feel it is very important to let them find out for themselves as long as it isn’t going to damage anything. ***You need to help them by using your influence to help control the stock, but personally I wouldn’t be doing much at all in the way of command or control in the early stages, just letting them run and find out the feel of how to do it.*** You are not trying to micro-manage them. Whether I can help you to help him find his feel is debatable!!! So much depends on your own feel for how to move stock. Your first aim in these early sessions with a rushing dog is not *moving the stock* but *making them still*, all of them, stock dog and you at a standstill, all engaged and concentrating on each other, but calm. So your efforts need to be trying to steady the stock up and get them where he can hold them still, and for this you are going to need to be calm yourself and probably have a stick in your hand, not to hit stock just to make yourself ‘bigger’ both for influencing the dog and the stock and in extremis for self preservation if you look like getting run over. If you feel the session isn’t achieving anything, stop and think how you can alter what you are doing, to show him a different way what you mean, perhaps even leave it for a day or so while you think out what to try next. It may be something very subtle that makes all the difference.
Quitting **as soon as** he is being good is tantamount to punishment for being good. So try to leave it when he’s going calmly if possible, try and get it to the point the stock are standing still and he is still too and call him to you or go to him, make a huge fuss of him and leave it there. Leave plenty of time for your sessions so this is achievable.
More from Erin Hischke:
You have to work with what instinct your dog has. If you have a bossy, dominant dog with strong enforcer nature–wants to enforce your rules, I’d rather leave the prey drive out of it and use his enforcer nature. Herding does not have to come from prey drive. All dogs are a blend of drives and you have to work with what you’ve got. With prey drive you open a whole can of worms with needlessly working the stock and inappropriate chasing behaviors.
That being said, if you have a bossy, dominant dog who tends to want to make the stock mind you, then I would not ever ask that dog to lie down in front of the stock. That would be very insulting to such a dog and may hinder his confidence–he may assume that you are telling him to let the stock be boss of him. You could use “stand” or even “sit” rather than “lie down” when working with the stock. However, I would make sure that that same dog lies down for *you* when you ask in other situations.
In the herding trainer world it is a common thought that you should make the dog focus on what you are focusing on–thus only working when you are with him. This is okay in some situations, but I value my dog’s independent thinking and acting ability. I let him use his judgment. If I am gone and the stock get out, I want him to take care of it for me (and he has on multiple occasions). This does not follow the line of thinking that includes us doing it together. I need my dog to be lose to patrol the farm for irregularities. I need to trust that he won’t make a mess of things when left to his own devices.
May 13, 2006
We just got back from two days of herding lessons with Lynn Leach.
The biggest “Aha” for me came when Lynn showed us how Mace (my loose-eyed, upright style herding dog) shows a LOT of eye. He will focus on the sheep (and he does this with the cattle here at home too), and run straight to where he is looking. Sounds like a “Duh!” observation….. But then we moved on to what to do about it. He is putting pressure on the sheep when he’s looking at them. I need to work on getting him to release that pressure by looking away. I did that mostly with a stock stick, or saying “anh”. As soon as he turns his head away, he’s ready to circle and gather. And he did! He likes to run fast to go around the sheep, and Lynn said that she would rather see the speed now, and try to slow it down as needed, than try to get him to move faster later. Mace does slow down when he gets to the balance point – at least he did after practicing a few times.
To my delight, I also discovered that my work here at home has resulted in him knowing what “Out” means! I’ve used it mostly to send him out of the horse pasture, or out of the garden, but it also works to move him away from the sheep. When he got to circling too close, or cutting in, I could just tell him “out” and he would move out 5 to 10 feet. I’ll have to try that with the cattle……
Mace was also distracted from time to time – barking at sheep in the next pen, or sniffing the ground. Lynn suggested that if he (or any dog) knows what you are asking but doesn’t want to work, to do some boring obedience work. So I would tell him to sit and stay. But even that had a silver lining. I’ve been struggling with getting him to sit at some distance from me. There in the sheep pen, he just did it. You could have knocked my over with a feather!
When we finished our last work this morning, the folks watching gave him a big round of applause for his work! He looked pretty good, if I do say so myself. I had been moving around the pen, back and forth, and Mace did a pretty good job of bringing those sheep along. He was pretty quiet, and would walk along behind them when we were going straight.
Mace is a purebred English shepherd owned by Kris Hazelbaker in Idaho and bred by Mary Peaslee of Shepherd’s Way English Shepherds. His primary job on his farm is to occasionally herd Murray Gray beef cattle in small pens and in pasture. His farm has few daily chores that give the routine structure for Mace to learn from.
For more information on stockdogs