While working a dog I have in for training I ran into a problem that seems to emerge as a common thread running through numerous dogs I take in. The problem child I was referring to is a really nice yearling bitch that has a lot of potential with an amazing amount of natural talent. We were having a beneficial session working on balancing and the basics of reading sheep. I laid her down, called her off to set her up in order to send her again. I do this quite a bit – so young dogs don’t associate “That’ll do” with the dreaded “not being able to work anymore”. Then out of the blue she decided not to come when called. So the rest of the training session became one of calling the dog off and working on her “coming when called”. I didn’t stop this exercise until she was controlling herself even when I wasn’t standing right next to her. This is a major prerequisite for a dog – it has to come when called. When I say coming when called I don’t mean coming when he has exhausted every reason it can conjecture up not to.
I often wonder if people realize how much time trainers spend teaching basic discipline to dogs? During the years I have taken dogs in I have depleted training hours teaching dogs such basic things as their names and coming when called. Novice people need to realize that just because a dog looks at you after you have said his name 20 times does not mean he knows it. In the same vein just because a dog finally comes after being told to 20 times does not mean he will come when called! I see this as a big hole in novices training. They think the dog is doing what it has been told and it is not. It’s doing something it was told when it felt like doing it. It came when it finally got around to it not when it was told. This is not a trained dog, it may be a semi-conditioned dog, but is not trained.
If you are paying someone to train your dog to work sheep your money would definitely be better spent on sheep work than having the trainer teaching your dog what his name is. In my estimation Border Collies need owner guidance more than any breed, that is if you want to have a functional relationship with him. The reason for a Border Collie needing this attention and direction is because of their intelligence. A dog this bright requires interaction with his owner. If he learns to listen and mind when told, both you and the dog will appreciate each other more because both will know what is expected of them. Dogs do not resent discipline, they need it and become unsettled if they don’t receive it. I think this perception is one beginners have a difficult time understanding. A dog feels safer and more confident if he know his pecking order in the house. The majority are much more comfortable if they feel someone above them is in control. I could relay hundreds of problems that occur when people do not perceive dogs’ actions accurately.
I had one dog in for training that eventually was put to sleep for aggression against people. When he first came here the owner permitted him to lunge at everyone that walked by. The owner thought he was trying to correct this behavior by saying the word “no” but not once did he truly correct the dog or give any body language indicating he was displeased with the dog. (Another way of putting it was the correction did not fit the crime!) I worked the dog on sheep and corrected him hard and fast at the very beginning so he had respect for me and I didn’t have a major problem. He was a strong willed dog and you could never let up or he would take advantage but if you kept on him he would listen. I had him in for training off and on for a year. During this time he behaved once or twice in an aggressive manner with me and he was immediately and very strongly corrected. It didn’t take him long to understand if I wasn’t feeling threatened and being aggressive, he was not to behave that way. He was fine here but whenever he went home the aggressive behavior was once again being rewarded (not on purpose, I’m sure!) So, unfortunately he matured into a very combative dog, that eventually was put down. I have another example of a Border Collie that was left at home all day long by himself. He soon learned how to jump the fence so he could go down the block to visit and play with school kids. He would come home before his owners so they never knew he was leaving. However the day came when he discovered girl dogs and didn’t bother to come home on time! He was another one that was put down because he was impossible to confine. Neither of these cases are about people not caring for their dogs, quite the contrary, they care, they just don’t understand. These are usually the people that have their dog in the house with them and although they love their dog they have never demanded anything from him. They let the dog get away with murder customarily because they are not sure how to discipline correctly. Students are always saying to me “why is it that my dog listens to you and not me…tell me the words to use”. There isn’t a word that will fix all your behavior problems. It is a total package of body language and the dog knowing that you mean what you say. Often people tell a dog one thing with words and their body is saying totally the opposite. I will undertake to give an appropriate illustration of this. If for instance, you are saying the words “lie down” and simultaneously patting your leg while backing up. The words being spoken are lie down but what is being communicated in body language is a very strong come to me. This is a detrimental mistake that beginners make saying and doing are not the same thing. Just because you say the same words as the trainer does not mean the dog will respond in the same manner.
If you will take the time to observe dogs interacting with each other it will be time well spent because you can learn a tremendous amount about dog psychology. Understanding dog behavior will benefit the union between you and your dog. Observe when a lower ranked dog growls and notice not one dog in the pack even blinks an eye. However; let the pack leader growl and every dog around is suddenly on their best behavior even if they weren’t doing anything wrong! Both dogs growled (said the same word) but the difference between the two growls are that there would have been consequences to the pack leader’s growl and believe me all the dogs know it. The subordinate dog’s growl was all “bark and no bite” and the dogs have no trouble distinguishing between the two. This example is the difference between a dog electing to listen or ignore a command. They have to accept it as absolute that if they don’t respond when told to do something there WILL be a correction, each and every time. I want to repeat EACH AND EVERY TIME. This means that you have to stop and correct a dog not just when you feel like it but every time you tell him to do something and he doesn’t comply. For example, let’s say you have told your dog to come and he doesn’t. So you repeat the command … what message have you given him? You have just communicated to him that he is safe ignoring you at least once. Then depending on how many times you repeat yourself will decide how many times he will be comfortable dismissing you. In other words, if he comes on the fourth time you’ve called him, four times is the number of times you don’t enforce what you say. This will be his comfort zone knowing he is safe in blowing you off at least four times. Then, of course, he will start pushing that number higher until he will eventually not come at all. This scenario will happen in all aspects of his training if you keep allowing him to not regard your words as absolutes. The first rule of training is never say anything you are not ready and willing to back-up with a physical action. When I say a physical action I do not mean striking a dog. I mean pressure enough to make the dog stop whatever he’s doing and try to figure out what you want because you (substitute pack) are more important than what he was doing. Depending on the dog and how sensitive he is will dictate how much pressure will be needed to give a correction. If you watch a dog fight you will observe it usually sounds worse than it looks. Listening to all the snarls and growls you would expect to find holes in the recipient of the attack. Very seldom do dogs resort to getting so physical they harm one another. Nevertheless, be assured they might not leave teeth marks on the skin but they leave no doubt on the other dog’s mind they meant business! People get confused when told to discipline their dog believing it means getting rough with a dog. It isn’t how rough you get but how well you get your message across, how consistent you are in your discipline.
In another context you could look at this as a matter of respect. Your dog needs to believe you mean down when you say it even if he is running full tilt after sheep. If your dog won’t down 2 feet from you, do you really think there’s a chance he will 200 yards out? Start up close and stay up close until he is reliable 100% at hand. I see people go to the post with their dog on a leash. If when you are walking to the post you can’t trust him to listen to you … are you hoping the further away he gets the better he will listen and mind?
OK, you say you have the idea, now how do you fix it? Set it up to happen so you can work on it when you are not doing other things. Don’t wait until you need control in order to find out you have none. Let’s start with what I started this article with “coming when called”. Most people say come and when the dog doesn’t they go get the dog and pull it to where they wanted it to go. Good idea not to repeat a command but bad idea to go and make the dog go somewhere by holding him. He wasn’t minding… he was being controlled. In other words, he had no CHOICE so he couldn’t choose to come. He has to learn to control himself and to mind because it is not acceptable not to. Yes, you should have gone over to him but then you should have corrected him, let him go, and called him again. This gives him freedom to choose to come. Don’t start this in a 20 acre pasture or you will lose…he has four legs, you only have two. So make sure you start in a small area. You are working on his “mind” and trying to convince him coming to you is in his best interest. Again, you do this through the mind, not by physically hitting him. When I say you back it up with a physical action, I mean you walk over and correct him again if he doesn’t come to you. A correction is anything from, when you are walking to him, he cringes and comes running to you …. up to grasping him behind the ears and shaking him. Watch him and judge as you are walking toward him, if he is cringing when you get there…..that’s enough discipline…don’t shake him. If he is smelling the ground when you get there, he is ignoring you and needs a stronger correction. This is usually a problem that begins early so pay attention and begin working on it when he is just a pup. Most people wait until they have a problem and then start worrying about it. It happens with all pups so just plan on it. Go places with just enough distractions to help you get your point across and not enough he won’t be able to focus on you. You want to make sure you start in a safe place where he can’t get hurt if he tries to run away. Plan ahead in order to find a place he can’t get away. It can become a habit if he learns that the way to avoid discipline is to run. You can use a long line to help convince him you have the ability to correct even at a distance. You need to build up in his mind that you have super natural abilities.
I want to touch on another reason some dogs won’t come when called and that is they don’t feel safe in coming. Someone has “intentionally or not” disciplined them for coming. Watch your timing and as I mentioned earlier if you are walking over to discipline him and he comes up to you cringing don’t pick him up and shake him at that point. The reason being you would be communicating to him is it is not safe to come to you. You always want your dogs to feel that you are going be there to help them. I bring this up because this will come into play later on in his training. If when he is working a sheep that turns on him, he will need to know you are on his side. He needs to think of you two as a team and feel like you would be there to come and help. If he is afraid to come to you this is a sign your timing is off. So, make sure the correction fits not just the crime but also his response to your disciplining him.
However (it seems like there is always a HOWEVER doesn’t it!) you can’t have him coming to you when you tell him to down. This is a different issue than being afraid to come. This is an issue not of “timing” but of “pressure”. If you tell him to lie down and he starts to run toward you, you need to put pressure on him to back him away from you. The minute he stops his forward motion, you stop putting pressure on him and repeat the down command. This is a dualfold problem…on one hand you have “yes, he isn’t doing what he was told” (which was to lie down,) but the other hand “why isn’t he doing what he was told?” Is it because of confusion? If you have a desire to be a good trainer you need to discover the difference. There is a consequential distinction between a dog disobeying because of confusion or one disobeying with defiance. Both need to be mended but require different approaches. When working on confusion you need to resolve certain communication problems. When dealing with defiance, you need to determine why the dog is challenging you.