Cut to the chase
I’m constantly telling my students to keep the push in their dogs while trying to “tone down” the chase. After observing their confusion between the two terms I thought an article might help clarify the concept. So, I will attempt (as usual complicated on paper) to differentiate between chase and push so hopefully a novice can begin to observe and decide which action their dog is taking and acquire the steps to “sort out” this problem. To a novice the two may look identical (rapid) but there is a “world of difference” between them. The significant difference being that a dog tends to be in balance with the sheep when he’s pushing, but “more than likely” not when he’s chasing. Even if you, as a novice handler, don’t know the difference – I can promise you the sheep do.
There are numerous things that will cause a dog to have a too much “chase” about him. It’s a compilation of how much or little eye the dog has, what the mental attitude of the dog is (he’s just running and not thinking), how much pressure the dog feels from the handler (if the handler is “strong enough” it will automatically tone a dog down) and the sheep (are they light, heavy, etc.). So, as you can see (or I guess that’s read) it’s a multi-factored problem and can’t be “solved” with just one approach, but I will give one technique that helps me “sort through” dogs that have too much chase about them. The key to “curtailing” chase is to incorporate pace into the dogs working agenda. A few dogs are born with pace – the majority are not. Either way, I just assume it’s something I will have to work on and automatically integrate it into my training program. Often, I spend many months working on a dog without a lot of natural pace and with others (less frequently) just a few weeks.I know “cut to the chase” and on to the inevitable question: how can I put pace in my dog? My first response usually perplexes them – stop downing your dog. Then I take them out and demonstrate how to work on pace and “guess what” … part of the time I down the dog. Sound confusing … welcome to sheepherding 101!
A concept a novice needs to appreciate is that a “down” can convey many things and there are various reasons and ways to down a dog. A talented open handler with a down whistle can bring a dog to a “screeching” halt or slow it down to a “crawl.” They can use the down to stop all motion or just as a pause (half-halt) in order to “warn” the dog they are going to give a redirect. So, to get pace in our dogs we need to learn to communicate very subtle downs that our dog will learn to translate to slow down. Try to begin with a nice group of sheep (remember, when possible use sheep to your advantage). If they are too heavy a young dog will loss confidence is his ability to push … “on the other hand” runners will do nothing except bring out the chase. Initially, I let the dog work off a “bit of steam” because not only do I use the “appropriate” sheep to get my message across but I endeavor to work with the dog. (If you need to work on fast flanks do it at the beginning of a session when the dog is still eager and fast. If you need to work on pace – wait until the end when the dog is tired and not as “hard running”.) I have the dog go around and I say “there” to have him start fetching. When he starts to push too hard I say “take time” gruffly (not in an “asking” voice). When he doesn’t respond (because he doesn’t know what it means) I put pressure on him (lean towards him or push the sheep towards him) and say stand (mine usually don’t have a clue what that means either) and finally I say lie down. That’s the command I expect them to obey and if they don’t – they will get a correction but immediately as they lie down … I say “get up” softly (actually, I usually use a “clucking” sound as you would for a horse) and back up (release your pressure). Keep in mind you’re not working on the “down” but the “slow down”. Usually when they get up its fast and furious so you need to be prepared and repeat this exercise … take time (gruffly), stand, and then again down.
Now to the biggest impediment to using this technique – getting the novice to understand that sheepdog training isn’t “black and white” – so much of it is “feel”. For that reason, if you want to become skillful at this sport you need to start perceiving things as a dog would. If you were a young dog, keen and “on the hunt” and someone downed you and proceeded to let your sheep (in the dogs eyes) get away – what would your first reaction be? My” point is” when you down the dog … don’t make him lie there while the sheep run off because the dog will get stressed as they sense they are loosing their sheep. If this occurs they loose confidence in you, so when you do get them up – all they have on their minds is to play “catch up” (to solve the problem they think you just created). That’s obviously not what we are trying to accomplish. We’re attempting to “grind them down” so they understand that if they will JUST go slower they won’t have to lie down. The trick is to keep the dog pushing on without changing the distance between the dog and the sheep. So, remember you are working on keeping distance and not “the down” so if you say take time, stand, and down and you get your “take time” then let him keep working … that’s his reward. But, if you say take time, stand, down and he doesn’t slow down (or you if you say down without the take time in front of it) … then give a correction and make him lie down. Later, “on down the road” I do the same things with whistles – using a there whistle, that slides into a take time and finally into the down whistle.
Lastly, don’t forget to “intermingle” all this slow down with some fast walk ups. That’s another “all or nothing” issue that often occurs with novices. They get a lesson and proceed to practice nothing except that “component” of training. You have to have to be balanced in your training – mix your take time with “get up, get up”, fast flanks with the slow flanks, letting them work on their own with making them obey immediately. Hopefully this will allow you develop that “well rounded” dog we are all looking for.