Stage Fright


The other day I was “stressing out” in regards to how many young dogs I am in the process of training. So I came into the house trying to decide which ones to sell and which to keep. This is a difficult decision for me for a number of reasons, the major one being I become attached to them. I think this is the reason that I have never raised pups up with the notion of training them to sell. I usually keep one or two pups to keep track of how our breeding program is working.

Up until now I’ve made my living by taking dogs in for training. (I’m so hopeless that after training them I have been known to try and buy them because I really clicked with them.) I’ve changed my program now deciding to take very few dogs in for training. Instead I am now keeping a few pups to start and then sell. I am also contemplating buying and re-selling started and trained dogs. Which returns me to the content of this article which is the different stages of training.

The first stage would be of course the infamous puppyhood! However I think in this article I am more inclined to be referring to the stages of training after they are turned on to stock as opposed to how to raise them. It does make a HUGE difference in their “working” potential as to how they were raised so I don’t want to underplay that “adventure”, but prefer to concentrate on the stock-training stages. I have written in the past on raising pups and I’m sure I’ll do another article as I feel it is truly one of the major “building blocks” of a good working dog.

I start my pups around 10 months of age with the idea in mind that training takes pressure and it takes maturity to accept this pressure without injuring a young dog’s feelings. Don’t misunderstand me about the type of pressure I am referring to because at this stage I’m not concerned with telling the dog what to do but only that I am a player in the “sheep game” and he always needs to keep me in the back of his mind. He needs to appreciate he’s on a team and therefore can’t do things just his way. The first concept I am trying to put in the dog’s mind is there are three elements he should consider while he’s working: where he is, where the sheep are, and where I am.

All this can be considered pressure because you are taking the pup’s mind off sheep but you need to use “kid gloves” (or is that “lamb gloves?”) and not put on so much pressure he becomes more troubled about what you are doing than what the sheep are doing. You always want him focused on his sheep. I think beginners have had a hard time carrying out this premise … how to get respect enough the dog will listen to you but not so much he is stopping and looking at you. It’s very much a give and take process. You start with your voice correction, and since he as yet doesn’t understand right from wrong, you may need to employ a physical correction in conjunction with the verbal so he knows without a doubt he has done something wrong. By using this method you will soon be able to move on to just using your voice.

This is why I say how you raise a pup is important; if you begin this process when he’s just a pup he will have the basic understanding of a voice correction before he ever gets to stock. It will take awhile before it transfers over to working sheep as when he first starts working he will be totally focused on sheep and you will have to insert yourself into the picture.

Usually in the beginning you will, as stated above, have to use physical pressure (this at times might not necessarily mean physical correction, it could be as subtle as just being physically in the right place to push him out). You need to do this so he understands he’s not in this game alone and needs to respond not only to the sheep but also to you. You need to judge and gauge your dog’s response correctly at this stage. Some dogs will be so put off by any correction you will have to let them run through the middle of their sheep until they are comfortable with the concept of working before you put any constraints on them. Some are so hard-headed they will not acknowledge your presence. With this type you will need to put stronger pressure on them making sure they understand they are only working sheep with your permission. The first type of dog is so worried about you he can’t concentrate on his work, the latter type wants only to work and feels you are in the way. You will also run into the type that wants to chase until you put pressure on them and then they are not interested in working at all.

So, no matter what type you are dealing with, throughout the first stage essentially your concerns are getting the dog interested in his sheep and hopefully to the other side without running through the middle of them – all this while keeping you in the back of his mind.

During this stage you will need to be watching the dog’ s attitude. You want to appraise the dog correctly so you can adjust your training techniques to fit each individual dog. By watching his attitude you will be able to judge how hard or easy your corrections need to be.

As you are trying to get the dog around on the other side balancing his sheep up don’t be anxious about giving directions; instead your concerns should be is the dog flanking correctly on his own, and if he’s tight, you should be giving a verbal correction to “bend” him out. A lot of beginners get so carried away with teaching directions they don’t teach the dog to flank correctly.

Don’t view flanks as left & right but as an entire package of how the dog is going around his sheep. There are questions you need to ask yourself as he goes: is he looking and gauging his sheep? Is he thinking about what the sheep are doing or is he just running in order to get to the other side as fast as he can? This stage is critical because it is the foundation for all the rest of your training so do spend the time to get it done correctly and you will save time and frustration in the months to come. Keep in mind the main concern is the dog’s attitude while he’s flanking. If you get hung up on teaching “Away to me” or “Come bye” instead of allowing the dog to learn to give distance to his sheep you will lose a lot of what makes these dogs so special.

If you achieve the basics of bending out with a verbal correction up close you will eventually be able to accomplish this at greater and greater distances. The little steps you are now taking will progress later into big leaps at which time you will be able to bend him out no matter how long the outrun. When he’s tight verbally correct him before pushing him out, making sure he’s running and thinking — not just running. Then later when the distances get further away you can still use your verbal correction to make him start thinking and then have him self-correct. So in essence the main purpose of this stage is teaching him to think and correct his distance around his sheep.

When you are confident that he will respond to your verbal corrections you can then start putting your “Away to me and Come byes” on. At the beginning of this stage you are still using your body to guide the dog in the right direction but now you start utilizing words that match his actions. This stage takes time and is sometimes very frustrating. You will think he knows his sides when suddenly he acts as if he hasn’t a clue. This is normal so try not to get agitated with the dog. At the beginning try to position yourself and the stock to help him go in the correct direction. Remember it’s very important he’s not just running but he is thinking about what the sheep are doing and where you are. If at any time he “takes the bit” and just runs you have to correct him. He needs to know when you give a flank and he takes the proper direction but goes incorrectly then he will be stopped and made to do it right.

The next stage is teaching him to bring sheep to you at a reasonable pace. You’re not really teaching him “to pace” but more conveying a perception of distance when fetching his sheep. (You will teach pace later so consider this as the beginning stages of it). Your hours will now be spent backing up and letting him balance sheep to you. I want to stress spending a lot of time backing up and allowing the dog to hold the sheep up to you because this allows a dog to understand sheep and how they move and react. It is practice .. practice .. practice at this stage. It does take time and energy but it is time well spent.

Now on to the stage that many think is simple so they get carried away and jump into it before laying the proper foundation – outruns. If a dog is flanking cleanly all the time then as you start to extend your outruns he will want to “blow” himself out because he knows why he needs to give distance to his sheep. If he knows the how and why he will do it more willingly. This does not mean you don’t have to work on outruns because some will do it naturally and with others you will really have to work at it. This is not to say one will finish a better dog than the another only one takes more time and work than the other.

One thing I wish to emphasize is if a dog is running tight on flanks the odds of him widening out does not increase the further away from you he gets. So keep him up close and bending properly at hand before you send him any distance. You have to get your outrun RIGHT! You can’t get a good lift with a tight outrun. You can’t settle sheep with a bad outrun. (In stronger words “the sum of your run is dictated by your outrun”.) So take the time to teach your dog that if he gets his outrun correctly then the rest of the run will be a lot easier on both of you.

Lifts are “touchy” things in more ways than one and they are hard to explain much less to complete. This is why I am such a believer in teaching dogs to read sheep because then you can allow them to lift on their own. I am not saying without guidance but when the sheep are 800 yards out and you can’t see which way their heads are turned you aren’t in position to tell a dog how to lift his sheep. He’s on his own. If you started with good basics then you have already worked on the lift. You did this by teaching him at hand to flank, think and read sheep all in the same movement. When he is outrunning he should be looking at his sheep and thinking about where he wants to start his lift from. This is the hopeful end result of those hours of verbal correction on flanks … he knows sheep and knows the best spot to be in order to control them.

This moves us into the next stage which will consist of driving and the start of shedding. Again we need to check the basics – did you start your dog properly? Driving will be so much simpler if your dog wants to flank clean than if he is still fighting you every step as he’s trying to get closer and closer to his sheep. I realize some dogs are much easier to teach this to than others but the point is you want to get the most out of the dog that he has to offer. If you didn’t do your “keeping distance” homework right it will become twice as obvious on the drive. Of all the stages this is the one you will most decidedly need to take slow and easy. Driving is not natural for most dogs and if you use too much “force” you will end up with a dog lacking confidence or desire.

You often see this at trials with the end result of a dog following the sheep instead of taking them away. There is a big difference between the two. If you see a dog that turns and looks at a handler, not in the sense of what do you want, but more like not being sure of what to do, then you have seen a dog that undoubtedly does not know what is expected of him while driving. In other words he has never understood the concept or the WHY of driving.

Then we are on to the shed which later will be refined to sorting. Teaching the shed is more than training a dog to come through the middle of sheep when he’s called! He needs to learn your body language (so he will understand what sheep you need) and then he has to learn how to hold the “shed” ones away from the others. Only when he is proficient at this will you move on to sorting sheep which is even more complex than just shedding.

After all the basic stages are completed then the final and most precise stage will begin which is refining every thing the dog has learned up till now. This will be very time consuming and tedious work. It will consist of putting pace into a dog which means hours of backing up with the dog, saying “take time” until the dog paces his sheep even when you are not standing there.

Later you will need to incorporate a look – back and double lifts and then when you think all this “teaching” is done you realize you will have to “season” the dog by going to trial after trial getting him use to all types of sheep and courses.

This is just a small glimpse into how a trial dog “evolves” but I thought it might give Novices a little insight into what all is involved in finishing a dog – although I truly don’t think you are ever finished as “herding” is more a process than an end product. This is also why so many dogs never make the grade of “top trial” dog. So when you see one win an Open trial give it another look and think about all the hours that went into developing that dog into what he is.


Candy Kennedy