WHAT IS BALANCE?
I have always been fascinated by the way a Border Collie works as compared to other breeds. I own and breed only Border Collies but I’ve given lessons on all breeds. I think my appreciation of the Border Collie has only grown by working with other breeds. I have students that have been working another breed for years to progress to a level that a Border Collie does in months. I also know, as do my students, that the other breeds will not do a 400 yard outrun, no matter how much training is put on them. I think the difference is balance. This is what allows the Border Collie to excel in working stock. I also feel that a lot of people don’t know what balance is. I hear people describe balance as the dog is at twelve (12) o’clock and you are at six (6) o’clock and that isn’t necessarily so. If the exhaust pen is at one side of the field then the point of balance might be at three (3) o’clock. You can think of balance as a pressure circle around the sheep, that if you hit that pressure point you are on balance. A dog trained correctly will hit that point and keep just the right amount of pressure to control the sheep. Balance is being in contact with the sheep, the handler giving the dog a direction but the dog is the one balancing the sheep. In other words, you tell the dog you are fetching and he brings the sheep to you. The direction you gave was toward you, the decision as to where the pressure point (or balance) was on the sheep was the dogs. If you are fetching and decide to drive, you flank the dog from a 12 o’clock position to a 6 o’clock one. The dog comes around to 3 o’clock, and flanks tight, the sheep will take off toward 9 o’clock, and the race is on. If the dog reads the pressure, comes all the way around on the balance, the sheep will almost stand still. Then you can start the drive without the sheep bolting the wrong direction. If the dog comes around and is too wide, the sheep again have a chance to get away. One day at a trial watch a run where the handler miscalculated a gate, and has to flank the dog way down low and then back up. You will see quickly the dogs that understand pressure and contact on sheep. This is what sets these wonderful dogs apart from other breeds in working ability.
So, you say how do you put this wonderful trait in your dog? You don’t! It’s either there or it’s not BUT you can bring it out or lose it by your training methods. I am confused as to why so many trainers don’t use this uniquely Border Collie trait. I see so many people train these dogs like they do other breeds that can’t read pressure on stock. If you have a trait that is so useful why not incorporate it into the training? I think there are a couple of reasons. One being, as in all good things, it takes time. You have to allow it to develop, you can’t push a dog and end up with one that has a lot of natural about it. I know some dogs progress faster than others but in order to learn how to work sheep correctly, it will take time. Another reason is people get all caught up in making a dog go “away-to-me” and “go-bye”, so this is the first thing they teach. This way they can see results quickly. If you spend the first two months just letting the dog learn about sheep and pressure, you don’t have a lot of commands on the dog and people want to be able to tell the dog what to do. It doesn’t matter if the dog is doing it correctly as long as they doing what they are told. Wrong! Just because you can make a dog go ‘left’ and ‘right’ doesn’t mean he knows how to do it correctly! The time you spend at the beginning will pay off in the long run if done correctly. I have seen people teach flanks by having their dogs circle around and around 50 yards off the sheep (or worse yet teach flanks with no stock !!). Yes, they are teaching a dog how to go in a circle but they are not teaching it how to flank correctly because they are not in CONTACT! So, what happens when this dog is 50 yards off his stock and the sheep decide to take off? The dog is not in a position to catch them. I also hear the argument that a dog will flank tighter at a trial than at home, so push him off to wide at home and he will be right at the trial. If he is reading pressure correctly, he will be flanking right at home and the trial. I might agree that a dog gets more excited at a trial, and will need steadying down. I don’t agree with push him totally out of contact at home and just a little out of contact at a trial. For dogs that are already started; to help develop more balance. Start with dog – broke sheep. Have the dog hold them up to you, if he pushes too hard, let the sheep break past and make him go collect them. I don’t mean let him go chase, I mean make him flank correctly, go get them , put them back together. Then try it again. You can put the sheep up against a fence and do the same thing of having the sheep break, and run down the fence. Make him go get the one that broke and bring it back. He has to learn there is a point at which if he pushes to hard — sheep break. There is a spot that will hold the sheep up against the fence.
Another way to teach a dog balance is to work one sheep. You need to be careful with a young or sensitive dog that the sheep doesn’t run over the dog. You want the sheep in an area where it can see the other sheep but can’t get to them. (If you let the sheep beat the dog and get to the other sheep it hurts his confidence.) Let the dog try to hold it up to you while flanking out correctly. I don’t mean you let the dog chase the sheep. You fuss when he chases it and praise when he is working at staying the right distance from it. You can tell if a dog is flanking correctly and on pressure; point; as the sheep will try to go one way, stop, spin and try the other way, only to meet the dog. If the dog isn’t flanking correctly then he will be chasing at the side of the sheep instead of trying to head them. You need to let him know that isn’t what you want. Fuss at him or stop him and make him flank correctly. I know it’s hard for a beginner to understand when a dog is flanking correctly or not. However; the time you spend watching and learning will benefit all the dogs you will train. It’s worth the extra time to let a dog develop naturally instead of making him mechanical. The other breeds have to be trained mechanically as they have no natural balance. So, you work with what you have. A well bred Border Collie is born with this ability and we should be developing it to the fullest instead of training it out. There are different ways to train out natural balance. One is to flank a dog drill like in circles – without regard to what the sheep are doing. I understand that a beginner is just learning his ”go-bye’ from ‘away-to-me’ and is trying to see if the dog will follow the commands. However; he will just be doing what he is told, he won’t be learning about how and why sheep move in reference to him. He needs to learn that every move he makes — the sheep react. How is he going to learn that if he is 50 yards off the sheep running in circles? THAT IS OBEDIENCE TRAINING ON SHEEP. Border Collies are bred to control sheep while listening to commands.. You can teach him direction without drilling him if you are willing to work with him. I realize there are times when drilling is needed in training. The difference between using it as a tool in training or as the main way of teaching flanks is a big difference. If you give him a flank when his instinct is telling him to go that direction, you will be working with him. When he is flanking 50 yards away from the sheep you are NOT working with instinct. You are controlling him.
Another way of making a mechanical dog is downing him all the time. You are doing the same thing as you were when you were flanking, you are keeping the dog out of contact. I hear people talk about how well the dog follow his sheep! I don’t want a dog to follow, I want him to take control and push them. If he does nothing but follow – he’s mechanical. This comes from getting him up and then downing him. You can’t teach a dog to work sheep if he’s laying down. I know there are times when you have to down a dog. (I thought Glyn Jones said it best when he said” a down is like brakes on a car – when you need them they have to work”— but you don’t drive with your brakes on!!) You need to teach him that he influences how fast his sheep go by how fast he pushes. It takes time but in the long run, its time well spent. You have to spend hours walking backwards teaching him how to pace himself and therefore the sheep. You can’t get the same results by laying him down every time he gets close to the sheep and getting him up when they have moved away. I see so many people never getting off dog-broke sheep. You need them to start with but you also need to go onto different sheep to further a dogs education. IF he flanks to tight on dog – broke sheep, they stand there. You try that on wild sheep and you will see how far along you are in your training. Those wild sheep will teach a dog to flank cleanly or he will lose them. You could spend hours teaching him to “Get Back” that a wild sheep could teach it in minutes. You have to realize that his first reaction might be to chase. You need to correct him and back him off enough that he gets in the right position to control the sheep . You don’t just stand there and let him chase. Another mechanical training method is pushing a dog backwards on a “get back”. I use the get back a lot in my training but I don’t push the dog out of contact. If a dog turns its back on sheep, and those sheep decide to take off running, what would the dog do? The get back is used to take some of the pressure off, it’s not suppose to take the dog out of contact. He is relieving the pressure, not taking all pressure off. I want to emphasize that there are times (as in drilling a dog) that I WILL push the dog out of contact. This is NOT the way I train, just something I do on occasions as a training tool. This is something I would like to repeat. I do things to an extreme to make a point. I don’t repeatedly do it , only once in awhile to emphasize a point to the dog.
I think another reason people train mechanically is they equate lack of balance with flexibility. They feel if the dog is well balanced he won’t be flexible. This is not the case, having a sticky dog is not the same as having a balanced one. I would like to end by saying I talk to enough beginners to know its HARD to see faults. When you first start out everything looks good. You need to spend time watching dogs and seeing the difference in working style. It is really important for all the dogs you will be working with. You need to keep an open mind and ask questions. Most people don’t mind answering questions when the intent of the person asking is to learn. It’s when we’re told instead of asked we tune-out. I think most open handlers enjoy a good question about the dogs. So, enjoy this time of learning and put your novice days to good use.