The next time you are at a trial watch and listen to a really "top notch" Open run. If you analysis the work you will observe an intensely layered "musical composition" structured into a "physical performance" with each tone of the whistle conveying a message. Sometimes the message is calm and you will observe flanks that are smooth, flexible, soft, and giving. You can almost feel the dog leaning into the whistles. At other times the notes are higher-pitched and extremely energetic and in response you will see tighter, quicker, sharper, more animated flanks but even with the brusque tempo, a "top" dog will still appear smooth.
So, what is the difference between a top open dog and "just a dog"? If it were possible to sum it up in one word I would say relaxed. Of course, this one word represents a "million" different "precise" moves. Translating into a rhythmical, relaxed run that typically occurs when the dog has the right attitude - thinking and listening not merely reacting to "a whistle".
So, why do some dogs flank more relaxed than others? If you are one of the "lucky" ones you might acquire a dog that has relaxed flanks naturally. More often than not, you will spend hours training these "relaxed flanks" into the dog. Fundamentally, there are two training methods - natural or mechanical and I believe a lot of people are confused about how to approach "natural training". Novices deciding they want the natural method assume this means just letting the dog do what ever it wants. Being natural doesn't mean, "never having to be told what to do"! Training naturally doesn't imply a Border Collie knows automatically where to be on sheep at all times. It means the trainer endeavors to bring out (to the best of his/her ability) what is natural in the dog - not that the dog doesn't need training. This assumption becomes very apparent when you examine the way numerous dogs flank. Through the years I have observed many students that conclude they are teaching their dogs to flank "naturally" however, in reality all they are teaching the dog to run as fast as it can around sheep. The dog may be going in the correct direction but it's not flanking properly if it's just running full tilt in an attempt to "get to the head" of the sheep. A correct flank is a smooth, quiet, calm "circle" around the sheep wherein you can tell your dog "there" at any point in that circle and he will calmly transition from circling to walking straight on to it's sheep. It's not a dash with the handler trying to yell "down" before the dog gets to "the head of the sheep".
Yes, there are fast/slow/wide/tight flanks and times when all these are needed but even then, it's never a chase to get to the other side. (You can also have flanks that are so slow that the dog seems not to care if he ever gets to the other side but I see far fewer of those than I do "the race flank".) A dog needs to flank with a purpose but at the same time cool and relaxed. Dogs that are running recklessly are "tense" and obviously will not produce the same effect on the sheep, as a relaxed quick flanking dog will. Some dogs come this way effortlessly but many more have to be "ground down" to reach this "relaxed" state.
I want to make it clear I don't "grind down" a young pup just starting out. I work at making certain the pup going around the sheep has the correct distance by using body language but I try not to interfere with the pups' instinct to "get to the other side". If you keep "getting on a pup" (unless it's an extremely hard pup) you can "sour" them quickly. However, don't get me wrong I don't let pups chase sheep either. I try to guide them into finding balance and holding sheep up to me as I walk. On a side note: one of the reasons I don't believe in starting really young pups is I feel you might be working with his instincts but you are not working "his mind", since his mind isn't developed enough to be "totally engaged". This can become a habit in that the pup learns to trust his instincts but as he matures, he doesn't progress, as he never learned to combine his mind with his instincts.
I typically start "this grinding down" with my Pro-Novice dogs after they have trialed to some extent and are comfortable with the commotion of a trial. The reason being - if you start too hastily "grinding down" at the end of your "finishing" you won't have a dog left. You must let a dog "go" when he's just starting and for some time to come. You also can't "grind" on a dog continuously or again you will take everything out of it. This like most things is a "training tool" not an exercise to practice hour after hour. You need to find a balance of "free flanking" even if that means at time letting the dog "take the bit" and just run. Slowly, you work on getting him to flank at the speed and distance you want.
So, let's picture a Pro-Novice dog that is running out full of enthusiasm but is too tight and fast. With time and patience, you can teach this dog to flank smoothly, in contact, and with the right attitude - but you need to do it "one step at a time". It's like all training; you gradually work up to it by conveying, "what you want" from "what you don't want" - in other words communication. You can't teach a dog to flank correctly if he doesn't know the "flank alphabet". You will need building blocks to progress from one stage to the next. Then just to make it more complex different dogs will need different approaches. A dog with very little eye will need an alternative type of "grinding" than one with a lot of eye - so keep that in the back of your mind when you decide to start putting "the polish" on your Pro Novice dog.
OK, you say, "get to the chase". Well, here's one exercise I use to improve flanks that seems to work well for beginners. (Again, I want to emphasize that I use this as "training tool" not as a continual way of training.) I position the dog next to me and flank him. I let him go maybe 2 feet and down him and as he lies there, I walk straight toward the sheep (not the dog … and I'm not in a rush as my goal is getting him to relax). I then push the sheep so they are moving away from me (not running just walking). I stay where I am (usually facing the sheep keeping an eye on the dog), then I give him a quiet, wide flank. If he gets up running … repeat the exercise … down the dog and push the sheep. What you are looking for is a change in attitude! You aren't troubled about his distance from the sheep (although that does make a difference) your focus is to get the dog relaxed … looking, thinking, and trying to figure out where he needs to be - instead of how fast can he get "there". The reason this works is two fold. One is the dog is being, as we said, "ground down". Every time he gets up and tries to run … he's downed. After awhile he gets up thinking we are going to down him and the KEY is the minute he gets up thinking and bending and flanking correctly let him go around and bring the sheep to you (even if he brings them too fast … you want him to get the "reward" for flanking correctly - you can work on pace another time). Another reason it works is as you push the sheep away from you - the sheep make the dog flank out wider. If he kept on the flank he started on, he would "run into them". So, in essence you are controlling the sheep and they the dog. Some dogs might be so sensitive it only take a couple of times and with others it might take weeks. Again, as in most of my training I'm looking for the dog to be running out thinking more than I'm looking for an "exact" distance from the sheep. As soon as I perceive he's at least trying to work with me, I'll change the down to a stand (with some loose eyed dogs you might have to start with a stand). You need to make sure that at no point is he "pulling in" toward his sheep - when he downs (or stands) he must be facing out ready to flank. This usually means facing straight ahead or a little to the side he's going to bend out on. I also don't want him "turning tail" and going straight out away from the sheep, if this happens I will say "here here" and pull him back in. This usually isn't a problem with dogs that need this exercise given that if they were of the nature to be too wide you shouldn't be trying to push them out on a flank.
After you are convinced he understands what he's being asked to do the next step is to flank him, stop him, and without you pushing the sheep flank him again and see if he will bend out on his own. If he doesn't then you, need to stop him and go back to "step one" (pushing the sheep away from him). If you take your time and do this exercise correctly, you eventually will able to widen him at any distance without you moving.
One of the more significant goals of training is to produce a dog with a "flexible mind". If you are capable of communicating, to the dog, what you require and stimulating him to think - the end product will be a dog working correctly and with you. If you and your dog are having trouble you need to rethink not just what your dog is doing physically but more important - what he's "thinking" when he's "physically" wrong and how you are failing to communicate to him precisely what you want. In other words, you are not just trying to open his flanks but more importantly open his mind!