Lately I have been receiving a number of requests for information on lessons. This sport is growing by "leaps and bounds" as is the number of people looking to take lessons. Most are beginners, who aren't clear on what to expect from a class format. So, I would like to unravel the mystery, to our novice readers, unfamiliar to the "working dog" world, so they may better anticipate what to expect from a lesson. I will also explain “what stage of training” their dog should be at in order to benefit the most from them taking a lesson (as opposed to the dog taking a lesson). So, here's a little information on how I “start people” that have never been out before and various lesson pitfalls a student should be watching out for.
I’ll begin with a little background information as to “why” I began giving lessons in the first place. The main reason was the discovery that after I had trained a dog and sent him home, he would know what to do, but the owner wouldn't. I didn’t think this was fair to either party, the dog or the owner so I started giving lessons. I personally find it easier to teach dogs than owners. This is not to say, I don’t enjoy lessons as they give me a different perspective than just training. I feel lessons have encouraged me to learn how to put “concrete actions” into “abstract words”.
A dog has instincts that I capitalize on, and by using this in combination with my body language, I can communicate to the dog what I want. A person also learns by "the doing" but he needs verbal instruction on the "why". I can't rely on just body language (and I sure can't rely on the students instincts!) to get my message across. This means I have to analyze what I'm doing - what the dog is doing - then translate all this into words a student can comprehend. It compels me to think and I've always enjoy things that get me thinking. Teaching not only helps my students, but also helps me "sort in my mind" why I train the way I do and what I require from a dog.
I use to give lessons two or three times a week but in the last couple of years have backed off to only once a week. Because of my hectic life I have also slowed down on taking dogs in for training. When I do lessons I attempt to schedule people 5 at a time, so they don't have to be here for hours on end. However; most people enjoy staying around, watching all the dogs work. Usually they observe each others progress and give encouragement, when needed. This helps teach them about a level they might not be on at the moment, but will need later on in their dogs training. I always encourage people to listen and ask questions not just about their own dogs but other students dogs as well. Students tell me it's often easier to watch me help someone else with the same problem they have - apparently it's simpler to concentrate when they don't have to worry about where the sheep are or what their dog is doing.
I usually start the dogs, in a round pen, without the owners. (The analogy I always give is - it's like trying to teach someone how to ride a horse on a horse that has never been ridden!) I believe beginning dogs are more comfortable when they have someone guiding them that knows what they're doing. If they won't work without their owner then I have the people come in with them and stand to the side. I have very dog- broke sheep that know to come to me. This helps me control the situation without getting in the dogs way. I spend time analyzing the dog before he is actually put on sheep. If I feel the dog is a "hard" then I will get on him as soon as he comes in the pen. What this accomplishes is keeping me "in the back of his mind" as he starts to work. The "soft ones" I talk to as they come in, trying to built confidence and trust. You can usually tell what they are going to be like by watching the interaction between the owner and the dog. I also ask the owner what the dog is like merely to double check my feeling. Most Novice people really don't know what their dogs are like so consequently I end up going by my own feelings.
Pups all start differently, so no matter what your pup does try to not get discouraged. If your pup has very little interest in the sheep give him a little time - it may be as simple as he's unsure if this is actually something he's suppose to be doing. It's also not unusual for a dog at the onset to chase sheep. This is the reason I have dog-broke sheep. It lets me control the situation without controlling the dog. A dog first starting out is not certain why I am getting after it, so I need to make very sure he understands he is being encouraged to work the sheep, and the only reason I am "getting" after him is he's not working them correctly.
It's important in these early sessions to try and let the dog discover sheep, as much as I can, on it's own. He needs to learn how to read sheep ... how to balance and what pressure is. He needs to have a chance to find out that what he does causes a reaction in the sheep. I try to keep the sheep at my feet so I can keep the dog pushed off them. Some dogs are rough on sheep simply because they are unsure how to move them so they tend to use their teeth instead of eye - normally this takes time and confidence to develop.
It's hard to say how long we stay in the round pen. Some people work 2 or 3 times a week and progress quickly. Some come so seldom it's hard for the dog to learn anything inasmuch as they are so excited just about seeing sheep they can't control themselves. I move out of the round pen as soon as I feel the dog is trying to be in the right spot. I move out into an arena, with the same dog-broke sheep which helps me keep control over things. All the while, the sheep are staying with me because they know I am "safety" ... the dog believes he is controlling them. This belief will build confidence that we will work towards increasing as we go.
I will move around the arena in figure 8's as this encourages the dog to flank each direction, striving to stop the sheep from going around me. I want the dog in contact at all times. In the initial stages he's frequently too close so has to flank continually because the sheep are trying to go past me due too much pressure. I don't lie him down to relieve this pressure, instead I try to encourage him to figure just out how much is needed to push the sheep without upsetting them. Some dogs are natural at it and some it takes a lot of time and patience. I do feel this one of the more important "rungs in the latter" of training. If you get good solid basics on a dog, everything else progresses much easier. If a dog learns how to work sheep without being told every step to take, then even a novice person can handle him. Most novice people get out there and can't remember their own names much less "Go-Bye" from "Away"! So, if the dog is accustomed to working on their own and knows how to handle sheep, then all the novice person has to remember is to back up.
Another common Novice mistake - laying their dog down every time it gets near the sheep. The end result is all the dog knows how to do is chase sheep. When the sheep respond by running, the handler yells lie down. The sheep slow to a walk and the dog is allowed to get-up and the chase is on again. I try to by-pass this by teaching the dogs in the very beginning - that it's their responsibility to control the sheep. Thus when the novice person starts to work the dog, instead of me, they have a dog trying to help them instead of causing problems. It is easier for some dogs than for others but I always try to have the dog start as natural as possible. I also believe Novice people often get so carried away with "go-bye" and "away to me" the dog can't take a step without them giving a command. I try to explain that "go-bye and away-to-me" are more than a direction. A dog can be going the right direction and still be wrong. If he's running 90 miles a hour and not thinking, I don't care if they did say "go-bye" and he's going the right direction -- he's not going right! This seems to be a difficult concept for beginners because they are so thrilled that their dog "understood what they said" they can't believe he could still be going wrong. You need to watch the dogs attitude, is he thinking? He needs to be thinking at all times. You can get in trouble before you even get the words out of your mouth; if he takes the command without thinking. You must insist not only does the dog go in the right direction but he goes reading his sheep and thinking about what he is doing.
I also think that an issue Novice people need to address is the monumental amount of time involved -that is if you want to be successful. I don't mind people doing this part - time as we all have other obligations. However don't get upset with your dog when he doesn't work like an Open dog. You see the "Pro" handlers run a dog and think, that looks so easy. It's not ! It takes a lot of time, work and dedication to make it look that easy. I'm not saying you have to put the same time and energy in as a "Pro" but that you can't expect the same results if you don't. You can't work a dog once every other week or even once a week and have a dog that's trial polished. I do respect the amount of time and money many students put in to their "hobby". Many do it because they appreciate the enjoyment their dogs receive from herding. However; they also need to have realistic expectations and don't anticipate their dog wining every trial. They look at the trials as proving grounds to what they have been working on at home. It gives them an idea of how far along they are and how far they have to go. In other words a trial is nothing more or less than a measure of progress.
In the same note, I would like to comment on another beginners mistake. They feel since they only work once a week they should work for an hour straight. If you work a dog past his "desire" to work you will burn a dog out very, very, fast! I see dogs that have lost the joy of working and are just going through the motions - because they have been drilled hour after hour. You should never work a dog to the point of where the dog sours. If you feel you have driven a long way and don't want to quit on a bad note then stop and take another lesson an hour later. That will keep the dog enthused about working which is so paramount in keeping the dog working to the best of his abilities.
I would like to add another note of warning, in the last few years a lot of people have undertaken "lesson giving". I don't think everyone is qualified to teach and I believe one should be very careful about whom they choose as a trainer. Some people talk a good line but have never trained a dog to an Open level. If one is giving lessons and never run or trained to Open standards (I don't mean I ran a dog in Open once) there will be large gaps in their training abilities. I will give an example of possible repercussions from an owner taking lessons from a person that hasn't trained a skilled Open dog.
Let's say a student has a dog running well in Pro-Novice and is attempting to progress to Open. Eventually he does accomplish this goal only to find his dog does not have enough push to finish an Open course. He's confused since his dog did so well in Pro-Novice ... but what he doesn't understand (and more important nether does his instructor) is the reason! Not only are Pro-Novice courses smaller but they also use dog broken sheep so often a non pushy dog looks perfect. A more experienced trainer would have been telling the owner to try to put more "push" in the dog long before he even started the Pro-Novice class (even if it meant losing the Pro-Novice classes in order to cultivate an Open dog). The point I'm making is if you were taking your lessons from a "Pro-Novice" person they wouldn't even know a dog needs more push in Open. An "Open" handler realizes the time constraints contained in an Open class. This is only one small example - there are many more. There is a world of difference between a Novice/ Pro-Novice and Open.
You also need to take into account that in order to give lessons you need to know how to train a dog and then proceed to communicate that information to another person. I think some people do a great job training their own dogs but aren't good with people. Then you get into personality differences of which there are as many "types" as there are dogs and you need to see which trainer best suits you. Some trainers talk you thorough what you are doing wrong ... some let you make your own mistakes and then and only they will help you ... others wait until you come to them and ask. I think once you have found a trainer that "fills your bill", you should stick with one and not jump all over the place.
After saying this I want to make a statement I feel is more important than just about any other in helping you choose whom to go to. There are basically two methods of dog training ... one is you MAKE a dog mind (or "in other words" break it) ... the other is you work WITH the dog cultivating the dogs abilities into a "partnership". You need to pick the one that feels comfortable to you! Remember Classes are long term clinics.
On to clinics I believe the more you can attend the better off you are because the more knowledge you gain the better trainer you will be. Two words of CAUTION: First -- I firmly believe a person putting on a clinic should have won a number of Open trials with more than one dog other wise "why pay all the extra money" for a clinic with someone that knows only a little more than you do? Second try and ask around about the clinic trainers methods. If you are not sure then go as a spectator. You can confuse your dog if the trainers' methods are opposite to yours. You need to use common sense when it comes to training a dog. If it isn't comfortable to you, don't do it! I think the only difference between a clinic and lessons are the amount of time spent at each.. If you go to a clinic and do something to a dog once incorrectly it will not have the consequences that a lesson once a week for 6 months would -- but it will have consequences! So again if you're not sure go as a spectator. A great advantage to a clinic is you will be exposed to a lot of handlers problems that they have not been able to work out on their own. So you will hear different solutions to problems you might not be experiencing yourself but could in the future. It always helps to have a different perspective on things. I still go to clinics, usually as a spectator because I thoroughly enjoy hearing how other people train. The one thing that makes this sport so enjoyable is that you will never learn all there is to know. Things are always changing because no two dogs are the same - nor are the packets of sheep and to that you add a different location and the variables are never ending. I think I'd like to end with a comment ... I believe the best clinics or lessons are the ones where the students ask questions. I always enjoy a good question and think most good teachers agree -- that is what keeps things fresh and interesting.