I was flipping through the TV channels the other day struggling to find something interesting to watch (not easy task “to be sure”) and happen to run into an enticing horse training show. One of the reasons “a horse show” caught my attention was that years ago one of my student’s husband (he has since retired) trained Grand Prix jumping horses (one of my passions – watching not riding!) and I’ve have spent many captivating hours conversing about the similarity between horse training techniques and dog training. He was a firm believer in “harvesting” the horse’s natural ability to the fullest, as I am with the dogs.
This TV trainer was standing in the middle of a “round pen” having the horse go around him, changing directions and tempo with just the movement of his body. I was fascinated with the way he used his physical presence to “guide” the horse, all the while comparing this to how we use body pressure to “push out” or “pull in” our Border Collies. Doesn’t matter what animal – it’s all about angles. He was circling back and forth changing his angle in relationship to the horse in order to get the horse to go a certain direction and speed. Creating more pressure/less pressure by changing his angle. To an “untrained eye” it appeared as if he was “performing magic”. When in reality all he was doing was using slight body movements to either head the horse or push the horse in order to “give it clues” as to which direction he wanted and the pace he needed.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the equivalent illustration with dogs. A dog is running through the middle of his sheep with the owner “yelling and hollering” when in walks the “Magic trainer” and “Poof” the dog is off his sheep, flanking correctly. It isn’t as magic as it sometimes appears to Novices … it’s all about angles. The trainer knows dogs and sheep and exactly where to stand in order to push the dog back off and then (just as – if not more important) when they themselves should back off to get the desired results. Good training is a fusion of timing, angles, and most of all communication.
Since it’s often difficult for beginners to figure out where “to be” let’s approach this problem backwards and try to figure out where you don’t want to be. Let’s generate an example of a “just started” pup. All you “require” at this stage is to get your pup to the other side of its sheep without running through the middle of them. Let’s envision a couple of situations that can occur and try to work out what the consequences of “the angles” we are talking about would be.
Let’s begin our “hypothetical illustration” with the handler standing in the ever present: sheep at 12:00, dog at 6:00 and the handler in the center between the two, facing the dog. So, by standing “there” – what do you think your body language is convening to your dog? There are a few “basic” signals you convey to your dog just by where you stand. (In reality body language conveys many shades of pressure – but for this demonstration we will observe just the very basics). One is bend away from you (push) the other is come toward you (pull). The third is difficult to define but it’s just enough pressure to tell him – he’s in “the right place” (so in essence, you’re not pushing or pulling him but also you are not releasing pressure or putting more pressure on).
So, let’s see what happens when you block your dog from the sheep? Depending on the nature of the dog – different “portraits will develop” One possibility is the dog leaps up from his down position and tries frantically to get to his sheep, with out a single thought in his head except “get there”. His “agenda” is to “get” to the other side of the sheep as fast as he can and you (in case you didn’t notice) are in the way. This type of dog is considered a “go getter”. A different category of dog might leave very hesitantly, watching you all the way and going too slow. This dog is a “worrier” and when things “get tense” he’s of the nature to go slower and slower. Typically the “worrier” is more concerned about not getting in trouble than he is in “doing something”. We will apply these two examples, although again in reality dogs’ natures are more intricate and complicated than that. You can have a “go getter” that is incredibly sensitive, causing him to exhibit both behaviors. However, in this article we are trying to get you to the “right angle” rather than dealing with the different “traits” of dogs. The point of this illustration was you were not standing in the most “optimum position”.
So, back to our image … what message do you think “your angle” (which blocking his sheep is) has conveyed to our dog? With the first dog, you convinced him that he needed to go as fast as he could to get around you, in order to get to his sheep. I’m sure not what you had in mind! On the other hand, the second dog was convinced you didn’t mean – he should really get “those” sheep? You assumed you were telling him to go, but because of his nature blocking him was translated as “don’t go” or “go slow”.
By picturing a circle in your mind we can begin to figure out “body positions” that convey an incorrect message to your dog. Let’s slowly work our way around this entire circle until we find “the best angle” to accomplish our goals. We have eliminated straight in front of the dog, and let’s say, 2 feet to either side. Let’s try standing on either side of the sheep (a little beyond our 2 feet) again you facing the dog and the dog facing the sheep. Ok, this time you send him and he runs straight toward his sheep. Once more you were at the “wrong angle” meaning, you either put no pressure on him or incorrect pressure. At this point, we have found two areas in that circle that we aren’t in a position to influence the dog correctly. With this information in mind you need to keep repeating this exercise, moving to different spots in our circle, until you find exactly where you need to be to push the dog out – without blocking him. Remember, you can move forwards and backwards as well as side to side. Training = moving. You can’t train a dog by standing still.
A good “visual clue” to look for is … if he turns his head away from the sheep when he gets up to leave the more likely he is not to “pull” in, at least until he turns his head back toward the sheep. So try working on making sure, as he gets up his head is not drawn toward the sheep, knowing this will bring him in. You also want to remember if you put too much pressure in the direction of his head he will stop. On the other hand, too much pressure on his rear and he will go faster. You are trying to push him out – so focus around the shoulder area, which will tend to push his head out resulting in his body following.
What if he starts out correctly but then speeds up – what happened? You put the pressure at the right angle but forgot to take it off. In other words, the moment the dog takes a few steps – the angle between you, the dog, and the sheep changed. More than likely you just stood there and didn’t move in order to counter balance the new angle. A major part of training is moving around changing the balance of the sheep in relationship to yourself and the dog. So you need to either stop him (least preferred) or growl at him. Try to communicate to him “something is not quite right”. Again, it depends on the dog as to what will signal to him that he’s “off track” but hasn’t totally derailed the train.
If he starts out correctly and goes ¾ of the way in shape but cuts in at the top – what happened? Well, more than likely you put enough pressure on him to get him around his sheep without cutting in but then you released all pressure and this drew him in (remember our basics above, push, pull and even pressure – well you needed the 3rd). He needed to feel your presence with out you pushing him farther out or pulling him in (which is in exactly what you did by releasing all pressure). To correct this mistake instead of putting more pressure on him (which is usually the first reaction – you know the old “get out of that”) you might put pressure on the sheep. In other words you push the sheep on top of him thereby making the sheep push him out. Or, possibly you need to walk toward his rear (follow the circle he made) so the minute he tries to cut in he finds himself in an “unbalanced position”, consequently making him self correct. So, simply by changing your angle, you have communicated to him that it’s not permissible to cut in at the top and all this without having said a “verbal word”.
Then (I can hear you now – oh no, not more to think about) more important than possibility anything is his attitude. Did he get up running full tilt ahead? Or, with our second dog get up walking? You have to remember at all times training is getting through to his mind via his body. If his mind is in the “wrong spot” then he isn’t working correctly even if his body happens to end up where it was suppose too. He needs to get up thinking about where you are, where the sheep are, and where he has to go to get to the correct position. If he gets up running as fast as he can then it’s not possible for him to be thinking clearly. It’s not just the destination but also the journey that counts. He needs to consider how he’s getting there as well as the direction he’s going.
For all you Novices I want you notice all this information on a training session on just “how to get your dog to the other side of the sheep”. Then consider all the “bells and whistles” a top Open Trial dog has and add up the hours of training that was needed to get them there. Amazing isn’t it!