One of the questions I hear a fair amount from beginners is “what do you mean when you say style?” Oftentimes I find myself having difficulty explaining what my impression of style is so I thought an article would help clarify my thoughts and allow me to revaluate what I intend to convey by this word “style”.
I am a firm believer that style includes so much more than the customary answer “eye”. I presume a creeping image is what comes to most people’s mind when the topic of eye or style comes up and this is not the picture I envision or want to convey to the reader. Sure this is “part and parcel” of style but it’s not that uncomplicated. I have seen strong eyed dogs that are “upright” in their work. True, they are not inclined to creep and crawl but instead stand and stare at sheep and are difficult if not impossible to flank. I want a dog with enough eye to keep sheep together but not so much that it freezes the sheep. I want enough eye that I find watching the dog work an enjoyable experience. I have seen dogs that were proficient on sheep but I don’t get that unexplainable thrill when I watch them work. It’s a difficult concept to convey verbally but “oh so” extremely evident visibly.
However style adds up to categorically more than just making it a pleasure to watch a dog run. It’s functional in that it furthers the ability to move sheep with a smooth, flowing movement. Dogs lacking style usually don’t work fluently but instead lean more toward a “stop and go” movement. The over all impression I get when watching a dog with style is how effortless herding appears. This “steady pressure method” generates less stress on the stock. I wonder if perhaps the word “method” might be a little closer to what I mean when addressing style. Yet, I feel it’s more than that as I have seen dogs that had a certain presence enabling them to move sheep easily but I did not relish watching them work. They had an immense amount of control over the sheep (which, I think is one of the end products of having method) but it did not give you “goose-bumps” to watch them work. Though, as I say this I need to take into account that the dog I am picturing in my mind (with presence but without style) was handled to perfection. So, I wonder if that dogs performances would have looked that noteworthy if he had not been handled so perfectly?
All this brings me to what I feel is one of the major benefits of style … I consider them easier to train due to the fact that I try to train as naturally as possible. A dog with a lot of innate natural ability about it – makes my job a lot easier. I think the people that train more mechanically tend not to like a dog with style. If they do get one with a lot of natural about it they have to spend more time “breaking” them. In other words, they are looking for less “built in” finesse.
I have heard and can understand some people’s concerns about a dog with style. They equate style with too much eye and then conclude that a dog with too much eye will be sticky. I agree that the WRONG kind of eye can be sticky but I don’t feel a sticky dog just has too much eye. There is a big difference between having eye and being sticky. I don’t want a sticky dog! I consider a sticky dog one that has a imaginary perimeter around sheep that he doesn’t want to penetrate with the usual outcome of this being a dog that will stare at the sheep. They refuse to walk up on them and when you insist they proceed to break that perimeter by running in amongst the sheep, instead of walking up. This is not conducive to smooth even sheep work and is not what I am looking for. I have seen exceedingly strong – eyed dogs that have no qualms about walking up and pushing, as well as loose – eyed dogs that stand and stare at a sheep and won’t move. So, it is a lot more complicated than just the amount of eye. It is a whole package as to how the dog approaches its sheep.
I have always been interested in “Nature programs”. A friend and I use to have discussions trying to figure out why animals act as they do. We would watch the reactions of wild animals seen in these programs then do a comparison to our domestic animals in order to find a correlation. We would observe a lion walking across the plains not in “hunting mode”. The herd of zebras or “whatevers” would glance up at it and continue eating. The lion might even be staring at the prey but not hunting. They would keep a wary eye on the predator but were not overly concerned. Then, later on in another scene, the same lion would be stalking (and eyeing) the herd with “dinner in mind”. The end result was totally different. It wasn’t just that the lion was looking at them. It was the intention of the lion that changed and with that his body language. It’s a combination of many different factors that communicate intention to a prey. We, as humans, can not conceive of all the complex expressions being communicated between a dog and a sheep. The dog has generations of instincts behind him equipping him to read prey and respond in a moment’s notice. The prey on the other hand has an ingrained reflex of attempting to get away from a predator. (Which is why no matter how dog – broke sheep get they can’t help but move away from a dog.) This brings us back to eye…one of the reasons our Border Collies have this uncanny ability to read sheep is because of “eye”. Border Collies have a natural built in mechanism to read and react almost in unison with the sheep. We don’t have to train it because it comes pre-packaged. We only have use it to our advantage. The next time you are at a dog trial watch some loose eyed dogs working. If at some point in time, without warning, one of the sheep takes off running the loose eyed dog will be as surprised as the handler. More than likely the stronger eyed dog will be leaning before the sheep ever takes off. It is eye that gives our dogs that “FEEL” of what a sheep will do next. It’s a special attribute that can never be put in words but “can you ever see the end results”.
I’ve often curiously watched my guard dogs’ interaction with the sheep and analyze the difference in body language between a working dog and a guard dog. The reaction of the sheep will be altogether different (although they obviously know both my Border Collies and guard dogs). Even if the guard dog runs and chases them, their behavior is dissimilar than when a Border Collie is eyeing them. Again, I want to underscore that I feel it is more than just eye that gives our breed that special style. It is the total impression of the dog and how he communicates to the sheep. You can watch the same group of sheep act quite differently when a change in dogs occurs. I can remember one time I was at a very good trainer’s place watching while he worked the dogs he had in for training. He had an assortment of 20 or so of crossbred ewes and had them set at the top of a hill enabling him to practice outruns. These particular sheep were well dog broke and understood the rules of the game. They would watch the dogs come up the hill and move away only when the dog was in the correct position. With some of the dogs the sheep would move slowly and with others you would see them step up their pace in accordance with the strength of the dog. At one point in the day my friend went and brought out a big old sable colored dog. When the sheep saw this dog coming up the hill they immediately seized the opportunity and took off for the barn. They knew they could outrun that dog and proceeded to take full advantage of it. It wasn’t “just” that they knew that particular dog, although I’m sure they did, it was they were processing information as the dog ran. They intuitively knew they could make it back to the barn perceiving the dog’s movement wasn’t quick enough to turn them.
Re-reading this article generated thoughts of contrasting dogs I have run. One of the best dogs I have ever owned was a bit weak at the shed. It was this deficit that made it necessary for me to improve my own shedding skills in order to compensate for him. He more than made up for his lack of shedding skills in other areas as he excelled at outrunning and driving. Another dog was one of the few loose-eyed dogs I have ever owned but I have to admit he was fun to handle. I think it was because what he lacked in style he made up in desire and by giving 100%. He would respond in a heartbeat to any command given and I really hated to miss a panel with him since the only conclusion was – I had commanded wrong. He never minded being pulled off balance since he didn’t have a clue where balance was. Yet I always appreciated him because he was a dog that made me improve my handling skills. I couldn’t rely on him to read the sheep because he usually wasn’t on the pressure point. So I had no choice except to become more proficient at placing the dog where he needed to be.
These are just small examples of how if you approach things in the correct manner you can learn from them. This particular dog taught me a number of things. One, as I mentioned, was to handle better, another was a better understanding as to what I did and didn’t desire in a dog. After running him I began to recognize I wanted a dog with more eye, style and feel for their stock. This particular dog also introduced me to the concept that a dog could be too wide running as I sometimes I had difficulty keeping him on the same field as the sheep. Until that time I didn’t think that was possible. The “light bulb turned on” when he crawled through a hole in the fence in order to do a 300 yard outrun in an area that needed at max. a 100 yard one. It wasn’t until that point in my “dog career” it dawned on me a dog could be too wide. (I had spent so many, many hours of my training time saying “get back!”.) It was also the beginning of tailoring my training and handling methods to the dog instead of the other way around. I have had many dogs since then and feel I have learned a little from each one which brings us full circle back to the original concept of this article, “style”. I still haven’t clarified it but I do know it’s “something special” that is unmistakable and I look for it in the dogs I run.
If you want you can compare some professional sports to dog trialing. Take professional ice skating for example, all of the participants have spent years training and all are more than proficient with the technical aspects of skating. However, usually only one or two will have that special style that makes you stop whatever you are doing and watch. Perhaps the best way of phrasing it – is it’s a special gift to turn ability into art. One of the purposes of art is to allow you to get through the difficult times in life. I think “style” is something that helps you through all of those long tedious training hours. This is also why even if we don’t participate in the sport we are watching we can still appreciate it as an art form.
To me this is some of the complex meaning of the word style and it isn’t that a dog looks pretty when he is working. It is his whole heart and soul is into what he is doing. It is a matter of loving his work and not just going through the motions. You can see it in some dogs even before they leave the handler’s side. They are the ones that stand and almost tremble while looking for their sheep. The trembling I am referring to is not nervousness but the exhilaration of looking forward to the work. Don’t misunderstand me; in the wrong hands some of these dogs can be useless. If not taught to focus they can become too high strung and consequently run senseless. In hands that demand total domination they can lose that special something and become robots. So, not only is style inborn but also a trait that has to be cultivated and nurtured but definitely directed. Otherwise you will lose it one way or another, one by “hammering” it out of the dog or the other extreme of allowing the dog to run undisciplined with no direction.
I’d like to conclude by endeavoring to tie all these abilities or the lack of them together. The ability to be fine tuned almost to the breaking point is so that what you end up with is an athlete (be it human or animal) on a razors edge. True this intensity can plunge over the edge when it lacks direction or focus. However I think the really “great ones” of anything, be it people in sports or dogs trialing, have a unique ability to focus on one goal and the exceptional ones do it with STYLE.