Control, we hear a lot about it in regard to sheepdog training.
We need to control the dog, the dog needs to control the sheep, but most importantly, we need to control ourselves.
Neil Kristianson has it written over the top of his roundyard so you can read it as you enter, it is so important. And Neil is always reminding us about self control.
When I first started training sheepdogs, I had no control of my dog or myself let alone the sheep.
My sheep were too wild so my young dog had to take over in order to control them, and as I lost control of the dog I lost control of myself, got frustrated and started yelling at the dog as things went wildly out of control. Sigh....
These days things are better, I use quiet sheep and try to set things up so I can maintain control.
A lot of my problems stem from expecting the dog to do more than he is able to or moving to the next step before he had mastered the previous one. And I was always in a mad hurry, so have learned to slow down some but still find this difficult and forget often.
Things still get out of control though, particularly with young dogs the first few times on sheep, with young dogs working a big mob for the first time, and on the trial ground. It is inevitable. I remember reading an article about a sheep dog trial at a major city show. Max Walker was a guest commentator and his comment was “The possiblilties for disaster are endless”. How right he is.
The trick is not to panic and get upset. If we can keep our head the dog learns that it is not such a disaster and this teaches him to remain calm later on when in a really difficult situation.
As soon as we ‘lose it’ the dog picks up our lack of control and things can quickly fall apart.
As difficult as it is we need to learn to control ourselves so the dog can trust us.
Imagine if you became lost in the bush with a group of people and the group leader panicked and started running around yelling at everyone. You would quickly lose trust in your leader and probably elect another one, who could control the situation and work out how to fix it.
So it is with our dogs, they need to have trust in us as the pack leader, or they will take over.
So even if things have really gone wrong, the dog has split the sheep, put one over the fence and is swinging of the neck of another one, try to remain calm. By all means step in and correct the dog and rescue the sheep but do it in a calm manner.
It is also the same when we discipline a dog, do it without getting upset or angry.
My friend Jenny Parsons is always telling me this. Jenny is a great dog trainer, who seems to be always calm. A good example of this is when we are trying to get a dog to widen out on a cast or just as he flanks. We need to do it calmly.
Some people seem to think we must run at the dog yelling ‘get out’ as loud as possible and throwing things wildly as if the poor dog had committed a major sin.
There is nothing wrong with calmly throwing something to keep the dog out and walking towards his shoulder but once again we need to do it with ‘self control’. Yes there is that word again.
Self control is actually quoted a lot in the Bible, great wisdom there. In fact we need self control in all areas of our life.
We shouldn’t eat too much, drive too fast, or overspend on things we don’t need. Giving up smoking or any bad habit requires self control.
Seems people these days need to be told everything. Adverts tell us how bad cigarettes are, how bad takeaway food is and that we need to eat more vegetables. We are told to exercise, not to go over the speed limit, and not to drink and drive.
Surely we know these things, it’s common sense, have we lost all common sense?
Sorry, getting off topic here. It does annoy me a little though, we are becoming like robots, and are quick to blame (and sue) someone else for our mistakes or carelessness.
Anyway we can at least be responsible for our dogs behaviour, by practising self control and teaching our dogs self control too.
We do this in different ways.
Before I let a young dog out of its pen I expect him/her to sit and wait. This can take time and patience as some dogs are slow to get it. We need say nothing, the dog needs to work it out for himself, so he learns to control his actions without being told.
I also use it at gateways, making the dogs wait until I go through etc. The sit and wait can actually be introduced when the dog is a small puppy about to be fed. Food is a strong motivation so they soon learn; no sit, no food.
Once the dog is older and better behaved I tend not to demand such strict behaviours as long as they toe the line in other areas.
On sheep, once the dog is balancing up well and his instinct is well awakened, the wait can be introduced, so he learns he’ll be rewarded with the sheep when he waits for a few seconds. And if the dog is running amok or won’t stop then depriving him of the sheep can settle things down.
If we have really lost control while we are in a bigger area and have been unable to get things settled down quickly, we need to go back to a smaller area until we sort it out again. It is frustrating to think we are going backwards, but sheep dog training is all about revisiting what we have done even if it is just a brief rundown of what the dog can do well, before we move on.
Someone said training a dog is a bit like panel beating. We push the dent in only to have it stick out the other side.
In dog training we might fix one problem only to have the dog do the opposite. So if we had a dog that was a little slow and not covering properly we might encourage him to go faster only to find he then becomes too revved up so we need to work on coming back half way.
And for a dog that was biting we may over discipline him and find he now won’t move the sheep at all. It is just a matter of finding the middle ground, usually after a lot of seesawing.
Control can also be a mindset. If we walk out to train our dogs full of doubt, thinking, “What if he doesn’t stop, I know he is going to run amok again,” well that’s probably what will happen.
You need to have confidence in yourself and your dog. Go out there thinking, “I am in control, my dog is going to do this well.” If things do go badly don’t worry, go back a step, it’s all part of the learning process.
Dogs are good at reading us, they sense our hesitation or lack of confidence, and use it fully. The dog needs to know that you are in control and you can ‘sort out’ whatever problem you may be having, even if you don’t.
Working sheep with your dog is a partnership, you are there to help him too. Making him stop in the wrong place, or yelling at him everytime he comes in a little too close will cause him to lose confidence in your ability to control the situation.
Also the sheep will follow you more willingly if you are a calm leader, which in turn allows the dog to control them easier.
A lot of problems sort themselves out as the dog gets older and more experienced if you allow him to think for himself too.
If you are struggling, get help, but don’t let the dog know you can’t fix the problem, by letting him do the wrong thing over and over.
And for the ladies who suffer from mood swings. Sounds funny I know but it is hard to train a dog when your husband has eaten your chocolate supply and you feel like killing anyone who looks sideways.
So take the dogs for a long walk instead.
(I actually think men have mood swings too but would never admit it, they blame something/one else.)
Dogs know and will take advantage if they can. Controlling a whole pack of dogs is not that easy. You need to have a calm controlled manner all the time. I find it hard to cope with chaos, but the dogs are allowed a mad race around as long as they come to hand when I ask them, and I really do insist. Sometimes if they are really fresh and can sense I am losing it, they will take over and ignore me. So I must be firm, consistant and calm to keep them under control. It’s not easy but can be done with practise.
Also however, the dog needs to know we are serious, so there is nothing wrong with isolating that dog and letting him know you mean it, if he is constantly pushing the boundaries. Just don’t do it in anger though, keep calm.
It is an ongoing thing, control. It is never a permanent state. You can’t think, ‘Right I have finished training my dogs, they are all under control now so I can just ignore them.’
You will always have dogs that will try you out, some a lot more than others.
And it’s usually at the worst time. Like when you have told a large number of people who are watching how well trained this dog is and what he can do, only to have him go completely embarrassingly feral.
Body language is another important factor in controlling your dog, but that is a whole article on it’s own.
Just learning to stand upright and squaring your shoulders can get a dogs attention better than leaning over him, as he may see this as a threat and try to escape rather than obeying you.
Everyone has problems, no matter how experienced they are. But with each new problem and solution we use for it, we have learned something valuable that we can use in the future.
So just learn to smile and move on, never blame the dog, it is almost always something we have or haven’t done which caused the problem, just try to work out a solution, change what you are doing if it doesn’t work, or call someone and ask for help.
If you can’t get help straight away, then just do what you know the dog can do well, so you are not cementing a problem, and wait until you can get someone to assist you.
I will sign off with my favourite biblical passage.
For God did not give you a spirit of Fear,
but of Power, Love and Self Control.
2. Timothy. 1.7