Friday, August 1, 2014

Sheep Herding Reflections

Any dog can enjoy, and be good at, a variety of things, and every dog has the potential to be a wonderful companion, but truth is that a pooch with a pedigree, selectively bred for specific characteristics, can have strong drives that require an outlet, and I strongly believe that it is the person's duty to provide it.  
Bowie doesn’t have a pedigree, but we’re pretty sure that he is a Border collie. He looks like one, behaves like one, and his previous owner said that he is one. True to what I preach, since March, when we got Bowie, I couldn’t wait to get him evaluated on sheep. It finally happened last Sunday.

I only attended a herding event once before with our Australian shepherd Davie, and that was almost a decade ago, but it gave me an idea how things would likely unfold. I presumed that herding instructors, like everyone else, put their own spin on things, and I know that herding is not willy-nilly chasing sheep but very controlled work, but I still anticipated that the emphasis would be on the dog’s keenness more than his obedience, since it was an instinct test, not a herding clinic. 
I expected that the dog would in a confined area with a few sheep, on the long line just in case, encouraged a bit if need be, but by and large not interfered with unless the welfare of the sheep was in jeopardy.
That was not quite what happened. The sheep, confined space and long line did, but our instructor put much more weight on the relationship between the dog and handler, and the control the handler had over the dog, than I thought. Luckily, we were prepared.

Right from the start I realized that being outside with the disc is Bowie's highlight of the day. In other words, he is highly motivated to access it, and has such focus that he seems unaware of anything else around him.
Initially I was playing with the idea to aim for competition, but who was I  kidding: Whether it is humans or dogs, on an individual and collective level I couldn’t care less who is fasted, can throw farthest, or scores highest. I respect people whose goal that is, but I’m just not into that.
However, I am into a dog who takes his cues from me, and I thought I could, perhaps, use Bowie’s drive to teach behaviors that are valuable in day-to-day life: principally impulse control when aroused and around moving things, and staying receptive to my cues when his visual attention is elsewhere, and on something he wants to get to. I don’t expect a dog to always watch me. That is unrealistic. My dogs are allowed to discover the environment they live in, but I want them to stay mentally connected to me.
In lieu of sheep, I used the disc to teach Bowie: wait till I release you to get it, easy walk up and wait, left and right, back up, drop at my feet, and give into my hand.

Naturally, get it is Bowie’s primary reward, but I feel that what we do that leads up to it has reinforcement value as well. I feel the brain workout is necessary for his wellbeing.
Even though we have 2-3 sessions almost every day, about 10 minutes each time, and have also begun to take the show to various other places than our yard, I had no idea if what is well rehearsed with the disc would actually work with the sheep. But it did. Mostly.

Each dog had two turns. When we entered the pen the first time, Bowie noticed the three sheep, but then directed his interest to their deposits, which I interpreted as displacement. Not unease, but being uncertain what to make of the situation, unclear what he was supposed to do, buying time until he had more information – a cue he understood. I thought displacement rather than an urge to consume the poop because Bowie had had ample opportunity to munch prior to us entering the pen, and he showed no desire, didn’t even sniff it. Anyway, after I told him to leave it he refocused on the sheep, and because he listened nicely to me, we got the go ahead and he was allowed to chase them bit.
One sheep in the first, and another in the second group, was nervous of Bowie without him doing a whole lot, and I found that interesting because I occasionally observe the same with some dogs who, presented with Bowie’s presence, evade or become defensively standoffish. Plus, our Will was never as relaxed around stranger dogs since she was a year old, before our Newf Baywolf died, and she is almost 13 now. So there is something about him, not plain to humans, that less self-assured animals pick up - which tells you that if you want to know what’s going on with your dog don’t only watch your dog, but also the behavior of the animals in his close proximity.

There were a couple of hours between round one and two, and Bowie was under pressure. He wanted to get back in pen, barked a few times in frustration – Bowie rarely barks and if only to announce someone at the door or briefly with excitement when Mike or I return home - settled when prompted, but kept his eyes on the sheep the whole time, ignoring the commotion around him absolutely. To reduce the pressure, we removed him from the situation and took a couple of walks on the property.

Before we entered the pen again, the instructor told me to be definitive with my dog, and I appreciated the reminder. I am all for a dog understanding that when it matters there isn’t a choice. My definitive does not mean: “Do as told or it’ll hurt”, or “No choice and I don't care if you're scared” but: “You must do this to get that”, and I was determined to convey that to Bowie very clearly.
This time, Bowie knew what we were doing and there was no hesitation or displacement behavior. He wanted the sheep a lot more, and I was more definitive, and I think in combination it created more pressure. A couple of times we pushed the boundary, Bowie signaling it with a shake-off after the difficult moment had passed. Like barking, I rarely see Bowie shake off other than when his coat is waterlogged. But there were no signs of real distress – no avoidance, no trying to get away from me or out of the pen, and we continued for about 6 minutes with a repetitive walking up, waiting, releasing and calling him off again. At the very end, the instructor asked me to be with the sheep and leave Bowie in position, wait, about 6 feet away, and after that we got a “that’ll do” and were done. 

That last moment was the only part I disagreed with. It was difficult for Bowie to stay while I was with the sheep, but he did, and there was no reinforcement as consequence. Instead of being allowed on the sheep, we walked away and out of the pen.
The following day I had indication that there might have been, indeed, too much pressure, or rather not enough reinforcement in relation to the pressure: Bowie was less willing to wait when we worked with the disc. He still obeyed, but I sensed that the cooperative closeness, the teamwork was missing. That’s not what I want. I don’t want obedience at the cost of the relationship. I want my dog to want to work with me, and to regain his trust I really lowered my criteria that day, asked him to wait less often and only very briefly.
By day two things were back to normal.

What’s next? Bowie and I are headed for PEI later this month to take lessons with Lorna McMaster, author of “Dancing with Sheepdogs”. I am pumped, and quite possibly as motivated as Bowie.


  1. Interesting post Silvia. Must be exciting to be able to work a dog for the purpose they were designed. You mentioned "pressure" several times in the post and I was wondering if you could explain "pressure" a bit more. I suspect you might be talkng about stress, but it sounds like it could be good stress boarding on bad stress? I'm not quite sure.

  2. Yes Marjorie, pretty much stress but not the kind that has a detrimental, long-term fallout. Stress can increase the bond between dog and owner, when they master a challenging situation together. The challenge for Bowie was self-restraint, and as said, at times I felt we were close to the limit, but didn't surpass it.

  3. Pressure can happen even if the dog is trained and treated with positive reinforcement. For example a dog who wants to access the treat, but doesn't know how and doesn't have enough information. It can create frustration and frustration outbursts sometimes seen with shaping when the person sets criteria too high. You can also see dogs sometimes getting discouraged. So, it's a fine line to challenge a dog, and asking too much.

  4. Thanks for the clarification Silvia. I guess that's why they call them "Boarder Collies" always on that edge :)

  5. This was really great to see the two of you work so closely together. You could see the trust and the strong bond between the two of you. You could also see that Bowie knew what to do and use his instincts. You both rocked it off the map. It will be great to see how it goes next time.