Saturday, September 24, 2011

Starting off on the right paw

Starting a dog feels like a huge responsibility to me. Will I take too much out? Will I let the dog walk over me and learn bad habits? Will I be able to see the dog objectively since he belongs to me? Overthinkers like myself wallow in such internal diatribe.

To help keep myself in check and honest, I made a list of the things I wanted before I actually started training Rye. By started training, I mean intentionally applying and removing pressure to shape his habits into good herding rather than simple instinct. I firmly believe an adequately mature dog will take training, while an immature one won't. I feel like I see plenty of people "putting training" on immature dogs - and it results in reduced confidence.

So, I've been exposing Rye to sheep about once a month. He had his 4th exposure today. He's almost through the checklist, which gives me hope because I have a mini lesson with Scott next month to assess Rye's fitness to begin taking training.

Here are the things I was hoping for before really starting Rye:

Q: Does the dog acknowledge the handler when sheep are nearby?

A: Yes. Rye has been exposed to sheep without being allowed to work many times. I think this has really helped him. Of course he would love to drag me to sheep so he can work, but he can listen to things like sit or lie down, turn to me on his name and settle nicely.

Q: Can the dog stay while I go to the sheep?

A: Yes. Rye was consistently staying where I put him until released. I was actually astonished by this. He has been able to do this somewhat before, but showed a significant change in his relaxation and maturity compared with 1 month ago.

Q: Does the dog show desire to gather?

A: Sometimes. On initial exposure, Rye would gather a bit but it was not his top priority. He has a fair bit of eye and would prefer to just walk straight up and drive the sheep to wherever they might stop. I could position myself so this looked like a gather, but it was not a true gather. He would come in on balance when I removed pressure by giving the sheep someplace to go.

He had a very strong desire to head and would focus on a single sheep at a time.

Today Rye showed his first real "symptoms" of gathering. He would bend a bit to get around the sheep, and would come in on balance without me giving any "hints" by relieving pressure. He also was watching for the group of sheep rather than just 1 sheep at a time. He would also happily take a stop on balance.

Until the intent to gather is very good, Rye will only be able to work at places like Fido's that have secure fencing. The 7-strand wire at our home sheep field would not contain the sheep if something went badly with a gather. I am hoping his gathers will be adequate to where we can start working at home the beginning of November.

Q: Can the dog go cleanly between the sheep and the fence?

A: YES. This was a very significant change from 1 month ago. Rye was going very nicely between the sheep and the fence (even when the sheep were smashed up against it and I didn't particularly want him to do so hehehe). He would put his head down and sensibly squeeze between without racing or gripping, and went around the whole group rather than just pulling 1 or 2 away from the fence. Big change.

Q: Can the dog stop (with or without handler pressure/help)?

A: Yes, he can and will stop when asked without handler pressure about 80% of the time, if it is on balance. I did not try asking for off-balance stops because it seemed insensible.

Q: Can the dog take pressure to change the shape of a flank?

A: Some. I can change the shape a bit, but increasing pressure does not get an increased result so I will wait some more on this. He is doing so much better in other regards I have no reason this will not click into place sometime soon.

Q: Can the dog go both directions?

A: Yes. This is a nice change. Previously he could go both ways but had a very strong preference for one direction. They are much more equal now.

Q: Can the dog take pressure to change directions?

A: YES. This is another big change. He changes directions fluidly now, and is naturally square when doing so.

Q: Can the dog call off?

A: Yes. While I still have him dragging a long line for safety, he was calling off very very nicely today. I can not call him off while he is moving, but can call him off once he is stopped.

So overall we are most of the way there. I'd like to see him be more ready to take a bit of pressure to create shape since he seems to have a lot of eye. Because of this, I am being cautious to be sure he is quite ready and mature to take it. My hope is more maturity means it will take fare less pressure to achieve the desired result. Rye's ability to listen to me and concentrate today was easily doubly good compared with only 1 month ago. Good boy.

I'd also like to see him having a much stronger tendency to gather. I've seen this come on almost with a "light switch" effect in other young dogs, so am biding my time on this one a bit longer.

SOOOO.... do you have a list? What do you like to see in a young dog before you start training? I'd love to hear your input.

Happy trails,


  1. Sounds awesome. This convinces me more than ever that we should not do herding with Sagan. I know so little about what you are talking about and know that we are stimulating his brain in a number of other ways. Look forward to following Rye's progress!

  2. Glad to know I am not the only one that obsesses and worries :)

    I have the same skills check list you. Although I did not know it until I saw it so nicely written out here!

    My gauge for knowing when I may be doing 'damage' is if I get to grousing too much. At this point I am most likely asking for too much too soon.