Sheepdog Training 3 – What makes the dog keep working?

Closeup photo of Dot looking out over the Welsh mountains of Corwen

What motivates the dog to keep working?

Some time ago, some neighbours stopped to watch a training session and asked me how I could get the dog to work so well and for so long without giving it some praise or reward. I know little of training other breeds but in the case of Border Collie Sheepdogs, the greatest rewards you can give are:

  • To allow the dog to work or continue working.
  • Show the dog you’re pleased with its work by the using the tone of your voice when giving commands
  • Verbally praising the dog when it’s working well, with an enthusiastic, gentle voice.

Like most working Border Collies, my first dog Dot, was desperate to work sheep and responded well to praise. At home, she craved attention – desperate to be held or stroked – when there were no sheep around.

When she was working, Dot would immediately obey the “that’ll do” command – and come racing back to me with the most joyful of expressions. In the early stages of Dot’s training I encouraged this immediate response by crouching down and stretching my arms wide to welcome her whilst calling “that’ll do” enthusiastically.

She wasn’t coming back for a hug!

Quickly I realised she wasn’t racing back for the congratulatory hug I had in mind for her! Inches before we made contact, she’d spin around and face the sheep again (completely ignoring me until I gave a command for her to work again).

Dot came racing back enthusiastically because once I’d called her off, it was her best chance of continuing to work the sheep! A sheepdog’s hunting instinct is very powerful, and understanding it is key to training dogs to work sheep, cattle, or other livestock.

Dot flew to Idaho the USA in December 2003, where she worked on a cattle ranch.

Dogs need to be corrected during their training but it’s important to note that just as we humans hate being bellowed at all the time, so does a dog – and just as we’re more likely to be cooperative if we’re instructed in a civil tone, so’s our canine friend. (I wish I could remember this more often, myself)!

To train a sheepdog from a puppy is a long process and will take you through various stages from euphoria to utter despair. Sometimes, you’ll think your dog can read your mind and at others, you’ll feel utterly humiliated and think the dog’s forgotten everything you taught it. You must be prepared for this (just like us) and remember that the bad times will become fewer if you believe in your dog and yourself. When you hear someone say: “I had to get rid of Fido – just couldn’t stop him (doing this, that or the other)“. What really happened is that they couldn’t work out the reason Fido was behaving the way he was.

Careful thought solves problems

If you think carefully about your dog’s behaviour, you can normally find a way to correct faults. It’ll take time and patience but it can be done. Trials winners are the trainers who are best at this and of course, the clever trainers are the ones who can choose a young dog which is likely to have the least number of problems. I believe that almost any young Border Collie can make a useful sheepdog – in fact to test this theory, I advertised on our website for young Border Collies that people needed to rehome.

I stopped taking the “rescue” dogs in because more often than not, we had problems with them barking.
Incessant barking is something I won’t tolerate, and I don’t expect our neighbours to have to endure it either.

Once the advert appeared, the telephone was very busy and over a year or so, we took on ten of these “rescues”. If I remember correctly, I only turned one away from our gate (he bit me while I was talking to his owners). I mention that because every one of those “rescues” became a sheepdog that I would take with me to get the sheep back in. (The way I define a sheepdog is: If your sheep had escaped, and this were your only dog, would you take it with you to get those escaped sheep back, or would you seek the help of a friend or neighbour?).

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