Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What does your dog think of you?

I'm going to try to post a training article about once a week. Please let me know if you enjoy them, if you have any questions, or ideas for future topics, or just any comments. Argue with me if you like! I love talking about dogs and training, and i get something out of just trying to organize my thoughts on different topics, but it would be nice to know others are reading and want more.

This week's topic is making sure your dog enjoys his work. I know these dogs are hard-wired to work, and really can't even help themselves when it comes to work. They're slaves to their instincts in many ways. But you can create a happy, willing partner who will give everything he has working with and for you, or you can have a sulky, sullen dog that does his work with no spark and no heart. You can also create a crazed, frustrated maniac who tries to work in spite of you and it seems like he's working against you. The common thing with all of these dogs is a trainer.

Stop to consider what each of these dogs thinks of his trainer. "Happy" is relaxed and listening, and trusts his trainer to do right by him, helping him control sheep, confident in his abilities. "Sulky" thinks his owner is pretty stupid, asking him to do things that just make no sense, like making him lie down just when the sheep are starting to escape. He doesn't trust his handler and has just shut down mentally. "Crazy" probably has a trainer a lot like Sulky's trainer, but rather than shutting down he's grown a short fuse and closed his ears, and takes his tension out on sheep and instead of getting sullen he just runs faster and faster to try to get where he knows he needs to be, while his trainer screams commands at the top of his lungs (LIEDOWNLIEDOWNLIEDOWN!!).

If you will stop and try to puzzle out what your dog thinks about what you're asking him to do, you can create a Happy dog for yourself. This is especially important with younger, less trained dogs. A dog needs to feel he can trust you before he can give you his obedience and give up a little of what his instinct is screaming at him to do. If you're going to ask your dog to give up that little bit of instinctive reaction, you have to give the dog something in return that he enjoys. Border collies are nature's control freaks, so don't ask the dog to give up total control. Ask for a down when it makes sense *to your dog*, not when your sheep are starting to break off to the barn and your dog will be out of position to stop them if he lies down. If you can figure out how to get your dog to do what you want, and when the dog does it, he's actually getting more control on the sheep, he'll love that. Let him go to the pressure and then ask for a down and he'll think you're a pretty good partner and pretty smart. When you start driving with a dog, ask for a little flank onto the pressure point so that your sheep slow down instead of running off, and watch your dog's opinion of you go up.

Over time, after your dog is pretty well trained up, you don't have to think quite so hard about what the dog is thinking. But it's pretty important to work on your dog's opinion of you when he's starting out and especially when he's about half-trained. We start expecting more of the dog just about the time we start asking for things that make less sense instinctively to the dog.

11 comments:

carson-crazies said...

Great post, Robin!! That's one of the wonderful things I'm having the pleasure of learning from you - analyzing what's going on and figuring out what I'm doing as a handler that might be contributing to the problem. Same thing with what kind of handler am I - and is my dog happy or not because of it?? Lots of great food for thought here. Thank you!

Robin French said...

Thanks! I think it's fun to try to puzzle out what's going on in the doggy brain. I'd rather be the Dog Shrink than the Dog Whisperer. ;-)

Laura said...

Thanks for posting about this, Robin. It's one of the things I struggle with--because I know that I am often incorrect in my timing and judgment. Novice Taz is pretty happy for the most part (and seems to be moving in the correct direction from a little more crazed to a little more relaxed), but I worry about Craig, who has already been trained up and was used to working with a more experienced partner before he was given to me. For a long time, he would sort of run over me. Then I began enforcing my commands a bit better, but I still make mistakes. Given that my novice mistakes are likely to continue for a while, do I risk creating a sulky dog if I continue to enforce my sometimes-incorrect commands? I know I do frustrate him sometimes (easy to tell because he starts taking cheap shots at the sheep), and we do take breaks then--is that enough?

Robin French said...

Chances are, if you're aware it's happening, Craig will be okay. It means you're on your way to getting better and he'll feel you improving. I think the real danger is with a half trained dog because they're so conflicted at the point where we start asking for obedience to commands over instinct. What sort of mistakes are you making - giving wrong commands, or is it more a timing issue?

Laura said...

I still give him the wrong flank (I mean, I say come bye, when I mean away and vice versa). So I'm not wrong in what I *want* him to do, just in what I *tell* him to do. I don't know why after three years of doing this I still mix these up--but I know it's frustrating for him because I usually realize my mistake right away because he takes the command I give him, and then I automatically give the opposite flank. I know I must be driving him bananas!

Laura said...

And that's just the mistake I make most often. I also make plenty of other mistakes with timing, lying him down when he's not in a position to cover, etc. I am s-l-o-w-l-y getting better at these kinds of errors...

Robin French said...

I'm already planning a short article on ways to keep the commands straight and will try to get that together for next week. But, i would suggest that when you do give a wrong command, go ahead and commit to it. Craig doesn't know you gave the wrong command and he doesn't care if you hit the panels when you're just out working and practicing. It'll be better for him in the long run if he feels you being committed and sure, rather than flustered and whipping him about. Mutter at yourself under your breath but tell him yes, you meant to brush right by that panel!

Laura said...

Okay, I'll do that! Poor Craig thanks you for your advice.

I am anxiously awaiting your keeping-sides-straight article!

CarsonC28317 said...

As you very well know, this is something that I have struggled with in the past and still am in some ways. The last time I worked Tuff, he seemed all too happy about how things went. I got the feeling that he really liked woolies and it showed in his work. No I did not say anything to him while he was working, I just used whistles.

I learned a ton from David and giving corrections to release pressure and to apply pressure when needed but to release the pressure imminently when the response is correct.

I learned so much from Bet when it comes to dealing with a dog that “sulks” when she did not get her way that I had to write down things that were working and some that were not in order to keep them straight in my head. She is a good girl and I am so happy that she is with Becca and doing something that she seems to love.

Carson

Robin French said...

That's great that Tuff was happy working. We have to pay attention to what they're telling us, don't we?

CarsonC28317 said...

Oh yes! That's the trick or challenge isn't it?

With me, most of the time, it is easy for me to figure out, my voice. After spending 22 years in the military and needing to have a voice that carries, one that when it “sounds off” everyone hears you. It could mean the difference between life and death or hitting a spot on the ground that looks like a postage stamp as you’re falling to the earth at terminal velocity, the results are the same, success or failure.

Now I am once again going through the process of re-training myself to speak softly. It’s not an easy thing to do but I am working on it. Along with the other gazillion other things that you have taught me over the past few years, I know and understand that my success or failure as a handler and a trainer depends on it .

Thanks Robin for being such a wonderful people trainer.

Carson