Thursday, October 2, 2008

Command vs. Correction

Recently there was a question on one of the internet lists that got me thinking. Someone asked a pretty simple question - do you use different words as widening commands on each side? For example, would you use "out" on the come bye flank and "back" on the away flank (those are what i use, btw), or would you use the same word on both sides?

The responses weren't really what i expected. There were a couple of quick, polite responses saying the writer did use different words (what i was expecting to hear), but the more vocal response was along the lines of "if you train your dogs right, you don't need widening words for your flanks". There was also a small, quieter response along the lines of "if your dogs are bred right, you don't need to widen the flanks".

In considering these responses, it occurred to me that the answer really depends on the situation and the dog (doesn't it seem that's where we always begin?). Are we talking about a dog that is slicing his flanks and causing general havoc? Or are we talking about a dog that is flanking pretty much okay but you'd like to have the flexibility to ask for a wide flank when you feel the occasion calls for one? The difference in these situations is that in the former you need to correct the dog's action by widening his flanks, while in the latter you're looking to command his action so he gives you a wider flank, two vastly different things.

If you're trying to correct improper action, it doesn't matter what word you use, anything will do because you're simply trying to alter the behavior, to say "don't do that because it pisses me off, now try something else to see if it makes me happier". The appropriate response from the dog to correction is to not offer that behavior again, in order to avoid the correction or make the handler happy.

In our second scenario, with the dog that is flanking pretty much okay, we're trying to associate an action with a word so that you can ask for that action to be repeated on command. I think this is where the 2nd and 3rd answers to the original query fall short. I find it to be tremendously useful to be able to ask my dogs for various types of flanks, both around the farm and on the trial field. If you can't do this with a finished, seasoned dog, you're missing out on a useful tool to have in your arsenal.

As i noted above, i use "out" on the come bye flank and "back" on the away side. If i say "come bye", i expect a normal flank from my dog, whatever is a normal flank for that particular dog. Some flank more square, some tighter, but it should be a reasonable, normal flank. If i ask "come out", i expect a fairly normal start to the flank (the come part) and then a widening action (the out part). If i ask "out" or "OUT!" (no come), i expect a good widening from the first bit of motion. These tend to be tools i use when the sheep are between myself and the dog, say on the fetch, on an outside flank on a crossdrive, when setting up the shed or penning, gate sorting, that type of thing.

To complicate things a little bit, i don't find these widening commands to work very well on inside flanks. I think, because they're taught by putting a little pressure on a dog to give ground, that the dogs just don't like to move towards me on those widening commands. It may be that the context just doesn't feel right to the dogs, but regardless, if i give an inside flank with the widening part added, i find it confuses the dogs a bit, unless i'm asking the dog to actually flank around behind me, rather than between myself and the sheep. I have another variation to widen an inside flank. From very early on in training, i use a dog's name to pull him towards me in any situation, so it's a very comfortable thing to the dog. So if a dog is a good ways out in the field from me and i want a wide inside flank, i use the dog's name to "pull" on him. Some people use "here" the same way but i like using the dog's name. I may ask for a small lean towards me with just "Jet" or a bigger one with "come bye Jet" or any even bigger one with "Jet, Jet, here Jet, come bye!". And i'll use the name before or after the command depending on the angle the dog is in relation to my position - you have to imagine a rope between yourself and the dog to visualize which way he'll pull when you call his name. I also have tightening commands on my dogs that follow along on the same lines, though i find i don't use them all that much.

In the extremely competitive world sheepdog trialing has become, these extra tools can be a big advantage and i guess that's why the 2nd and 3rd responses to that original query caught me by surprise, though on reflection you can puzzle out where the person offering advice was coming from. So i guess the message to take away from this article is to stop and think about what you're trying to accomplish with those "words". Commands are not, and should not be, corrections, and if you're using them that way, you're cheating yourself of some great tools with which to communicate with your dog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I noticed this very thing last weekend. This one particular handler almost EVERY time he gave a command it was a "keep" type thing - and all I could think of was that he was using it more as a correction than a tool. He was trying to get what should have been a correct flank to begin with. Interesting distinction that you make here Robin (and I think you're right on). There have been times (such as at the pens) where I've walked Nick in and I need him to give space - and I like having the beginnings of that particular tool in our tool box.