The young chickens are not quite six months old but were large enough to allow out. The first couple of days, none seemed interested in venturing out of the familiar enclosure attached to the chicken coop but eventually the bravest started exploring the area immediately around the chicken coop and the others soon followed. Fix is helping to put the chickens up a couple of nights ago. The rooster is the Icelandic given to me by a friend. Notice how calm and quiet Fix is moving – just enough pressure to move the chickens without panicking them.
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At the point the dog respects you, is responsive to basic commands, and is mentally and physically able to handle the challenge, you are ready to start working stock.
If the dog has been accompanying you on chores, it should now have an understanding of the routine. This is critical for an English Shepherd because most English Shepherds are working to maintain the rules set forth by their owners. English Shepherds should be able to walk through a pasture full of stock and totally ignore all the animals (without being told to do so) as long as the animals are where they are supposed to be, at the time of day they are supposed to be there. This is what enables farmers not to have to tie up or kennel their working dogs when the dogs aren’t being supervised.
Once I have decided the dog is mature enough mentally and physically to start working, I want to ensure that the dog is successful in its initial introduction to the work. Working stock requires the dog to be willing to put itself in situations where the dog may get injured — it is absolutely critical that the dog trust the handler and that the handler makes sure the dog isn’t over-faced early on. Fence lines and corners are dangerous places for dogs — they understand that even if the handler doesn’t. Handlers all too often get very upset with their dogs when they are working in pens and the dog refuses to get around the stock because it means having to go between the stock and a fence line, without realizing why the dog may be reluctant to do so.
Training a dog on stock is all about pressure – the application and removal of pressure to get the dog (and the stock) to move where you want it. Pressure, however, can be very subtle and not noticeable to the observer. The handler needs to recognize the amount of pressure that will be sufficient to achieve the desired result and be careful not to over-pressure the dog. Over-pressuring a dog will either result in the dog becoming frantic and out of control or shutting down and refusing to work. Over-pressuring stock usually results in the stock running. Stock work should be about calm, confident control. It is not productive to run the weight off your livestock. Nor should livestock be stressed by this type of handling. Having said that, especially when working a young dog, things are going to happen. Unless your livestock is heading towards the road or a high cliff, take a deep breath and slow down. (Actually, especially if your stock is heading for the road or a high cliff, stop and breathe.) Panicking has NEVER made a situation any better. Give yourself, the dog and the livestock a chance to settle down before continuing to work. This is really hard for some handlers — don’t beat yourself up over it if you overreact. Just try not to overreact the next time things get out of control.
English Shepherds are/should be control freaks. They understand rules and want those rules followed. That is one of the things that makes it easier to work with them on your own stock and one of the things that often makes it frustrating to work them off your property and with strange stock.
English Shepherds are “loose eyed” dogs and thus work closer in to their stock than border collies. While some dogs will bark at particularly stubborn stock, if a dog is barking almost constantly it lacks confidence and you will have to be extra careful in starting that dog to build confidence.
The first thing I do when starting a young dog (and young isn’t age related but determined by experience) is develop a bond with the dog. This means I spend time with the dog in a variety of situations, teaching the dog to respect me and fostering its desire to be with me. I will take the dog with me doing chores. Depending upon the dog and the situation, this may mean the dog is dragging a line to ensure I can control its behavior. While I don’t directly focus on the dog, after all I am doing chores, I do make sure the dog isn’t getting into trouble and is staying close (how close is a personal choice.) When I have a dog that is sticking with me doing chores, coming back to check in frequently on off-leash walks and has rudimentary obedience skills as well as self-control I’ll evaluate whether or not the dog is mentally and physically mature enough to start working stock. This is also dependent upon my stock. I won’t work a young dog on ewes with young lambs.
If I’m going to work stock with a dog, I will wait to do serious obedience training until AFTER I have started working stock. While I want the dog responsive to me, I want the dog’s focus on stock. A dog who focuses on the handler is either going to be less effective in working stock or, worse case scenario, is going to get hurt by not paying attention to the stock. It is very important to remember that if you want a partner, you have to ensure the dog is capable of making decisions and not expecting you to make all the decisions for him/her. All the dogs I train are taught self-control early on so that the dog is making GOOD decisions on its own and so that I’m not constantly telling the dog to do or not to do something.
It is also critical that you set your dog up to be successful and not to fail. While corrections are, in my opinion, a necessary part of training, corrections rarely have a place in “teaching”. Until the dog understands what is required and knows how to avoid a correction, it isn’t fair to correct the dog. Once I move out of teaching and into training, I can set it up so the dog has to make the right decision under more challenging circumstances, but again I have to ensure the dog is prepared for the challenge and I’m not expecting something I can’t reasonably expect.
The age you start a dog is not critical as long as the dog is mentally and physically ready to start. What is critical is that you haven’t done things to “turn the dog off”. I’ve seen pups that were put on stock too young and a single bad experience was sufficient to turn the dog off working stock permanently. I’ve seen older dogs that had been discouraged as pups from interacting with livestock who wouldn’t work as they got older. I’ve also seen dogs bounce back from traumas that you would have thought sufficient to turn them off permanently — my first ES got kicked by a steer so hard it knocked him across a pen, gave him a concussion and broke a molar. He tried, unsuccessfully because of the concussion, to get up and continue working.
Working poultry (chicken, turkeys, ducks), sheep, cattle and goats is challenging in different ways and some dogs will excel on one type of stock and yet may not be a good worker on another type of stock. The dog might be ready to work poultry very early on and not be ready for sheep, goats or cattle until much later. So just because your pup or dog doesn’t seem interested in working one type of livestock or another, don’t be discouraged. It may need more time just accompanying you doing chores or you may want to try starting on a different type of livestock. While I do use my ES to handle my American Guinea Hogs, I don’t recommend starting an inexperienced dog on hogs and I personally will NEVER use a dog to work horses. There are several reasons for that but it can be boiled down to a safety issue for both the dog and rider.
NOTE: The above was originally written a few years ago, when I was raising Katahdin sheep for lamb and was pasture raising American Guinea Hogs. I have downsized the number of sheep I have and the hogs are now in various freezers.
Several years ago when I was asked how I started my pups working stock I wrote up some notes. I was then asked to turn those notes into an article, which I did, but the individual who requested it had moved on and the article languished unpublished. In the interests of being able to put up regular blog posts in 2018, I am going to use the article as the basis of the Farm Dog 101 posts for the next few months. This should be timely as now that Tuck has been officially retired, my plans of having Fix ease into being my primary chore dog have been altered. Fix has been accompanying me on chores since the day he arrived on the farm. Although the dynamics on the farm have changed since I brought him home in late May, Fix has a good understanding of the day to day routine and is already proving himself useful as a chore dog. However, what he lacks is the training to move livestock with direction; i.e., he can already move escaped goats back to the correct pen, or hens to the chicken coop at night if needed, but he does it without being told and without me telling him “how” to accomplish the task. By early spring Fix will be my “go to” dog when I need help moving livestock. Since I had anticipated Tuck continuing to work for at least a couple more years, over the past summer and fall Fix’ training on stock had been less of a priority. That has now changed. Fix now needs to know the basics of moving up on stock, stopping when he needs to or is told to, and how to influence movement by using a “go-bye” or “away”.
(For those interested in learning more about introducing puppies to farm work, I highly recommend an article in the current English Shepherds at Work Handbook published by the English Shepherd Club, Thoughts on Training Your Pup for Practical Farm Work. Full disclaimer: the article was written by a friend who happens to be the breeder from whom I purchased Tuck and Fix.)
Check back January 1st for the first Installment of Working Livestock with Your English Shepherd. All I ask is that you understand that my farm is different from your farm and my dogs are not your dogs, so following the posts by rote is not necessarily going to get you the dog you need for your farm. It is also very important to keep in mind that working livestock is only one small job of a useful farm dog. My dogs work year round even though I only pasture livestock part of the year. However, if you know what you need on your farm (and this can change from season to season or even day to day) and understand your dog, the basic principles outlined in the upcoming blog posts should be useful in helping you train your dog to do the job needed on your farm. The second thing I ask is that you respect my copyright and do not reprint a blog posts or any part of a blog post in any forum without asking permission first.
Once your dog will “place” for at least two minutes with you moving around the room, you are ready to progress to Step Two – teaching your dog to travel to its “place.”
Step Two: Place your mat or rug one step in front of your dog. Toss a treat on the mat and tell your dog to “go place”. When your dog steps onto the mat and eats the treat, Praise and Release.
Duration: Gradually increase the length of time the dog remains on the mat before the Release.
Distance: Once your dog is able to leave your side and go one step to the mat without assistance and remain there for 2 minutes, you will start to increase the distance away from the mat that your dog is sent one step at a time. Each time you add distance, reduce the length of time the dog remains on the mat and gradually increase the time again. Until the dog is successfully completing a “go place” at two steps without physical assistance you will not move further away. Each increase in distance should be one step at a time. Continue until you can send your dog 20 feet to a mat and the dog stays until Released.
Distractions: Reduce the distance you stand from the mat back to one step and have a distraction ten feet away. If you have been working without a leash, make sure you put a leash back on your dog so that you can prevent him from going to the distraction. Send your dog to the mat. When your dog is successfully ignoring the distraction, move the distraction one foot closer and repeat. Continue to move the distraction closer only when the dog is able to successfully ignore it.
Difficulty: Once your dog is ignoring a distraction and able to “go place” from one step away, start increasing the distance you send your dog one step at a time and begin with the distraction ten feet away again. Continue to vary the distance you send the dog, the type and location of distraction and duration of the stay on the mat.
To recapitulate, the first step in teaching a “Place” command is to teach the dog to remain in a designated spot until released.
To teach this you will need the following:
- Something to use as your designated spot – a bathmat, rug, elevated dog bed, etc.
- Treats (optional)
- Release word
Step One: Put your dog on leash. Put your mat or rug in front of your dog. Help your dog step onto the mat as you say “place”. Do not repeat the command but use the leash as necessary to ensure the dog steps completely on the mat. Your dog may sit, stand or down but may not step off the mat until you have released your dog.
Duration: build on duration first; start with five seconds and increase the length of time you require your dog to stay on the mat before being released.
Distance: once you have built up to a one-minute stay on the mat, reduce the duration back to five seconds and start to move yourself further away from the mat, one step at a time. If your dog tries to move off the mat, use the leash to prevent the dog from stepping off the mat, without stepping back into the dog. When you are able to step away leash length (6 feet) for five seconds, gradually build up the duration again, five seconds at a time.
Distraction: once you are able to move six feet away from the mat and your dog can stay for one minute, start adding distractions. When you add distractions, reduce the distance you are standing away from the dog and the duration of the stay. Again, use the leash as necessary to ensure the dog does not move off the mat until released. Start with mild distractions and work up to heavy distractions. As your dog learns to ignore the distractions, gradually build up the duration and distance again.
Difficulty: once you are able to move six feet away from the mat and your dog can stay for one minute with heavy distractions, you are going to increase the difficulty of the exercise. While your dog will initially still have a leash on, you will no longer be holding it. Start moving around the room, being prepared to pick up the leash to enforce the “place” if necessary. Vary how far you move, how long the dog must stay and the level of distractions.
A Place command is incredibly useful. Put simply, a place command involves teaching a dog to travel to a specific spot (I like using bathmats as mats are portable and easy to travel with) and then to remain in that spot until released. It is easier for most people to teach than a solid stay because the dog isn’t required to remain in either a sit or a down, but as long as the dog remains in that spot, can sit, down, stand, turn around. . .you get the picture.
So in keeping with my resolution to actually start training Fix, I decided a Place command would be a good addition to his education.
TRAINING A “PLACE” COMMAND
This exercise consists of training two separate exercises and then combining the two into a single exercise.
The first part involves teaching the dog to remain in a designated spot until released. The second part involves teaching the dog to travel to the designated spot.
In training this exercises, as with all exercises, the Four D’s of Training are employed. These are:
Remember, you want to build on success, so your goal in training is to set your dog up to succeed, not fail. Be sure your dog understands what is required before making the task more difficult.
To begin, you need a RELEASE word. This is a word which you will consistently use to let your dog know it is free to do something different. For example, in this case, once you have told your dog to “place” your dog should not move from that location until you have given permission; i.e., a Release. It is important that you use this word to release your dog following every command. A Release word is not the same as praise. Praise should be given while your dog is performing the action (sit, down, etc.) so that you are praising the action and not the dog’s behavior after completion of the action. A Release word simply means your dog has your permission to do something else and should not be followed with praise.
Fix turned 24 weeks (6 months) old today. He still hasn’t outgrown the fuglies, but I am seeing some glimmers of the handsome dog he will be.
Despite other Farm Dog 101 posts where I state I am going to start formal training with Fix, I have to admit that has not happened. His training to date has been just day to day interactions and doing chores.
So this evening, I decided it was way past time to get serious about training and I dusted off an exercise I used to teach to students in my beginning obedience classes – the Paper Plate Recall. This is an exercise I learned from a colleague, now sadly deceased, Dick Russell from Baton Rouge, LA. Rather than type it out here, I am providing a link to the exercise explained on another colleague’s blog: Paper Plate Recall.
So after chores, I put a leash on Fix, found a suitable plastic lid and put a few treats in my pocket. While Fix does know “sit’, I have not taught him a “stay” so he is a novice dog and a great example of the “magic” of this exercise. We started at 3 feet from the lid and finished, about 10 minutes later, approximately 60 feet away with Fix holding a stay while I walked away from him to put the treat on the lid and then while I walked back to him. Click on photos to enlarge.
Yesterday Fix turned five months old so I thought I’d chronicle his day. Since I leave the door open at night for the adult dogs to come and go as they please, Fix is still crated at night so he can’t get himself into trouble outside. When I got up in the morning, Fix was let out of the crate (waiting for his release word “free” even after the door was opened) and he made his usual check of the dog dishes to see if 1) one of the other dogs had not finished their dinner; or 2) if food had magically appeared in the dish overnight before dashing outside to pee. When Fix was smaller I used to go out with him, first on a leash and then later just to supervise, but he has been going out unsupervised for a few weeks now. I put the water on for coffee and washed dishes and Fix dashed back in to see if the dog dishes have re-filled themselves. After I finished my coffee, Fix was fed breakfast. (Again, waiting patiently in a sit until given his release word to eat.) Chores were next. After we did chores I went back to work on digging out gates. Fix hung around a bit and then went off to explore. He found a piece of horse hoof and played with it for awhile – throwing it up in the air, then pouncing on it when it hit the ground and then running laps with it in his mouth before starting all over again.
We played a little fetch with a stick he brought me and then he wandered off again. When it got too hot for me to continue, I took a shower while Fix hung out. I needed to run into town for groceries so I crated Fix since I was going to leave the door open for the other dogs to come and go. When I got back I spent a little time on the computer while Fix just hung out and then we took a nap in the hammock. At some point Fix jumped off the hammock and just laid down on the bedroom floor. After our nap, I did a little work using the computer and Fix alternated between lying next to me and going outside to explore. We did evening chores and he did a little more exploring while I was pulling more T-posts. He did come back to help me do a little more digging around the gate post. Then it was time for dinner and more time just chilling out in the house before bed. Not a real exciting way to turn 5 months old. . . I’ll have to come up with something special for his six month birthday next month.
At not quite five months of age Fix is starting to help out with chores. I’ve allowed him to put up the sheep at night a couple of times. While in reality, the sheep will usually put themselves up once I bring them out of the pasture, as far as Fix is concerned, behind them and dragging a line, he is moving the sheep on his own. This morning after I filled a hay net with hay, Fix moved the hay net to the cart. He did this on his own, without any prompting by me.
I play games with my puppies – primarily fetch and tug – as a way to encourage team work (and to teach self-control). Fetch because later I will train a reliable retrieve to hand and tug because sometimes the dog will have to exert some force to bring me something – a filled hay net is one example.
Many years ago a fellow trainer told me a story that I’ve never forgotten. He trained bird dogs so his puppies were taught to fetch from day one. He also never corrected a puppy for picking up and carrying something inappropriate but encouraged the pup to bring the item to him. One day he had a young pup with him in a building where unbeknownst to him someone had put out rat poison. He noticed the pup with something in his mouth and called the pup to him. The pup came running with a box of rat poison. Had he been in the practice of punishing or correcting his pup for picking up things, it is likely that 1) the pup would not have come to him carrying the rat poison; and 2) the pup would have tried swallowing the poison before he was able to remove it from the pup’s mouth. I have taken that lesson to heart and I also never correct a puppy for carrying something in its mouth.
Fix really likes carrying my shoes. He learned very early on not to chew on shoes by simple redirection. However, every time I saw him carrying a shoe, I called him to me, praised and then removed the shoe from his mouth and gave him something else. Fix has also taken to carrying empty metal food dishes if I leave them on the ground. Again, I encourage him to bring those to me and reward him for that. In the past I’ve had to train dogs to carry metal objects so I’m very pleased to see Fix has no issues carrying metal dishes. Of course it means I have to watch where I put the wire cutters in the barn because I’ve caught Fix carrying the wire cutters a few times.
Finally, fetch and tug are useful games to use in training. The following is a brief introduction to TUG OF WAR.
The rules of tug are:
- You start all games of tug (the toy should be put up away from the dog between games).
- If the dog’s mouth touches your hand or arm at any time during the game, the game ends immediately.
- You end all games of tug. The dog must release the tug toy on command.
Start all games of tug with the dog in a sit. Some dogs will be uncomfortable holding onto a toy if they feel you want it. If your dog is hesitant to hold on to the toy when you tug, start with just holding one end of the object and praising your dog for holding on. The next progression is very gentle pressure on the object while praising the dog for holding onto the toy. It may take several days before your dog is willing to hold on to the toy when you pull.
Remember pups that are teething have sensitive mouths – don’t jerk objects out of their mouths. Also, keep the object level and don’t tug up where the dog has to flex his neck.
Frequently during the game, tell your dog to sit or down and give. While tug should be a fun game, you don’t want the dog to become so aroused he no longer is under control.
Finish the game by having your dog sit or down and giving you the toy. The toy should then be put up away from the dog until the next game.
If you are having problems with your dog giving up the toy, with your dog in a sit or down, simply put your free hand under his muzzle and press his lower lip over a lower tooth. Praise when he opens his mouth slightly and remove the toy.