February 29, 2016

Farm working Dogs in New Zealand. 4. Basic Training.

  By Dr Clive Dalton
The pup
Pup at sale waiting for new boss
 Training methods are as variable as handlers and dogs.   But the basic principles are fairly straightforward.  How you apply them depends greatly on your nature, and the nature of the pup.  One thing all trainers agree on - there's no point wasting your time on a badly bred pup.  If it hasn't got the working genes - then forget it.

Pups start to work at different ages, but you would certainly expect to see some action by 6 months of age.  If a dog hadn't shown much interest by 9 months, you'd be getting concerned about the costs of keeping it.  It would have to be an especially good prospect based on its pedigree to keep it.  Check with the breeder incase the strain are late starters, before deciding what to do.  It may not be the pup – it could be you!  Talk to an experienced dog handler about your concern.

Be wary of pups that will be keen to take on full work by six months.  Don't let them, as they can so easily get hurt and scared.  This scare may put them off work for an extended period, or forever .

Key points collected from a wide range of handlers:
·      Voice tones, petting, touching and feeding are all valuable rewards for a dog.  Exploit them fully.

·      Don't over-stimulate or tease a pup, or let anyone else do this.

·      During a pup's early life, keep it fully occupied.  Never let it get bored or it will start such bad habits as barking, biting, work shyness and so.  Keep it stimulated – but not overstimulated.  Give a young pup a slipper or a bone as its own "treasure".

·      Keep it where it can see daily happenings.  Some trainers prefer a kennel to a run as it means they have to handle it each day to let it off and tie it up.

·      Teach a pup its name.  This is its alerting signal for life.  Always call it when you go to feed it.  When it wanders, call its name with a “come-here” command.  Use a word and add a whistle if you wish.  Give it a big welcome when it comes back to you.  Pet it and use its name as much as you can.

·      Get the pup used to wearing a light collar.  It's tight enough if you can slip one finger between it and the dog's neck.  When it accepts this, tie it up for a short period (about 30 minutes/day) on a short chain with a swivel in it.  Make sure it cannot slip the collar.  Don't use a rope, as it will learn to chew through it and escape.

·      Make sure going back to the kennel or being tied up is a happy and positive experience.  Be patient if the pup is reluctant.  Help it up or provide a step if needed.  Don't associate this with feeding, and don't lose your cool and boot it into the kennel.

Bonding time after exercise

·      Teach the pup to follow at heel on a lead (check cord about 4m long).  Here teach it the "heel" or "get-in" command. 

·      Teach it the "sit" command by stopping, pressing its hindquarters on the ground while lifting its head.  When done correctly - give plenty of praise.

·      Some trainers teach the "down" or "lie down" command, simply by stepping on the lead to pull its head down while pushing its back end flat.  When done correctly - give plenty of praise.  In New Zealand the “stand” command is preferred as the dog stays on its feet and is clearly seen by the sheep.

·      Teach the "stand" command.  It's probably the most important command - to get the dog to stop and do nothing.  Dogs that will not STOP on command cause so many problems with stock.

"Stand" is taught by either raising the pup from the "sit" position, with one hand on its head while the other lifts its belly.  Or you can stop as you walk along, go infront of the dog giving the command "stand" or "stand there".  With all these commands, use the pup's name all the time with positive reinforcement.

·      As well as the "stand" you may want to teach a "stay" or "stay there" command.  It's probably not necessary but can be useful.  A “stay” hand signal can be taught at the same time by holding your hand infront of the pup’s face as you give it.  Then walk away backwards saying “stay there Meg”.

"Stand" or "stay" can be very frustrating for a pup that has spent the last few months being in touch contact with you.   Now you are going to walk away and leaving it with no company.  Naturally it wants to follow to maintain the bond.  Be patient as you are moving to reinforce the bond visually from a distance.

·      One famous NZ trainer of working dogs and gun dogs used to teach these early commands on a stool (see other blog post) just big enough for the pup to stand or sit on.  Once taught how to climb up on the stool from one end, the pup was scared to jump off from such a height.  The trainer then taught it to "stay", and over time could move further and further away (in all directions) without the pup moving.  At any sign of stress, he went back to reassure the pup.
·      Now the "stand" command can be linked to the "come here" command, and the "sit" in any combination.  Don't keep the pup in any of these positions for long, and keep the total lessons short, no more than 10 minutes at time, maybe 2-3 times a day.

·      When giving pups commands there’s no need to shout and roar!  Dogs have very good hearing, and a raised voice should be kept for discipline - otherwise speak quietly.  If more discipline is warranted, then use the "shake-praise" trick.

·      A pat is adequate reward when training a pup.  Don't get involved with methods that rely on food.  It's not very practical and one day you'll forget the biscuits!

·      Don't train a pup by tying it to an older trained dog.  It's a great idea that doesn't work!  It’s sometimes used by some experts, but for specific problem solving.

House training
In nature a pup learns its hygiene habits from the bitch.  They normally keep the den clean and defaecate and urinate outside.  Build on this basic instinct when house training.

As soon as the pup wakes up, take it outside on to grass and praise it for performing.  Never punish it after an "accident".  Keep the pup in a small area in the house to make it realise that the area is its “den” where it will not naturally perform.  You can extend this area in time once it is performing outside.

The young keen dog

Keep it keen.   Once the dog is into regular light work, here are some general points:

·      Establish a regular daily routine and stick to it - unless the dog goes "sour" and won’t work when you’ll have to go back to the beginning.

·      Don't exhaust the dog - work it within its physical limits.  Work must be fun and enjoyed by the dog.  Don't work a dog when you’re feeling tired or in a bad mood.

·      Keep a regular routine of commands going, and keep checking proficiency.  This helps to strengthen the dog-handler bond.  You can put whistles to word commands at any time that suits.  Simply give the word command followed by the whistle or vice versa.  A good dog will learn very quickly.

Teaching Stop, and Start
Once you have the pup under control so it knows its name and will sit or stand, and then come to you, then let it show it's natural instinct with stock.   Now is time for some fun- just let it go in a small paddock with some quiet sheep that are used to dogs, and see what happens

The pup may be so keen that it will forget everything that it has learned so far.  Don't worry, it will soon pick these commands up again once it has steadied down. 

Some very successful trainers don't bother to teach a pup anything until it has started to work stock.  They have no problems putting the commands on the pup later.  The last thing you want to do at this stage is cramp the pup's natural instinct to work.  It doesn't matter if its work is a bit rough - just encourage it to keep going.  But keep an old dog handy to prevent or clean up any impending disasters - and incase the neighbours may be watching!

Fast heading pups are likely to get into more trouble than huntaways, which are usually more steady.  This early working instinct is to chase and go around stock.  Make sure the pup can catch whatever it sets out to chase.  Here an old dog is useful to help out and guarantee success.

You may need a little bit of encouragement to get the pup to go after stock, especially if you have overdone the initial commands.  Border shepherds use a "Sh-sh" sound to alert the pup and excite it to GO.  But seeing stock is often enough for a keen pup, but you might have to excite a late starter.  Any noise will do as long as it’s different to those already used.

Teaching directions
Here exploit the dog's circling instinct to the full.  Don't worry if it keeps going round and round stock at the start.  You can stop this by meeting the dog half way round the group, and sending it back in the other direction.  It's here where you can teach a "go away" command.

But "go away" is too simple a command, because you’ll inevitably want the dog to either "go right" or "go left" around stock, or "come right" or "come left" back to you.  Put these direction commands on the dog while it is at this circling stage with a small group of quiet sheep.  A signal with your arm or a stick is useful here too.

Commands to get the dog to go away from you (or cast) can be for example "get away" for circle right, or "get back" to circle left.  And then for commands to get the dog to come towards you could be "come away" for one direction or "come bye" for another.  Some dog handlers may just use "over" and "back".  Remember the dog doesn't speak English - it is responding to sound.

After sheep have been used for a week or so of dog training, they get sick of the whole business and won't go anywhere.  They seem to want to jump into the trainers’ arms to get away from the dog.  They become too friendly and need to be changed for sheep less man/dog friendly.

A good routine is to get the young dog to start by standing or sitting at your heel.  Then making sure it has seen the sheep, cast it on either the right or left hand to gather the sheep.   Keep sending it off on each side, as often they may prefer one particular side.

The sin of sins is for it to start off on the right cast and then half way there, change direction or "cross the head"!  To stop this habit starting, make sure in the early days that the dog cannot get across the head.  For example if you want to put some emphasis on one direction, get the sheep up against a fence so the dog can only go in that direction.

Then as competency builds, start casting the dog to gather, further and further away from the sheep.  Never send a young dog for sheep that may not be there - that could confuse the dog and cause problems later.

"Walk up" (the pull)
This is easy to teach once the dog has got it's circling and directions sorted out.  All you do is to walk away or walk backwards facing the dog with a "walk up" command.  When it comes too far round the mob, send it back.  Keep doing this until it is moving very short distances either side of a central line working the sheep.

Once it's got this right, speed up your walk so the mob starts to move quickly towards you and the dog experiences success in its pulling.  In trials the dog has to learn to keep to a fairly straight line in the pull, so this is the aim at this stage.  You don't want a lot of racing around making massive corrections to the direction of a mob.  It's not good for sheep or dog.

A wide lane or race is a good place to teach this skill.

This is a command to slow the dog down when things get intense.   It's used a lot in dog trials or close work when the dog gets close to sheep and panic is imminent.  It's a command often used to calm a dog in its work.  You don't want to stop the dog, but rather to slow down a bit.  It's like a touch on the foot brake instead of grabbing the hand brake.

The dog seems to learn it fairly fast, as it knows that if it bolts away after a "stop" it will get another stop!   I suspect keen dogs don't like continual stop commands so they soon learn to understand and appreciate a “steady” command, under which they can keep moving.  

Once the "steady" has been learned it can be used at any stage, whether the dog is running or walking towards stock.  It's certainly a very handy command to have in the collection.

The drive
Driving sheep away from you is the “walk up” action in reverse.  So teach this after the walk-up had been learned.  Doing it in a race is ideal where it's easy to check any excess heading moves by the dog.  Keep calling it back to you if it gets too far on the wings of the mob.

Switching the huntaway bark On and Off
Huntaways usually have a strong instinct to bark.  All you need to get a pup to bark is excite it when among stock.  Clap your hands and when it barks give a "speak up" command, and an appropriate whistle.  Make the whistle command simple and easy to perform, as you'll be using it a lot.  Giving plenty of reward for success is vital.

An occasional well-bred pup fails to bark and this can be very frustrating.  About all you can do is to get it excited among other barking huntaways wait for the magic sound to appear.  When it does, praise like mad.  Trying to stimulate the dog by barking yourself is not very effective, and makes your work mates wonder about you!  If a Huntaway doesn’t bark naturally, seek help from the breeder or an experienced dog handler.

Barking should have an off switch too.  It can drive you mad in sheep yards, when doing jobs that require concentration if dogs will not shut up.  They need to be taught a "shut up" command or the stop work command below.

"Stop work" command
This is the most important command of the whole collection!  More stock have been run to exhaustion, shepherds blown their heart valves and guaranteed an appointment with your maker.  So many dogs have been beaten to within a whisker of their lives by failure to get this command to work.  Get the command properly understood before you risk a day with stock in open country.

The command can vary from a "that'll do" to "way leggo" or whatever you like.  Most dogs will learn this quickly if given with a firm voice with the threat of a reprimand.  But hard keen dogs may need extra tuition to get the message through.

Walking away while giving the command sometimes helps a young dog, giving it the message that you are going home, so it should think about doing the same.

"Get outside"
This is a very useful command as often you want a dog to get out of the pen or yard or wherever it happens to be.  It's another way of saying, "the job is over so remove yourself".  Often if the dog stays where it is, problems will occur.

A dog will soon learn this if physically removed giving the command.  If dog is slow to learn, chase it out while giving the command, or again the shock of a nearby stone hitting a solid object nearby will help defiant or over-keen dogs to remember.

Precision control

Training dogs for high performance dog trials demands a lot more control than described above.  Trainers of top huntaways teach their dogs directions and to "face up" or always look at the stock.  They do this by driving them in a harness like a horse.

Some trainers may use a swinging arm device pivoted on a central post.  The dog is on one end and the trainer on the other.  When the trainer moves in one direction the dog is pushed in the opposite. But for most farm dogs, basic control can be taught without this.

If problems arise in any aspect of the training described above, then seek help from any experienced handler.   But seek help early as bad habits get ingrained and may be hard to shift.

Steadying a young keen dog
Some dogs are so keen and fast when young, that it's a very hard job to slow them down.  An old trick is to put the dog's front foot through its collar, making sure there's plenty of room, and it is not strangled or the foot damaged.  The dog will be made to run on three legs only as a temporary measure.  Please note it should be temporary.

This may seem inhumane, but it's kinder than having to reprimand a dog severely when it has got into trouble through over-keenness that you could not control.  It's often only necessary to tie a leg up for a short while till the dog steadies down.   Smart dogs soon learn to run on three legs and you may have to change the leg in the collar to regain control!

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