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When to praise in herding


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Although I use abundant praise in obedience training, I use a lot less in herding. This is chiefly because it seems that Bluey gets greater reward both from the satisfaction of his herding drive and from the "win" of moving the sheep. I also worry that, as I cannot judge exactly which stimuli he is responding to, poorly timed praise might confuse him.


However, I have been using praise when I ask him to do something contrary to his instincts (for example, driving the goats off-balance.) I think I should also use praise when he walks up on a "balky" goat (something he finds difficult), but I am not sure whether I should praise when he walks up, or when the balky goat responds by turning away from him. (I have been doing the latter.)


How do more experienced handlers use praise in herding training?

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Dear Wouldbe Sheepdoggers,


Ms. South of South wonders, "How do more experienced handlers use praise in herding training?"




Many, if not most, pet dog trainers wildly overuse praise. They devalue their currency. At a famous trainer's gathering I'd string tied June to a bench while the trainer's apprentice and I went inside for coffee. When we came out, June was lying quietly and the apprentice started in with the "Good dog, oh what a good dog" babble. I asked why she was praising June for doing what she was supposed to do?


Praise can be and often is more about power than conveying information:


The policeman gives you a ticket. Do you say, "Good job, policeman. What a good policeman you are?"


The Pharmacist fills your prescription. Do you say, "What a good pharmacist. You didn't mix in any wrong pills!"?"


And forget about, "Oh you paid the bills again this month. What an excellent wife!"


To the sheepdog, the novice's effusive praise means: "My opinion of you is so important you should set aside the difficult task you are performing to attend to my opinion. Your work is less important than my opinion of it."


Jack Knox likes to say, "Allow the right, correct the wrong." While I can't roll my 'r's like Jack, his mantra is a pretty starting point.


Praise is appropriate at the exact instant when the inexperienced dog "Gets It": viz: He takes a few steps on the drive. But be careful: your praise may interrupt his driving and timing must be exact. You don't want to be praising after your apprentice driver has broke to the head.


Praise is also useful to reassure a dog: viz: facing a tough ram, holding hard pressure on the crossdrive. Your dog will tell you when he's in trouble; help him out.


Derek Scrimageuer suggests we use three tones of voice: plain for commands, slightly harsher for corrections: Trans "You'd BETTER take that flank!" and happier when the dog is doing well, Trans: "You've got them now sweetie, keep it up!"


I'm not subtle enough to do that but I can interweave (occasional) reassuring praise with commands. "Way whistle, way whistle, good girl, bye whistle etc."


After the dog is done working you can make as much a fool of yourself as you want.


Donald McCaig

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Pretty much what Mr McC said! :D


To that I'll add, with my Nick, driving was a chore for him to learn, so I'd sometimes throw a "Good boy!" in over my whistle, when he was nicely doing something that I knew was contrary to his instincts and hard for his doggie brain. But ... as Mr McCaig cautioned, I use it sparingly, and I'm wary of saying anything at a moment that might break my dog's concentration. I think your instincts are good in praising him the moment the balky goat turns from your dog, but I'd keep it very brief, just one word.


When we're done with a run, then I praise him to the skies and tell him how wonderful he is - but usually all Nick wants is a tub of water and a post to pee on. :P


In summary, I'll use sparing praise when he's doing something I know is difficult and/or stressful for him, but I'm cautious of interrupting his focus. I also follow Derek Scrimgeour's idea of using a pleased/happy voice when my dog is right. A light, happy "Go bye!" tells my dog s/he has it right, as opposed to a gruffer tone that says, "Hey, you do this now!"


Hope this helps!


~ Gloria

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Thanks for your advice - I guess it parallels my experiences with tracking and scent-work, where I want my dog to use his own judgement, but it is extremely useful to read discussion in the herding context.


May I ask some questions about occasions for happy or light commands? I tend to remain silent if Bluey is working well, and only use commands when redirecting him or if he has not responded quickly or strongly enough to the redirection. As my redirections are usually prompted by some problem with positioning or direction, I give redirection in a neutral tone and reinforce it in a stronger tone. (I guess the exception to that is when I am asking him to drive the stock away from me, which I now do when we put the goats back in their paddock in the evening.)


Is it OK to remain silent, or should I be creating occasions for happy/light commands by reinforcing his current direction - for example by giving the clockwise command when he is already travelling clockwise? Should I be looking for additional opportunities to redirect him? Would the latter would provide an opportunity to teach him to work slightly off-balance and hence become an introduction to the cross-drive. Can the cross-drive be introduced in that way, or do you normally introduce the cross-drive as an extension of driving the stock away from you?)



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Dear Wouldbe Sheepdoggers,


It depends.


I make my living from words and years ago, when I started training sheepdogs, I thought words mattered as much to my dog as they do to me. Wrong.


When and how much to praise depends on who the dog is and who you are. Each handler has a presence. Some are BIG, some eentsy. As your skills increase, you can become BIG or eentsy as required. You will praise more or less depending on WHAT THE REST OF YOUR BODY IS SAYING. When an angry 250 pound male trainer is looming over his dog "Good dog" don't mean squat.


Soft dogs may need reassurance - however provided. Hard dogs will need some too.


The dynamic to concern oneself with isn't whether, under a particular hypothetical circumstance, one praises a little or a lot. The dynamic is pressure. Dogs feel pressure from the sheep, terrain, weather, other physical circumstances and the handler's presence, expectations and desires. The trainer manages physical pressure with a small ring, docile sheep, not training in an ice storm, etc. Managing training pressure is subtler and more difficult.


As a general rule, one applies pressure until the dog "gets it" and releases pressure when he does. Praise or an approving silence is only part of the equation.


Donald McCaig

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