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Timing and Time

Donald McCaig

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Dear Trainers,


On a pet dog training list, Jill Morstad asked a question I reprint here with her permission.


“With regard to the biddability, aptitude and breed characteristics of a

dog relative to their human partner, I have a question.


Do you think it's possible to teach timing?


That is, of course, a different question than 'is it possible to learn

timing?' or 'can a person improve their hand-eye coordination and

subsequently improve their timing?' and even different than asking

questions about 'reading a dog' and its relationship to timing.


I do think timing is something that can be learned.


But can it be taught? And if so, I'd love to hear stories, strategies

and/or techniques for how you teach it.”



Yesterday two students came to the farm. It didn’t go well. The sheep were too difficult, their dogs unready for outrunning 150 feet. Next week we’ll set up differently.


They are ideal sheepdog students. They train horses and humans for a living; they own a hundred ewes. Their dogs are out of good working stock (three of the four could become open dogs and the 4th loves her owner enough to overcome her inadequacies.) My students came to me without excess baggage: neither has ever been lectured on “the 4 quadrants”.


When a sheepdog is half a mile from your feet, timing commands is difficult. For starters, there’s a 2 second lag between uttering and the command reaching the dog’s ears. It will be faint of course, fainter if the dog is at a different elevation or if wind is blowing from dog to handler. There may be dead spots between dog and handler in which the dog can’t hear anything.


At 800 yards, three, four or five sheep are a glisten, a smudge, difficult to pick out from the sagebrush and since it is directly behind the sheep, the dog is invisible.


There are strategies to improve results: louder whistles, rewarding more independent dog work, grosser commands. (At three hundred yards on a calm day one might ask for tiny moves several times per second. At 800, one can ask for very big behavior every five seconds.)


That’s the goal. That’s where you want to get to: handling wild sheep at the great possible distances elegantly and efficiently.


Without a moment’s thought. If you think, you clutch.


How to get there with students and dogs who can’t send a dog two hundred feet without it turning into a three species circus?


I am no memoirist and my life has been unexceptional. Since my sheepdog biography is ordinary, it may encourage novices who are no more talented than I.


I was forty-two years old, farmer/writer, struggling to make the mortgage payments, arrogant and “wordy” (convinced that words could do more real work than they can). We’d owned sheep for five years; I did the grunt work, my wife Anne was the shepherd.


A friend meant to pick up a Border Collie pup at the Virginia State Fair and I hadn’t a birthday present for Anne. “Get me one too,” I said.


I didn’t know anybody who worked stockdogs and back then, there were maybe ten trials every year in North America, no handler’s organization, two tiny inefficient warring registries, no sheepdog magazines and the only book I found in the Sheepman’s Supply catalog was John Holmes “The Farmer’s Dog”.


Luckily Pip was clappy (readily downed), biddable (I trained his outrun WITHOUT SHEEP), hardheaded , and – ultimately - forgiving.


Remembering those days – what I knew, thought and thought I knew – I recall that when Pip was completely baffled by my illtimed opaque commands, he’d circle my legs, yelp and nip my calves.


But one afternoon, without my asking, Pip outran 300 yards gathered a hundred ewes and brought them to my feet. I’d never seen anything like it It was beautiful. So beautiful that next day I put Anne’s best replacement yearlings in a small field to show her what Pip could do. Oops. Those sheep hit the fence so hard it was wonder none broke their necks. I gratefully recall Anne’s courtesy – without one word, she walked back to the house.


A friend heard about a sheepdog trial nearby. I remember wondering why the handlers kept telling the dogs to lie down and the dogs didn’t lie down. Pip – now he’d LIE DOWN!!!!!


At the trial I heard about a sheepdog clinic and, some months later, arrived at Ethel Conrad’s farm where Jack Knox was instructing twenty of us wouldbe sheepdoggers.


When Pip, I, three Barbadoes sheep and Jack knox were in a fifty foot snow fence ring, there were too many creatures, moving too fast. BLUR/WHA?/BLUR.


Pip jumped over the snowfence and slipped under my VW and couldn’t be coaxed out. Actually, I thought Pip had a pretty good idea. I would have joined him if I could.


42 years old I was beginning a new life.


The Scots say it takes ten years and three dogs to make a sheepdog handler. Although Pip ran and even placed in open trials, it was ten years and two dogs later before i won my first.


So no, I don’t think timing can be taught. I think that what the dog and sheep are actually, in real time, DOING can be explained and –if the student is ready to hear - some explanations stick. My students – and their dogs – are much improved from when they first came. If I died tomorrow, they’d continue to get better without my help. They’re plugged into sheepdog culture and know other sources.


10,000 hours. That’s the famous estimate of the time required to achieve mastery. Plus – and this is as important – good mentoring. When I taught writing, I warned my students: Time is not compressible. If they wanted to write, they had to give something else up. For many, that was harder than developing writing skills.


10,000 hours.


I had no dog theories when I started and owned a flock of sheep. Good. I like to learn. Good. I’m opinioned. Bad. I can’t dance. Very bad.


I persisted because of that morning when Pip swept out and gathered those ewes and it was beautiful; because I wanted to do that again. I wanted to be part of that.


After yesterday’s not very good lesson at my farm, one student kept exclaiming about my Fly. She’d shed off fifteen training sheep from a 150 ewe flock and balanced them to me, despite their desperate attempts to break away, until I got a gate open. Yes, she was beautiful. My student saw something there he’d like to be part of.


Timing takes the time we devote because we cannot live without beauty.





Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.



Donald McCaig (with an assist from Mr. Keats)

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This is very interesting. But I guess in my limited way I need more info to understand this more. What exactly happened at the farm? When her students sent their dogs out what went on?


I am asking as a student.


I think in my own head that horses help a person understand pressure. But say if you picked one of the gentler horse sports it might not teach timing.




In three day there is a saying at the upper levels- If youhave time to think you are doing it wrong. That might sound backwards but it is true that you are working on making things instinctive when you run a horse like that.




Boy, I know I don't know alot about the dogs. But one thing that has really helped me is working sheep loose in our foraging programs. ( and rounding up other people's sheep to shear.) It is unforgiving of mistakes. But you have room to fix things when on unfenced land


So then when I trial, although right now I suck, I have begun to teach myself to react on instinct of what has happened at home, so I can see what will happen on the field. And of course watching the other handlers work.




Does this make any sense or should I go and write poetry now?

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You spend hours and days and it feels course, rough, just not quite right. And then out of nowhere you manage to get yourself in the right place, doing the right thing at the right moment and everything feels smooth, well-choreographed, and beautiful. And you smile (sometimes just inside and sometimes outwardly) and just like that it goes back to being rough. But for just that moment you were there, so you go on trying to get back to that place where you, your dog, and the sheep were perfect.


Timing needs to be felt. It's like helping young dogs feel the balance point. You can't teach them balance, you help them find it so they can feel it.

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I feel like if you want it bad enough, and have a reasonably accurate picture in your mind of what your end goal should look like you will find the timing, what I see often is people with poor timing either not wanting it bad enough or have no clear picture of what they plan on achieving.


I was just talking to someone about this, the comment I heard about training, "start where you want to end", basically have a clear understanding of what you are trying to build for. The struggle IMO, is with the understanding, understanding will lead us to the timing.

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Google operant learning and four quadrants and you can find all sorts of information. Here's a brief explanation I stole from one site:


In actuality, there are four "quadrants" used for learning.


  • Positive reinforcement - providing something enjoyable to increase the likelihood of the behavior

  • Negative reinforcement - taking something unpleasant away when the desired behavior is performed to increase the likelihood of the behavior in the future

  • Positive punishment - adding something unpleasant to decrease the likelihood of the behavior in the future

  • Negative punishment - removal of a good consequence when the behavior is performed to decrease the likelihood of the behavior



I believe what Donald was saying is that the people who came out for a lesson had no preconceived notions about dog training, especially those connected to operant conditioning.



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.... And then out of nowhere you manage to get yourself in the right place, doing the right thing at the right moment and everything feels smooth, well-choreographed, and beautiful. And you smile (sometimes just inside and sometimes outwardly) .....


Mark and Donald,

Your words are much more elegant, but what you describe reminds me of what is (somewhat inelegantly) described as "in the zone" -- a phrase used commonly in the athletic world. Think of a quarterback throwing 3 TDs in the 4th quarter or a basketball player scoring 58 points in a game. It seems to be a 'bubble' - for lack of a better term - where one's physical and mental capabilities meld for the (almost) perfect performance. It is almost like your mind can see all the potential possibilities and their resultant actions, you chose the correct one unerringly, and your body performs the precise action needed to effect the correct course of action. Some people have described being "in the zone" as a period when time slows down.


Sports psychologists use multiple techniques to try and help their clients achieve the "zone" state. I am not very well versed in sports psychology, but I do know that one technique commonly used is visualization.



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Mr. Donald writes "So no, I don’t think timing can be taught. I think that what the dog and sheep are actually, in real time, DOING can be explained and –if the student is ready to hear - some explanations stick."


I suppose I am still a "would be" as a sheepdog handler, but I have spent most of my life teaching. So from my experience of teaching for many ears, to all ages, and teaching a myriad of things, I would say that what you wrote in the second sentence is actually a very good definition of teaching. That's all a teacher can do: show an example, explain, ask the student to try. I know that's not what you asked about in your post, but I just wanted to write this comment on your saying that timing can't be taught.



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