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Pressure Points (long)

Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,



The first Sturgis Natrional Finals was held soon after 9/11 and trial hosts had decorated the field with patriotic symbols. The panels were vivid red, white and blue (Take THAT Osama Bin Laden!!).


Which created a problem for the sheep. Put yourself in their wool : here they'd been living quiet sheepy lives on some butte somewhere, been snatched up, loaded into large aluminum trailers (from which no sheep had ever returned} and plopped down in unfamiliar pens (“Where are we, Martha!!!”) until they and three others were taken by a mounted cowboy and a couple dogs and spotted for an unknown dog to suddenly appear and take AWAY!


“Where Martha?”

“I don’t know, dear. AWAY!”


Sheep are not particularly patriotic and balked at the vivid panels: “Whoa! What are those things. Martha!!!?”


“It’s what’s BEHIND them, we must worry about dear!”


And they did. The Sturgis sheep were extremely ‘panel shy”. With range sheep that isn’t unusual.


Last Friday, I visited my friend Margot Woods, a skilled traditional trainer in Laurel, Maryland http://applewoodsdogtraining.com/. My appearance was particularly welcome because last weekend Margot’s student's dog had been attacked by a Border Collie in the obedience ring and Fly is one of the malefactor breed.


Boris, the attacked yellow lab, nearly had his UDX (an advanced obedience title) and his Master Hunter title and was competing next weekend in Florida where, doubtless, there would be lots and lots of Border Collies who probably wouldn’t attack him but might well throw him off his stride.


Interestingly, Boris didn’t react to Fly at all when they met: “Ho, hum. Another dog.”


But when, at Margot’s instructions I sped Fly past Boris whilst he was doing obedience exercises (selecting the correct scent article), he avoided the Border Collie (and those articles).


When Boris was focused on his work, the sudden appearance of a nearby Border Collie disturbed him. Margot said he wasn’t reacting to Fly, he was reacting to a mental “profile”.


Some routine desensitization work and Boris stopped reacting and I wish him good luck in Florida.


Saturday morning was bitter and I joined my fellow sheepdogger/eskimos at Patrick Shannahan's sheepdog clinic. Fly isn’t competitive. Despite training changes and advice from better trainers Fly was running only slightly better this year than last: C minus competing against A and A plus teams. Although I hated giving up on Fly, being a farmdog and companion are honorable occupations and though Fly would hate it when I loaded the car and left for a trial without her, pressuring a mature dog to do what it simply cannot -whatever her flashes of occassional brilliance - is cruel.


Most potential Mozarts never get past chopsticks. If I hadn't learned how to reclaim a ruined dog, Fly had taught me a thing or two and she was much happier. mannerly and worldly than she'd been which is no small thing.


I didn't have any more strategies.


If you find a clinician who's "on your wave length" what he says about your dog or another's suggests fresh strategies. I'd attended one of Patrick's clinics 10/15 years ago and audited this year’s spring clinic to good effect.



Inbye (shed/pen/around the post) isn't our problem. Though we're not as quiet or precise as we need to be, that would come if outwork and drive were acceptable and the sheep arrived calmly at my feet. Outrun: okay and if she's tight she'll usually take a redirect. Lift: fine - unless she hits them too hard in which case, her fetch is toast. 8 year old dog reasoning: "Why should I run hard to turn them through a set of panels when they'll end up more-or-less at Donald's feet and I can make adjustments there?"


I understand her reasoning but can't afford to lose 18 points on the fetch nor teach the sheep that push-come-to-shove, Fly won't hold their pressure.


AND:We usually (yep, USUALLY) retire before the crossdrive panel where Fly heads them and brings them to my feet. Dogs that fail to put sheep through or past the drive panels have shortened their course - it's a form of cheating. Some judges will DQ you on the spot. Others simply deduct enough points to take you out. Half the drive points?


I thought our problem was Fly’s lack of confidence/the farther she was from me, the weaker our connection.


At the clinic, at the top, Patrick spotted a problem. My whistles were too harsh. I was Whistle/shouting at Fly. AHA! That’s why Fly responds so much better to voice. Might be – just might be quieter commands will hold her on the fetch????


The best sheepdog commands aspire to whisper. The quieter you can be with your dog and sheep, the better things go.


At a good clinic, listening to what the clinician says about another’s dog can provide insights into your own and Patrick’s discussion of another’s problems enlightened me.


Okay, you're a timid gyp who really/really wants to please Donald. Things might have gone badly on the fetch but they calm down around the post and on the drive. QUIET AND NICE. He's talking now, not whistling. But Fly knows perfectly well that at the panel, the sheep aren't going to want to go through that narrow passage, they’ll try to slip around one side or another and Donald will start whistling/calling "Away!Come bye!Come bye!! Lie Down!"


So many commands, so many commands, oh dear, oh dear, oh my!


So when Fly approaches the panel, she shuts down and only hears her genetics and fetches the sheep back to Donald’s feet.


Like those Sturgis sheep, Fly is (has learned to be) panel shy.


I'm imagining more intimidating panels (solid? Closer together?) close enough so I can insist and high praise when Fly puts them through? Might desensitize her? Might do?



Some months ago, in a different discussion, when somebody suggested that mama dogs do correct their pups, a kindly soul objected, (forgive my paraphrase): I’m not a Mama dog, I'm a human. She wouldn’t correct her dog – she’d train her dog with rewards she’d want if she were a human/dog.


Border Collies are genetically committed to partner us and unless our mistakes are egregious, they let us get away with them. Probably the person who won’t do ”doglike” corrections owns a dog that is mostly mannerly at home and on leash. Maybe the dog has learned to do some tricks. Suits her, suits me.


But when you ask a dog to push its limits, to do work which -however satisfying - is everything that dog can do and perhaps a bit more you must -no excuses now - quit your human understanding for the dog's understanding.


You've got to learn that some thoroughly trained obedience dogs may not react to non-threatening Border Collies (despite a recent attack) but be upset by that same dog when they’re working. Dogs do profile.


And that a timid Border Collie who desperately wants to please can learn that PRESSURE always happens at panels and if she quits and fetches the sheep back, Donald might not like it but the PRESSURE goes away.


Many years ago I asked Bill Crowe, a barber and horseman, why he trained and trialed sheepdogs.


“The sheer intellectual achievement of it,” Bill said,


Donald McCaig

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We had an interesting conversation this weekend with Michael gallagher; When people say their dog can't hear their whistles, he points out my husband, who mouth whistles, softly...and his dogs do what he wants at 400 yards. Im pretty sure Preacher and Spec aren't super hearers...just listeners


Perhaps all the shouting with whistles isn't teaching them to listen.


Thanks Donald, always an enjoyable read

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Many years ago I asked Bill Crowe, a barber and horseman, why he trained and trialed sheepdogs.

“The sheer intellectual achievement of it,” Bill said,


This! For me, this is the reason why I love my job. Why I am so desperately trying to learn more every day.

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