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Useful Praise

Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,


A couple years back I was at a dog trainer’s camp where an intern escorted me to the conference center for a cup of coffee. I tied June to a water pipe outside. When we came out after an hour, June was lying quietly and the intern enthused, “Oh Good Dog! What a Good Dog!”


“Why are you praising her for doing what she ought?” I asked.


Johnny Wilson’s Peg was his daily companion shepherding the Scottish hills and in the summer, once the lambs were weaned, he took her sheepdog trialing where she ran twice, very well in the International. Johnny wasn’t a demonstrative man and never gave Peg a pat when she came off the course and one day, the boys in the beer tent were ragging him about it. “Oh, that Johnny – he’s so hard!”


Johnny replied, quietly, “What makes you think Peg doesn’t ken what I think of her?”


My standard practice: informational praise for young dogs in the small ring. Afterwards rare verbal praise (when a dog is faltering) but most praise (and correction) in tone of voice and whistle.


The chirping continual praise I’ve heard at (some) training facilities makes me pity the poor dogs who are asked to make sense of what amounts to well meaning, intrusive babble.


Not uncommonly, when a student takes his/her dog into my sheepdog training ring I tell them, “Don’t say a word.” If they babble I repeat the instruction briskly.


But . . .


Fly is the most fearful and worse socialized Sheepdog I’ve ever owned. She was afraid of trials, people, Anne, other dogs, sheep and her own genius.


One at a time, patiently and persistently, I’ve helped her through some of her fears. Others – her inability to read other dogs and behave appropriately – I never will. Fortunately, saner dogs read Fly like, “Oh, there’s the Retard,” and give her slack.


She is a splendid farm dog but at trials, her anxieties overwhelm her and she loses her wits. Specifically: she won’t take a down and rarely takes a flank on the fetch (“THEY'RE GETTING AWAY!!!) and at difficult drive panels she reacts to my necessary blizzard of commands by rounding them up and fetching them to my feet.


Corrections drive her further into her mental funk. Knowing she’s been wrong feeds her panic: WHATEVER I DO IS WRONG SO WHY NOT BRING THEM TO DONALD’S FEET.WE”LL SORT IT OUT THERE!!!


The connection between a dog’s home and work life is subtle. Everyone’s seen the novice handler who goes to the post with his/her much loved pal expecting that the dog’s reciprocal affection will make up for training lacks. Too often I’ve seen stunned novice handler, dog running amok and the cartoon balloon over the novice’s head would read, “But I thought you loved me.”


Provided they’ve been properly nurtured, trial sheepdogs can perform brilliantly without human contact other than training, exercise, work and trialing. Indeed, a strong argument can be – and sometimes is – made that by kenneling them, they’re spared all that household/family sturm und drang they don’t need to be part of.


In Fly’s case, I’m convinced that her off-the trial field successes have made her more confident on it and retiring her without animus at trial after trial has taught her that sheepdog trials are fun, Fly-safe occasions.


So: How to get her to release pressure , to down when she fears she won’t be able to handle sheep and how to teach her to keep her wits at the over-lapping, split second“Away! Away! Come! Down! Come Bye! Away! at drive and crossdrive panels.


Because once she loses it, it’s gone. She doesn’t bounce back, she quits.


We’ve got a dozen Old Sentimentals to train on so I set up panels with a 15 foot opening on a hill where there’d be space for a short gather and fetch or drive through the panels. Work was deliberately difficult but I’d be near and Fly is reassured by my presence (Her inbye work has always been good).


I wanted: a down whatever the sheep were doing and whether the down made sense to Fly and I wanted her to take the Command Blizzard at the panel which were narrower than trial panels with more sheep to put through them.


Fly said she’d give it a try. Can Old Donald learn new tricks?


Most days this month we trained. I praised Fly every time the sheep got through the panel and said nothing when they missed. Fly got praised for every off-her-feet down.


It seems to be working. She downs more readily, the whistle blizzard doesn’t throw her off her stride and the other day, when she ran out half a mile to gather sheep that weren’t there, she took a stop and recall.


So far we’ve worked on Fly’s home farm, familiar (if awful) old sheep and working (mostly) no further than a couple hundred yards. Fairly low pressure. Once the ice leaves I’ll take her to a friend's farm and see how much of her learning sticks and translates.


I am using praise much more extensively than my custom. With Fly, that seems to be useful.


Donald McCaig

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Thank you for the informational read.


It's difficult sometimes to find the right balance. My Jack tends to regard "good" or "good boy" as an invitation to slice in. He becomes excited of he hears praise, so my reward is sometimes to let him bring me his sheep. But sometimes that's not what I'm after.

I haven't figured out how to let him know I'm happy with his pace or his line except to be absolutely silent.

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I believe Donald has said in earlier posts that he doesn't want to replace Fly and he wants to trial, so he's trying to work through her issues so that at some point they can both find trialing enjoyable. I'm sure Donald can expand on that, but that's my understanding of the situation.



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The founders of Grey Coat School in Westminster, established 1698, departing from Calvinist tradition, urged a progressive attitude toward boys/girls education:


The master shall study and endeavor to win the love and affection of the children, thereby to invite and encourage them rather than by correction to force them to learne, reason as well as experience having plainly showne that too great severity does rather dull than sharpen the wit and memory.


Grey Coat was for working class and poor families. Children enrolled at the age of eight and typically graduated at fourteen. They learned the catechism, math, reading, writing and seamanship. Students were provided free-time on school holidays to explore the town, Westminster Abbey, and pre-Dickensonian London. At graduation they were apprenticed among various trades/crafts.


This little charity school produced one of the greatest land cartographers the world has ever known. See "The Mapmakers Eye", Jack Nisbet, WSU Press (2005). With energy and skill, as a member of the fur trading companies and in a short time period, he explored and accurately charted the NW of what is now the US and parts of Canada. By virtue of sheer drive and education (and good fortune) he climbed toward the top of Northwest Company's hierarchy. David Thompson, who graduated Grey Coat School 1784 and died penniless 1857 nearly forgotten, is slowly obtaining the fame he deserves.


I have thought highly of Thompson for some time, and only yesterday read Grey Coat's philosophy, quoted above. I wondered, at the time, whether more "encouragement" from me could develop a Thompson-like sheepdog ;) . It has worked nicely in others areas of Josie's life, making her my number one. With a nudge from Mr. McCaig, believe I'm going to give it a try, as well. Best wishes to Fly. -- Thank you, TEC

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Sweep the Broom is hard to trial but a most useful dog at home, especially for a farmer that day dreams on the job.

We have plenty of challenges at home...our own sheep work foraging loose.


Gathering cattle


And the big brush control work now with a large flock of Spanish goats. First time I've sent a dog straight up a clift face was last fall. 'Sweep...Sweep....Loook.....shhhhhhh' ( How could I tell him how?)


So I thought of the question directed at Sheepdogging Geezer


And wondered at my own reasons?


Why do I trial.......


In my work there is great peace and quiet understanding.


but the trials have taught me how to train my dogs


They did this because of the precision needed.....the more arrow target understanding at a great distance.



I was at dirt blowing trial


my second open run.


The sheep were so far....so far



and I sent him....to see him run.

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Thanks again, Donald, for another insightful, touching post.


I think Fly will need her own book, and the posts you've placed on here about your journey together will make an essential part of it. If you write it, I will be sure to sell it at the Bluegrass if you'd like.

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I think "ole" Donald is learning new tricks just fine. ;)


Your willingness to try new things with your Fly to make live better for your two is so neat to watch.


Sue, if he does, I will be your first client please!

And by new, I mean unusual to their relationship. Others may get the "duh" going because they have "known" it all along. Well cookies for them! But any handlers brain that continues to not just shut down in the past and present, but will seek for better ways in the future, that makes me smile.

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