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Recollection (long)

Donald McCaig

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Dear Sheepdoggers,


When I was beginning my long journey with sheepdogs, I met a nice Maryland Couple and their beloved Nonny at a Jack Knox clinic. As novices they didn’t know how to train her so they sent her to Bruce Fogt and after three or four months drove to Ohio to pick her up. They were delighted with Nonny’s abilities and discipline but by the next clinic, Nonny was still beloved but not much of a sheepdog.


In his old age, J.M. had a serious car accident and needed a walker. Two years after he’d trained and sold Glen, he met her dissatisfied owner at a trial, “That dog you sold me isn’t worth a damn?”

“What’s his whistles?”

The owner tootled.

“Just so.” JM walkered to the post with Glen and running a dog he hadn’t seen in two years won the trial.


As good empiricists/positivists, we think we know what happened here because we think we understand canine epistemology – surely we know how dogs learn.

“Aha,” we say. “Nonny and Glen had the necessary mental habits (from Training) in their heads but when novices tried to use those habits, the novice’s commands were so illtimed and contradictory, the dog began ignoring the commands and soon enough, it was as if the dog hadn’t been trained at all.”


Unfortunately our simple explanation rests on discredited learning theory: ie that dogs are a blank slate with simple appetites (play, food, need for affection) and can be trained to acquire simple rewards by behaviors (simple at first later combined to produce complex behaviors) and after much reinforcement the rewards can be reduced and/or replaced by cues (ringing of a bell/clicker/etc).because the reward-seeking behaviors are now habitual. This habit “knowledge” is context neutral (the dog recalls wherever it is and whatever it's doing) and though this “knowledge” can be overwritten or corrupted by later “knowledge” or too much miscuing and it can fade from disuse, the dog’s “knowledge”is independent of its human partner. “Sit” is “Sit” whoever issues the command.


Plato believed that humans already know everything important from prior lives and the teacher’s task was to dispel shadows/illusions to elicit that knowledge. Plato’s theory of Amamnesis is often translated as “Recollection”.


Which is not all that unlike what sheepdog trainers believe.


Years ago, we sold a pup from our very first litter to a neighbor. He was a decent fellow and knew our dogs. We told him in great detail what he had to do to have a good relationship with Molly. After Molly grew up and we took her back because Molly’s owner could not keep her from chasing other farmers’ cows, he said, “I thought you put that stuff in there. I didn’t know it was in there whether you wanted it or not.”


Or, as sheepdogger Tony Illey put it, "It's all there in that little brain box. It's our job to get it out."


To oversimplify: many pet dog trainers see their task as installing mental (sometimes physical) habits whereas sheepdoggers guide genetic expressions.


The well bred sheepdog possesses genetic "knowledge" and it's the trainer's job to help the dog “recollect” it.. Wrongly expressed, sheepdog genetics can cause trouble: chasing the neighbor’s cows, cars, kids, etc. Rightly expressed, you’ve a living, working, happy, mannerly, genetic masterpiece.


Bev Lambert is one of the best sheepdog handler/trainers in North America. A retired librarian Bev’s as thoughtful as she is competitive. When she announces over the runs at the Kingston trial, many open handlers abandon the handlers’ tent to sit in the spectator bleachers and learn from Bev’s analysis.


Bev overnighted with us on her way to the Texas Trials and we talked about Fly.


Bev sold Fly because Fly was biting her husband Doug (“We had to watch her all the time”) and because Fly’s outruns were awful. “She was a Scottish Hill dog. How can a hill dog not have an outrun?”


When she came to me, Fly bit (rather more than she had for Beverly) but Fly had a scottish hill dog’s outrun. Her outrun was never a problem.


That spring after Beverly sold her to me, Bev saw Fly’s Bluegrass run.. “Her outwork was fine but she fell apart on the drive.”


Fly’s drive was my problem. It had never been a problem for Beverly.


Bev told me she’s seen this before – that a dog sold for one problem will develop an altogether different problem with its new handler.


Now that’s puzzling.


Can't be a handler problem. While I’m not the handler Beverly is, we simply don’t handle that differently. Most of Beverly’s dogs have fine outruns, I’ve never had a dog with drive problems like Fly’s.


And it can’t be the dog because Fly does know how to outrun and drive.


So how and why does Bad Outrun/Good Drive become Good Outrun/Bad Drive?


The first answer that suggests itself is “compulsion played in another key”. The reformed smoker chews gum, the drinker takes up drugs. But Outrun and Drive are very different, Outrun’s primarily genetic (no surprise when untrained 8 year old Peg ran out and (inelegantly) fetched our sheep.) The Drive is genetic secondarily – while driving can’t be done without the sheepdog’s genetic biddability driving must be trained. Few sheepdogs drive without training.


Displaced compulsion doesn’t make sense here. Outrun and Drive are too unlike. Reformed drunks don’t turn to cat hoarding.


Fly’s failure isn’t explained by blank slate theory or recollection - nurture or nature if you will.



Perhaps Fly’s failure lies in the complex, elastic, tenuous bond between dog and handler. Different handler bond = different problems.


That uninformative explanation is the best I can come up with.


Perhaps you have a better one.


Donald McCaig

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The reformed drug abuser sometimes reverts back to old familiar habits when stressed. I've tried to keep-up on Fly's adventure, therefore believe yours may be her third home. Simply being handed about has to create insecurities that may not be easily overcome by welcoming sensitivity on your part. Fly may be exhibiting previously unseen anxiety when she, for instance, in mid-drive resorts to the sheepdog's default of fetching. I suppose that line of thinking is just more gloss on your proposed working theory. Perhaps praise, which you mentioned in another thread, would go toward fixing it.


Small differences in two outstanding handling styles may account, as well, for the observed change. Correct me if I don't recall accurately, but believe you previously indicated that you try to allow the dog a good deal of latitude, using few commands. That too is my goal, so I have a bias in that direction. Am I over-generalizing to say that the outrun and lift should require few, if any commands, while frequently the drive & fetch demand more guidance from the handler? Could it be that Bev and/or Fly's first owner tended to use liberal outwork/drive commands (or differently tempered commands?), and she is now reacting to some hole, so to speak, in her drive handling? If so, perhaps her outrun has improved for you due to, for example, an overall decrease of handler cues in all phases of outwork/drive, while her drive has deteriorated for the same reason. If not exactly a command issue, I think that two fine handlers can have enough subtle differences of style (therefore hard to perceive) to confuse or stress a dog. A blue square peg, in practice, may not always be content in the red square hole of the same size. I think context is important; is for my dog. If that be the case, Fly may need more time to adjust to your style.


The above are mere educated guesses, offered as different perspectives, and not necessarily better ones. For instance, they would be incorrect (among other possible reasons) if Fly has already completely settled into your new home, having no residual insecurities, and if previous owners handled in a similar manner in all relevant respects. I have attempted to not stray into areas of explanation that you have already ruled-out. Let me know otherwise.


I'm interested to read others' ideas. Hope your question was not primarily rhetorical. My dog has difficulty on the drive, but I've had her since a pup. That's a different problem (albeit improving) and our current focus.


I believe your suggestion of praise/encouragement when Fly is right may go a long way toward solidifying her drive. McCaig, you are going to figure-out this one, if not with Greek meta-learning theory and human psychology, some other field of study :) . You have posed an intriguing question. -- Best wishes, TEC

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