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Hello to everyone, looking for as much feedback or opinions on what you think constitutes mechanical training as well as handling. This is brought about by a recent disagreement with a friend and it made me realize that my definition of 'mechanical' must be very different from hers. Hope this generates much conversation and the sharing of ideas.

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My definition of "mechanical" is when a dog is trained to the point that the dog simply does only what it is told to do rather than working off a combination of instinct and commands (when necessary to accomplish a goal). A person can take out of a dog so much of the natural process that the dog is not capable of proceeding utilizing its natural instinct. Commands should be to guide the instinct, not supplant it.

 

This is not the same as a dog with a lot of talent who, in the trial field for instance, is guided by a lot of commands - those commands have a purpose, like keeping the sheep on a straight line which might be an abstraction that the dog does not understand (and then there are "line" dogs that are very good at maintaining a straight line once they and their stock are on it). I think that avoiding a "mechanical" dog may have been one reason why an overabundance of commands on the trial field used to cause a loss of points, at least under judges who respected dogs that could work with a minimum of command (and a lot of high-class instinct) but I don't believe most judges point for over-commanding any more.

 

A dog that lacks instinct but is very biddable and working off total obedience can be trained to a high level of "mechanical" work so that it might appear to have natural talent but is only told where to go and what to do. I have seen one Aussie that I felt worked like this. He had instinct but it seemed the commands were what was driving his work more than his own thought process and instinct, with just guidance from his handler.

 

That's my pretty novice opinion and I'm hoping the good Open handlers here will contribute their much more experienced opinions.

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Sue's definition pretty much matches mine. I know some top handlers who seem to micro-manage their dogs around a trial course but that's often what wins trials - complete obedience at all times. It's not how I want to handle my dogs, nor do I ever imagine I'd have the skills to do that! :) But intensive trial handling is not the same as what I regard as "mechanical" training.

To be honest, I can't think of anyone in my corner of the USBCHA world that I regard as a mechanical handler. Of course I don't know how most people train, since I don't see them at home, but those who handle intensively seem to do so well enough without shutting down their dog's independence or natural ability.

However, I *have* seen very mechanical handling in the arena trial world. I imagine that often this is because the dogs are not bred to have a lot of natural instinct, so that's what it takes to get around an ASCA or AHBA course. But I do not want a dog who's not fully capable of making his own decisions at any given time. As I see it, my dog has several hundred years of sheep-working instinct behind him. I do not. Therefore I want to bring as much of his natural ability out as possible, because I'm not clever enough to think for myself AND my dog every step of the way. :P

~ Gloria

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I think there's a lot more mechanical training out there than some may think. You can find examples on YouTube and from well-known handlers. One example: the dog is fetching to the handler in a training situation and a sheep breaks off to one side and the dog does nothing until the handler gives it a flank whistle to cover. If I were charitable, I'd say the handler is just quicker to handle the situation than the dog was, but I would want the dog to automatically cover without me having to tell it to do so and I think the dog has been taught to wait for instruction from the handler (deliberately or not <-- this latter being perhaps the result of a handler pushing the dog to a certain trial level as quickly as possible and so taking away the dog's initiative in order to control the situation).

 

Another example that I see a lot at set out is the dog who gets to the top and then waits to be told what to do. The dog literally leans around the sheep to look down the field, waiting for a command from the handler. The gather should be natural in these dogs; no dog should stop at the top and wait to be told what to do. For me, this is another example of a likely mechanically trained dog.

 

That's just a couple of examples, but I think they illustrate dogs that have been trained mechanically. The dog no longer easily thinks or reacts for itself but instead waits for the handler to tell it what to do. I don't think this is only the province of the AKC/arena trial world. I've worked with too many dogs who have been trained that way to believe that.

 

J.

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I will admit that I have a mechanical dog. He has some ability (he is a good outrunner) but he has little eye and no feel for his sheep. I run him stop-and-flank as that is the only way to run him. I have been advised by some peeps that I should "let him have his sheep" but what people don't realize is that every time the sheep react to them (and boy do they react!), he gets a buzz out of it. It is not the way I would want to run a dog, but for Rex, that is the only way to get him around a course (yes, he is a trial dog, not a real work dog). He is not a very competitive Open dog, but he has made it around at the Bluegrass, at Grass Creek, and the Western Canadians, stopping and flanking his little heart out.

 

Can he do a silent gather? Depends on the sheep. He can be trusted to run out and lift, but if the sheep run on the fetch, then it will be a wreck. So to summarize: my name is Kristi, and I train and run a mechanical dog. :)

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I have a dog, now retired, who is very similar to Rex. Quite loose-eyed and little to no feel. Also very pushy and probably just a tad scared of the sheep. His good points were he was biddable, athletic, and had an engine that never stops.

When I ran him, I had to be pretty mechanical--and I wasn't really good enough to do that so it was just generally not fun for anyone. His lift had to be managed both because he didn't have a strong feel for the balance point and he lifted hard on his own. Many of the dogs off the same sire had similar issues--particularly the males.

I retired him early. Knowing more now than I did then (thanks to having bought a trained dog and learning a lot from him), I wish I could have a do-over with him. I think I could have helped him develop the little feel he had if I'd not been such a basket case myself.

He's now happy as a clam being a biscuit eater and walking buddy.

Mechanical to me means pretty much exactly what Sue describes.

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Dear Doggers,

 

This is a perpetual question - and a good one because some will emphasize bidability in their breeding and some "natural" talent (which is less easy to spot but certainly includes a wide natural outrun, plenty of power (maybe too much) and the dog's ability to think for itself in less familiar situations.

 

Some Big Hats are control freaks, others come down for the natural dog. I have seen famous sheepdogs that could not do a silent gather and any number of "natural" dogs who couldn't keep their sheep on the course. If a Big Hat's dog doesn't suit his/her handling method, he/she'll get one that will. Many of us are stuck with the ones we have. The biddable dog needs work/training that encourages it to think for itself. It may need to be cranked up a little. The natural dog needs brakes and steering: drill.

 

We often hear talk about "the relationship between handler and dog" but that doesn't build because you watch TV together or feed natural or Luv it to Death! That relationship is a work relationship and builds on the training field and routine stockwork. A good coach will tell you what type you have at the first session and - unless you can sell the wrong type and move on you'll have to adapt yourself and your methods to the dog you have.

 

Love the one you're with.

 

Donald McCaig

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I like this discussion. I think there is a fine line between "mechanical" and "biddable" and that it would be difficult to tell only by watching a dog at a trial. Trialing can be a different kind of work than farm work; (most times) you really need maximal precision and finesse. For example, there are a lot of trials on dogged sheep on their home ground, where the top 20% of runs all score in the 90s. In that instance, the team needs to be spot on the whole way around the course, because a wide turn at a panel or a bobble on the drive will put you out of competition. So, there's a good chance there will be lots of whistles, and in that case, the mechanical dog and the biddable dog will appear the same. But, take those same dogs and run them out 600+ yards on un-dogged sheep over rough terrain and you would probably see the difference. The mechanical dog, who has had the natural taken out of it, wouldn't be able to handle the sheep as well as the biddable dog, who, in the absence of handler input, still has his instinct intact and consequently has control of his sheep.

 

Or, take these dogs to a farm and do practical work with them: the biddable dog will understand the job and be able to work independently and be responsible for himself. The mechanical dog will rely on handler input, which is a real PITA when the handler needs to concentrate on tasks like vaccinating or record-keeping.

 

Or, see how the dog works in novice hands. The fully-trained mechanical dog may have runs that fall apart on the trial field when it is sold/re-homed to a novice handler. The biddable dog would at least keep control of the situation, even if the score wasn't a winner.

 

The word "mechanical" seems to have negative connotations. Do you think this is because it implies that the dog couldn't work well for itself? Sort of like the "other breed" venues? I think for properly bred border collies, it has a lot to do with how it was trained and maybe less with the dog's natural talent. To make things more complicated, there are dogs like my Livy: she has lots of natural talent but actually prefers to be mechanical. She is a bit of a worrier and is very concerned with making me happy. It's not my preference to work her mechanically, but we compromise in that regard because it makes her much happier. For her, when she is left to work on her own she is very capable, but she simply doesn't prefer that. As Donald said, "love the one you're with"...and that's my approach, as well I like to be open-minded with my training and handling, but my thought is that mechanical trainers are more "my way or the highway." For the sake of keeping the breed useful, I think we should try to move away from mechanical training. But if the trials reward that, there will always be those people who continue to train this way and breed for dogs who can take to this type of training. My opinion is that's dangerous for working border collies who, as a breed, are needed by livestock producers to do "the real thing."

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In a perfect world, the gather should rely mostly on the dogs natural ability with some guidance from the handler. However, once the drive begins, the handler should take over as the leader and ensure that the dog is in the correct position. I believe that the shed and pen should consist of a 50/50 dog handler team. Depending on the sheep, the pen and shed may require a great deal of natural ability but the handler must do his part and keep things under control. All this being said, at any point during a run you may rely on the dog's natural ability to keep things under control or your ability as a handler to keep your dog under control. I think a truly mechanical dog is one that has difficulty in tough situations when the handler cannot help. A successful farm or trial dog is strong confident and biddable. A dog like this will rarely loose difficult sheep on a trial field. You may get called off for other reasons (such as a grip), but he will almost always keep the sheep on course. I have witnessed this first hand at many trials when working fresh range sheep or even a sour farm flock. Some dogs simply loose the sheep during their run and the sheep run to the exhaust. A natural worker should not allow this to happen.

 

Now I am going to contradict myself. The type of dog mentioned above may or may not be mechanical. He could be a little weak or just lack confidence. To add fuel to the fire, the handler may have caused some of this by over handling the dog on a daily basis. The handler may have caused it by not putting him in the correct position to deter the sheep from trying to run off in the first place which also causes the dog to loose confidence. I don't believe that truly mechanical dogs are born. I think they are made. Even a mechanical dog must have presence to move livestock. That's the reason that a border collie excels in stock work they have a natural ability to control and move livestock.

 

In summary, all of our dogs are prone to becoming mechanical if we do not train and handle them correctly. Perhaps we can allow more freedom when working at home with the needed checks in place to ensure that they are still obedient to our commands. Create situations where the sheep are trying to get away and develop the dogs ability to hold sheep. Running a trial course at home can be detrimental. Save your high scores for the trial field and focus on problem areas at home. I'm not a professional horse trainer (or dog trainer). but I have tried to learn from many different horseman in years past. A common thread is the statement to save your best run for the show. Prepare at home but don't show at home. I think this mindset will help keep our dogs from becoming mechanical dull workers if we apply it.

As I ramble on, I keep thinking that I need to practice what I preach. So I' going to go now and try to think about these things when I work dogs this afternoon.

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I like this discussion. I think there is a fine line between "mechanical" and "biddable" and that it would be difficult to tell only by watching a dog at a trial. .......To make things more complicated, there are dogs like my Livy: she has lots of natural talent but actually prefers to be mechanical. She is a bit of a worrier and is very concerned with making me happy. It's not my preference to work her mechanically, but we compromise in that regard because it makes her much happier. For her, when she is left to work on her own she is very capable, but she simply doesn't prefer that. As Donald said, "love the one you're with"...

 

I have one like that too. She prefers to know she's right and be told what to do, but when I leave her alone she does have the skills to handle it herself (after an initial period of confusion when the input stops). It gets way too easy to fall into the trap of just always telling he what to do at a trial. Sometimes not providing enough input leads to what Julie mentioned - dog looking around the sheep for input from the handler. We do work a lot on 'figure it out yourself' but at a new place on strange sheep she still seems happier to have help from me - maybe a confidence thing or just the dog's temperament. I think that's different from a trainer who forces their will on the dog and corrects it for thinking for itself to the point where it stops using it's brain.

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