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 The Development of a Sheepdog

I picked Febraury 3 as Freeway's birthday, so that make him 3 years old today. He has been with me 18 months. He is settling in well to his various roles. He is doing well as a therapy dog. He is able to settle down well although he clearly prefers people with a little more action in their petting. The biggest surprise has been his continuting development in herding.

Freeway actually believes it is possible to stop in herding. I say that only a little tongue in cheek. If you've read my stories of herding with Tsuki you know that the lack of a reliable stop has been our downfall on more than one occasion. A big part of that problem, I think, was our early training. Tsuki has a lot of natual instinct and when I was learning I was constantly telling him to do things that would cause him to lose his sheep. This is a common scenario with novice trainers - either the dog quits in frustration - or in the case of Tsuki they just quit listening to the person.

With Freeway a couple things are happening. First, I have more experience now. So I'm less likely to ask him to do something that will result in the sheep leaving. But also Freeway has a bit less natural talent. Unlike Tsuki, Freeway doesn't have an "opinion" about how the job should be done. And he really wants to figure out what I'm asking him to do.

But while Freeway won't run himself into the ground to herd (as Tsuki will) he still has a fair amount of stock sense. One exercise is to simply move around without giving commands of any kind, including body language. The goal is for the dog to keep the sheep with the handler. It has been interesting to watch Freeway's development in this area. He is gradually getting better about "widening out" so that he keeps all the sheep. In the early days he was running up the middle, and then he'd lose a sheep or two while getting the others.The instinct he does have tells him to keep the sheep together, but not how to keep them together. Now he's been substituting experience for instinct in learning how to do that. The last several lessons I haven't had to tell him to "get out," he has adjusted on his own.

One of the things I really like about the way he works is that he slows down and takes the pressure off a sheep once it is going the right direction. And this kind of fits in with the start of this essay. Freeway is perfectly comforable just casually walking behind the sheep. He has this very unborder collie like habit of looking like he isn't paying attention. He sniffs and wanders and sniffs. But if I turn and go another direction, he adjusts to keep the correct position relative to me and the sheep to keep the sheep with me.

Now some sheep will just follow the human around. And I know that if I were standing on the sidelines watching us work it would look like a slightly disintersted dog and some people friendly sheep casually strolling around the field. But I know these sheep. Without Freeway being in the right place the sheep would just stop and go their own way. They are conceding to walk the field with me only because Freeway is there. Well, OK, all except Punky. Punky is a people friendly Barbados sheep who has a habit of lifting a front leg stiffly and tapping the ground with it. When we were doing our walk about two of the sheep thought Freeway was too close and they decided to leave. Punky just stood there watching them go. So halfway down the field the other sheep stopped, stared and then came troting back.

Ah a day in the life of a sheepdog.



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Copyright © 2004, Diane Blackman     Created: 2003     Updated: February 3, 2006

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