Adventures in Herding #4: Reminding Mick of the Lie Down

Remember how I said that I had asked Mick to lie down before starting our round pen session? Well, it was not easy for him to lie down, even though I asked for it with a closed door between him and the sheep.

Before getting my own sheep, I had started building a fold-back down. I refined it in Helene Lawler’s Herding Flatwork Foundations FDSA class up to the point where I put it on a verbal cue (“Easy!”), and increased distance and duration.

Now that there’s sheep on my property, Mick is struggling to remember what a lie down looks like. Even far from the sheep, he’s having a hard time with the behavior.

Mick is not the kind of Border Collie who’ll lie down naturally. In fact, I’ve only ever seen him lie down when taking a nap. Otherwise – if he’s relaxing and watching the world go by – he’ll usually sit or stand. I have worked more on his down than his sit, but offering sits is still something he is more likely to do.

After watching an hour of the MacRae Way Starting Young Dogs tutorial over the last few days, I resolved to polish Mick’s down: Alasdair keeps reminding us of the importance of having a strong lie down throughout his video.

This is the first lie down reminder session. I’m choosing the biggest possible distance from the sheep: I can’t go further back because the grass behind us is too long to work. The sheep are behind the green fence, and Mick knows it.

I counted out my treats: 20, not one more, to prevent me from training too long. 20 hot dog slices gives me 10 reps of “Easy!” – reward in position – release with a “Get it!” treat thrown towards the sheep. I’m throwing the “Get it!” treat this way in order to further reinforce the lie down with an opportunity to get closer to the sheep.

Mick is distracted with staring at the sheep. That’s okay. He’s on a line. He can’t wander off. It’s up to him whether he wants to wander around me, stare at the sheep, or walk up to me, which will be my cue to say “Easy!”, help him complete the behavior with a hand signal if necessary, and feed a treat. Staring at sheep may be fun, but the only tangible reinforcer available are my treats (hot dogs – knowing this was hard for him, I brought out the big guns).

I wasn’t sure how much engagement I’d get, and whether me asking for a down and paying with hotdogs would be a reinforcing activity (be started by him more and more often) or something that merely got in the way of his sheep staring (in which case it would be punishing, and he’d come over to me less and less often as the session went on). He did come over more and more often, especially towards the end. Yey! When I had used up my treats, I asked for one more lie down, and rewarded with an opportunity to walk closer to the sheep (since we were headed that way anyways!).

Here’s the first session of lie down (“Easy”) reminders (Wednesday):

I had another session later the same day, and Mick started out the way he ended in the video above: much improved, and able to lie down on a verbal cue alone. By Thursday, Mick had progressed to the point where he didn’t disengage between the down reps. Yey, Mick!

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