Today, I’m going to show you not only “nice” videos, but also messy ones. Mick gets bitey, and his sheep are stressed. This, too, is a reality of herding (and life). We – professional dog trainers – tend to only show polished videos. It’s easy to make ourselves and our dogs look good in videos, pictures, and Facebook posts.
I don’t want to be that kind of trainer. I’d rather be perceived as authentic than perfect. I’m human. I’m pragmatic. I like to experiment and problem-solve, and sometimes, I get things wrong. I strive to train my dogs with kindness, and I don’t always succeed. This week, I experimented with pressure tools (a herding stick, and a paper bag) in order to protect my sheep.
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I’ve been naming Mick’s flanks outside the round pen, and seem to have resolved the problem of the sheep sticking to the fence when working them inside. Mick has started to balance and hold them to me! It feels like magic.
It’s time to face our next challenge: it usually takes a minute for things to calm down. Mick starts out with force and intensity, barreling into the sheep like a cue stick shooting into the triangle of snooker balls, sending them flying all over the place.
I know nothing about snooker. It’s entirely possible that this metaphor makes no sense.
At a loss of where to turn in view of the mess he just made, he’ll end up chasing and gripping. He has no control over the situation that results from barreling into the sheep, and Mick is the kind of dog who struggles with a lack of control: it makes him anxious, chasey, and grippy. It takes a while until the sheep are flocking together again and calm down. When that happens, Mick will calm down as well, and start holding them nicely to me.
Once you’ve heard Susan Friedman talk about labels, you can’t just throw words like “anxious” out there. No matter how convenient it would be.
We must operationalize all the labels before we may proceed!
losing control shall mean that the sheep are not sticking together like a single organism with several heads, but rather running in different directions. Think headless chickens. They are not walking or trotting, but running fast – they are fleeing from my pet predator. A single pet predator can easily control a large flock of sheep that is sticking together like a single organism, but he’s at a loss when it comes to controlling even 3 sheep who are all running into different directions. At least my pet predator is overwhelmed by that.
anxious shall mean that Mick carries his tail high above his back (rather than just above his back legs. He will run (rather than trot), and he will single out a sheep, chase her down, and nip. Occasionally, he’ll start chasing one sheep, and then switch to another.
If on a lead, his tail will be high above his back, and he will pull and pant, or wiggle around my legs throwing behaviors at me while holding his head in a low, glancing up at me briefly, but not holding eye contact.
Now we may proceed.
Once the sheep move calmly and orderly, Mick will slow down, keep his teeth to himself, and lower his tail. He’ll curve around them and hold them to me. He’ll be in a thinking, working state of mind – that’s what we’re looking for in a working Border Collie.
The explosive release
It is Mick himself who causes the frantic behavior of the sheep that, in turn, makes him chase and nip. Pre-release, he’s anxious about gaining control, resulting in an explosive cue stick release. Only once the sheep have recovered from being hit by his force is he able to relax and work nicely.
Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …
… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!
We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:
Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …
… the sheep will behave like a single organism with multiple heads that can be pushed around while sticking together! It’s as if the sheep were trapped in one of these gigantic plastic bubble balls.
This is what I’ve tried to get Mick to curve out rather than act like a cue stick:
Our flawed heroine (who uses too many adjectives) believes the anxious Border Collie must be pushed and pressured onto the desired trajectory around the badass sheep.
- insisting on a down before releasing him to the sheep (this makes things worse – it makes the release even more explosive than it would be from a standing start).
- Using a paper bag (inspired by the MacRae Way videos) to correct Mick for barreling in. This correction (shaking the bag) also makes things worse for Mick – it increases his anxiety rather than decreasing it.
- Using a herding stick to “push Mick out.” This, too, made things worse. Mick is very pressure sensitive, and me putting pressure on him with a stick pointed his way increases his anxiety. If he’s anxious, he’ll get grippy and chase.
- I tried all of the above in combination with using a long line to keep Mick at a distance from the sheep while I myself got closer to the sheep. (The long line idea is another trick I’ve picked up from the MacRae Way videos). The results were similar, but I had more control now than I used to when next to Mick when releasing him.
- No tools, and no cues, but still use a long line to keep him in one place while I get closer to the sheep. This is tricky: I need to give him space to choose a side, and then step in to push him out.
This is tricky, but it’s working. f I step in too early or too far, Mick will change directions and barrel into the flock with full force from the other side. If I’m too slow or don’t apply enough pressure with my body, he’ll barrel into them and split them up the way he originally intended.
It took me several tries to figure out the right timing, posture, and path to get the desired result – but I did! All of a sudden, I was getting flanks (mostly Come by ones, since that is his easier side), and things calmed down quickly: by means of taking a nice flank, Mick doesn’t split up the flock and immediately gains control of the herd. That, in turn, will give him the confidence to hold them to me rather than channel his rising anxiety into gripping and chasing. The last video in this post shows what a difference this makes.
Paper bag, and I don’t manage to correct the barreling in: a very big, bitey mess. From the release to the point where Mick is more or less able to hold the sheep to me, it takes 24 seconds.
Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.
Oh but it MUST work! I make one last paper bag attempt, and successfully correct Mick from barreling in. He is still anxious though, and it takes a while for things to calm down. The fact that I’m holding the paper bag is making things worse, not better. I’m not quite aware of this dynamic yet though.
I’m thinking maybe I need a more powerful tool to get this right. This whole paper back operation didn’t really go the way I wish it had. Maybe it’s just not impressive enough. What if I used a herding stick instead?
Unfortunately, the sheep aren’t in view of the camera in this video. But trust me: it was ugly. The mere presence of the stick increased Mick’s anxiety, and his anxiety increased his bitey desperation. I got the message and quickly dropped the stick – only then did he calm down.
Hrm. The paper bag wasn’t working all that well. I believed I needed to increase the pressure on Mick. I brought a broomstick into the round pen with me, and it backfired. What if the problem wasn’t a lack of pressure on Mick, but the opposite: what if I had been putting too much pressure on him? I test this theory by working without tools. What a mind-blowing difference it makes!
Another attempt without tools – another success! As someone who always tries to train with kindness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. And yet …! Looks like we humans have just as much of a hard time generalizing knowledge from one dog sport or activity to another as our dogs.
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What did we learn today?
Mick and I do better without tools than with tools (This makes me happy – I’d much rather train without tools anyways). I’m surprised how long it took me to realize the problem was too much pressure rather than a lack of pressure.
I am starting to understand how my body posture affects Mick’s movement. I’m learning about the pressure I exert on him while he is learning about the pressure he exerts on the sheep.
Anxious Border Collies, just like anxious people, make bad choices. Just like coercing an anxious person into doing what we want them to do, trying to guide an anxious Border Collie with pressure tools only exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety activates the limbic system: flight or fight. Mick will fight (the sheep). People will get angry (at the person putting pressure on them, or at an innocent bystander), run and hide in their idiosyncratic ways, or they’ll vote for Norbert Hofer, Donald Trump, and Brexit. “These are the days it never rains but it pours.” (1)
The currency of power
Pressure is not a magic bullet. It’s really quite straightforward, and yet, it can be hard to remember – both when it comes to people, and when it comes to dogs. The dominant narrative of our culture (dog training-wise and societal) is that (1) power is worth striving for, and (2) pressure is the currency of power.
And that dominant narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. At least some of the time, it provides a lens through which the world (or your dog’s behavior) makes sense. That makes it attractive. It’s simple and straightforward, which makes it convincing. Just turn on the news, and all you’ll see are examples of politicians using pressure tactics to get the upper hand. Arms races, trade wars, and literal wars are fought this way. Dogs are trained on basis of the pressure narrative, and children are raised this way.
Screen shot, New York Times, September 18, 2019, 08:23PM
Just because the pressure narrative is one lens that tells one coherent story doesn’t mean it is the only lens telling the only coherent story though. Sometimes, the coherent story the pressure narrative tells is also plain wrong. But
boy girl, it sure is tempting to believe – even in the face of contradictory evidence (see videos 1, 5, 2, and 6), and even for trainers who are already committed to minimizing the use of aversives.
(1) QUEEN & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”