Adventures in Herding #9: Round Pen Success!

In my last post, I told you how Mick was struggling to get the sheep off the fence, which I resolved by having one of my other dogs outside the round pen. This worked for a session or two; then the sheep figured out that the dog on the outside of the fence couldn’t reach them, and again, they stayed glued to the fence. This, in turn, led to Mick losing control of his sheep. When he finally did get one or two off the fence, the frustration of having lost control got channeled into chasing and nipping: he wasn’t herding, but hunting.

In order to resolve this issue, I picked the brains of my mentors: Raul Molina and Otto Peñate advised me to reduce the number of sheep to just three. Helene Lawler gave me incredibly helpful and detailed feedback on a video, and pointed out that I needed to speak calmly rather than add to Mick’s excitement with my cheerleading voice. She also suggested I remove the youngest ewe – a 4 months old lamb. Lambs don’t behave like adult sheep, which can be frustrating for a young dog. (If you’d like to see Helene’s awesome feedback video on my messy herding attempts, sign up for her excellent 1-on-1 lessons at FDSA. Her feedback video is posted in a forum that can be accessed by her private students.)

I made these simple changes – and wow, did it make a difference! Mick still starts out excited and keen to chase, but he’ll calm down quickly now that the sheep aren’t glued to the fence. He is starting to hold them to me nicely, and find balance on the other side of the small flock! His tail carriage is low and relaxed (a sign of a working rather than hunting Border Collie), and he is trotting rather than chasing, which reduces the stress on the sheep.

My ewes, too, are starting to make Mick’s and my life easier: they are learning that I am their safe zone, which, in turn, makes it easier for Mick to hold them to me.

Here’s my favorite snippet from one of three short sessions we did today:


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Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her September workshop Walk with Me! Leash Skills for Pet Dogs is still open for registration.

Adventures in Herding #8: Into the Round Pen!

When the sheep had just moved in, I let Mick have a go to see what he’d give me. He was quite bitey, and I ended the session quickly to work on foundations some more. I don’t want to use harsh punishment on my dog, and I don’t want my sheep to get hurt. I took the biteyness as a sign that Mick wasn’t yet ready to be in with the sheep at that point.

I worked on recalls and lie downs in the proximity of sheep, and on flanks outside the round pen. Mick’s ability to keep me in the picture grew. He got used to the fact that there were now sheep on the property, and less excited about this fact. At the same time, I have been learning more about sheep behavior by trying to move them from A to B myself. My growing sheep literacy is helping me read Mick better as well.

After watching the MacRae Way videos on Starting Young Dogs, I decided to take a paper bag with me into the round pen. If Mick tried to bite a sheep, I’d shake it. Ideally, I’d prefer not to use this visual and auditory punisher, but just having it made me feel confident that I’d be able to protect my sheep if push came to shove. I needed to be sure of that before taking Mick into the round pen again!

Mick’s round pen behavior looked a lot better this time – likely a result of our practice over the last few days. My growing sheep literacy allowed me to identify several antecedents to Mick’s biteyness in today’s first session:

+ When the sheep huddle against the fence and Mick can’t move them, he’ll bite when they finally do move.

+ He’ll get bitey if they scatter rather than stay together.

+ He’ll get bitey when one of them (usually the largest ewe) challenges him.

These sheep aren’t easy to herd. They don’t (yet) know to come to me for protection, and they like to huddle against the fence and stand still. Even though we worked in the round pen, Mick had a hard time moving them off the fence:

I tried to help him, but couldn’t get them to leave the fence, either. So I ended the session to go back to the drawing board.

In the following session, I had Grit outside the round pen to help keep the sheep off the fence. As a result, Mick’s confidence grew, and he had less reason to bite!

These are still messy beginnings – I’m throwing out “Come by!” and “Away!” as Mick goes the respective directions, and waiting for Mick to find balance so I can start walking backwards and have him bring the sheep to me. This is messy – but it’s a little less messy than what we started out with, and that is making me happy! I am hooked!

Adventures in Herding #7: Elements of the Lie Down: Distance sans Distraction

The lie down we need for herding has several elements:

+ we want it on a hand signal as well as on a verbal cue
+ we want the dog to be able to do it at a distance from us
+ we want the dog to be able to not just lie down and pop up, but hold his down until released

These are just three rough elements – each one can be further broken down and analyzed. In my last lie down video, Mick and I worked on lying down in the presence of distractions (sheep). However, I didn’t ask for either distance or duration.

Today, we focused on distance. In order to set Mick up for success, I removed the distraction: no sheep! However, I did work him outside the round pen – right where I’ll eventually need him to be able to lie down in the presence of sheep.

I tethered him to a fence post to get to the other side of the pen without him following me. The round pen itself kept him from coming in to lie down at my feet rather than where he happened to be when hearing the cue.

I’m gradually increasing the distance, starting out with Mick right in front of me. I don’t care whether he responds to the verbal cue or to my hand motion in this session – as long as he responds, I’ll mark with my marker word “Good!” “Good!” means: hold your position; I’ll deliver a treat right into your mouth. I mark while at a distance, and then walk over to feed him through the fence. I’ll get up, and mark “Good!” a second time to reinforce his choice of holding the down rather than popping right up. Then, I’ll mark with my marker cue “Get it!” “Get it!” means: I’ll throw a treat for you to chase.

As Mick searches for the thrown treat, I can increase the distance again, setting up for the next rep of cueing Mick’s lie down: “Easy!”

(The part of the video that I cut out is just Mick getting tangled in the leash and me needing to free him.)

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her September workshop Walk with Me! Leash Skills for Pet Dogs is currently open for registration.

Adventures in Herding #6: Recalls and Lie Downs; Looking at Sheep as a Reinforcer

Very happy with this session, and with Mick’s responsiveness! I felt like we were a team. Loose leash throughout. Mick is excited by the proximity of the sheep, yet able to listen. I love this dog!

The sheep are grazing on the other side of the door you can see here. Mick can see them through the wooden bars as well as smell them. His reinforcer is getting to go all the way up to the door and look at the sheep. We usually don’t go out through the door on this side of the shed, so there’s no disappointment about the fact that all he gets to do is look. He is practicing a recalling away from the sheep, eating while in a state of arousal, and lying down. Three birds with one stone. I love him!

A week ago, he wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things: eat, recall, or lie down – even with sheep at a bigger distance than this one.

Adventures in Herding #5: More Round Pens

Two more round pen sessions today. Before starting our sessions, I asked for a brief lie down, which I rewarded by opening the door. The lie down reminders have helped: Mick can do it again, sometimes on a verbal cue alone. He only holds it for a split second because he’s excited about what’s about to happen, but that’s okay for now.

When I’m able to tell whether Mick will go “Come by” (clockwise) or “Away” (counterclockwise) around the pen, I cue that respective flank before letting go of the leash.

For both our sessions today, I started easy, then made it more difficult, and ended with easy: I first just stayed on the side of the round pen opposite the gate and let him find balance there. This is easiest for Mick because he’s drawn to the gate, hoping for it to open.

Then, I started moving to see if he’d be able to find balance (his 12 o’clock to my 6 o’clock) somewhere else. He struggled with this, but I feel like we’re getting there.

I ended both sessions on an easy note, moving myself to a position that would allow him to find balance at the gate again.

When Mick rans around the pen and all the way back to me in the difficult parts of the session, I’ve started cueing either “Come by” or “Away” and insisting on it rather than just naming what he does naturally. When I say insisting on it, I mean that I’ll step on the leash if he takes the other direction, or guide him with my body language or by means of picking up the leash and walking a few steps in the desired position together with him.

Today’s first session:

Today’s second session:

I feel like our time outside the round pen will soon come to an end: Mick has started to figure out that he can make the sheep move by means of putting his front paws up on the fence and giving a bark. That’s not exactly what I want him to learn!

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her September workshop Walk with Me! Leash Skills for Pet Dogs is currently open for registration.

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!

Adventures in Herding #3: Round Pens!

There’s So! Much! to keep track of: I don’t want my dog to hurt my sheep, I don’t want my sheep to run me over in a panicked stampede, I need to keep Come By! and Away! straight, and the dog should do a nice flank when moving from me to where the sheep are. That’s too much for a beginner like me to keep track of. Round pens to the rescue!

With the sheep in the round pen and Mick and I outside, I don’t need to worry about Mick hurting them, about them running me over, and about the shape of Mick’s flanks. I can concentrate on three things: naming the Come By! and the Away! direction of travel (clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively), and praising Mick for finding the balance point (his 12 o’clock to my 6 o’clock). That’s what I did today. Low stress for me, and I got to observe how Mick gravitated to the balance point! This is so cool to see!

Before letting him start, I asked for a down (not on video), which was reinforced by getting to work. To end the session, I picked up the leash, and told him “All done!” rather than calling him away from the sheep. For now, I never want to call him when I’m about to end the fun.

Grit insisted she wanted to work sheep, too. Since I already had them in the round pen and they didn’t seem particularly stressed by a dog on the outside, she got to have a go as well. This is what it looked like at first:

… but then she calmed down – and she, too, found the balance point!

Adventures in Herding #2: Moving Sheep without a Dog

Today, I learned that sheep are incredibly hard to move. You know the saying “It’s like herding cats”? Well, maybe it should just be “It’s like herding sheep”! Today, I tried to move 3 of my 6 sheep into their round pen – without grabbing them, without luring them, and without the help of a dog.

I just used my own body to put pressure on the sheep … And while that gave me some control over their movement, they also had a strong will of their own, and and no interest whatsoever in going through the dark, narrow corridor between two buildings that would lead them to the round pen! I did feel the bubble though and could push them around the field – just not where I wanted them to go, because the narrow, dark opening they had never before moved through wasn’t at all inviting to them.

I did end up catching the three and moving them through the corridor and into the round pen against their will. Now I’ve got a new appreciation for why a dog might want to bite an unwilling sheep: grabbing them did feel a bit like I was biting them, and the reason I ended up doing this was that by merely playing with the bubble, I didn’t get them where I wanted them to go. By means of grabbing them, I did get them where I wanted them – so my grabbing behavior was reinforced. I imagine the same happens to a dog who bites sheep out of insecurity or because he doesn’t know how else to control them: biting will work, i.e. be reinforced by its consequences, and the biting behavior will get stronger. Note to self: unless truly warranted, biting should never result in success for Mick.

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her September workshop Walk with Me! Leash Skills for Pet Dogs is currently open for registration.

Adventures in Herding #1

Herding! I’s been a dream for a while, and this year, I’m making it happen. I’ll be sharing my meanderings, and the trials and errors of my learnings under the Adventures in Herding category. I’m looking forward to learning from my mistakes, my dog, and my sheep while striving to be kind and fair to all of them, keep in mind the scientific principles of learning, and resolve new challenges on the basis of positive reinforcement.

On Friday, 6 sheep moved in. They are Dorset x Pelibuey crosses – 3 brown ones and 3 white ones. Otto has started them for me, so being herded is not completely new to them.

Herding sheep isn’t completely new to Mick, either, but he hasn’t had a chance to work sheep in a long time. He’s starved for sheep work, and highly excited.

This is what we did today:

I had Mick in a harness and on a 15-foot (5m) long line, and took him into the enclosure where my sheep currently are. Holding on to the long line, I called Mick. I waited until he came, cued “Sheep” (the marker cue I’ll be using to release him to work sheep), and let go of the line. I allowed him to chase/play. After several months without working sheep, I suspect he needs to get out some steam before he can work them calmly and quietly. I mostly observed at this point: I’m learning about both Mick and the sheep, and how the behavior of each species affects the other.

When Mick tried to bite rather than just chase, I stepped on the long line, and got him back: biting without a good reason results in the loss of the opportunity to keep herding.

This, again, set me up for the next rep of calling Mick away from the sheep. I’d say his recall cue (Magpie), wait him out, mark moving towards me with “Sheep!”, and reinforce by dropping the line so he could go chase sheep again.

He worked himself down relatively quickly. In the beginning, his tail was up; he was highly excited. He was hunting/playing rather than working. After a few reps of interrupting him for getting too wild, he lowered his tail into a working position, and his movements became more methodical. As a consequence, the time I let him chase sheep got longer.

In order to end our brief session – it was about 10 minutes altogether – I stepped on the leash and told him “All done” – my end of work cue for my dogs – and walked him away with the help of the leash.

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program.

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.