Adventures in Herding #10: Pressure.

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.

Susan Friedman, Unlabel 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”

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.

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Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …


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… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!


We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:


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Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …

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… 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:


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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. 


  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Video 1:

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.

Video 5:

Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.

Video 2:

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.

Video 6:

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.


Video 3:

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!

Video 4:

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.

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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”

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 #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.