Herding with Dan

This past weekend, Justin and I took Dan to his very first herding lesson. We all had a blast!

Dan saw some sheep in a pasture before we even started slowing down to turn into the drive and you could just see his face light up.

We arrived early and while we waited our turn, we practiced relaxed downs in the backseat of the car. He did great. In this type of situation, a new place that seems exciting, many times Dan will react to other dogs even from the car. The German shepherd who went before us walked by our car and although Dan was very aroused, he didn’t bark and was able to “check” (look at that) and remain focused on us.

The lesson began with our instructor working Dan. This was great fun for Justin and I to watch. There was a minute or two where Dan was barking, anxious, and just running in big, uncontrolled circles. His hackles were up; he was clearly on edge. However, he soon relaxed a little, his hair went down, his face relaxed, he stopped barking, and started to move in a more controlled way. It seemed as though he finally started to think about what was going on instead of just exploding! Our instructor started teaching him to turn away so that he would begin to move back and forth, bringing the sheep toward the handler, rather than just circling. Soon he had Dan taking the sheep exactly where he wanted. It was beautiful to watch.

Then it was my turn. Yikes! Poor Dan!! I have a LOT to learn.

The idea is that you turn your dog away from you by moving into his space, putting pressure on him, and when he turns you relax that pressure and let him do a quarter circle or so away from you around the sheep. Doing this back and forth teaches him to bring the sheep toward you. When you go the wrong way, the pressure is not let up as a reward, so basically your dog isn’t getting his reinforcer! I did this to poor Dan several times before the instructor provided more help and you could really see his behavior change. He became more frustrated, driving at the sheep harder and more aggressively. When the instructor stepped back in, Dan immediately relaxed again, doing his job as asked. When it was my turn again, I finally was able to move the right way. Although it wasn’t very smooth looking, it felt better and I was glad to be able to give Dan some resemblance of a reward. Good thing dogs are so forgiving!

I have to say, this was one of the best experiences I have had in dog training in a very long time. Dan and I have practiced so much impulse control, relaxation exercises, and loose leash walking – while these are necessary skills, they are all about fighting Dan’s instinctual and natural behaviors to run, chase, pull and bark. It was such a treat to get to embrace his natural abilities and see him just thrive in that environment.

Not only was it fun to watch Dan doing what he is meant to do, it was eye-opening to be the “student” again. I really know very little about herding. I just know the general goals and rules of herding trials. I have watched herding trials and been around sheep in several different environments, but watching and doing are two very different things!

I will be honest, it was very frustrating to do the wrong thing and feel like I couldn’t figure out how to do it correctly. This only lasted a few seconds before our instructor saved us, but that feeling is a really good one for any teacher or coach to experience regularly because, chances are, your students are feeling that way too!

Kay Laurence, a well-known dog trainer and speaker at the annual conference that my graduate school hosted, always talks about how important it is to her to always be learning something new. The last time I saw her, she was taking a glass-blowing class. I didn’t really understand that at the time, other than just for the sake of learning, but I was still in school. The experience of trying something that I had no idea how to do reminded me that learning is HARD! Getting to that successful moment was so important for me and extremely reinforcing.

We can’t wait for our next lesson!

Here’s a short clip of Dan doing his job, just a few minutes into our lesson: