Positive Herding 101: Dog-friendly training (an excerpt)

This is an excerpt from the book Positive Herding 101: Dog-friendly training by Barbara Buchmayer, shared with permission.

As I read the short email in 2011, I had no idea that destiny was knocking at my door. The message was from a woman in South Africa asking if I would help her train a herding dog using positive methods. She had never trained a dog for herding, nor had she even worked a herding dog. In fact, she knew virtually nothing about herding. I immediately realized it would be foolish to get involved with this project because we would be limited to using email, video, and Skype to communicate tons of precise information and complex concepts. Yet I was deeply into figuring out how to train herding using positive reinforcement and I knew it could be done. So the question became: could two people with the same vision, but very different backgrounds, turn a rambunctious border collie pup into a useful herding dog while 9,000 miles apart?

CAPTION: This is a view of Sally's small farm in South Africa, a patch of semi-flat, cleared land amid rugged steep hills covered in natural vegetation.

This book grew out of my quest to learn the science of positive training and then apply that knowledge to herding. Besides working with my own dogs I am blessed to have had an amazing experience working with that woman from South Africa, Sally, who I now count as one of my closest friends. In this book I will share with you both the theory I have learned and the practical exercises I have developed to train herding positively. Plus, Sally has generously agreed to share her triumphs, trials, and tribulations as we collaborated to train her red border collie Renn. You have already met Sally and Renn on the cover of this book and you will be properly introduced to Sally momentarily. 

So how did Renn turn out? Sally will tell you that her greatest achievement is that Renn is a first-class farm dog. Renn can race out of sight to gather the flock and then be cued by whistles to bring the sheep to Sally or take them wherever they need to go, while Sally stays up on the hill directing her. Renn easily and happily does everything Sally needs her to do with the sheep on their small farm.

What is even more amazing to me is that Sally was also able to gain the skills necessary to successfully trial with Renn. In 2016 Sally and Renn became the South African Sheepdog Association's National Reserve Junior Champions.

I am honored to introduce you to my special friend Sally Adam and will let her tell you her story as she sees fit. Her thoughts will be woven into every aspect of this book and are sure to offer a fresh and unique perspective.

Sally's story: Starting a sheepdog – An alternative approach

Sally: We got our first internet connection in 1996. I had no idea what one actually did on the internet but I found a search engine and, lacking imagination, typed in "dog training". On the first page of results was a bizarre concept called "clicker training". It sounded daft but I ordered a couple of clickers from the US and quietly began playing around with my dogs - at the time we were concentrating on agility. The results were magical and I ordered another batch of clickers and started handing them out to my agility students. I've used clicker training ever since, on all sorts of different animals including horses, cats, and so on.

When the time came to train a sheepdog I knew there was only one method I was interested in exploring. It didn't appear that there was anyone in South Africa using a clicker for herding training, but I was lucky enough to hook up with Barb Buchmayer, a trainer/triallist from Missouri. Barb has 30 years of experience in the field but was keen to experiment with gentler methods. Renn and I would be the guinea pigs, and Barb would review our training videos and give direction and encouragement while thinking up new strategies as situations developed.

Barb: I met Sally by email through a mutually known clicker trainer Kay Laurence. Sally did not yet have Renn but we discussed our mutual desire to train herding in a more positive, gentle way. I particularly wanted to be able to tell my dogs when they were right instead of only telling them when they were wrong.

Sally: It was a massive challenge – I had never worked a sheepdog before, let alone trained one, and I would be starting a dog from scratch using an untried method, working on my own. I was constantly terrified of losing control of the situation and having sheep injured or killed, which in hindsight probably meant I was more meticulous in my planning of each training session – not a bad thing! I was so ignorant I didn't even know what a flank was and I constantly pestered ever-patient Barb with questions.

Barb: I was very apprehensive when Sally came to me looking for help because I know how difficult it is for experienced trainers to start a dog traditionally. Not only was she not a herding trainer but she also had never "run" a dog. It would not be easy, but we would communicate by email, Youtube video, and occasionally Skype. This would not be my preferred method of teaching a student, but it garnered amazing results in this instance!

Sally: Our initial plan was to teach Renn the basic commands (flanks, stop, walk in, and so on) before she ever got near the sheep. This way she'd have some clue of what was required later on. We worked on basic clicker training, obedience skills, tricks, and self-control before we attempted to teach circling or flanking. 

To teach flanking, circling, I set up a ring of traffic cones and had Renn circle outside while I stood inside. She was rewarded with food or a toy. Once she had the idea, the circle was extended (fortunately we have a large lawn) and I moved outside of the circle (see Fig. 1). This was also a great time for me to learn the flank commands without the distraction and chaos of working with sheep. Working this way means you get to train flanks several times a day without the hassle of getting sheep involved. To teach "get out" and "come in" I used a second, larger circle of cones around the original circle.

Figure 1

 Barb: One of the best things about teaching a dog using marker training is that the herding skills become fluent away from stock. Without the sheep, the handler can develop their and their dog's skills without the huge distraction of the sheep.

Sally: At the same time we wanted to get Renn listening and thinking around sheep. If a dog is completely obsessed with sheep, we reasoned, it won't be thinking or paying attention and would be in no position to actually learn anything. Self-control had always seemed to me the most essential thing one could work on with a sheepdog puppy.

Barb: I reasoned that if a dog cannot do simple obedience or tricks near sheep then there is no way they would be able to perform herding cues around sheep.

Sally: I started by putting my little training flock in a small pen. I would approach the pen with Renn on a lead. Renn would be rewarded for paying attention to me and responding to my requests (I had a range of tricks that we used for this purpose, such as spins and backing up). I would reward her with a toy or by letting her get closer to the sheep (her preferred reward). We worked on this for some time, until she could pay attention to me even when we were right next to the pen with sheep moving around inside. "Sheep are just another distraction!" Barb would remind me, daily ...

Barb: This took much longer to accomplish than Sally envisioned, but it is an essential part of training in this way. Initially, Sally told me this was not possible, and she kept wanting to skip over this step, but I realized how crucial this was to her success.

Sally: So now we had a dog with good flank and stop commands, had worked on the stop command from the moment I got Renn home at five weeks old. At first I lured her into a down, and soon asked her to down before every meal. Once she did this reliably I introduced the whistle cue. Training this way means the pup is exposed to the cues at least four times a day and is highly motivated to comply. We also had a dog who could pay attention to me in the presence of penned sheep. Next we needed to combine the two exercises. I set up a pen in the middle of a field inside a ring of traffic cones and started doing short casts or gathers. (see Fig. 2). Gradually we extended the diameter of the circle and the length of the cast.

Figure 2

Sally: I also worked with the pen against a fence, sending the dog in half-circles with cones to encourage Renn to stay on the arc. (see Fig. 3)

After a couple of months, I could delay the inevitable no longer: it was time to let Renn play with the sheep. But we wanted to keep things as calm as possible so Renn would be on a long line. We worked on the assumption that what a sheepdog wants most is to have the sheep in balance and what the dog wants least is to be taken off the sheep. We would use this to our advantage in moulding the dog's behaviour.

My neighbour had a suitable fenced area, of about 10m x 5m, and we lured in the training flock with feed. I brought Renn in on a line and I walked on her inside while encouraging her to stay out on the fence – I used a PVC "crook" (made from plumbing components) if I needed to block her from the sheep. There was no shouting or harsh pressure from me on the dog – if she attempted to leap at the sheep or bite them, I simply dragged her away and gave her a time-out of a minute or so, away from the sheep. If things went well, Renn was allowed to continue circling for a short period and was rewarded with a toy or by being permitted to hold the sheep in a corner. We would work for short periods of a minute or two with lots of rests where we just hung out with the sheep – we didn't want her thinking that being around sheep meant constantly hurtling around like a maniac. We strove at all times to keep Renn in thinking mode.

Barb: A time-out is just matter of factly removing the dog outside of the pen to a place they cannot see or interact with the sheep and then standing there for a minute or two before re-starting work in the pen.

Sally: We then moved into a larger training area (25m x 28m), and I'm afraid that Barb despaired over whether I would ever remove the training line, such was my fear of losing control. But I did finally take it off and got used to the fact that there would inevitably be the odd train wreck and that probably no-one would die.

Barb: This was definitely the most difficult step for Sally to do on her own. I knew she and her dog were more than ready for this step, but I also understood that as a novice handler she was totally out of her comfort zone.

Sally: So, much to my surprise and relief, I've ended up with a dog who is incredibly useful on the farm and responsive enough to trial with. And all this without resorting to heavy handler pressure and punishment. In fact the dog is so unaffected by my position that I can sit on a horse or in my bakkie (truck) and Renn still retains the strong desire to go to balance and bring the sheep to me.

Barb: It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Sally and Renn. I feel Sally and Renn have achieved a mastery of basic and intermediate herding with a foundation solid enough to allow them to achieve whatever level of herding they aspire to.

Sally: It would have been quite impossible to have achieved anything without Barb's dedication to our project – no question went unanswered and Barb would patiently repeat advice until I eventually listened. I hope I can pay it forward some time!

Barb's story: Winning a sheepdog trial sets me on a new path

My herding story is a bit different from Sally's. I also started learning herding with a Border Collie puppy but all of my herding training consisted of traditional methods. I had never heard of clicker training and am not sure it was talked about much back in the early '90s. I took some lessons from a trainer about five hours away from our dairy in upstate NY and tried to educate myself with herding DVDs and books. It was slow going.

I could only work with my trainer every couple of months and my progress seemed like it was one step forward and two steps back. I was overwhelmed with all of the movement; I moved, my dog moved, the sheep moved. One kind soul allowed me to work her sheep, once I had some control of my dog, and her only comment was, "You always move in the wrong direction". Probably an accurate assessment but not particularly helpful.

Several years later, my family moved to a farm in Missouri and I found a different herding teacher, Nyle Sealine. One of Nyle's first directives was for me to stand still. What a relief! Now there were only two moving variables to keep track of instead of three. At weekly lessons, I slowly grew from a novice to an intermediate handler and finally to an open handler. Over those eight years, I trained seven Border Collies using traditional methods. All of my dogs were purchased as pups or untrained dogs except for one which was given to me after she quit herding due to excessive pressure.

I took weekly herding lessons for eight years and I don't think the learning would ever have ended, there was always more to learn and there still is. I was extremely fortunate that my teacher was not only a master trainer and handler but a master stockman as well. He taught me stockmanship, the knowledgeable and skillful handling of livestock, which I later found out is knowledge that not all handlers possess. Learning herding was a long, sometimes frustrating, journey but it was also an addictive one.

Since things were going extremely well after 20 years of traditional punishment-based herding, why was I suddenly at a crossroads? In 2008 I had just won an Open sheepdog trial and brought home an impressive trophy, a double dog box decorated with a lovely tri-color Border Collie in stalking mode.

CAPTION: Mattie was the first dog that I ever trained to the Open trial level. She was a very special dog who taught me many important lessons about herding at an advanced level. She had a huge heart and never gave up on controlling livestock, sheep or cattle.

Since I didn't have use for the dog box to transport dogs, I sat it in my large living room and found myself contemplating it often. Did I want to upgrade my handling skills in order to run with the "big dogs" at the prestigious trials, or did I want to learn a whole new way to interact with my dogs? I knew I desperately wanted to be able to say yes to my dogs after years of saying no but, did I want to start all over again when I had finally had significant success? It had taken me two decades to learn the skills of traditional herding and gain my current level of proficiency, how could I go back to being a novice again? Eventually it became clear, the right choice for me was to start over and become a positive herding trainer.

Similar to Sally, I started my investigation of positive dog training on the internet since I live on a dairy farm in rural Missouri. I was searching for a method that allowed me to reward my dogs when their behavior was correct and punish when it was incorrect. I became a "balanced trainer" for a matter of days before I learned it really was not good training to combine reinforcement and punishment in equal parts. (See Chapter 3 – The un-balanced trainer) Plus while on the internet I had found tons of information about positive training using a clicker and had immediately ordered Shaping Success by Susan Garrett. I was off and running on an odyssey to learn positive training and then apply it to herding.

I would like to say this journey from traditional to positive herding has been fast and easy but it has not. My trek closely mirrored my first interaction with a clicker. I held this simple plastic box in my hand, clicked it a few times, and mused, "How hard can this be?" I was about to find out I had a lot to learn.

Over the years I have been fortunate to learn from some of the top positive trainers, either directly or online, but probably my best teachers have been my dogs and the White Leghorn chickens I worked with at Chicken Workshops. Lessons in a classroom combined with applying those concepts to training an animal other than a dog is a recipe for extraordinary learning. Was it possible to teach a chicken to discriminate colors, go to a target on cue, change from walking a figure 8 to a circle on cue, climb a ladder, shoot a ball into a goal, or do chicken "agility"? (Bailey and Farhoody 2015)

In the 2015 Chaining Chicken workshop I trained my chicken to perform a chain of behaviors:

  1. Go up a ladder
  2. Pull out a squishy ball from a container on the platform
  3. Go through a tunnel while traversing a balance beam
  4. Pull the duck with the blue pipe cleaner handle from three choices in a bowl (pond); blue, green, or red (A color discrimination)
  5. Go down a ladder
  6. Peck a ping pong ball into a mini-goal

CAPTION: Chained behaviors included a tunnel on a balance beam, a color discrimination, and descending a ladder.

Sally and I worked together for several years since she had gotten Renn as a tiny pup. I feel fortunate that I was able to work with a positive trainer as skilled as Sally and that I had input on training Renn from the time Sally brought her home. Sally did a fantastic job with Renn and I am proud of my part in helping her and Renn become the amazing herding team that they are!

 Safety first, fun always

A word of caution is in order. Eventually, you will be working with both your dog and livestock at the same time. Safety for you, your dog, and the livestock should always be your first priority. Anytime you train with your dog there is the chance that you or your dog may be injured and herding livestock increases that risk. If you ever feel uncomfortable, trust your intuition and seek help from someone experienced whom you trust. Always, safety first!

Training herding positively should first, last and always be fun. If you and your dog are not having fun, you are doing something wrong. You should also be aware that herding is tremendously addictive. The more you learn and participate in herding, the more addictive it becomes. You have been warned.

Some encouraging words

You are setting out on a wonderful and exciting journey. You will be stepping out of your comfort zone, but that can be a very good thing. Instead of a wall that protects you, your comfort zone can be a shell that restricts your growth. Fear is what usually keeps you in your comfort zone. Fear of failure can prevent you from growing, and the only alternative to growing is dying.

Although it is our fear of failure that often holds us back, in reality, our biggest fear should be of regret. Don't allow your desire to prevent failure stop you from pursuing success. What would you attempt if you knew you would succeed? As George Tilton reminds us, "Success is never final and failure is never fatal". At least usually not fatal in positive dog training.

Mastery is a marathon, but along the way don't confuse hoping and worrying with actually doing something. Hope is a good friend but a poor dog trainer. As you gain victories and struggle through failures, be as positive and kind to yourself and other trainers as you are to your dog.

The most difficult part of any journey is getting started, so set small, easy goals that you know you can accomplish. These small accomplishments will give you confidence and propel you forward. Plan to train for 2 minutes and you will find yourself having so much fun that you will have to stop yourself after 20. Just do it.

On your herding journey I wish you much success, little failure, and kind livestock.

Works Cited

Bailey, Robert E., and Parvene Farhoody. 2015. "40 Hour Chaining Operant Conditioning Workshop." Bailey-Farhoody Chicken Workshop. Columbia, MD, July 22 - 26.

(Bailey and Farhoody 2015)

E246: Heather Lawson - "Canine Good Citizens"
E245: Barb Buchmayer - "Positive Herding"

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