Backwards is the way forward

Our single most useful exercise, once you have control of the dog


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It’s boring – and it might appear pointless to the novice, but walking backwards with the dog bringing the sheep up to you is the single most important exercise you can do once your dog has basic control of the sheep. It improves pace, working distance, the stop, sheep control, and much more.

As well as clearly demonstrating how to get a strong dog to bring the sheep up quietly – this tutorial provides a valuable tip on how to read your sheep.

Backwards is the way forward

26 responses to “Backwards is the way forward”

  1. June Ritchhart avatar

    I have a very head strong border collie. He wants to rush too much. I have watched Backwards is the Way Forward and do walk backwards. Any other suggestions?

    1. Andy avatar

      June, there’s no panacea for this – it takes a lot of training and a lot of patience to train a dog to work stock.

      It’s unlikely you’ve done the walking backwards properly because if you had, the dog would be walking up on the sheep steadily. It’s only four days since you posted the same question on the ‘Calm but Firm‘ tutorial, so unless you’ve been out there with the dog for many hours each day, it’s unlikely a strong-willed dog will have mastered it in this time. (There is always the exception to the rule though).

      If your dog will do a very short outrun, stop on command behind the sheep, and then (as you walk backwards) bring them along behind you at the same pace you’re walking back at, then the dog must be working calmly. It just won’t happen if the dog’s rushing around unless the sheep are extremely ‘dogged‘.

      You’ll see below the ‘Backwards is the Way Forward‘ tutorial that we recommend you watch ‘Back to Forwards‘ next. I suggest you try that as a test of how well your dog does the ‘walking backwards’ exercise. It’ll be chaos if the dog isn’t doing the ‘walking backwards’ part properly.

      I wrote a blog about slowing the dog down. Read it. As well as what I’ve written here, it lists some other things you can try. My advice is to watch ALL the tutorials in the ‘Pace (slowing)‘ category. If you’ve watched them once, watch them again, then go out there with your dog and stick at it! You’ll succeed if you keep trying – but it won’t happen overnight.

      If you mean the dog is rushing around when it’s working further away from you, then you’re sending it too far too soon. Get the dog working well close to you, and then VERY GRADUALLY increase the distance. If the dog rushes around and splits the sheep up, reduce the distance again – and so on.

      1. June Ritchhart avatar

        Thank you so much. I do believe he is starting to get it. I will stick with it. It has been only a few days. I will let you know how it goes.

  2. Natalie Redding avatar

    I wanted to commend you on the quality of your videos. I usually can’t get through 2 minutes of online tutorials of any kind because they are poorly communicated and poorly filmed. You’ve done a superb job of giving concise instructions, fantastic camera work triangulated with honesty in filming (i.e. you’ll leave your own training mistakes in). I appreciate the work you and your partner do and it’s helped me tremendously with shepherding my own flock and helped me understand my working dogs minds and motivation. Beyond learning about dog behavior and herding from the dogs perspective, I’ve used these video tutorials to put a solid foundation on a yearling border pup who I’d committed to going to professional training in the summer. Instead of sending the trainer a completely clueless dog, I’m sending a dog who knows not only his his flanking commands, but also: down, stand, get out, walk up, there, look back and of course, “that’ll do.” Before your videos, I couldn’t teach a dog to “sit” let alone teach the basic commands of a sheepdog. These videos have taught me what my expectations should be and what types of behaviors are “offenses” and which behaviors I can let “slide.” I also appreciate your kindness towards your dogs and how you truly seem to appreciate each and every one of them, even if they aren’t going to be super stars. To me, that’s such a hallmark of a great trainer i.e. someone who loves all dogs, even the ones who aren’t naturally gifted. I just can’t say enough nice things about these tutorials… a membership was WELL worth the money spent (many times over). Thank you again for the work you do. Natalie Redding, Namaste Farms in sunny Southern California

    1. Britta Waddell avatar

      I couldn’t agree more with Natalie :-)
      Britta Waddell in sunny New Zealand

    2. Melinda Stevenson avatar

      I agree 100%. I think these tutorials are priceless!!

  3. Britta Waddell avatar

    Thank you so much, now I understand why I have to do this exercise!!! So far, everybody told me that I have to do it, but nobody has bothered to tell why I am doing it. So I never really bothered. Plus I could never do it, simply because my dog rushes the sheep too much and they run away; even more reason to do it, I now understand. Andy, you are a star :-)

  4. Stephen Burton avatar

    how do I stop my dog from cutting in or getting close to the sheep when finishing an outrun… he is a very fast dog so going closer is sometimes worse…

    1. Andy avatar

      You’re “trying to run before you can walk” Stephen. If the dog’s working very fast, as you say, it’s because it’s excited and lacking confidence). Get the dog under proper control and working at a sensible pace when it’s closer to you before you ask it to do longer outruns. IT would be a good idea to watch the three Outrun Tutorials to see how to widen the dog out when it’s nearer the sheep, but you really need to steady the dog down and get it working confidently first.

  5. Amie Brodie avatar

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks for the tutorials. I’ve been working my Sheltie for a little over a year now. My instructor has us doing this exercise all the time, but my problem is SLOWING HIM DOWN. I lie him down, walk up to the sheep, and try to get him to “walk up!” as I walk backwards but he leaps up every time and runs up on the sheep too fast. I am trying to teach him the command “easy!” to tell him to slow down but he isn’t getting it, so I must not be getting the point across. Any ideas on how to teach a dog to slow his feet down? He has a fairly reliable stop.

    1. Andy avatar

      A sheltie working sheep! That would be worth seeing!
      Walking backwards is what’s required. It reinforces your authority over the dog and it also teaches the dog self-discipline – and to work at the correct distance from the sheep. The difficult part is getting the dog to do it properly.
      Of course, it’s difficult to get a true picture without seeing you training your dog, but I think you might be walking too far back before you allow the dog to walk up a little way. The closer you are to the dog, the more control you have over it.
      As you walk back, keep your eyes fixed on the dog. If you glance back to see where you’re going, the dog will probably set off to the sheep but you KNOW this is going to happen, so be ready for it – and stop the dog immediately, then MAKE the dog stay in place.
      Don’t worry about teaching him to slow down. If you do the walking backwards exercise correctly, that will come. By allowing the dog to come forward just a metre (a yard) or so before you stop it – and repeating this over and over again, the dog will take the easy option and come forward slowly – because it will learn that if it walks forward slowly, you won’t stop it!
      I suggest you watch the “Backwards is the Way Forward” tutorial again – at least once!
      The dog should eventually walk forward onto its sheep at the same pace that the handler is walking backwards.
      Lastly – safety first. Expect to take a tumble or two as you get used to walking backwards. Don’t do it if you’re not prepared to risk a few falls.

      1. Amie Brodie avatar

        Thanks! Let me get this straight. What I’m doing now is walking to the sheep and asking him to walk up with the sheep between me and him or next to me. I start walking backwards and then tell him to “walk up!”. Should I be between him and the sheep? Or do you mean don’t have the sheep (and me ) too far ahead before asking him to walk?
        I sure have fallen down quite a few times! I’m sturdy enough to take it, although I sometimes feel it the next day….
        We use Shelties commonly for trialing here in the States. He got his AKC Herding Tested title at the Cleveland OH Shetland Sheepdog Club trial. I’m in Ohio so it was close by! I doubt they are used much on working farms though. I wish I could figure out how to send a photo.

        1. Andy avatar

          Difficult to see what you’re doing without being there, Amie. I can only suggest you watch Backwards is the Way Forward again – and if there’s a specific part of it you don’t understand, let me know.
          Basically, the idea is, the dog is on the opposite side of the sheep to you, and far enough back to maintain control of the sheep, but not stress them. You should then walk backwards (if you can do this safely on your ground) and the dog should bring the sheep to you, whilst maintaining the same distance from them. This means the dog should bring the sheep towards you at the same speed that you are walking backwards – so the gap between the dog, the sheep, and yourself remains constant.
          It’s virtually impossible to achieve, of course, but it’s what we aim for – and it will improve the dog’s work and sheep control immensely.

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