My Dog’s No Good

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If someone tells you your dog's no good, don't believe them.

As long as your dog has the herding instinct, the will to work for its handler, and is physically fit, it's capable of learning how to work stock.

All too often, farmers, shepherds and handlers assume that a dog's useless because it happens to be working badly, when in fact it's their fault for not showing the dog how they want it to work.

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10 Replies to “My Dog’s No Good”

  1. Hello Andy,
    I have been training my 2 year old BC for the last 16 months and he has improved over this time, obeying most commands and even responding to the whistle, although I don’t think he’ll ever reach a suitable trials standard . . . but I’ve not given up on the possibility. My problem is that the one command he totally ignores is “that’ll do” or any other recall command. Once he is off line he will not recall . I have spent many hours with him on various lengths of long line and he will come back quite reliably whilst attached and aware that I have the other end. Once he is loose , whether with stock or in an empty field he just refuses to come off or back . The larger the field the worse he is and I have to resort to chasing after him to get him back . . this can take a while as he continues to run away from me.
    We have a good lead walking discipline, he balances well and even drives for very short distances .
    Do you have any suggestions for improving his recall . . . . I feel like I’ve tried almost everything.

    1. Something odd here, Geoff. Do I understand you correctly?
      Your dog is working sheep quite well, flanking, stopping and even driving a little, but you can’t call it away from the sheep? I don’t understand how this can be. For example: if you want the dog to drive, you stop it when it’s close to you and then tell it to walk up on the sheep. If you can stop him when he’s close, you can surely keep him there while you walk over and catch him.
      Maybe I’m misunderstanding you?
      We have eleven collies of various ages here at the moment, and I can walk all of them (either one at a time, or all together) to within a few yards of the sheep, then call them away, and they’ll all come immediately.
      I admit there are times when we have young pups between about four and six months, we can have problems with them, but the rest of the time, it’s the norm, and even was when we used to have thirty dogs.
      The first thing that sprang to mind is that you’re not spending enough time with the dog. What does he do when he’s not working or training? The dog learns next to nothing when it’s shut away in its pen. The more time the dog spends with you, the stronger the bond will be. Your dog isn’t bonded with you.
      Another thought is that if he’s working, he’ll want to get at the sheep, so if you drive the sheep into a pen or a tight corner, you can catch him. (Watch Stopping the Dog Part 2 for more on this).
      Dogs do almost everything for some kind of reward, and conversely, if they lose some kind of reward they don’t do things.
      If you’ve been calling the dog back and then immediately shutting him away, or taking him away from sheep, for instance, he’s likely to ignore you next time you call him back. But if he comes back and you allow him to carry on having his fun (whatever that may be) he’s far more likely to come back next time. Then you can gradually wean him off this so that you can just call him away.
      The long line.
      If the dog’s good at walking on a lead (not pulling at all) he should respect the long line, but he’ll know if you’ve removed it. Try leaving the long line attached to the dog but releasing your end so that as he moves around he can still feel it pulling on his collar and he’ll respect it. It works!
      If for some reason he’s not respecting the long line though, make it heavier, even heavy enough to make it quite an effort to pull it along. (See the ‘Rope Chain’ in the tutorial Training Max – the Gripper).
      Another way is to have a really long line, and let the dog go, then if he won’t come back you can get close enough to stand on the line and then haul him in. In that case, I’d bundle the dog back into his pen (take the fun away) for a couple of hours and then try again. If he comes back, he continues to get his reward (or fun).

      1. Hello Andy, Thankyou for your reply.
        I know it sounds odd but he does seem to be a very strong willed but sensitive dog and as a novice trainer I have probably done several things wrong over our time together. I know we are bonded but once he is in the field he seems to want his freedom more than me. He is with me almost all of the time but I can never let him off his lead outside of a secure area as he will just run off. . . This is something which started when he was about 4 months old and has persisted. He’s certainly not one for hanging around my feet when I’m working, he will run off and amuse himself by jumping up at trees or just run 50 yards away and lay down looking at me. If I hide it doesn’t bother him. If I drive away he doesn’t care!
        Yes I can get him to stay and walk to him to drive the sheep for about 20 yds before he flanks them and balances with me once again, but when he is in the stop position he often wont let me within 3 feet before he ups and moves away.
        I will persevere however and hopefully this coming spring should see an improvement, following some of your helpful advice. I tried out the rope chain this afternoon with no sheep and it did seem to have an effect ….he came back to me much more readily, probably the best he’s been for a long time. Tomorrow I will try him with the sheep and we’ll see what happens.
        Thankyou for your advice and an excellent training web site.

  2. Hi Andy, really appreciating your website.
    I am a novice, and have been training my now 8-month old collie on sheep for 2-3 weeks most days. She is keen and energetic and works reasonably well in the training pen except for getting them off the fence, when I normally have to get her collar and begin the movement for her. I watched the relevant videos (nice is not enough, getting sheep off the fence) and assume that with perseverance this will come right.
    However, I have tried her out of the pen a couple of times and she just chases the sheep, maybe then pinning them against a fence, and totally oblivious to any command.
    Am I expecting too much too soon? Any strategy that I can use for a dog happy to be assertive but also seemingly lacking confidence?
    Thank you.

    1. Before you move out into the open field, the dog needs to be confident enough to get the sheep away from the fence. Concentrate on this. If the dog approaches the sheep wide and at a steady pace, they’ll usually come away from the fence with no problem, but if it darts at them, or is too tight, they’ll huddle together on the fence and be difficult to move.
      Get the sheep into the middle of the training ring, and keep the dog circling them but gradually allow the sheep to get closer to the fence.
      Do it GRADUALLY and the dog will soon build up the confidence to get them away from the fence itself.
      Watch “Get off the Fence” again – particularly the “waltzing part to learn how to do this. The dog must develop the instinct to stop the sheep running away, but if you can’t do this in the ring for some reason, you should at least be able to get the sheep away from the fence if they do run off. That way, they’ll (eventually) realise there’s not much point in running off, and they’ll be easier to control.

  3. Thanks, another excellent tutorial, short, but good.
    I have heard this sooo often, that I start to believe it. Last weekend’s trials were a complete disaster, but of course, it was all my fault. My dog is very keen and high energy, but not very strong eyed. Here in NZ most dogs are very strong eyed, in fact I would call them sticky eyed. But nobody seems to be able to help me with my young dog and I am a complete Novice too. So, the advice I get is either ‘dog is useless’ or ‘I don’t know how to train a plain eyed dog’. Is this dog really useless. But then again Les Knight won a NZ Championship with a plain eyed dog. I am confused, but I know that I love my dog.

    1. I’m happy to try to help you if I can Brita, but I need information. The terms “loose” or “strong” are of little use.

      1. Trials? What sort of trials are you talking about? (Describe what should happen in these trials, and what actually happened).
      2. What is it about your dog’s work or behaviour that prompts people to say it’s useless?
      3. How old is the dog?
      4. Does the dog work better at home than when it’s away?
      1. 1. We have 2 different types of trials in NZ: Hill trials and Yard Trials. I am not doing hill trials at all, the distances are huge and I don’t know how to train for these trials since I don’t have huge hills and paddocks available. I am concentrating on the yard trials at the moment, where the competitor has to manoeuvre 3 sheep through a course with different obstacles, like a maltese cross, bridge, u-pen and at the end of the course sheep have to be penned. This all has to happen within 12 min.
        What happened last weekend was, that sheep were very flighty and very keen to go back to their friends in the holding pen right next to the course. We started quite good, her cast and lift was good, first obstacle good too, but then at the bridge, they really wanted to go back to their friends and my dog got them back and over the bridge after 2nd attempt. Then at the u-pen, we got them in straight away, but sheep escaped again, almost jumping over the dog, but we got them back in again. But it was out of control, dog didn’t listen to a word I said and did her own thing. I now realise, that I should have stopped a lot earlier – as soon as I noticed she didn’t listen to me. I have learned this (very valuable) lesson now and it won’t happen again. I was very embarrassed.
        2. My dog is very energetic, very keen, but works the stock more with her body rather than with her eyes (which they call here ‘plain eyed dog’). The result is, that the sheep, esp. when they are flighty – which normally is the case, because they either have never seen a dog before or are dog-bothered – try to get away from the dog in a hurry (sheep are not allowed to trot or run here, when worked. One looses heaps of points straight away.). Which means, a plain-eyed dog has to be very careful in his approach to stock. If the sheep are rather stubborn and not flighty, and other dogs can’t move them, we are normally doing well, that’s how I won a maiden trial a few month ago. But trialists here think, that a plain-eyed dog is useless and normally shoot it or give it away. But I know, it can be done.
        3. My dog is 4 years old, but we only started last season (3 trials), this is our second season. We don’t compete every weekend, firstly, there aren’t many yarding trials available, secondly I don’t have time to drive a day or 2 to get to the the competition, therefore I only do the local ones, which are only about 5/year.
        4. No she is always keen when she sees sheep, no matter where.

        1. Sorry Britta, I still don’t really understand. They give you stubborn or flighty sheep and expect you to move them around the course without the sheep trotting or running? In this country, judges tend to prefer the sheep to move at walking pace or at a steady canter but if the dog has approached the sheep calmly and is keeping well back from them and they run off, it’s hardly the fault of the dog. Of course, if the sheep are running off, it can be difficult to keep control.

          I still don’t really understand what you mean by “plain” eyed and “strong” eyed dogs – or rather I don’t understand the relevance of it. Why is everyone making such a big deal about it? What does a strong eyed dog do to keep the sheep calm, that a plain eyed dog cannot do?

          The dog should work at such a pace and distance from the sheep as is necessary to move the sheep with minimum stress. To me it makes no difference whether the dog has its head held high, or has its nose a millimetre from the ground as long as the dog’s working correctly. I happen to prefer a dog which works with its head up because in my opinion, a dog which works with its head right down (regarded by many as “stylish”) is lacking confidence. That’s just how a dog looks when it’s frightened – but if the dog’s listening, and controlling the sheep well, that’s fine.

          From what you wrote, your dog did a sterling job until it eventually lost its patience under very trying conditions. Obviously you need to work on this, and I’d suggest that rather than retire from the run (if that’s what you were implying) you should try to be ready for it and take extra care to keep the dog calm (and well back from the sheep if possible).

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