50 years a student of sheepdogs

by | Dec 3, 2021

In recognition of my half-century of being a student of collies I want to celebrate their skills as masters of my learning. When we are open to the invitation, they teach us much more than we teach them. 

I have shared the time with 28 sheepdogs, many born in front of me, some left at the gate, and a few adopted from selected sources. Over time, contributions from, and other breeds served to emphasise the impressive skills of sheepdogs to teaching people.

First collie, Bob, was the last to make sure I learned about the self-entertainment skills of unemployed teenagers. A redesigned three-piece suite sought me to invest in outdoor residence. His new panorama of moving aircraft shared with subsequent siblings was sufficient entertainment that allowed us to graduate from garden furniture in the sitting room.

From hobby to career

I enjoyed 25 years of competitive obedience, which was a learning ground for accuracy blended with continual reward and motivation. There is very little about the formal exercises that makes a sheepdog’s blood run faster. Repeated success at the top level was required to ensure progression and this was engineered with post-exercise games. A pop from down to sit position resulted in play. Devising ways of ensuring exact placement of feet and backsides stretched my creativity to these skills being generated within the dog, as opposed to being imposed on the dog. Their flexibility in movement close at our side showed ability to adapt stride length, speed and point of balance which is almost unique. Many breeds struggle to find these skills and the human needs to walk in a most peculiar fashion. It was not until many years later shepherding an ever changing flock that the origins of the inheritance of these skills was apparent. My dogs made a swop from heelwork to flock work in a 24 hour period.

Competitive sports, as with Olympics or Premier Leagues are the generators for new ideas and seeking improvement. Many critiques on technique and limitations are held, which have now graduated to online forums, where our demands for more answers and understanding are pouring in from worlds outside of our familiar fields. We go shopping around neuroscience, special needs education, bio-psychology for nuggets that may bring us insight.

We are seeing sheepdogs that enjoy full time employment in scent detection actively working alongside prime choices from the gundog fans. Competition obedience, more by fortunate accident than intelligent design, forced me to learn about matching scent recognition. As the dog moves up the classes they are required to initially find an object matching their owner’s scent and graduate to a stranger’s amongst decoys. A weekend of exacting conditions would match any research project in testing the variables of contingencies. Scent was transferred from hands to cloths, which could be any suitable, unpredictable fabric, and placed out in a choice of 10 cloths. Weather variations, freezing cold hands, sweaty hands and smokers added to the rich “flavours” for the dog to match-to-sample. No wonder they began the exercise with a sneeze.

Their true, or honest, application of learning, their ability to roll up their sleeves for the tasks that we present to them led me along many avenues of fascinating research. Asking questions about their memory capacities, their navigation skills, their ability to predict intention in this predominantly silent partnership.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Making us question the extent of their abilities

Natural skill

When we work with a dog in their natural field we often miss, or assume, these skills. The dogs learn their flock and the individuals within that flock. This skill of distinguishing one personality from another is the equivalent of a head teacher learning the name of every pupil in a large school that changes every year. Which ewes can be trusted to lead, and the silly-bits that gather at the rear and will always need threats to keep up, to stop gossiping and grass shopping as they travel.

Recognising patience that is needed to teach lambs that only want to play and fight, have no awareness of danger, or are inclined to panic and run into walls. The intruders seeking your greener grass, the catastrophiser, the I-never-wanted-to-be-a-mother old ewe: the dog needs to remember each of these, their predisposition to peculiar behaviours, recognise when and how this will occur and prevent it from disrupting the job. Often this skill is applied through learning different backsides and flick of a tail. Should we be surprised that people have discovered that sheepdogs can remember the names of 1000 toys?

The scent of a ewe sick-to-lamb, the scent of Winter hunger, the scent of foot-rot, an October ram readying for action: these are all different and relevant and learned as an outcome of how we behave when these scents are present and different. The collie will learn, remember and do what they need to do, so that we can learn from them.

The voyage of discovery is not about new landscapes
but about having new eyes (Proust).

Our dogs have always been able to scent these differences, it is a key component of a successful predator, but have we always had the eyes to see it?

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

My lifestyles have changed alongside my interests and hobbies and the sheepdog-family continues to demonstrate it can adapt when given the right conditions to bloom. I have seen selective breeding gradually change through chosen criteria developing branches of preferred characteristics. Activities favouring different physical types or a tolerance of urban life. A gene pool that allows for personal choice to be a key element alongside the inherited skills. We may prefer a certain look or way of moving, a style of application or a range of social skills. We can get to choose our companions and work colleagues.

As the seasons change the sheep will change their behaviours, our tasks change and we look for the dog that can adapt. The dog that will move heavily pregnant ladies with a bit more care, wait for wild lambs to find the right mother, block the hungry rams from taking us out at the knees. Adaptation is their strength. Without that ability to adapt to changing seasons, tasks, or stock they could not have functioned as sheepdogs. If we look deeper we can see the roots of these skills suited for many other purposes.

Dogs learn to handle their sheep, a job that seems extensive, and heavy work improves day by day as the flock stops testing the dog. The dog that can anticipate that the wrong open gate is going to lead to trouble and extra work. They learn their landscape, the critical navigation points, as do the hill flock who know their way to winter feed and summer water.

Can they learn to disappear when you step out of the house in “fancy clothes”? Sigh, it looks like no-dog market day. They remember that this outfit means they are going to be shut in for a while. Dressing for an occasion will make you smell different and behaviour in an odd way: excited or nervous. The dogs can identify that This Person, not wearing boots or a whistle, means This Person is going off without a dog. They are masters of studying us: our behaviour, clothes and companions and will easily commit to memory warning of a day shut in the barn.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

Aviation demands unsocial hours. A 5am alarm could mean setting off for work, or setting off for a competition. My dogs would remain perfectly still watching for the first indication that confirms the plan for the day, then erupt with joy when the dog-wardrobe is pulled out. The phone call at 11pm for a call-out and a night on the mountain searching for the lost. They read our arousal level as we throw back the bed clothes, switch off the TV, or put on the coat. They can detect our intentions with frightening accuracy.

They live to be able to live alongside us in whatever we do. They will sacrifice their genetic echoes to be a work companion, a part of the job. The dogs that want to run the hills, get plastered in the urine-poo, will sit in a truck on the M1 just to be able to be alongside Their Person. They will learn all that we can teach them for the pleasure of learning, herd ducks or children, sort re-cycling, play football, or collect the post.

They can guarantee that when we are attentive, they will teach with honesty, remind us that hard work brings its own rewards, and never leave us alone when we need them. 

What they can’t adapt to is isolation, a life without activity or small moments of joy every day. They do not demand much, but they deserve everything.



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Key Reading

The Fade-in Protocol

Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. An error is simply the difference between my expectation and the dog’s response. No more “distractions”, but faded-in environments.

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

Shaping by rewards

When I see a dog showing a behaviour that is heading towards potential conflict, my first question is “what rewards are available?”

Think carefully

We cannot presume a cue is a reinforcer unless we can shape a new behaviour using that cue as the marker. Read carefully. Think carefully. Consider multiple perspectives. Sometimes it seems easier to let someone else do the thinking for you and just copy, but we need to become thoughtful trainers.

Construction or suppression

Looking at the way the behaviour is carried out is the most important element, and that is the product of all the considerations.

Guidance is not dependence

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give you guidance.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

Why add fun?

When an activity gives intrinsic pleasure we do not need to add fun.

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

Top Training

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Nose Target. No thanks

Nose target is a popular behaviour taught to many dogs, and other animals. It seems easy to teach and have practical application, but it is often not such a pleasant experience for all dogs. There are many other options available that give the same practical benefit, without the unpleasant extremes.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.


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