What does your dog think of you?
April 8, 2008
This week's topic is making sure your dog enjoys his work. I know these dogs are hard-wired to work, and really can't even help themselves when it comes to work. They're slaves to their instincts in many ways. But you can create a happy, willing partner who will give everything he has working with and for you, or you can have a sulky, sullen dog that does his work with no spark and no heart. You can also create a crazed, frustrated maniac who tries to work in spite of you and it seems like he's working against you. The common thing with all of these dogs is a trainer.
Stop to consider what each of these dogs thinks of his trainer. "Happy" is relaxed and listening, and trusts his trainer to do right by him, helping him control sheep, confident in his abilities. "Sulky" thinks his owner is pretty stupid, asking him to do things that just make no sense, like making him lie down just when the sheep are starting to escape. He doesn't trust his handler and has just shut down mentally. "Crazy" probably has a trainer a lot like Sulky's trainer, but rather than shutting down he's grown a short fuse and closed his ears, and takes his tension out on sheep and instead of getting sullen he just runs faster and faster to try to get where he knows he needs to be, while his trainer screams commands at the top of his lungs (LIEDOWNLIEDOWNLIEDOWN!!).
If you will stop and try to puzzle out what your dog thinks about what you're asking him to do, you can create a Happy dog for yourself. This is especially important with younger, less trained dogs. A dog needs to feel he can trust you before he can give you his obedience and give up a little of what his instinct is screaming at him to do. If you're going to ask your dog to give up that little bit of instinctive reaction, you have to give the dog something in return that he enjoys. Border collies are nature's control freaks, so don't ask the dog to give up total control. Ask for a down when it makes sense *to your dog*, not when your sheep are starting to break off to the barn and your dog will be out of position to stop them if he lies down. If you can figure out how to get your dog to do what you want, and when the dog does it, he's actually getting more control on the sheep, he'll love that. Let him go to the pressure and then ask for a down and he'll think you're a pretty good partner and pretty smart. When you start driving with a dog, ask for a little flank onto the pressure point so that your sheep slow down instead of running off, and watch your dog's opinion of you go up.
Over time, after your dog is pretty well trained up, you don't have to think quite so hard about what the dog is thinking. But it's pretty important to work on your dog's opinion of you when he's starting out and especially when he's about half-trained. We start expecting more of the dog just about the time we start asking for things that make less sense instinctively to the dog.
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