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I know, I know, I skipped lessons three and four. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot, I’ve just been so busy with my real job I haven’t had time to write, and I’m too impatient to wait to get to this.

So at the end of lesson four and the end of Shelby’s first clinic, I arranged for Shelby to begin semi-private lessons with Carolyn. I say semi-private because depending on the day, we are joined by other tending dogs (our favorite is a Belgian Malinois named Fancy and her human mom Nanette). But it’s all about tending all the time – hooray for us!

Shelby has graduated from simply running the fence line to trotting calmly along a border not a fence (in this instance it’s surveying tape wrapped around several cones and snow poles). The first challenge was getting Shelby to understand that she needed to be on the side of the pink tape that didn’t have sheep on it. To Shelby, this was clearly a very boring place to be.

So with Nanette manning the molasses bucket inside the sheep pen, I took up a position on the side of the tape with the sheep. Naturally, Shelby walked right through the tape and began tending along the fence line.

Each time Shelby crossed over me, Carolyn made sure I put myself in between Shelby and the sheep, even if it meant hugging the fence. When I asked her why that was, I was half expecting her to tell me it was “dominance” related. Carolyn has never given me the impression that she in any way believes in the dominance or alpha dog theories, but I still find it hard to believe I found a herding trainer who uses positive reinforcement after struggling so hard to find one. I guess it still seems too good to be true. As it turns out, me being in front of Shelby when she crosses over is a practical matter. There will be times later in Shelby’s career where I will essentially become the snow pole for the border, so it’s good for her to get into the habit of trotting behind me now, so I don’t have to retrain that habit later.

When Shelby continued her determined tending along the fence line, running through, crawling under and jumping over the surveying tape, we upped the ante and laid bird netting down along the fence line. Carolyn thought the netting might keep Shelby from wandering into the off-limits box, because the netting would feel strange under her paws. Unfortunately, that didn’t help. One of the things I worked on extensively with Shelby as a puppy was “walking on weird surfaces”, so she trotted right along the netting like it was grass.

I, of course, wasn’t so graceful and found myself falling all over trying to walk down the fence line. So we nixed the netting and decided to take a break and regroup.

While we watered Fancy, Shelby and ourselves, Carolyn briefed us on phase 2 of the afternoon’s training – teaching our dogs an “out” cue (as in, “Excuse me, but get out of the border”). Essentially, we were going to teach the dogs to turn 90º and walk out of the border. Like most things, this turned out to be easier said than done, and each time I lured Shelby out of the border, she just turned and walked back in. I was starting to get frustrated.

The thing I’ve noticed about herding is that in some ways it’s a Catch-22. You need the sheep to keep the dog interested in running the border, so it’s pretty hard to practice at home, but then when you have the sheep there, it’s too much of a distraction, so the dog seems to have trouble staying outside of the border. It’s like Shelby was telling me, “This is really boring at home mom, and if you make me stay this far away from the sheep it’s just as boring here.”

“She responds to a clicker, right?”

I looked up from my focus on Shelby to see Carolyn pulling a green Karen Pryor clicker out of the dashboard of her golf cart, “Yeah, she does.”

“All right, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to try to shape this without treats. Everything she does right, I’m going to click. You just keep an eye on her, keep walking the border and every once in awhile throw a treat right in front of her nose after I click, but not every time. We want the sheep to be the most rewarding thing here, and we want the treats to be falling from the sky, not coming from you, otherwise this isn’t going to work.”

So that’s what we did, and before long, Shelby was not just running up and down the taped border, but instead, she was calmly trotting (for the most part, we did get some helicopter tail spins in there every so often when the sheep did something particularly interesting).

I grinned. There was my puppy!

After Fancy’s turn, we headed back to the main house. As we were summing up the day’s events, Carolyn showed us some footage of another clicker trainer who’d had a shepherd who acted much like Shelby, all barks and helicopter tail and overall uncontrolled energy, but who had an obvious natural talent. She also showed us the footage of that same dog calmly patrolling the border around 50 head of sheep with no fence just 9 months later.

I pointed out that the other dog, just like Shelby, didn’t turn her head when she heard the click. Carolyn nodded and explained that was actually a good thing. Most clicker trained dogs will turn on a dime the minute they hear the click, because they know that food or some other reinforcement is coming from their handler. In the herding world, this can be a problem, because the dog takes its attention off the sheep. Just a split second of not focusing on the sheep can get the dog and the shepherd into trouble.

The click in herding is more akin to the click used in shaping, a sort of “you’re getting there” click v. a “you got it” click that follows the result of a desired behavior when you’re using luring, for example. The click simply tells the dog he/she is moving in the right direction.

So what about the reward? Well, Carolyn clicker trains her dogs from the start by using the simple presence of the sheep as a reward. So she will click and the dog will get to run at the sheep or just look at the sheep, essentially, she is “charging” her clicker with the presence of the sheep instead of food. Unfortunately, that’s not really possible for most people who don’t have regular access to sheep.

How did Shelby know how to respond correctly then? Her own awesomeness led her to it.

Actually, it was a little bit of luck and a little bit of planning on my part that allowed Shelby to view the clicker as a bridge instead of a mark which helped her in herding.

The first thing was an accident. Because Shelby was such an enthusiastic treat muncher when she was young, and I was sick of getting my fingers bitten, I started throwing the treats at her instead of having her take them out of my hand. There were times when I would click something she was doing at a distance and just lob the treat in her direction. That led her to associate the treat sort of falling out of the sky when she heard the click, not necessarily the treat coming from me. The second thing I did with her was to use a varying reinforcement schedule. So as soon as she had a solid behavior, I would sometimes offer 5 treats, sometimes none, sometimes she would get to play tug, sometimes she would just get to be finished with training. That way, she was never really 100% positive a treat was coming. And lastly, because I knew I wanted her to eventually participate in herding, and I had a feeling we were going to need to know how to build up complex behavior chains, I started working on very simple chains with her from the get go. So for example, I taught her how to get into the “place” position by combining three hand touches around my back. The clicks served as bridges, with the final click for the sit yielding the reward (very bad for rally, but very good for herding).

All of these things combined turned out to give me a dog who doesn’t look away from the sheep when she hears the click, but who still uses the sound of the click to indicate that she is moving in the right direction. And more importantly, I think we both breathed a bit easier and smiled a little more when we heard that light “CLICK!”