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I’ve heard, read and observed so much about this subject, I feel like I could write a book about it. Forgive me while I try to summarize.

Shock collars are becoming increasingly popular in herding training. While most other dog sports are moving more toward positive reinforcement, sometimes it seems like herding is moving further away, which is interesting, considering that herding is arguably the oldest of “dog sports” and the oldest texts we have on herding describe shepherds smearing sheep fat on their feet to get their dogs to lie down (thank goodness positive reinforcement has evolved some). From what it seems, shepherds were, in essence, the original positive reinforcement trainers, which makes sense to someone who actively trains in herding and positive reinforcement. What doesn’t make sense is why shock collars are becoming the norm, while treats are scoffed at.

I have come to attribute most of this to the “Three Ds” – Drive, Distance and Dominance.

Drive: I have discussed this before. I have been told time and time again, by herding trainers, by friends, by “experts”, by “professionals”, by other trainees, that I cannot train my dog to participate in herding without using force or other positive punishment, because herding is a “high drive” dog sport. While that is true, herding is certainly a high drive sport, there is no reason why drive should have anything to do with force. Physical corrections, shock collars, yelling and other positive punishment do much toward attempting to control or diminish a dog’s drive. Drive is necessary for herding, why would you want to diminish it? Instead, you should focus on unleashing it on cue and molding it into something useful and rewarding, for both you and the dog.

Shelby says, “Drive? I got drive!”

Distance: I have probably talked about this before as well. Distance is crucial in herding. For most of the work done in herding, your dog is many, many yards away from you, sometimes hundreds. For that reason, the shock collar seems like the right tool, because you have the ability to correct your dog for his or her mistakes from a distance. However, when you’re dealing in positive reinforcement, you don’t use positive punishment at all. If your dog isn’t ready to be hundreds of feet away from you, you can use a long line or a fence instead of a shock collar and button down on your training. Also, if a dog is in such a rage that he insists on killing a sheep hundreds of feet away from you, a shock collar is not going to prevent him from doing so, in fact, he most likely won’t even feel it. In this instance, prevention is certainly the best medicine.

Carolyn’s lead BC Dean searching for the sheep. At this point, Carolyn gives Dean a cue that means, essentially, “Go out there and find the sheep and bring them back to me.” Here he is searching for them, so far away that not even my distance lens can pick him up that great.

Here’s Dean bringing the sheep down to Carolyn after he’s found them.

Dominance: Dominance in herding is often misused, mischaracterized and misunderstood. There is, indeed a linear hierarchy that must exist between you, the dog and the flock. As in, you, the handler, shepherd, person, whatever, must be at the “top” of the linear hierarchy, then comes the dog, then the sheep are at the bottom. In its essence, I have no problem with this structure, in fact, it is necessary for the relationship. Both the sheep and the dog have to trust you and work with you for your training to be effective. I have no problem saying I am the “dominant” one in this linear hierarchy, where “dominant” is meant to explain that I am the one who both the dog and the sheep should look to for direction (and in kind, the dog is the one the sheep should defer to).

While I realize that dominance is a much loaded word with many varying definitions, I have come to understand that in herding training, this is how most people seem to perceive dominance, where the “leader” (i.e. the one who the sheep and the dog should look to) is the “dominant” one. From observation and discussion, I have come to realize that many people believe they need to “dominate” their dog, who should “dominate” the sheep and if the dog is out of whack or not responding appropriately, this is because he is trying to “dominate” the handler to assume his position on the top of this linear hierarchy, which the handler must win back from the dog through various displays of force, including through the use of a shock collar. While this is not the appropriate definition or use of the words “dominate” and “dominance” this is what I believe many people involved in herding understand dominance to mean, thus this is the stigma that I must dispel, so when I refer to “dominance” or “dominate” this is the structure or relationship that I am referring to, regardless of whether or not it is the scientifically correct definition of the word (understand I am not trying to correct the understanding of the semantics or the word itself, I am trying to correct the understanding of the people who use force, for whatever reason).

This relationship between human, dog and sheep need not be contingent upon force however; this relationship should be contingent upon trust, which I will discuss later in this post. The only problem I have with dominance getting involved, is that most people don’t understand that this linear formula is what we are talking about when we talking about the structure in herding. We aren’t talking about force, punishment, correction, or whether or not the dog believes I am part of his “pack” (he certainly knows the sheep aren’t, for example). When people think they need to overpower their dogs through the use of force (like a shock collar and other tools used in herding, including whips and crooks), so they can obtain this coveted “dominant” spot above the dog, is where I start to have a problem.

So let me take a minute to talk about why shock collars shouldn’t be used in herding training, now that you know why they so commonly are. I will break this into three categories as well, three seems to be a good number (and it stops me from going on and on about this).

Redirected Aggression: One of the many things Carolyn has taught me over the months is that dogs tend to redirect their aggression onto things they perceive as weaker than them. That means that when a dog experiences pain (like the pain of a shock), he will naturally be inclined to redirect his aggression onto something he doesn’t have to fear reprisal from, something weaker than him. In many instances, this is children. In some instances, it is just a stranger walking down the street who has never caused him pain or discomfort, and he does not fear the reprisal of. In the instance of herding, it is commonly the sheep. When you shock a dog, or otherwise physically correct him, you are causing pain. This pain, over time (and sometimes instantly), builds up frustration and fear in the dog. Often times, this frustration is vented outward, onto something he perceives as weaker than him. In herding, this is most commonly the sheep. Redirected aggression has taken many sheep lives. I can see how the argument in training at home is formed, “Well, if the dog sees me as weaker, and that’s why he’s biting me, then I must prove I am stronger, by disciplining him more.” However, the more logical argument is this – if the dog is redirecting his aggression, I should stop correcting him, so he doesn’t have the frustration that leads to the aggression in the first place. In herding training, this argument becomes more salient because there is obviously no way to train a sheep to show a dog who’s boss (well, you might be able to do that, but it is completely impractical on a working farm).

One more word on redirected aggression. Sometimes, the aggression which has formed through frustration, is born not only from pain, but also because the dog does not understand or cannot reach what is causing him pain or frustration (it does not always have to be pain that is causing the dog to aggress, fear is actually the root of this issue, and fear does not always include pain, but pain typically necessitates fear). I see this reflected in my dogs in normal household situations. For example, Panzer is extremely frustrated with and probably afraid of our cat, Apollo, an ongoing problem we are working on. When Panzer sees Apollo in an environment which I have not properly controlled or managed, he begins to aggress. This aggression leads Apollo to run away. Unable to see his aggression to fruition, Panzer will turn around and snap at Shelby, who is usually nearby. He has redirected his aggression onto the next thing he sees, because he is unable to take it out on the cause. Shock collars work in much the same way, except the dog does not understand that you are the one controlling the shock. They just experience the fear and pain of the shock, so they redirect their aggression elsewhere. In herding, it’s usually the sheep, not only the weakest thing, but the closest as well. I have heard many a horror story about a dog that took a wrong move in herding training, was shocked and immediately proceeded to eviscerate the sheep closest to him.

Independence: While it is important for the dog to listen to you and respond to your cues, there is also a level of independence necessary in herding. The dog must be free to make his own decisions, because as much as we hate to admit it, sometimes his are better than ours. He smells better, hears better, senses better and observes better than we do. If he knows what his job is, there’s a good chance he will know before you what needs to be done. In split second situations where decisions need to be processed quickly, sometimes he can make the right one before you can even start the words to get a cue out, so he needs to feel free to make decisions on his own. The best way to foster decision making in dogs is to prevent positive punishment, which shuts the dog down and makes him feel like he needs you to tell him where to place each paw.

Trust: The best way to build the linear structure I discussed above is to create trust between you and your dog (and you and the sheep, another fundamental component many handlers neglect). Relationships built on trust last the longest and work the best. The least effective way to build trust is through force. There are a lot of very effective ways to build it though, positive reinforcement training being just one of them.

You know I trust you, right mommy?

The other important component of trust in herding is one that isn’t spoken of frequently – trust between the sheep and the dog. This is especially critical in tending, where the dog is supposed to be able to patrol a border only several feet (sometimes less) away from the sheep. The best way to encourage the sheep to trust the dog is to encourage the dog to temper its emotions around the sheep and remain calm. In the herding training we do, we do this through shaping. So at first, I encouraged any interest Shelby had in the sheep. I encouraged barking, biting, lunging, jumping, growling, running, helicopter tail, and cantering enthusiastically. When her confidence was built up around the sheep I started to narrow my criteria the same way you would narrow criteria to shape any other behavior. First, she only got reinforced for running from one end of the border to the other. Then, she only got reinforced for trotting. Now, we are to the point where she only gets reinforced for trotting in longer and longer segments. We are, in essence, shaping tending. The calmer she becomes, the closer the sheep get. Two weeks ago, Carolyn could barely get the sheep within 30 feet of Shelby. Last week, Shelby was easily within 10 feet, and the sheep were calmly grazing throughout. You don’t want your sheep to be so upset and afraid of the dog that they can’t eat, because that’s what tending is all about, letting the sheep graze. So there has to be an element of trust between the dog and the sheep as well as you and the dog and you and the sheep (gaining the trust of sheep is pretty simple, just feed them something they like, don’t move too quickly and speak to them softly, not too different from gaining the trust of a dog). It’s hard for this relationship between dog and sheep to form if the dog is always in a heightened emotional state because he’s afraid to make a mistake or he’s angry because he’s been shocked. Sheep don’t trust these dogs, and they don’t graze around them, making them very ineffective tending dogs.

Here’s Shelby lying in her furrow at practice on Sunday, munching on some treats while the sheep graze. Notice the distance difference between this picture and the one below? Just one week of shaping the calmer tending behaviors have brought the sheep that much closer.

In sum, when you line it all up, the shock collar is nothing but a problem starter, not a problem fixer. It may take longer to train a dog to become an effective herding dog using positive reinforcement based training, but you will have a better partner because of it, and you will spend much less time, effort, frustration and money attempting to fix problems that didn’t need to be there in the first place.

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