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“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a clicker training seminar presented by Kathy Sdao in Columbia, Maryland. Kathy Sdao was quirky, pithy, witty and all the kinds of sarcastic that I find humorous. She also presented more information than I think I could absorb, and I’m still trying to process some of what I learned and figure out ways to utilize it in my own training. I would highly recommend attending any of her seminars, she certainly knows her stuff.

Kathy Sdao is sort of one of my training heroes. Her book Plenty in Life is Free is one of my favorites (click on the link to pick up a copy), and she has a concise way of connecting abstract thoughts for the average, everyday dog owner to improve his/her training skills. So when Kathy started talking about classical conditioning, something I feel that I know a considerable amount about, I dared to raise my hand, hoping to pick her brain for some much needed tips for herding.

Classical conditioning, sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning, is most famously described in Pavlov’s experiment about drooling dogs. Image courtesy of Tumblr, copyright featured in photo.

After I got over the shock of discovering that she actually knew my name (clicker trainers are magic!) I managed to stumble out, “Okay, so I do herding training.”

I really should have just stopped there. Everyone sat up, and I could swear I heard several people intake air like it was going to be their last breath. The tension in the room increased to a level of almost panic. Even Kathy stepped back slightly, then smiled and said, “Okay, herding training, something I know nothing about.”

Everyone laughed, but it was a nervous kind of laughter. I attempted to forge on despite my rising blush, “So we use a lot of classical conditioning, right? Because we’re dealing with instinctual behaviors that we sort of want to put on cue. Anyway, so I’ve got a question about classical conditioning and counter commanding, right. So when I say, ‘come bye’  and the dog is going by, but then the sheep move, so I need to counter command and say, ‘away to me’. So the dog is going bye but I say away while the dog is going bye, then the dog turns to go away but you’re really reinforcing the going bye behavior with away, so before you know it, the dog has the two cues completely opposite.” While I spoke, I made a crisscross pattern with my hands.

Again, nervous laughter. I laughed too. It was so silly wasn’t it? I didn’t realize until later they were laughing because my question (understandably) made no sense, especially to those who didn’t know much about herding. I even had to think extensively about it later that evening (and eventually, using the knowledge gained at the seminar, answered my own question). Kathy Sdao tried to give me an explanation, but I could tell she wasn’t on the right track, which of course made me try to rephrase but through my frustration and fluster, the question just got more convoluted. Again, Kathy tried, but this time, she qualified it with the following statement, “Assuming your cues aren’t poisoned, which I’m sure they are, because in herding you use all kinds of positive punishment, well, I’m not necessarily saying you, but…”

I tried to focus on her answer, but I kept spinning that statement around in my head and ended up using all my mental energy on keeping my jaw clenched, so it didn’t hit the floor or pop open in defense. All I could think was, “Are you serious?” And, “Don’t start an argument with Kathy Sdao, you’re going to lose, you’re going to lose, don’t start an argument. Just don’t start an argument.”

Now, to be fair, Kathy Sdao doesn’t know me, and she doesn’t know my herding trainer and that Carolyn is special and that she was completely off base. To be even more fair, she tried to take away the qualifier after she said it by saying it wasn’t necessarily “me” she was talking about, though that was the original statement. She has a lot of reason to believe that she was absolutely correct, as the sport can be particularly brutal. Anyone could have walked off the streets of Columbia, Maryland that day and attended her seminar without knowing who she was or what she was talking about. For all she knew, I could be a dominance trainer, or a balanced trainer or a punitive trainer who was just there to “mess” with the clicker trainer. I’m sure that has happened to her on more than one occasion (heck, it’s happened to me on more than one occasion, and I’m not even an internationally recognized professional).

Still, I was shocked by the reaction.

Since I began herding training, I’ve had a lot of people inquire about it. The most common reaction I get is, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was something just anyone could do with their dog.” I think herding training is really neat, and I think I have an expectation that other people will think it is neat too. I understand why a lot of people (Joe included) don’t find it all that interesting, but I expect at least a, “Well, at least you’re doing something different with your dog.”

Shelby, giddy with the prospect of getting to go play with her flock.

The reaction I got at this seminar, in a room filled with positive reinforcement trainers, was quite the contrast. After my herding statement, I started to notice I was getting a lot of dirty looks. People were no longer as receptive to my insights. Those in the room with working dogs seemed to shake their heads as I walked by. I can understand why.

All dogs can be trained using various forms of positive reinforcement, but I find that the handlers of working dogs are the ones who have to fight the hardest to prove to the world that their methods work. Carolyn says the two most abused dogs in the history of dogs are German Shepherds and Border Collies. She says that it’s because they’re so sturdy and tough that they will work through the abuse, which has led to a phenomenon whereby people think they must be trained using punishment. She says Border Collies become neurotic and German Shepherds become aggressive because of this and that has led to the dogs’ various stereotypes over the years. Watching some people interact with their dogs, I can believe that theory. So when the handlers of these working dogs found out I participated in herding, I could only assume they thought, “There goes another one who says that clicker training is good for tricks, but it can’t be used in working situations.”

After the seminar, I managed to catch Kathy Sdao’s co-instructor for the seminar, another Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, Carolyn Barney. When I had a one-on-one with her (she has participated in herding with her Border Collies), we ended up swapping stories. She noted that a lot of the exercises I was describing sounded familiar. When she asked me who my trainer was, I said Carolyn Wilki. She started hysterically laughing and said, “Well, that explains it. That’s who I herded with, Carolyn is wonderful; you’re in good hands.”

I smiled, glad to be accepted by at least someone at the seminar, but secretly, I was thinking, “Can you please tell Kathy Sdao that I don’t beat my dogs just because I do herding? She is sort of one of my training heroes, and she really, quite frankly, hurt my feelings, even if she didn’t mean to.”

When I went back to the hotel that night, I vented to my friend who was accompanying me, and she nodded her head sympathetically and said she was shocked as well. I’ve been fortunate to be in the position to have Carolyn only a couple hours away. I’ve also been fortunate to have been a convert to clicker training before I began my herding career. Now, I would never dream of subjecting my dog to any kind of training that involved positive punishment, but I realize that wasn’t always the case and to some extent, I can’t blame the punitive herding trainers, because honestly, some of them probably just don’t know or don’t feel another, gentler way is possible and better. I get it, I’ve been there.

Of course, there are extremes to herding; the extremes are what made the sharp intake of air that day, but I think the commonplace is what made Kathy Sdao recoil. It’s commonplace to throw the nearest object at a herding dog who needs to have his attention turned away. I’ve heard of dogs being hit with PVC piping, rakes, shovels and plain old fashioned fists when they try to follow their instincts of gripping the stock. Yelling is a no brainer, as are collar pops, leash corrections and e-collars. There’s the horror stories I’ve heard from Carolyn about the bull whips (sometimes being used on the dogs and sometimes just being used to ‘put them in their place’ by scaring the crap out of them). It’s common to use the crook as a tool for punishment or to simply slam it down in front of the dog to scare it into submission. I’ve read in Patricia McConnell’s books about dogs doing poorly at herding trials and being dragged out behind sheds and beaten until they couldn’t move while the crowd listened to the dog’s screams in silent horror (who are they to intervene, they don’t know what it takes to create a herding dog). Though it is becoming less common now, puppies who didn’t have the right instinct for herding used to be “destroyed”.

These techniques create less than ideal dogs. Carolyn has rehabbed dogs that have been thrown out of trials for mauling sheep because they had been so severely punished that just the sight of sheep drove them into an enraged frenzy. She has also rehabbed dogs who were so terrified of sheep that they ran away from them (can you imagine, a herding dog running away from sheep? Youtube it, you’ll find videos of it, it seems funny until you realize where that behavior came from). In some cases, the dog just loses its natural drive, which to me, may be the saddest thing of all. To see Shelby’s joy, to see her doing the thing that she was bred to do, is one of the most magical, inspirational things to me. It never ceases to amaze and awe me, and to think that I could do something to her to take that away from her breaks my heart, which is why I would absolutely never punish my dog. We don’t even say “no” to our dogs around livestock, and the few times I have slipped up, I’ve been told to “get it together” and given the right response to the situation, which is generally, “Just recall the dog.”

Instead of using positive punishment in our training, we use management tools, like 50 foot long lines and fences, which are really just there for an emergency. I’ll let the image speak for itself as to whether Shelby enjoys her training or not.

As we drove home from the seminar, I thought about Kathy Sdao (who still is and always will be one of my training heroes) and clicker training and Carolyn’s disdain for all dog sports that were not herding, and I guessed that over the years, Carolyn had seen and heard a lot of this bias. That didn’t change her style of training, because she was not going to cut off her nose to spite her face, but I think it did make her feel even more isolated than most dog trainers. The isolation weighed on me as well.

I think herding is really cool. I love it, absolutely love it. I also think that what I do is rare, what Carolyn teaches is wonderful. In a sport that is so overshadowed by brutality, I think of Raspberry Ridge as that beam of sunlight floating in through the clouds on a stormy day. Carolyn always pushes me to keep up my training, because she thinks the best way to prove to the herding community that positive training isn’t a joke is to trial the dog and do well. I agree. I want to talk about my training, but if the positive trainers react so poorly to what I do, how can I? I look around me, and I see these great schisms in training. It’s the positive reinforcement trainers and the clicker trainers and the marker trainers v. the positive punishment trainers and the balanced trainers and the dominance trainers and the list goes on and on. It seems obvious which side of the fence Carolyn and I fall on, but the positive trainers don’t accept us. I felt like screaming, “Patricia McConnell herds for the love of God!” At the same time, the dominance trainers, the punitive trainers, the balanced trainers, they obviously don’t accept us either, because we’re “elitist” and “militant” and “science obsessed”. The traditional herders think what we do is a joke, despite the ribbons on the walls (apparently, those are anomalies). So we’re on this little island, all by ourselves.

That needs to change. Positive reinforcement trainers are always talking about how they’d like to get the herding crowd and the hunting crowd and the Schutzhund crowd believing that these high drive sports can be trained using positive reinforcement. Well, how are you going to convince them if you ostracize the people who are actually doing it? It’s true, I did manage to change a few minds after the seminar was over, and someone even asked for Carolyn’s information, interested in getting her Border Collies involved. But the knee jerk reaction needs to stop.

If the positive reinforcement trainers react that poorly to just the name of the sport and to a fellow clicker trainer, automatically making snap judgments, how can they expect to convince people who already use the brutal methods of training to change course? Certainly not by tearing them down. C’mon, you’re the positive reinforcement trainers, you know how it works. The only way we can make the lives of our dogs better is by building up the trainers and trialing the dogs.