QUESTION: My dog works too fast around stock. How can I slow it down?
ANSWER: Dogs get excited by many things, not least being near to sheep or cattle. In its excitement the dog runs faster because speed makes it even more exciting. Just as with humans though, the dog’s initial excitement will soon fade if the experience isn’t as much fun as they first thought.
NOTE: Before you seriously address the problem of how to slow your dog down if it works too fast, you should make sure the dog will go around the stock (without splitting them up) and that you can stop it. Then you should make the dog stay in place for at least fifteen seconds. This training in itself will help to slow the dog down.
Until the dog’s working at an acceptable pace, we should do whatever we can to reduce its excitement. This is where controlling the action in a training ring, combined with blocking the dog to prevent it from getting too close and aggressive, pays dividends.
Make training boring?
The well-known saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is associated with people, but applies equally to dogs (and other animals). If the dog goes to sheep often enough, and its actions are strictly limited to keeping a clear space between itself and the stock, and learning to stop on command, then it’s going to get bored.
The boredom will result in less enthusiasm, and a slower pace but some dogs get bored more quickly than others!
The breeds of dog used for stock herding are all very quick learners, so frequent exposure to the source of excitement, combined with firm, calm leadership from the handler, will show the dog that working steadily is the best way to go.
Calm leadership isn’t always available though, especially if the trainer is a beginner. If the dog’s out of control, chasing stock all over the field, it’s natural for the novice trainer to feel the very opposite of calm, and rapid, high-pitched shouting often results.
‘Red mist’ descends!
At the height of its excitement the dog’s not listening out for encouragement to go slower. Quite the opposite! The ‘red mist’ has ‘descended’ and all the dog’s interested in is giving chase at high speed. Its ears are tuned only for encouragement to go faster! The excited trainer’s desperate, high-pitched, rapidly repeated commands are invariably interpreted as a request to go faster! Precisely at the time when the stock need maximum protection from the dog.
Sheep, and to a lesser extent cattle, are not ideally equipped for protecting themselves from a marauding dog, so they tend to run off at high speed and in all directions. For this reason, we strongly recommend novice trainers start off by training their dog on sheep, and only once the dog is working in a controlled fashion, to introduce it to cattle.
A flock of sheep running towards you is unlikely to cause you serious harm, but just one or two cattle could easily kill or seriously injure if they ran over you. Train your dog on sheep first, and then graduate to cattle.
Typical examples of things which will speed a dog up are rapidly repeated commands, clapping, whistling, and shouting excitedly, so these should be avoided if the dog’s already moving faster than we’d like.
Excited shouting is probably the most common, and the most often denied by novice trainers. We all think we give the dog calm commands, but we don’t. I’ve been training dogs on sheep (and to a lesser extent cattle) for many years now, and I still occasionally find myself raising my voice and shouting rapidly when things are not going to plan. It’s natural, but it’s not good for calming a dog.
Good leadership required
The handler or trainer should be showing the dog good leadership, and shouting excitedly is not what good leaders do. When I first made a deliberate and determined effort to be calm (but firm) with the dogs I trained, I couldn’t believe the difference it made.
These days, of course, I still shout when I need to, but I limit the shout to ONE good correction whenever possible, and quickly return my voice to normal – and calm – even whispering commands to the dog when I can. Yes! Whispering!
Dog’s love it when we talk to them in a soft affectionate voice, and they hate it when we use an angry voice. This is why the tone of our voice is so useful for training a sheepdog. Use a short-sharp correction when the dog is wrong – and a soft, friendly voice when the dog’s doing well – or even OK.
To keep the dog’s enthusiasm alive we need to find a reasonable balance between correction and encouragement. With only gruff correction, the dog could get bored with working stock, but it’s more likely to get bored with the gruff voice and ignore that!
If we save the gruff voice strictly for times when the dog’s done (or about to do) something wrong, and use the soft ‘soppy’ praising voice when the dogs doing quite well, it will help to keep the dog’s enthusiasm.
Variety helps keep the dog’s interest alive
Other ways to keep the dog’s keen working spirit are to give it different tasks to do, train in a different location, or even work on different animals to those it regularly trains with.
Ultimately, if you keep training your dog regularly, with a calm, reassuring voice where possible, and showing the dog good leadership, the dog’s working speed will naturally get steadier, because the dog will learn that in order to move the sheep or cattle at the pace you want them moved, it will need to work at a suitable pace.
Below this point on the page, is a Preview Video for our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorials. It’s worth watching, especially as we have several videos which will help you to slow your dog down, including “Backwards is the way forward” and “How can I slow the dog down“.
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