A dog working too fast and close, disrupts and stresses sheep and shepherd alike
For maximum working efficiency and minimum stress to the sheep, the herding dog should work with a calm authority, keeping a good distance between itself and the sheep, but not so far off that it loses control of them. This topic is covered in our online sheepdog training videos.
Not long ago, we received an email from a sheepdog handler in New Zealand who had bought our 'First Steps' sheepdog training DVD and had managed to get her headstrong dog to outrun and fetch the sheep, but the dog was working at breakneck speed and she wanted some advice on how to slow it down.
My first reaction to a problem like this is that the handler is allowing the dog to work too far away from them too soon. One of the vital rules of sheepdog training is that the further away from you the dog is working, the less control you have over the dog. Remember, the dog is using a primitive hunting instinct. When you train your dog, you're channelling that instinct into controlled work from the dog, but a trainee dog will usually only respect your control if you're very close. Dogs hunt quite close together in packs, so a dog that finds itself working a good distance from the rest of the pack (that's you) feels it's getting no backup. It will often revert to its hunting instinct, rather than listen to a pack member who's shouting orders from afar.
The dog needs leadership, and particularly in the early stages of its training, it wants its leader to be working alongside it - or at least close by. While on the subject of leadership, often when the dog's not doing what we want or expect, we revert to excitedly shouting at the dog - just at the moment when we should be calm and authoritative. It's hardly surprising the dog doesn't recognise us as its leader if we shout excitedly.
The dog working too fast is caused by two main factors. 1. The novelty of chasing, particularly something which moves quickly or runs away. 2. The fear of being attacked by the "prey". Often when hunting, the predator finds itself being attacked by the prey. Sometimes fatally.
The novelty aspect will reduce as the dog becomes more familiar with being close to sheep (or other livestock), so regular, controlled training will help a great deal but unfortunately, the more quickly and unpredictably the dog moves, the more frightened the sheep will be, so they'll react by making sudden, very fast movements. These result in the dog being still more excited. Somehow, we must break this chain reaction.
If the dog works sensibly close-bye, then the solution is to work the dog calmly, and praise it with a gentle voice when it's working steadily, but stop it the moment it gets excited. The dog will soon learn that it gets a lot more fun (work) if it remains calm.
Stopping the dog and keeping it in place for a few moments, or even up to about half a minute can also help. It teaches the dog that the fun will still be there, even if it pauses for a while.
Of course, if the dog won't stop, even close-bye, you need to concentrate on this issue first. Repeatedly flanking the dog a little way around the sheep and stopping it by blocking it, is the way to drum it into the dog that it must stop on command.
Once you can stop the dog fairly reliably on the far side of the sheep (point of balance), the best all-round exercise we know of to improve the dog's pace, stop and overall control over the sheep is to walk backwards, keeping the dog in place as the sheep follow you (to get away from the dog). When you have a few yards between the dog and the sheep, call the dog up quietly. The instant it begins to rush, stop the dog with a sharp command, then repeat the procedure until the dog follows the sheep at a steady pace. Sometimes the dog will learn this quickly, but other dogs take longer to oblige
The next step is to increase the distance between the dog and the sheep, before you call the dog up. This teaches the dog to control itself and you'll find that most dogs will learn to moderate their speed.
If at any time the dog reverts to tearing around, go back to the very close work again - walking backwards as the dog brings the sheep up to you calmly. Walking Backwards is covered comprehensively in the Sheepdog Training Tutorial entitled "Backwards is the Way Forward" which can be found in the Pace (Slowing) category.
If the dog has a good stop close-bye, but won't stop at the end of its outrun, the outrun was too long. Walk closer to the sheep next time and make sure the dog stops properly when commanded (not twenty paces later). Only then, should you begin to increase the outrun distance again (gradually). Improving the dog's stop is covered in several tutorial videos listed in the "Stopping" category.