Sheepdog “Eye” – Condition or Habit..?
If the dog’s standing or even lying down and staring at the sheep as though it’s in a trance, rather than moving when commanded, this is commonly referred to as having “too much eye”. Eye is said to be a great asset for controlling sheep – but so is positioning a confident dog (which isn’t sticky) in the right place at the right time.
Too much of this stickiness means the dog stops responding to commands, and unfortunately, a dog which has developed this habit will often get worse unless it’s corrected. Typically the dog will stay in place for some time, and then dart to a new position very quickly and unexpectedly. This can startle the sheep and obviously makes working the dog extremely difficult.
Unfortunately “eye” is widely regarded as a genetic trait which many believe cannot be corrected, and has to be tolerated. We’re convinced this is untrue though. To us, a dog which refuses to move when it’s holding the sheep has simply developed a bad habit through lack of confidence, but it’s a habit which you can fairly easily train-out of the dog with patience and determination.
I usually start with working the sticky dog on sheep without allowing it to stop. I keep the dog moving as much as I possibly can. This is actually good practice for a trainer, too! I don’t worry too much about other aspects of the dog’s work, such as whether it’s too close to the sheep, I just concentrate fully on keeping it in motion.
Inevitably, the dog does stop from time to time though, so I make sure I’m ready for it, and try to send the dog off again as quickly as possible, before it “sticks”. If I’m too late and the dog won’t budge, I walk towards it repeating a flanking command and encouraging the dog to move (I use a shushing sound) and if the dog’s still there when I’ve walked right up to it, I give it a firm but gentle push with my foot to MAKE it go. I don’t kick the dog, I just push it hard enough to make it get up and move.
Quite soon, the dog realises that when I walk towards it in this way, it’s going to get a push from my foot – and the dog learns that it’s preferable to move away first.
I keep the dog moving again, walking around the training area, simply allowing the dog to bring the sheep up behind me. It’s a great way to make the dog more fluid. I constantly change direction, even doubling back through the sheep at times, so giving the dog more of a challenge to bring the sheep up to me.
If the dog works without sticking when it’s close to you, but sticks at the end of it’s outrun, you won’t be able to do much about it until you’ve walked all the way up the field to get closer to the dog. So shorten the outrun to a distance where the dog doesn’t stick, then increase the distance very gradually, and once again, encourage the dog to keep moving steadily, rather than stop behind the sheep. If the dog stops again, shorten the outrun back to a distance at which it won’t stop, and then build the length of the outrun gradually again.
Another way to get the dog to move, is to walk away. Think about it. The dog’s instinct is to bring the sheep to you and hold them there. The “sticky” dog has done this, and refuses to move unless the sheep break away. If you walk away (and keep walking) it will occur to the dog that it’s no longer holding the sheep to you – it’s no longer done it’s job – and in our experience, it will get up and bring them to the handler.
Dogs will normally be less inclined to be “sticky” if the sheep move freely. Heavily dogged sheep (those which are so used to being worked by untrained dogs that they run to the handler, and bunch tightly together around the legs) are not ideal for training a sticky dog. It’s much easier to keep the dog moving if the sheep keep moving.
Often, the presence of another dog working alongside will encourage the sticky dog to keep moving, but on other occasions, it seems the sticky dog is prepared to allow the other dog to do all the work! Remember, every dog is an individual – no two are identical, so different methods work better for some dogs than others.
Once the dog is working more freely, you can put less emphasis on keeping it moving, and more on polishing its work generally. As the dog becomes more confident, it should begin to work more and more freely.
“Sticky Dogs” is also a topic that we touch on in our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorial “Close Work” (part one).