Quick Reference: What is my “marker”, 4 feet in a box standing, 2 feet on a plate quick, 10 comes a day, and don’t stare at the food.
For those of us with herding dogs and access to stock that temptation is to herd-herd-herd but through teaching group classes in herding for the last 6 years I have learned that the little things like going politely through a gate and walking calmly behind the handler are also important and can make a strong first impression. At a recent trial one of my mentors was walking around the hotel with her three dogs off leash in perfect heel position. When she stopped they stopped with no tension. Each of those dogs placed quite high on their herding runs with clean flanks and precise stops. With my own young dog it was more of a struggle with her trying to lead the way both at the hotel and in the trial ring. Since then I have gone back to basics with a lot more on-leash walks than usual. I’ve also been reviewing a lot of the homework assignments from her own Ranch Dog Manners class last year to keep things positive and fun. Here are the homework assignments for the first week of class:
Homework for Week One
More details on the Concepts for Week One
1. Mark > Reward I’m not too fussy about which marker you use to for your dog. My current favorite is clucking (your tongue against the roof of your mouth). A club member sent me an article from 1882 and a hunter addressed clucking and rewarding with dried meat from his pocket when his hunting dogs checked in. Early clicker training? Maybe….. Using a clicker or saying “yes” are all the same, but you must be precise and quick. The most common mistake I see with beginner and advanced handlers is not rewarding enough. Bring your dog super hungry to class and all will go well. Just remember that every time you mark a behavior you must reward it. That is the power of positive training! With our herding dogs in this class that have done any herding think about how badly the dog wants their stock. They are getting a reward everytime they move the stock without being stopped or blocked. The reward rate in herding when things are going well is very very high!
2. Where are my 4 feet? Find a box that is at least as long as your dog’s back. Through positive reinforcement with food or toys ask your dog to stand in the box. It is important at this stage to reward the smallest thing. So once your dog offers to do anything with the box ( head over, one foot, two feet, etc) “mark” and reward, use your dogs next meal and when in doubt “mark” and reward. This makes you not too stingy and your dog gets lots of reinforcement. Once your dog can go into a large box and remain standing start to find smaller and smaller boxes so that the dog is forced to think about their hind feet in a more precise way. Once this behavior is really strong we can start to play with our own body position and do a lot of rewarding with the dog in “heel” position.
3. 10 comes a day for something. What are your dog’s favorite things? They will likely vary from day to day, but find a way to reward your dog with something special at least 10 times a day. It might be a ball, a stick, or a special treat. You need to get creative and make coming to you super special. My own puppy Finn is really loving this game on walks. For this class bring the dog to heel position for the reward.
4. Where are my front two feet? Find a smaller box, or phone book and teach your dog to put their front two feet on it. Reward your dog by tossing their reward away from them so that don’t get stuck in position staring at you. It helps to have two boxes because then you can get them to move quickly from one box to the other.
5. Don’t stare at the reward! Dogs that work for food or toys can get quite obsessed. It is very easy to fall into allowing your dog to stare at the reward and follow it with their nose. If they get really fixated then it is hard to teach dogs to go through things or away from you. If you don’t work on not staring at the reward everytime you train then training progress goes very slow if at all.
If at anytime in your training you find your dog staring obsessively at the food/toy, then stop and wait for your dog to look somewhere else. Cluck and reward. This is part of the first homework for all my classes, but we go back to it for the rest of the dog’s life. With our herding breeds breaking their eye can be very important when we need to call them off stock.
For my herding students I have found that dogs that have been trained with positive rewards (food, toys, games) are more confident and relaxed. Herding is trained through pressure and release and dogs that have a lot of positive training in their past find it easier to take negative corrections when they come.