Tuesday, 28 April 2015


I am frequently asked about training leaders, so thought I'd share an incident from this morning.

As many of you know Missy is a leader - a race leader, in fact. She lines out, she sets a good pace, will readily pass distractions, and most of the time, takes her 'Gees and Haws' beautifully. She is well on track to be the next 'go to leader'. So that means we need to get that 'most of the time' thing out of the way this summer!

The first step for me is to sort out what exactly was going wrong - when and why?  It turns out if I give her a command early enough and it is something she thinks is a good idea, she will take the command. However, it appears that if she doesn't like what I'm asking or I ask for it late, when it is 'harder' to do, she can't be bothered. That doesn't make me in the slightest bit mad, I like independent minded women, it just helps me set up the training situation to show her that obeying is not optional.

To take away any 'crutch' Missy might lean on I put her in lead this morning with other dogs that are not top notch 'Gee/Haw' leaders and we headed off. The trail I chose had some 'tricky' corners that I knew she wouldn't like and I made sure to not give her good warning on them, calling out the command at the last moment.

She got the first one with only the slightest hesitation but didn't even attempt to get the next one. I stopped the team and gave her a moment to think about it. She stubbornly stared straight ahead, I'm certain hoping I'd give in and let her do what she wanted.

I shut the ATV off and headed up front.

Just a note here that you need to understand your equipment and it's limits. I know that if I shut off my ATV in gear, set the parking brake and crank the wheels so they aren't pointing straight ahead it will hold my 14 dogs in most situations. I know that if something truly fluky happens, like a rabbit running by while I'm off the machine, the team can dead drag the ATV - but I also know how to catch it on the fly (the ATV - not a rabbit!!).
In the past, with machines that were easier to get moving I have used bungees wrapped around the brakes to hold them tighter, blocks in front of the wheels or even had a person ride along with me. If none of those things are going to work for you, run a smaller team when you set up these situations.
Know you are in control of things so you can work confidently and are sure you can achieve the needed outcome. Were Missy to drag the ATV and team through that corner at this point, I will have taken her training back 2 steps rather than forward one!

Even in a situation like this where I am 99% certain Missy knows what I want and is just choosing to ignore me, I give her the benefit of the doubt to begin with.
I was asking for a 'HAW' so I walked up the left side of the team to where I want them to go. I patted my leg and said 'Missy Haw' to get her to come to me. When she does, I'll tell her 'Right there', 'Good Haw' and the likes. I will leave her there and calmly walk back down the left side of the team to the ATV. The goal is not to run to the ATV as fast as I can before she can make a mistake - we are TRAINING!
I also make sure to tell the rest of the dogs they are 'good' and such as I go. It helps keep my head in the right place and makes sure the rest of the team doesn't find this stressful.

Now, by far the majority of the time I know whether the dog is going to obey or move back. Their body language is EXTREMELY telling. If their bodies, heads, or even ears are cocked the way they wanted to go, odds are once I've stepped away, they will zip back to the trail they want to go down. CALMLY, I will express my displeasure with an 'ACKKKKK' and then walk back up front. With a dog that honestly doesn't understand, I will still coax them over, but in a situation like this morning, I step over the line and now go up the RIGHT side of line with much more forceful body language to 'push' (not physically) the dog away from me.
I am careful to not make eye contact with the rest of the dogs at this point. I want my more 'pointed' non verbal cues directed at the problem, not everyone.

I ALWAYS want my dogs to understand what I'm thinking and doing. While dogs are pros at reading body language, the easier you make it for them, the more relaxed they can be around you.
Should the situation arise that I have to charge up the gangline in a stressed and fast manner, I do not want my dogs freaking out worried that I might be angry with them. That has been helpful in all kinds of situations over the years!

Sure enough, long before I had gotten back to ATV, Missy had darted back to the 'right'. I turned around and headed back up. My signals were clear to her and she darted out of my way and back onto the left trail. I immediately stopped my stomping and told her 'Good Girl. Right there'.

Again her body language made it clear she had no intention of listening. This morning there was a nice flappy tree branch on the ground nearby, so I picked that up and stomped my way back up the right side of the team flapping the branch on the ground in front of me to push Missy back to the left.

It took about 3 or 4 trips up the team before she decided to give in. When she did, it was very obvious she had, all her body was 'committed' the trail I was asking her to go down.

I walked back to the team and off we went. Had she darted out to the right as we started, I would have slammed on the brakes, called out her name, and gone up front for another correction. Once you have gotten into this discussion, it is IMPERATIVE that you win.

Once around the corner I stopped the team and with very happy, animated behaviour walked right up to Missy and heaped praise and pats on her.

On the way back I chatted and petted up the rest of the team a bit.

I am a BIG believer in matching the level of praise to the level of discipline. In my opinion, if a verbal correction is all that is needed, then verbal praise will suffice. However, if you had to get off to correct, you need to get off to praise. If you don't, your dogs will start to believe that you only get off when you are correcting.
I also stop once or twice on each run to just love the dogs up and get their tails wagging!!

So that's it - no "BAA, RAM, EWE" or other magic formula to get them to listen - just fair and consistent corrections.

Also, if you are working a lot with a leader and putting extra stress on them, make sure to back off every now and again, bury them in the team and let them just have a stress free run. Stress is a good, healthy part of learning, but you should be smart about it and control when and where they are being exposed to it!
Young leader Neo getting a run back in the team after being worked hard at lead the last few runs!


Peg and Darrel said...

This was a great post!! I have 2 young Malamutes I am working with. We have to pass by a good friend's dogyard (John Dixon) on the way during our free run and of course on the way home.
One afternoon these 2 dogs darted into John's yard where he had some blocks of meat. (We feed John's dogs when he is away). I was pissed of course but instead of letting my temper get the best of me, I unraveled a tug line I had on the ATV and went to where they were.
I simply hung the tug line from my right hand and those 2 "pups" followed me back to the trail. I had never worked with them with this method but they recognized the tug as positive running. With the tug line on my extended hand, we got back onto the trail and headed home. Tails were up and my heart was happy!!
It is amazing what you can do when you are calm and chill!

Thirteen Sheep (Or More) said...

Thanks for the great information. I'm working with a pair of young Livestock guardian dogs and can relate to the independent thinking. You have reminded me to be patient, consistent, and to pay attention to their body language.

Cecile said...

I could have written this post about my 5-year old Siberian leader Freia. (2010 must have been a good year!) She really wants to be in lead - in fact, she sees it as her rightful place - but has strong opinions about which way to go. I have stood at intersections for 10 minutes or more doing exactly what you described in your post. In the end, it started to stress out the other members of my itty bitty team too much, and her brother Bart started to snark at the dog next to him. Now I just stand on the break and wait. As soon as any part of her body moves in the direction I want to go I release the break and shift my weight a little. If she follows through we're off. Otherwise I slam on the break again. Just standing there gets, of course, really boring for her. So first she tries to fake me out. Then she tries a hissy fit. Finally she capitulates. When she does, I do what you do. I stop and heap praise on her.

The good thing about having a leader like that is that she's also pretty fearless. She never even hesitated the first time she encountered overflow - just took the whole team right over it.