I love training dogs for many reasons; one is that I learn a great deal about myself. Dogs humble me, and I see too much of myself in the mirror that is a domestic dog.
They reflect us, what we put into them; they capture and reveal our distraction and impatience.
Fate, a border collie from a champion herding line in Wales, has confounded me from the beginning. She has every instinct of the border collie but one: she won’t challenge or nip or move sheep against their will.
She is the Ferdinand of dogs; she loves to be with sheep, runs in wide circles around them, sits with them for hours. They pay her no mind and do what they wish.
She is a wonderful dog in every way, beautiful, loving, wicked smart. But she has always baffled and defied me (and Maria) when it comes to training elements.
Even though she worked alongside Red for years, she never picked up or emulated his authority or determination; the sheep did his bidding and quickly.
I tried for two years to train Fate properly to herd sheep – I’d done this successfully several times before Fate – but failed.
I heard a voice out in the pasture one day saying, “I’m not Red,” and I heard it.
She had all the energy and instinct and enthusiasm in the world but no will to tell the sheep what to do or make them do it. She is a very sweet dog, and somehow, she is missing the last two elements of prey drive.
Prey drive – crucial for herding animals – involves five different behaviors: searching, stalking, chasing, biting to grab, and biting to kill. Like most domestic dogs, Border collies have had the biting to kill drive weakened or bred out of them.
All dogs have prey drive to some degree, but over the years, different traits have been emphasized, others softened.
Border collies use the first three elements, and biting to grab is the ultimate threat they use against recalcitrant or defiant sheep. Border collies are not hunters or killers. They intimidate with movement and their eyes – when the sheep look at them, they think they are looking at a wolf. Thus the wolf-like hunting stance and crouch.
And the sheep move.
Border collies that bite sheep aggressively are disqualified from herding. But border collies will naturally challenge a sheep who doesn’t do what it is told to do.
If necessary, they can nip a sheep on the nose, but no more. The nose is really the only exposed part of the sheep, the rest is covered with heavy wool.
Fate will not nip a sheep on the nose, not even if the sheep is butting her or ignoring her. She has plenty of the search, stalk, and chase drive. But she refuses to make them do anything or move them.
We humans often do the wrong thing when it comes to training dogs, even when we know better, as I sometimes do.
When Fate comes out of the pasture, she lies down stubbornly and refuses to come into the house on command.
She loves to be around the sheep and ignores us. Impatient and distracted, Maria and I both took to yelling at her in a loud voice to “come” when we wanted her to come into the house.
Maria and I are both busy and anxious to get to work in the morning. We get irritable and impatient when we can’t move along.
She blew us off. Yelling at dogs is something I rarely do, knowing it to be a mistake. We learned that when we shouted “Fate come,” she would reluctantly come.
In so doing, we inadvertently trained Fate to come when shouted at, never when spoken to normally or in a quiet voice.
She became one of those multiple-choice dogs I always write about; we taught her to come when she felt like it or got screamed at, not when we wanted her to come.
I admit my pride was wounded.
We both accepted this. Fate is a brilliant and headstrong creature; she knows what the boundaries are and almost always pushes them.
I accepted this and let it go until this week. I thought about it and remembered how every morning I say to the dogs, “how about a treat,” and they all come rushing into the kitchen where the treats are kept in a drawer.
Fate is usually the first one in. She gets one or two treats a day and loves them. I felt foolish at not thinking of this before, but it dawned on me that if she came running into the kitchen whenever I mentioned a treat, why wouldn’t this work outside? How obvious. How dense of me.
Instead of shouting, we could get her to move with a single word, spoken in a normal voice.
Yesterday and today, Maria walked to the house with Zinnia after feeding the sheep in the pasture. Fate, as usual, stayed by the gate, ignoring the command to come, which Zinnia instantly obeyed.
Maria said in a soft voice to Zinnia, “Hey, how about a treat.” Fate’s ears came up 100 feet away, and she came running up the path to the back door and rushed inside with Zinnia when Maria opened it.
Then, she and Zinnia each got a treat, and Maria took my suggestion and said, “good treat.” These two days, all Maria had to say to her dog was “treat,” and Fate came running into the house.
Finally, we had begun getting her to associate “house” with treat, and she obeyed instantly.
Three or four years of yelling at Fate every single way, and we didn’t take the time or trouble to think of a better way that worked. And we are very attuned to positive reinforcement training.
Imagine what happens when people don’t care about training positively or properly.
The moral of the story is clear to me. It’s almost always the human’s fault when a dog doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do or won’t do it. As smart as Fate is, we are smarter and more creative. We also control all of the tools that make training work.
I gave up on training Fate, a wonderful and well-bred dog, because I couldn’t train her to herd the sheep. She is Maria’s dog now and very well behaved. She does everything she is asked to do except herd sheep.
She hangs out with Maria all day, sleeps quietly in her studio, walks safely in the woods. She is a great dog; she deserves to be lovingly and thoughtfully trained, not shouted at.
Now, she will come when called, right up the path and into the house—no more shouting at Fate. Maybe we’ll try getting her to herd sheep one day.
Or maybe we’ll leave well enough alone. I learned early on that training humans is perhaps the most essential part of training a dog. Fate is always reminding me.