Instructor: Helene Lawler
This course is designed to give you the tools and understanding you need to prepare yourself and your dog for herding.
Flatwork is the set of skills dogs need prior to going to stock (or, if your dog is already started, that you can develop in parallel with working stock). Strong flatwork foundations will minimize (and hopefully eliminate!) the need to use any aversive techniques once on stock.
No sheep? No problem! This class takes games from the dog sport world and applies them to the more traditional work of herding livestock, taught through 100% positive reinforcement (+R) methods. No livestock required!
Already herding? The skills and concepts taught in this course also offer +R-based solutions to challenges experienced by dogs already started on their stock work.
My goal is to teach you the tools to create a foundation in your dog – and in your understanding – that you can bring to any instructor. Having strong flatwork skills will help make your transition to stock training a happy, smooth, and fun experience for both you and your dog!
There are no scheduled sessions for this class at this time. We update our schedule frequently, so please subscribe to our mailing list for notifications.
Registration will begin at 10:30 AM Pacific Time.
Enrollment limits: Gold: 12 students, Silver: 25 students, Bronze: unlimited.
Gold Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to post questions and videos to the course forums. Students will receive instructor feedback on written and video assignments.
Silver Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to participate in the discussion forum. Students may ask GENERAL questions about course materials and may submit two, one-minute videos for instructor feedback. Any questions specific to your dog MUST be accompanied by a video.
Bronze Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to read all questions and answers posted in the class forums. Students will not post questions or submit written or video assignments.
For more details, refund policies, and answers to commonly asked questions see our FAQ page.
Week 1: Introduction to herding
- A review of herding terminology
- Balance, and a brief intro to livestock
- Core foundation skills
Week 2: How dogs learn and why +R matters
- Relationship: trusting partnership through play and consent
- Watch your dog! Training your eye
- More foundation games
Week 3: The Stop!
- Pressure! Making sense of the quadrants around stock
- Stand vs. down: when to use which, and why
- Training (and maintaining!) a strong Stop
Week 4: Premack is your new best friend
- Shaping/luring/capturing: What do we use, when, and why?
- The power of Premack
- Teaching That’ll do
Week 5: Working with Arousal
- No robots! Calm does not equal still
- Dynamic vs. Static Impulse Control, and why you need both
- Arousal games
Week 6: Putting it all together.
- Preparing for stock work
- Outrun fundamentals
- Where to go from here
Who is this course for? Anyone interested in getting started in herding, with a commitment to using positive reinforcement training methods!
- The novice: This course is aimed at the novice herding handler, and assumes that you have no prior experience with stockwork.
- Already herding? This course offers skills and strategies for dogs who are already working but who struggle with arousal and responsiveness once on stock.
- All breeds welcome! The techniques, theories, and exercises presented in this course are applicable to all breeds.
Do I need access to sheep or other livestock?
Nope! This course is all about “flatwork”, or the herding equivalent thereof. No stock is required, although we will cover how you can apply these exercises on stock should you have access or are already working.
What supplies do I need?
You don’t need any special equipment to take this class. Everything you need, you likely already have around the house. Details will be provided in the class notes.
We will be using:
- A clicker (verbal markers are fine also, but I encourage you to get a clicker!)
- Food and toy rewards
- A mat (bathmat, towel, yoga mat etc.) and/or low platform
- Cones (traffic cones, dollar store cones, or just items around the house!)
- A rod or touch stick
What prior training does my dog need?
Technically, your dog doesn’t need any training to start this course. We will be going over the foundations skills and concepts you need.
- Your dog should like food and (ideally also) enjoy playing with you and with toys.
- If your dog already has a strong foundation, terrific! We will build on that. It will be helpful if your dog enjoys treats and playing tug or fetch.
Balance is the other side of the coin to pressure, and is the second critical concept we need to master for effective herding work.
The concept of balance is relatively simple. Achieving balance… not so much! But let’s not worry about that just yet. First, let’s dive into what balance is about, and why it matters.
Recall the image we looked at last week with the sheep in a barnyard, surrounded by various “draws” and “pushes” from the environment and dogs therein, depicted by the yellow and red arrows in the diagram, respectively. If the red arrows serve to neutralize the yellow arrows such that the sheep in the green bubble stand still, the dynamic is said to be “in balance”:
Now, given that the flick of an ear, the shift of an eye, or the tensing of a muscle can change pressure, this balance point is far from static. Indeed, it is essentially constantly changing. Our dog’s job is to find this balance point and hold it, adjusting their own behaviour to match the ever-shifting shifts in pressure.
How do they do this? Well, this is where the concept of “eye” comes in. For a dog with “a lot of eye”, they tend to use their eyes! Border collies are the most well-known “strong eyed” breed, and this is what is meant by the term.
[Quick aside: the term ‘eye’ is used to mean many things by many people, so my definition is not the only way the term is used, but it is the one that makes the most sense to me at this point in time]
A dog with a lot of eye will be strongly drawn to the heads of the livestock, because to use eye they have to make eye contact! For this reason also, dogs with eye need to work far back from the stock, because the sheep cannot see them when the dog is directly behind. We will often see a green dog with a lot of eye who is working close to the sheep flank back and forth quite frantically. They do this because they are trying to catch the eyes of the lead ewe, and since they are so close they must run back and forth from side to side. Such excessive flanking thus tends to disappear as the dog learns to maintain a better distance from the stock. When they are farther behind, they are more easily seen and don’t have to move as much.
Strong eyed dogs are often low and creepy in their approach to the stock, which is called being “stylish”. I don’t know what purpose this serves, but one can speculate that coming towards the stock that way, like a predator stalking its prey, gives their eyes a lot more power.
I have noticed that my sheep pay almost no attention to upright dogs, but the second a “stylish” dog comes towards them, they turn tail and run. It probably doesn’t help that they are harassed by bush wolves on a regular basis, who also use this stylish approach when trying to hunt them for real! A “loose eyed” dog, in contrast, doesn’t depend as much on her eye to move the sheep. Rather, she will use her body more.
Such dogs, by the very nature of how they herd, must work more closely. They must be in close proximity to the stock in order for the stock to feel their physical pressure and respond. Loose eyed dogs tend to be more upright. I speculate that this allows them to be more powerful with their bodies, and also helps them see what’s going on. They may also “force bark”, i.e., bark with the intention to add pressure (in contrast with barking from excitement), possibly because when they are working tight and close, they end up in the stock’s blind spot and need to remind them they are there! A good nip on the heels does this too.
Back to balance… How a dog achieves balance will, therefore, depend on whether he is loose eyed or strong eyed. Understanding which approach your dog is taking is critical to helping her hone this skill. Of note, we can find upright, loose eyed dogs within strong eyed breeds, and vise versa. So know your breed standard, and (if you can) your dog’s breeding lines, but, most importantly, know your dog. As we are all fond of saying here at Fenzi, train the dog in front of you!
Here’s an example of a typically more upright, looser eyed breed (Aussie) working in a very stylish, strong eyed manner. Observe how far away this dog is working from the sheep, nearly the whole time! This is Billie Richardson and Aussie Dan the Man, laying down the winning run at the World Stockdog Champoinship this summer:
Now, check out this next video. Same dog, same handler, same arena, same season, different sheep (different trial, also the winning run). In the first video, the sheep were very light. In this video, they are quieter, heavier sheep. Note how much closer to the sheep the dog must work to achieve the same outcome. The bubble for the quieter sheep is much smaller, and Dan has to push harder to get them to move.
Fascinating, isn’t it?! When I say we need to rely on our dog’s ability to read its stock, this is a prime example of why. Imagine having to adjust your handling with that kind of timing, while positioning your dog for him because he doesn’t naturally know where to be. Teaching our dogs to find balance on pressure is therefore critical if we want to save ourselves a whole lot of work and headache!
So how do we make that happen? Simple! By walking backwards. Let me explain.
Ok, so recall that balance is the point at which all forces are neutralized and the sheep want to stay still. Of course, we generally don’t want sheep to stand still. We want them to move in a particular direction. So that makes balance even trickier, because the dog has to adjust not only to everything in its environment that is constantly changing, but the changing dynamic of a group of livestock in motion too! Boggles the mind, really.
I’m so glad my dogs are genetically programmed to do this, and that they find it addictively fun, because I am pretty sure I’d pack it in when it comes to herding if solving (and re-solving and re-solving) that puzzle was up to me.
We don’t start doing tricky courses like the ones in the above video. [Side note: pressure in an arena is very different, and generally more intense, than in a field]. Instead, we start with wearing the sheep backwards towards us.
Wearing is when the dog holds the sheep to the handle by gently flanking back and forth, as needed, while handler, sheep, and dog move along a line, in that order. Like this:
In this scenario, the handler typically walks backwards. Why? Because that puts some pressure on the sheep and gives the dog something to balance against. If the handler wasn’t there, the dog would have to figure out how to keep everything in balance, while the sheep may just gallop away! Too much, too soon. So we put a handler in front of the sheep while the dog learns to read pressure and find the ever shifting balance point.
Note that many dogs start by running circles around the sheep. Why? Well, I think they are a) figuring out the edges of the bubble, and b) their instincts say CONTROL THIS!! But they don’t yet know how. Eventually, as they calm down or get tired, they will run through the balance point and get a wee twinge of pressure release. That feels good, so they will seek it again. Dogs with good natural balance will quickly seek this sweet spot. Others (most) need our help. Doing so goes beyond the scope of today’s lesson, so suffice it to say that we need to make sure they understand balance one way or another.
Another way to understand balance is picture the dog pushing the sheep along in their bubble with the tip of its nose. Watch the videos above again, and picture Dan (the dog) pushing the sheep in a bubble balanced on the end of his nose around the course. Note the different size bubble for the two different groups of sheep! And also when and where the bubble size changes, depending on where they are in the course. There is so much to analyze in these videos. If you’re a gold or silver student and are interested in discussing them further with respect to these concepts, go ahead and start a thread and well chat! Bronze students, you can discuss in the lurker group!
Once our dog has a good understanding of balancing the sheep to us, we need to fade ourselves from the picture. Recall the podcast by Hannah Brannigan in which she discusses prompts and cues (if you missed it in the previous lesson, here’s the link again). She explains how we can use pressure as a guide. That’s exactly what we are doing here. Just like we would have to fade a platform or other prompt from our cue, we need to fade our body from the picture too. We do so incrementally, just like any other behaviour that we are training.
The result is a dog who understands balance without the handler’s help, which is our ultimate goal. Once they have this figured out, then they can drive. Driving looks like this:
Again, explaining how to move from wearing to driving is beyond the scope of this lesson (and this course) but the principles are the same as training any other behaviour. We will be discussing these principles in our next lesson, and beyond. The important point here is to recognize the need for balance, and to understand that we can apply the same good training techniques, even if how they play out is different, that we use in any other type of dog training.
As such, unless we are intuitively gifted (and some fortunate people are!) developing our fundamental skills around training—both our understanding thereof, and the mechanics we need—is critical for becoming a good stock dog trainer.
Before wrapping up this discussion, let's take a look at a live example. The following is puppy Aoife's first time on stock, at 5.5 months of age. Note how athletic she is and that she has the capacity to "cover" her sheep, even in a big open field. She's still in over her head here, but Hannah has her back.Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) shows very good natural balance. She uses her eye and stays well off the sheep to do so. She goes to balance but overshoots, has to turn back, overshoots again. Repeat! Typical puppy stuff. Nevertheless, this is a great and promising start. I was thrilled with what she showed me.
Also note how wild and messy this is. This is typical when starting a young dog! As I will state over and over throughout this course, we do not want robotic. Messy is part of the game. As is fast and furious a lot of the time! At least at the start as the dog learns to feel the sheep.
If we over-control this intial phase, the dog may not learn and instead suppress her own knowledge and become overly dependent on us. Which again, we don't want! She is the expert here. We want to harness her expertise, not suppress it. Just watch how well this baby does when left to do her own thing (with a carefully planned set-up and a back-up dog for support)
Now let's take a look at a couple of freeze frames from that video:
First, in Photo 1 the sheep are on balance, which means noses pointed straight at me. Check out where the dogs are! Neither is behind the sheep, but rather they have found where they need to be to keep everything in balance from their perspective. Aoife is moving straight at the sheep, pushing them left.
Note that Hannah is not going towards the sheep at all, but instead is covering that left side that Aoife is pushing on. Pretty cool, don't you think?
Compare the above to the last frame of the video, which I capture in Photo 2, below. The sheep are roughly in the same part of the field, also coming right towards me. However, both dogs are on the right. Observe how Aoife is making a line for their tails, and slightly off to the left. Her trajectory will bring her around to the left side of the photo, and push the sheep right. Now look at Hannah. Her head is up and looking more or less straight at the sheep, and slightly right. She looks to be anticipating their turn to my right and preparing to flank "come by" to stop them. See how over her shoulder she is? She is already in the process of turning to beat the sheep, and the lead ewe's nose has only slightly started to turn!
These two shots show the difference between an experienced dog who understands sheep (12 year old Hannah, in the back), and one who is just figuring them out (baby Aoife). Also note the difference in ear and tail carriage in both dogs. Who looks more confident and relaxed?Photo 2:
Next, let's look at a little sequence that will both show balance and help train your eye to stock.
Photo 3: Aoife is coming in hard in the Away to Me direction, which will serve to turn the sheep towards my right. Now, check out the head of that one ewe who is looking straight at me. The line between me and her nose is the balance point. She is on balance. Her friends are not. This is what our dogs have to figure out at speed! The ewe who is looking at us we would call the "lead ewe", for reasons that will be clear in the next photos.
This ewe is the leader, and clearly earns this position because she knows where the dog is going (around behind her and then to her right / the left of the photo). Even though the dog is still at least a dozen yards behind and off to the side, she knows Aoife will overtake them and, in anticipation, turns hard to avoid. This photo is important for you to understand, because being able to spot the lead ewe will go a long way to being able to predict where your sheep are going. When you watch the video again, see if you can spot her body cues. Is it always this ewe in the lead, or just in this instance?
This photo also clearly illustrates another rule in herding: Where the nose goes, the [sheep/dog/cow etc.] goes! Repeat this to yourself until you chant it in your sleep :)Finally, look at Aoife's body language: Ears up, tail low, running in full gallop. Does she seem worried or confident? How does her language here compare to her language in Photo 2?
In Photo 4, taken a second later, we have three ewes going three directions! Again, this is a great display of the dynamics of pressure. Three ewes in a little flock, each going different directions! Aoife's job is to put pressure on them in a way that keeps them together:
In Photo 5, our lead ewe has now crossed the balance point and is heading to our right. Aoife is in full extension to cover, but the sheep have already turned. She is going to overshoot by far. The sheep are smart! They have out maneuvered her.
The middle ewe has also crossed the balance point, and the third one is about to do so.Also note again Aoife's body language. Even running flat out in full extension, her ears are up and her tail carriage is low. Confident, focused, working.
Finally, in Photo 6, we see the result of what Aoife started in Photo 3! A sharp turn to the right after they were driven to the left. We can also see that Aoife is turning her head to our right, the beginning of a turn to try and cover and bring the sheep left again.
Right now the sheep are zig zagging along that line towards me as she seeks balance (which she likely doesn't even yet realize is what she is doing) but eventually puppy Aoife will learn not to overshoot so far with her flanks, and to read her sheep better to keep them closer to the balance point.
I encourage you to watch the video again, and see what you're able to observe in the movement of both sheep and dogs. Watch once looking just at the sheep. Watch their heads. Their tails. Their ears. Can you predict where they will go? Look for balance (when the sheep are pointed right at me), and see if you can spot each time it is achieved.Then watch again, observing the dog. Do the same. What do you see? Have fun!
FDSA is pleased to welcome Helene as a new guest instructor / new course for October 2018.
Note that these testimonials are provided from the instructor based on her offering of this course previously through her own website:
“I am new to training dogs and new to herding. I struggled with understanding how the training I was doing off stock worked on stock. This course gave very clear, easy to implement scenarios on how an off stock training session eventually looks on stock.
“This class was a really great start for me and my dog!” –Lili
“I loved this course! It was very well organised and presented, we had great fun and learned bucket loads!!” — Joanne Griffiths KPA/CTP
“I thoroughly enjoyed this course. Helene Marie was very informative and I love her style of teaching. Her video was real, ie she just didn’t video the parts that worked, she also showed that she is human when training her dogs and that one can’t be the perfect trainer all the time. That made me feel connected to her. I highly recommend this course to anyone looking into getting started with herding. It is so important to know the terminology and what type of dog you have before signing up for a live course with livestock. Foundation work is very important.” Sincerely, Troye Kyte
“Hélène is an excellent, knowledgeable and patient teacher. I would highly recommend this course.” — J.T.
“As a novice owner/handler, I was grateful for the way Helene put skills into the bigger picture, while spending time on each step. I loved her use of different dogs — diverse skill levels and temperaments — to demonstrate lessons in the videos. I also appreciated how she left in mistakes as a “learning moment.” It made the lessons feel real and on the ground rather than just theoretical. Even as an auditor, I learned many things that I can apply to my own dog and training.” — Megan O’Connor