First herding lesson in a year…I got a new dog, probably not the way you are thinking however.
I will start by saying that is going to be controversial. Our first herding lesson was on a nice warm winter’s day. It was in the 30’s, I was prepared wearing my Carhartt bibs, just in case I got knocked over into the melted snow, mud and well, poop. I must say, the drive to the farm was pleasant. I didn’t feel nervous at all. I found the place pretty easy; sometimes navigation guidance actually gets you there!
I found my way down to the instructor. On my way, a coworker with her 10-week-old puppy surprised me. She was going to introduce her new pup to ducks. The instructor had me fill out a waiver and then asked me to bring Jedi.
Whew, this is where I started to get really nervous. I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring him down. This was not good. I tried to visualize many times before I got there, a good positive walk to the pen. I knew I had to feel confident. It was a new place, new people; I wanted to believe I could take him down there without too much trouble. You can probably guess how that went.
I was so nervous, I tried to breath, I walked him around. Trying to get him to connect with me. It was too much, too many dogs, too many people and too many sheep. He really put on his best “I can control a bull” face. After I fumbled around a bit with him, at one point throwing the squeeze tube of treats I had with me. Most of which, was accidentally squeezed on the ground anyway during our tussle. I finally stopped him and told him to calm down.
Cue the instructor. “You know you are rewarding him for his behavior”…me, “HUH????” I have heard so many things at this point, read too many things, been taught by too many instructors, I was drowning in indecision. She took him. Clipped the long line to his collar and looped the rest around his chest, behind his front legs. She said, “You don’t have any manners do you”. He does have manners; he knows what he is supposed to do. I didn’t say anything, because he was acting so rude. Like…he didn’t have any manners. Off we went to the pen.
She walked swiftly; I followed behind, like a little kid trying to keep up to her 7 foot tall dad. I had no idea what to expect. I should, I am a trainer…I do this exact same thing to the pet dogs in class…just not quite like this. Through gate 1, she asked if I knew why the long line was around his chest…me…dumbfounded. Does it act like a thunder shirt? We hit the next gate and then we were just about next to the people with their dogs. SHAZAM!! I didn’t see it, but I heard the yelp.
I wonder what my face looked like at that moment, no I really do. She didn’t miss a beat; she stepped on his foot a little by accident. That always kicks in his herding and he tapped her leg. Next thing I knew, they were in the pen. She moved him around a bit, he noticed the sheep and then he defecated. I forgot my bags and no one had one for me to borrow. I ran up to my car…yes, still dumbfounded. Maybe in shock at the severity of it all, can’t really say.
When I got back, someone was in the pen with a bag and her dog. Jedi was pretty shut down at the point. He didn’t care about the dog. He wouldn’t work for the instructor; he typically will only give 100% for me. It wasn’t unusual. I traded the bag I just retrieved for the bag full bag the lady handed me. The instructor called me into the pen and said Jedi has been through allot today, he wants his mom. Just walk him around a bit and I will be right back. She had to go grab a waiver for another new student. She left me there in the pen. Did I mention I was dumbfounded? I walked Jedi around and he started to recover. Soon, he was on the sheep.
The instructor wasn’t back yet, so I let him have a little fun. He has been on stock probably 10 times, just after he turned one year old. Ever since his first time he was on stock he just goes at the stock, but only to their bubble. I wasn’t worried about him hurting or harassing the animals; he just goes until he tips their pressure point. A good cattle dog is what our first herding instructor said. Then the instructor was back and I continued to walk Jedi around, asking him to work the sheep. He was still having fun, we where both starting to recover at that point. She came in and asked me to stick around the farm with him as long as I could today.
She wanted to me hang out. We had to leave the pen; there were dogs out there!! I left the pen with Jedi in tow. I am pretty sure he believes his new job is to know my whereabouts, he wasn’t going to lose me again. We walked out about 15 feet. He stuck to me like glue. We walked just a little bit and looked at the ducks. I noticed he was not reacting to anything. We settled about 10 feet from the pen gate. There was a dog 10 feet away, waiting for her turn in the pen. Jedi sat comfortably next to me, watching through the gate, the dog frantically chasing the sheep inside the pen.
A few minutes later, the dog 10 feet away from us started getting over stimulated by the sheep whizzing by. Jedi stood up. Now I was standing there…yes, still a little dumbfounded. I want whatever it was that we had, this calm and I want it so bad. I want off the reactive roller coaster. I could scream it at the top of my lungs…I WANT OFF!!!!!!!!!! I was in a dream and I want to remain there.
What do I do next? I knew I could ride the coattails of the instructor’s correction right now. I could hold what she created here or let him fall back into reactive mode. I decided to do it. I gave him a leash correction and a firm “NO”. He stopped, sat down and went back to watching the current lesson.
After a few minutes, someone a few feet away from me started talking. I was startled by it, I didn’t even notice they were there. I looked at her and she was talking to Jedi. He was doing his infamous sitting butt wiggle, it is futile to try to resist his beautiful little face, combine with that vibrating butt wiggle. He knows he can only see people, if he keeps that butt on the ground. She came over and put out her hand. Jedi gently rested his head in her hands and leaned into her. THERE HE IS!!!!!!!!!!!! I thought before the daycare incident, he has therapy dog potential. He would seek people out, especially little kids. He adored children.
In one instant, he returned to the dog that he seemed like he was going to be. He was perfect…I don’t want to go back to what he was. What do I do? I don’t like what happened, I don’t like it one bit. The reason I never tried this approach, was because things I have read about suppressing his communication. If he believed he could not tell me when he feels uncomfortable, like he has no warning system, it was taken away. A loaded gun.
Yes, we are going back next week. I am the handler; the instructor doesn’t work your dog. She really should never take your dog…she just thought she would handle this the old school way once and for all. I will say it. Yes, it stopped the behavior. I knew he was not dog aggressive. The behavior went away when he was off leash. There just aren’t many places where you can take your dog off leash.
The thing is, he was genuinely calm. He didn’t care about the other dogs; he loved up all of the people. In those moments, he got to be the dog that he really is. He sat or laid at me feet quietly waiting for me, no signs of stress or worry. I honestly believe he didn’t feel like he was going to have to defend himself in anyway. Dogs could have come right up to him and he would have been fine. He wasn’t just suppressing his frantic fear; it was gone. He even rolled on to his back, trying to get belly rubs from me. I gave him a few and he continued to lie on his back at me feet, like he does at home.
I am being very firm and clear with him this week. When I say no, I give him a huge shot of pressure with my voice. I am being very black and white. My thoughts are, it happened. I will do everything in my power, to make sure it won’t happen again. I think I can still hold whatever it is she created for us again next week, without the super-giant bite of a correction. I don’t know what will happen, but it felt like I was given a super power. You can make your dreams come true…there it was, my perfectly behaved dog. Sitting or lying on my feet, soft eyes, tiny kisses. No stressed or frantic breathing, no whale eyes, not posturing, no fear. Seriously! Not a care in the world.
I just want to tell people, I would not try to replicate this yourself. This instructor has been teaching for almost 50 years. I was calm when I took him back; I had been practicing being calm in any environment. I think that is the key. If you can take your dog back and remain calm. I have actually had an instructor do this once before, not quite as severe. She got him to stop and walk with other dogs. He was very shut down afterwards, of course, they will respond differently when shutdown. Either way, I could not remain calm afterwards and it fell apart for me pretty quickly.
Jedi was able to take soft corrections afterwards, very well. Yes, he is a strong dog. He doesn’t let go of things easily. I have a good base of obedience on him, just could never keep it when there were dogs present after the daycare incident. I love my dogs more than anything (oops, I love my husband just as much). All I can say is stay tuned for next Sunday; I am on the edge of my seat.