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Thoughts on Dogs

I had a beer with my friend Roger this evening, and as usually happens, our conversation turned to working dogs.  To quote (loosely) a line from one of my favorite songs by Scottish folksinger Dougie McLean, "We will take a dram together.  The whiskey makes it all so clear."  I hate to admit it, but sometimes a beer helps crystallize my thoughts.

Roger and his border collie Bella have made huge strides in their working relationship this summer.  Most of this progress has happened since Roger and Bella had a very frustrating day trying to move the lambs at Elster Ranch.  Roger said that the challenges of that day helped him realize the importance of trying something different if things aren't working.

In thinking about my experience with working dogs, I realized how fortunate I was to start my experience with Ellen Skillings' Paige.  Paige was 11 when Ellen loaned her to us, and she knew more about handling sheep than I'll ever know.  Paige had incredible confidence in her abilities - so much so that when she would sometimes ignore my commands, it was always the right decision on her part!  I think I started learning what I was doing wrong by paying attention to the situations in which she ignored me.

As Roger and I talked, I also realized that one of the most difficult things for us humans is to discern the difference between correction and punishment.  Punishment implies emotion - "I want you to STOP doing that now and I'm going to be mad at you if you don't!"  Correction implies a lack of emotion - "That's not what I asked, please try something different."  Good border collies generally try to do the right thing, I think.  Punishing them for a wrong decision shuts them down.  Correcting them by asking them to try something different encourages them to solve problems.  Punishment implies a dominant position for the human; correction implies a partnership.

Part of this equation includes confidence - both in the dog and in the shepherd.  The dog has to have confidence that the shepherd is trying to help.  The shepherd has to have confidence that the dog is trying to do the right thing (and that no matter how big a wreck they get into, they can get out of it).  This confidence takes time and experience, on the part of both team members.

To me, successful work with animals requires us humans to figure out how to communicate effectively.  The dogs and the sheep know what they're trying to tell us.  We need to figure out how to talk back to them in ways they can understand!


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