Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Releasing the Pressure

Last weekend, we hosted a sheep dog clinic with our friend, Ellen Skillings.  We had a great day - perfect weather, fun people, good dogs!

One of the principles of training a dog (or any animal, for that matter) is that of pressure and release from pressure.  Animal behaviorists tell us that our training techniques should mimic the social interactions of the animals themselves.  Mother dogs, for example, will train their pups by rewarding good behavior (through licks, etc.) and by correcting poor behavior (through growls and more aggressive actions).  Training a dog, then, requires us to correct (not punish) improper behaviors and to reward desirable behaviors.

Ellen explained how tone and sound is the communication tool we can use to help our dogs understand what's expected of them in regards to working livestock.  A harsh or low tone can communicate dissatisfaction.  A neutral tone can convey a request.  A happy or high tone communicates enthusiasm.

Sheep dogs have been an integral part of our sheep operation for five years now - thanks to Ellen.  I'm still learning this system of communication.  For the most part, our trained dogs (Taff and Mo) put up with my relative inexperience with canine communication.  Our newest border collie - Ernie - is still figuring out his job (and my method of conveying what I want him to do).

Ernie's instincts are amazing - he wants to work.  As Ellen has tried to tell me repeatedly, my job is to let him - to correct Ernie's poor decisions while giving him the space to try to do the right thing.  I've found it easy (perhaps too easy) to correct mistakes - Ellen says I've nagged Ernie about these!  I've found it much more difficult to take the pressure off of Ernie when he's doing the right things.  It's this release from pressure that allows a dog to learn - I suspect it's the same with humans.

Working sheep with a dog, as I've written before, requires communication between human and dog, between human and sheep and between sheep and dog - it's incredibly complicated.  The more I learn, the more I appreciate the complexity of this system.  I've found that improving my relationship with my dogs and my sheep requires a sustained investment in learning how to communicate more effectively.  I'll be learning this for the rest of my life, I believe!

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