Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ethics of Working Stock Dogs

At least for me, there seems to be a set of unwritten rules about working stock dogs with another person - kind of like some of the unwritten rules in baseball!  In baseball, if a pitcher throws at one of my teammates, someone on the opposing team can be certain to get a high and tight fastball at some point.  For example, in the 2012 National League Championship Series, Matt Holliday of the St. Louis Cardinals injured San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro with a hard (and some thought dirty) slide to break up a double play.  I remember thinking at the time that the Giants would probably retaliate - and sure enough, Holliday was hit by a pitch later in the series.  He didn't argue or get angry - I think he knew it was coming.

These rules aren't written for a reason, obviously.  But sometimes unwritten rules need to be put on paper (or maybe into a blog!) - and that's what I want to attempt here.  I hope other stockmen (and women) will weigh in with their perspectives!

As with anything, there is a spectrum of skill levels among dog handlers.  I would not count myself as an expert, nor would I presume to be good enough at this stage to train a dog to a competitive level.  I do, however, rely on my dogs to accomplish the daily tasks associated with being a shepherd.  The simple fact that I need to work with a dog (or two) nearly every day has exposed me to a variety of situations and experiences.  I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I have at least a working knowledge of what a dog can do, and what a dog should do, in a wide variety of situations and conditions.

So here are the rules, at least as far as I can see them:

  1. If I'm working with another shepherd who is obviously my superior in terms of understanding and working stock dogs, I'm perfectly fine if that person gives my dog a command while we're working.  During the work (or more likely, when the task is completed), I'll ask the other person about what they were seeing and what my dog was doing wrong.  I find this very helpful!  I also find that I don't give their dogs commands under any circumstances.
  2. If I'm working with someone who is approximately equal with me in ability, I expect that they will not give my dog a command unless the dog is endangering the sheep or the other dog(s).  Likewise, I will not give commands to their dog unless I'm worried about the dog being unnecessarily rough with the sheep.
  3. If I'm working with a person who has less dog and sheep experience than me, I expect that they will not give my dog any commands, period.  An inexperienced handler (and I was one once!), at least in my opinion, lacks the contextual knowledge to know if a dog is handling a situation correctly.  For example, if a ewe turns on my dog and tries to head-butt and trample him, I want my dog to defend himself.  A quick nip on the nose of a charging takes a great deal of courage for a dog - courage that I need in certain situations.  If I scold or correct a dog at that point (which I've done as a new handler), I might teach him that he's not to defend himself.  By the same token, I will correct a dog that unfairly bites a ewe in the flank after she's given up the fight and turned tail - that's unfair to the ewe, and represents a lack of courage on the dog's part.  In real life, these two actions are often only a split second apart - and it's taken me years to learn to recognize and respond with the correct timing.  An inexperienced handler can confuse the dog and make the situation worse - especially when he/she is attempting to correct somebody else's dog.
  4. When working with less experienced handler, I generally won't give his/her dog any commands or corrections if we're working in a training situation.  On the other hand, if we're in the midst of a job and the other person's dog is not working right (which puts more stress on the sheep and on my dog), I will step in and offer a correction if it's necessary.
This brings me to the difference between sheep dog trial dogs and ranch dogs.  I've heard many ranchers say, "I wouldn't want one of those trial dogs - they don't know what real work is."  I've heard trial people who don't rely on their dogs professionally say, "that's just a ranch dog - he'd never make it competitively."  From my perspective, the best dogs in either situation are dogs that are trained to a trial standard and that have to work large numbers of sheep everyday.  In other words, as a "professional" shepherd, I want a professional dog.  While I've never entered a sheep dog trial, I aspire to use dogs to their greatest potential.  Much like the buckaroo who won't do any job that can't be done from a horse, a shepherd won't do any job that can't be accomplished in partnership with his/her dogs.

I hope my shepherding and dog trialing friends will add their perspectives - I would expect many different viewpoints!  Please leave your comments below!

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