Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Learning About Border Collies

I’m very behind in blogging, but a lot has been going on in the last month so I am going to try to catch up.

DJ down in field The biggest adventure we have had lately was our trip to Brookfield, Missouri with Tristan, Django, and Cadence to attend a “Learning About Border Collies” 3-day workshop with the UK trainer, Kay Laurence.  We have seen Kay at ClickerExpo for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to spend a long weekend working with our dogs and learning from her.  The seminar was wonderful.  Perhaps the best I’ve ever attended.  We met wonderful people, and Kay was as always filled with amazing information. 

Basically, Border Collies are just not quite like other breeds of dog.  All of us BC owners have been told that and know that, but this helped us fully consider how it impacts their behavior and what we ask of them. 

BCs are bred to have a very specific behavior pattern, which enables them to masterfully perform the job they were originally born to do: herd.  They are extremely sensitive to motion and sound, they want things to be under control, and they want to chase.  They work on farms with their shepherd and few strangers.  They work in sprints, and must pause to think.  Too often, we don’t consider these traits when we are blushing at the crowded agility ringside as our overstimulated and overwhelmed BC has a tantrum because they can not control the moving dog and handler on the course. 

T mat It’s not that BC's can’t handle these environments – clearly they excel repeatedly in a wide variety of non-herding tasks.  But we need to remember how their brains work, and help prepare them for the types of environments where we want to bring them.  I loved Kay’s response to those who talk about all the “reactive” border collies that you see: “Well I would hope a dog is reactive – it just means he isn’t dead.” 

I’ve come to have a hard time with that term - “reactive.”  What does it even mean?  All dogs will react to some things; it is just a matter of thresholds.  Someone who saw Cadence in one of his bursts of frustration on the sideline of an agility class a year ago might have decided I had another one of those “reactive” dogs.  Unless they saw him the other 99.9% of the time – he is friendly to other dogs and people and is remarkably calm and well-mannered in a wide variety of environments.  I can take him to training expos with hundreds of people and dogs, I can walk through downtown, a busy park, a hotel lobby, a campground, a noisy truck stop, and even a crowded Renaissance Festival without him batting an eye. 

Me and C and DJ What he is, is distracted by motion, and by things that appear out of control.  What he is, is a normal border collie.  I think all of us shared the sentiments of one workshop attendee at the end of the first day, who said to Kay:  “Thank you for validating my dog.”

Kay also shared a paradigm with us that really beautifully illustrated what we see with our dogs.  Originally presented by Stephen Lindsay (I believe), she displayed an axis where one line ranged from uncontrolled to controlled, and the other from unpredictable to predictable.  A dog’s emotional response to an experience depends on where on the continuum it lies:

-Controlled/predictable = Boredom.

-Uncontrolled/predictable = Frustration.  This is the dog barking at the agility sideline.  He knows there is going to be crazy motion and dogs running, but he can’t control it.

-Uncontrolled/unpredictable = Fear.

-Controlled/unpredictable = Excitement and anticipation.  This is clicker training and shaping.  There is a controlled pattern – dog’s behavior will earn a consequence (reward) - but the dog has to figure out what behavior will get him there.  It is why animals enjoy clicker training so much.

A year ago, when Cadence was having his impulse control issues in agility class, a trainer suggested I medicate him because he was so “anxious.”  I was stunned at this assessment of him.  “No,” I said, “he is frustrated.”  The answer I chose was to work on impulse control and manage his environment to help him better handle his frustration.  Thank you, Kay, for confirming that I know my dog.  As she said, never let some outsider’s judgment of your dog get in between your relationship with your dog.

We also learned a lot about how we can use our body language better – how projecting calmness ourselves can keep them calm.  This was an eye-opener for me.  I thought I was giving my best display of calmness, but Kay pointed out how I was still carrying tension in my body, and jokingly suggested I have a drink before training!   She also advised us to move much more slowly when working BCs.  They have a habit of working us up and getting us to move faster and faster.  What we need to do is slow them down so they can better think, rather than both getting worked up to a manic frenzy.

Finally, the coolest part of the weekend was having the opportunity to see our dogs’ reactions to sheep.  The farm arranged a few sheep in a smaller round pen, and we brought our dogs up to see how they responded and whether they could move them about the pen from outside the fence.  It was a great way to keep sheep safe from green dogs, yet to still observe herding instinct. 

It was fascinating watching Cadence.  He approached with interest but some caution at first, as he often does with new things, then rapidly decided this was the greatest thing ever.  The shepherd commented that he moved into pressure nicely, and held his eye on the sheep until they responded.  She was impressed with his natural instinct and said he had a lot of potential if I was able/wanted to pursue herding with him. 

Much to Cadence’s disappointment, we are not about to sell the house and move to a farm.  But we are on the lookout for some practice sheep and herding lessons . . .


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