Clarification Post Regarding Herding with a Clicker

So I have been alerted by a friend that perhaps I was a little vague in my previous post about whether or not I will use a clicker to teach Case to herd.Nell starting herding I have since added a note about this to that post but thought a new post was in order for further clarification.

I wrote:

The short answer is, I will consider all the tools and skills I have learned since I first picked up a clicker and since I first watched a Border Collie herd sheep.  I am ruling out nothing nor am I automatically including something.

I guess this could be read to mean I would use a shock collar if I thought it would work.  That’s not what I meant, at all (to be even more clear, I will never, ever use a shock collar on a dog, period).

Breaking it down, I will consider all the tools and skills I have learned since I first picked up a clicker means that I have learned a lot in the last 16 years about how animals learn. Most simply, I have learned about the A -> B -> C of behavior.  That each behavior has an Antecedent which precedes the Behavior and is then followed by a Consequence. That my best bet is to manipulate the Antecedents and set the animal up for success by training, training, training. In this case it will mean getting an unbelievably reliable “down” at a distance and an unbelievably reliable recall. Those two things will be necessary to protect the sheep from being unnecessarily harassed or injured.

I have learned we have to find out what is most reinforcing for the animal in each circumstance. My dog might willingly come to me across the room for just a scratch on his neck because we have a relationship and he loves having his neck scratched. If someone else he likes is in the room, I might need to pay with a piece of food.  If the UPS man is in the driveway, I might need to reinforce with some really good food!  He won’t know when he comes what I have to offer, but he’ll remember whether it was worth it last time.

One thing I have learned since I first watched a good Border Collie work sheep is that nothing, ab-so-lute-ly nothing, is more reinforcing than working sheep.  They will drop from exhaustion, from heat stress, from illness before they volunteer to leave the sheep.  We had one who suffered from heat stress and we had to learn to recognize the early signs, stop him, run to him and carry him as fast as we could to the nearest stream or water tub to drop him in and get him cooled off. This was not because we had pushed him to work that hard but because there was a job to do and he just kept at it until we asked him to stop.

So, what am I going to offer an enthusiastic adolescent pup if I call him off the sheep? There is only one thing and that was taught to me by a Scottish shepherd years ago, “give him his sheep back”. This is similar to a ball obsessed dog who will learn to drop the ball if you throw another one. The difference is that the ball doesn’t care. The sheep do. Thus the training, training, training and management, management, management that will be required.

Things I have learned since I first watched Border Collies herd sheep are how they know better than I do what needs to be done when. How many times have I heard a good shepherding coach say “trust your dog”. That’s because the dog has the better eye. They see the thought go through a ewe’s head that she might consider breaking from the flock. The dog sees that the cattle want to drift uphill so he needs to be on that side, rather than directly behind them. When I wrote in my previous post about the precision of the clicker, I meant I do not want my less skilled eye to precisely direct a dog to a spot when if I’d let him find his own balance, he’d be a far, far better working companion.

So while I may not use a clicker while he’s working, I will use all the good, proven science behind clicker training.

When I said, I am ruling out nothing, I was just trying to be realistic; I wasn’t suggesting I’d plan to punish. I don’t believe in grabbing children by the arm to discipline them. But if I saw a child headed for traffic, you bet I’d grab him by the arm to prevent him from being hurt. Likewise, I intend to do my best to set Case up for success, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let him get run over by stock or hurt stock rather than tackling him as he goes by just because I don’t want to “punish” him.

If he was after a ball, I’d let him go by, let him grab the ball, recognize it was my error, train more and make a better plan for next time.  If he is after sheep, I may have to resort to a tackle to protect puppy and stock, but then I’ll go back and train, train, train some more in a safer environment to build the strength of the behavior I want so another tackle isn’t required. Case showed when he was 8 weeks old that he could climb out of his three foot ex-pen. I have seen Border Collies scale fences, squirt under walls, squeeze through doors and any number of other gymnastics to get to stock. I’ll do my best to prevent that from happening. But there are hundreds of years of genetics in there telling him to get to those sheep.

Since getting this puppy I have heard from people who’ve used a clicker and say “you can’t use a clicker for herding”. But there are so many incredible things that people have trained so many different animals to do that I can’t believe there isn’t a way to utilize this technology.

I have also heard from committed clicker trainers who say of course they have used it and of course it works. But they are doing it as a hobby, not living with sheep nor teaching real-life herding. When it’s a hobby, you can give it up if it doesn’t work out.  Case is going to be a critical part of our farm.

I have spoken with a world renowned dog trainer with shepherding experience who uses positive reinforcement and many markers. That’s a brain I’d like to pick some more.

I’ll finish with another quote from my previous post:

So how am I going to do it?  I don’t know yet. I will need to feel my way step by step to see what works best.


The Elephant in the Room: Using a Clicker to Train Herding

Nell starting herding
Nell when she was starting.

“Are you going to use a clicker to train Case to herd?” is a loaded question, especially when it’s phrased, “You’re not going to use a clicker on him, are you?”.  I want to curl up in a hole when I hear it because I know there are strong opinions involved and I am right smack in the middle so I can’t easily say yes or no.  The short answer is, I will consider all the tools and skills I have learned since I first picked up a clicker and since I first watched a Border Collie herd sheep.  I am ruling out nothing nor am I automatically including something. (please see note below added 4/13)

My advantage is that I have trained horses to do a lot with a clicker and the traditional equine community is as full of doubters as the herding world. Traditional is the important word there. People have been training horses and herding dogs for centuries without a clicker. A lot of punishment and aversives have been involved, from spurs and whips for horses to throwing all manner of things (caps, crooks, cans full of rocks) at Border Collies who get too close to their sheep. It is assumed that it’s the way It Has To Be Done, even if you don’t like doing it that way.

Both horse training and herding dog training involve some very strong instincts. Fear is a strong motivator in a horse and people have invented all kinds of stronger and stronger equipment to stop a horse, steer a horse and make it go where you want it to go even if it doesn’t want to. The drive behind a Border Collie to get to his sheep is equally strong. It’s amazing they haven’t figured out a way to use elevator bits and martingales on them.

And that brings us around to the question of “why wouldn’t you use a clicker then??”. The simplest answer to that is that I will never have the timing or stock sense of a Border Collie working sheep. A clicker has scalpel-like precision and I am constantly shown that where I thought the dog should balance is not where he thought he should balance…and the dog was right. If the dog understands the job, he’ll be where he needs to be. I have been blessed with amazing dogs who taught me that lesson over and over. The only technology I’d like to see in shepherding is a way for the dogs to remotely open gates.  When they figure that out, farmers will be able to stay in bed.

I haven’t mentioned the sheep yet. I have been amazed to see and hear people who espouse positive reinforcement training for dogs absolutely terrorizing the stock, whether it’s ducks or sheep or something else. I watched one video where the handler and dog were going around and around a small pen of sheep working on the dog’s focus on the handler so he wouldn’t be distracted by the sheep.  Well good God first of all, I do NOT want my dog’s eyes on me!! Ears, yes, but the eyes should be on the stock! At all times! And in the name of positively reinforcing the dog for focusing on the handler so close to the sheep, the poor ewes in that pen were leaping and scrambling over each other in terror. Granted, it’s not hard to inspire that much terror in a group of sheep in a pen, but if you have compassion for the dog, how about a little compassion for the sheep?

Finally it needs to be said that Case will be a working farm dog. I have not ruled out trialling because it’s fun and a good way to learn and practice on different sheep in different situations and great to network with other shepherds. But in daily life he will need to work large groups of animals in large spaces, as well as small groups of sheep in small spaces and large groups of sheep in small spaces and small groups of sheep in large spaces.  There will be “traps” such as roads and fences and doorways and round bales which will all affect how the sheep move and react.  He will need to think for himself, problem solve and react accordingly.  Clicker training is wonderful at teaching animals to problem solve IF you set it up correctly.  If I use a clicker to teach him how to think, then he can generalize that to his working world.

So how am I going to do it?  I don’t know yet. I will need to feel my way step by step to see what works best. Case already knows what a clicker is so yes, I will be using a clicker with him for some things. But I think long and hard before using it for a specific behavior. If he was anything other than a herding dog, I’d have used it a lot more by now. So far I have used it to teach sit and a hand target.  He won’t sit when working. A hand target may come in very handy for recalls.  I’m tiptoeing my way toward that one. Hand targeting is simplicity and effectiveness itself in training recalls, but it’s based on a visual cue.  As I’ve already said, I want his eyes on the stock, not me. Right now I’m thinking it might work for a “that’ll do” which means “you’re done working, come to me”.  But…even then I like a dog who keeps an eye over his shoulder just in case the stock break for the gate when I thought they were secure.


NOTE- it occurs to me that perhaps I was a little too vague when I said I would not rule anything out when training this dog.  I did not mean I was going to use aversive and punishing methods if that was easiest.  I simply meant that I was going to use positive reinforcement although that might not include a clicker. It means that I may not use food, but instead use access to the sheep as a reinforcer, providing that doesn’t cause undue stress to the sheep. It will be a hot (energy wise) environment and I will have to be juggling two species to keep them both as safe and happy as possible. Sorry if I gave anyone the wrong impression.

I have since written a further clarification post:

The Interloper: Introducing a Puppy into the Household


"Do you always have this much snow?"
“Do you always have this much snow?”

Case is getting bigger by the day.  He was as big as the resident Jack Russells the day we brought him home, thus my desire to get relationships established as soon as possible.

We have five dogs in addition to Case, of varying sizes and ages. I had to allow them to figure things out themselves to some extent, but provide a safe and comfortable management situation for that to happen.

My biggest concerns were our two geriatric dogs, Woops and Beetle. They are both 15 years old, both very hard of hearing, have limited eyesight and don’t get around well. Beetle (Jack Russell) has trained many a young dog, ours and others, and he quickly put the young monster in his place. Since then, Case leaves a wide perimeter around him and Beetle maintains that with frequent rumbles and occasional leaps and barks.

The King in his not-so-hidden lair
The King in his not-so-hidden lair

It has had an affect on the old man though.  Highly alert in his prime, in recent years he would fall into a deep, deep sleep such that he is terribly startled if he’s touched or bumped. I learned to gently wake him and we had a routine that was comfortable.  I have noticed since Case’s arrival, he startles more easily and I feel terribly guilty.

Woops (a Border Collie/Cattle Dog cross) is six months older than Beetle and has lived up to her name by being the most accident prone dog I’ve ever known. It seems nothing can kill her though, so I hope it isn’t the puppy who eventually does so. She does not startle, but struggles more with movement than Beetle does. The deep snow this winter has been especially hard on her and I sure wish Spring would come so life could be more pleasant. She’s got the biggest heart of any dog I’ve ever met: loves anybody and everybody, meeting them all with wagging tail and a slurping tongue. Unfortunately this means that she does not discipline the puppy when he leaps on her and grabs her long hair. I really have to separate the two of them completely. Case has knocked her into the deep snow and she can’t get out; he’ll grab the hair on the side of her face and drag her around by it; and the worst is that she has an enormous tumor hanging off the side of her face. One puncture from those puppy teeth and we’ll have a blood bath. Case doesn’t understand any of this, of course.

Woops and her beloved jolly ball.
Woops and her beloved jolly ball.

I separate them by having Case in his crate unless he’s supervised. Woops lives in our finished basement so I make sure Case stays on the main floor with us when he’s loose. I walk them separately. I do not want Case anywhere near the horses, so Woops continues to go to the barn with me when I do chores and he stays in the house. That’s about as far as she wants to walk these days anyway. When I take Case out, I go out the front door as often as possible (which won’t be possible when mud season finally arrives) so that I don’t have to see her sad eyes when she gets left behind.

Eloise and Nell are able to interact with Case and are teaching him what is acceptable and what is over the line. Eloise is a very sweet little girl who prefers to avoid conflict so it’s taken some time for her to figure out how to play with this little oaf who outweighs her. We’ve handicapped her further by keeping our bedroom door closed. She loves to lie on our bed in the sun and there she could be out of the puppy’s reach.  We have decided to lock him out of there, however, to avoid having to pursue him to ensure our shoes are safe and no puddles are left in there. If he’s locked out, she’s locked out. Her remaining safe spot is a trunk in a sunny window that I placed

Eloise has stolen a puppy rawhide and taken it up to her safe place

some dog mats on so she’s comfortable and can see out the window. It’s only a matter of time before he can get up there too so I’m glad to see he’s learning to respect her a little already.This morning I noticed he is learning some wonderful bite inhibition from her. I sat on the floor and immediately had the two of them wanting to be in my lap. They began their face fighting game, so similar to the way the horses play the game! In this case, lips were curled back to expose teeth as they dodged and attacked. Eloise rarely made any contact and when Case did, he was grabbling her long hair only. Once he got an ear and she pounced on him for that so he retreated to my lap and they began again. Of course, she has peaceful times when he is in his crate as well.

In this photo, Case had pulled the mats out from under her in an attempt to get her to play.
In this photo, Case had pulled the mats out from under her in an attempt to get her to play.

Nell was a big concern for me because as far as she is concerned, Ed belongs to her. She adores him and the feeling is mutual. She has been very unkind to Woops in the past if Woops got too close to Ed. Since Case’s purpose here is to be her understudy, we need them to get along. Nell also lives in the basement but she has an enormous crate that she loves so she is protected from puppy teeth when she is in it.

IMG_5084We had to be very careful that she was introduced to him in a way that helped her understand that life was better when Case was around. She could easily have learned to hate him and attacked him the way she does with Woops. Punishing her for that behavior would just escalate her anxiety which would lead to more altercations.

Instead, when the puppy comes near her, we shower her with attention. If Case makes contact with her, we do as well: stroking her sides, talking to her and allowing her an escape if she wants one. Most of the contact she has with Case is when Ed takes them both to the sheep barn. On the walk to the truck, he does his puppy best to get her to interact and is being rewarded with a little play from her. Once in the truck they squabble like siblings about who gets to sit next to dad for the mile to the barn. Although I have not observed it, they apparently all pile into the easy chair in the barn office for some further interactions when things need to settle down in the barn. If Nell needs to work (or Ed needs to work), there is another crate in there for Case with more bones to keep him happy until they are ready for the return trip.

Last, but not least in the dog family, is Ziva, the large Livestock Guardian Dog. So far, we are maintaining a large distance between Case and her. Her job is to protect the sheep, and we want to protect the puppy. They have seen each other at a distance when Case arrives or leaves the sheep barn and Ziva is out with the ewes. If Ziva is in the barn with the sheep, Case stays in the office.  He’ll need to have a lot more under his belt before we introduce them any closer than that. In the meantime, Ziva can smell, hear and watch him to get used to his presence.

It’s been a challenge, all these doggie interactions. We need to protect minds and bodies of the senior citizens, encourage good relationships with the middle aged dogs, all while training and allowing exploration with the puppy. Not for the faint of heart.