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: