Positive Herding – It’s Possible

I have noticed, myself included, that whenever training is not going well, we blame the dog.

  • He’s not listening
  • He doesn’t get it
  • She is going through that “teenage” phase
  • She’s stubborn
  • He’s not smart
  • He has self-control issues
  • She doesn’t like doing this sport
  • She’s scared

The list of excuses or blaming goes on and on, but never once do we stop to think maybe it’s us. True, sometimes it is the dog, but most of the time, it’s the trainer. See what happens when you change the above reasons just a bit:

  • He’s not listening because he doesn’t understand what I am saying
  • He doesn’t get it because I am not explaining it in a way he can understand
  • She is going through that “teenage” phase, so I need to train more
  • She’s (acting) stubborn because she doesn’t get what I am asking of her
  • He’s(seems) not smart because I am telling him in a way he doesn’t understand
  • He has self-control issues so I need to work on that more
  • She doesn’t like doing this sport because I don’t make it fun for her (or me!)
  • She’s scared because I am not building her confidence

Learning to Change

The point of the above exercise is to get you to stop training when you hit a wall and try something new to bring out a different behavior in your dog. If he keeps giving you the same unwanted behavior over and over again, you are to blame – why? Because you are obviously not giving him clear enough signals as to what you want or you are creating an environment that is hostile to the wanted behavior.

Everything you do relates directly to how your dog acts! I traveled, literally, all over this country trying to figure out the right way to train Merlin in herding. And I used every one of the above excuses when he failed. Worse than that, I had other trainers reaffirm these excuses.

It got to the point where Merlin and I were not even working sheep because we had somehow convinced ourselves that would somehow help him herd sheep….yeah, I realize how that sounds, but it’s the truth.


Then…one day…I took a really good look at my dog. I had been thinking for some time that the way he was reacting was not fear, but frustration at having a fence between him and the sheep. His behavior looked a lot like his guarding and kennel aggressive behaviors we have been working on. It did not look like fear reactivity. No one else believed me when I told them this. Well, I was at home with my own sheep so I could do as I pleased.

I stopped putting a fence between him and the sheep BUT I kept him on a harness and lead line so he couldn’t rush the sheep. I wasn’t really afraid of him harming the sheep (20lb sheltie and all), but I still had in my head the lack of self-control and teenager issues and I need to have control of him.

He was better without the fence, but would, after a while, still end up lunging and barking at the end of the lead line. Seriously, he looked like a tiny Cujo.

Learning to Change, Some More

I called a few more people, I told a trainer friend I wasn’t going to herd anymore. She suggested a break too. But I am stubborn and I love herding. I got on Facebook and asked a group if there were any other positive herding trainers out there. I needed another opinion, but I was still looking to blame the dog.

A wonderful girl on the group said one thing: The lead-line can cause over-stimulation, as many dogs still see it as a barrier.


I wanted a calm dog that could focus and work. I have a high-drive dog that wants to work but is being kept from it by a leash. OH.

It’s not my dog’s fault. I was causing frustration. I was causing the “over-the-top” behavior and had created an environment that couldn’t possibly allow him to settle down and  work because I wasn’t allowing him to work!

Last week, (nervously, I’ll admit), I opened the sheep pen, brought him in, put him on a down stay, unhooked the lead, and let him free. That first day was chaotic, obviously. He had literally months of frustration and he really wanted to chase those sheep. But, even on that first day, there were tiny moments where he looked at me or slowed down, and he was clearly keeping the sheep together and near me, even if there was no “order.”

One week later…

  • He is looking at me when he gets confused with what to do
  • He is responding to almost every cue immediately
  • He is walking calmly behind the sheep roughly 60% of the time
  • He checks in with me now and then

Here is just a short video (Sorry, I had to take it myself so it’s not very good and I sound like I am yelling because the phone’s mic was by my face), but you can see how amazing he is doing. And all because I stopped blaming the dog, trusted my instincts that had been telling me all along he was frustrated (and because I was willing to listen to others and take advice).

I hope that you will think about this with your own training and remember to stop and think about why something is not working, rather than just blaming the dog. You will see results quicker and you will both be happier.

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