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Lessons from Sheepdogs

Examples of inadvertent miscommunication between a person and a dog are endless. I have a litany of my own, which prevents any smugness I might be tempted to feel as I watch clients confuse their dogs. This issue of clarity of communication is surely the most basic and critical aspect of a good and respectful relationship. It is not a simple one, involving as it does many aspects of behavior — from understanding canine ethology, being able to “read” dogs, knowing how to use operant and classical conditioning and teaching dogs how to behave in an alien society.

The second lesson is best illustrated by yet another mistake I made, albeit a more amusing one. At least, it’s amusing now — not so much then. Picture a blue-sky autumn day and a festival of all things Scottish outside of Milwaukee. My friend, Nancy Rafetto, and I had been asked to do a herding/ retrieving demonstration for the Milwaukee Highland Games. It was great fun for everyone: people enjoyed watching the dogs and Nancy and I got to teach under-the-radar science by illustrating the genetic predispositions of different breeds. Her Golden Retriever returned any objects that she threw but play-bowed to the sheep, while my Border Collie, ignoring the balls, collected the sheep and returned them to me. First, we’d work each dog separately; then we’d throw a ball into the middle of the flock, send out both dogs simultaneously, and watch the retriever barrel through the sheep to retrieve the object and the herding dog gather the flock together again. At least, that was the plan. We’d done it before in a variety of environments and it was always a crowd-pleaser.

However, this time, I violated a basic rule of working with animals: be prepared. I had forgotten my whistle, which allows us to communicate with dogs when they are a good distance away and is far better than using vocal commands in a noisy environment. I remembered my whistle on our way to the festival, but thought, Oh, it’ll be fine. Famous last words in behavior and training, hey? It probably would have been fine, since Luke was well trained to verbal signals, but just before I sent him to gather the flock, a marching band struck up right behind us. I couldn’t hear myself think, much less communicate with Luke. The sheep were about 100 yards away, and I paused; they were enclosed by a tall, dense hedge, and I thought they would stay on the field until the band took a breath and Luke could hear my signals.

To my abject horror and the obvious amusement of the crowd, the sheep melted into and through the hedge like cartoon animals moving through a solid wall into another dimension. Nancy was left to entertain the crowd while I ran across the field, pushed through the hedge with Luke and looked desperately for my sheep in what was now a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks; multicolored, one-story houses; and two-car garages. We finally found the sheep on the porch of a blue ranch-style house. We pursued them into and out of the garage (I swear I heard someone say “Marge, I think there are sheep in our driveway”) and eventually drove them back through the hedge. The crowd had given up by then, and Nancy and I tucked our tails and drove home. We were not asked back the next year.

Not everyone has been as foolish as I, but it is universally true that one of the most important differences between professionals and the general public is the level of preparation. People experienced in the world of dogs think ahead: They think about where the new dog will sleep at night and are ready with X-pens or crates. They have treats by the door for dogs who are fearful of strangers. If they have a puppy, they have a toy in their pocket so they are always ready to divert the pup’s attention from the slippers to something more appropriate. They close the door to the guest room to prevent accidents, and are ready to neutralize urine smells if they find a puddle. It becomes second nature to always have something available to reinforce good behavior and, if possible, to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

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Submitted by Anonymous | January 13 2012 |

As a wanna-be dog trainer/behaviorist, that was an inspiring article. Thanks Patricia.

Submitted by Ellis Hughes | January 16 2012 |

So sorry to read the LAST column by Patricia in BARK. I have so enjoyed her knowledge, humor and ability to share ideas so clearly. Please let us know when/where we can find her next. Thank you ... and thanks Dr. McConnell.

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