Recipe For Failure

By Patrick Shannahan

This past month I was saddened when I ran into a novice person at a large sheepdog event. It was good to see him as I had given him several lessons the past year. He was friendly and excited about the trial, but when I asked him about how his training was going, he said he had given up. I asked him why? He said a number of reasons; but mainly that he couldn’t get consistent help, and that everyone was telling him to do different things with his dog.

I should back up a bit and explain a bit more. This student was not unlike many of who get started. He came from a varied background, and was excited to have a dog that could actually work and help him on his small ranch. He had the facilities, but didn’t have dog broke livestock or a dog.

Things started falling apart at the very beginning. The first mistake came with the selection of the dog. He got a dog from a neighbor not knowing much of the history of the parents. It was a Border Collie, a smooth coat that was very keen and about 2 years old. He, like many others, assumed that all Border Collies were the same, and that it just needed training.

Unfortunately, it was one of the most difficult types of dogs to start. It was fast, keen and very independent. I don’t know the history of its background, but just guessing, I wouldn’t say that it had much opportunity to learn in a structured manner. When turned loose, she would whirl around the sheep, making her agenda up, as she would go. The student wouldn’t have any influence on her, but would yap out commands, hoping she would somehow take them.

The next step the student was to take was to get some stock to work. He had goats, and thought they might work. After a month or two of the dog harassing the goats, he decided he needed to get sheep. Unfortunately, another mistake was made. A neighbor had some blackface ewes that hadn’t lambed in a few years, so he picked them up cheaply.

So now the student had a keen, independent dog, chasing strong, fat ewes that had never seen a dog before. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The ewes wouldn’t move, so the dog had to get very close and bite them to shift them. Once shifted, the rodeo began.

The third error came from an instructional standpoint. The local club had different clinicians, and local members to help a new student in training. Unfortunately, the large choices for instructors was a bit overwhelming for the student. Everyone, including the instructors, had a different opinion. Some wanted him to get a round pen; others wanted him to buy a trained dog, yet others wanted him to work with a choke collar. Each lesson was more confusing, because with a new instructor, lessons that were previously taught were negated, and a new plan would unfold. This was extremely difficult for the student, as he himself, wasn’t a fast learner.

There is nothing wrong with getting help from several people. Nothing wrong with trying different methods. But until you have some idea of what you are trying to accomplish, you probably should stick with one instructor or mentor. Let this mentor guide you through the complicated maze of training, until you are confident enough to understand what is needed from both you and your dog. Then you can make decisions that will benefit both you and your dog.

Sheepdog culture is very complicated. There is a very steep learning curve, and a person that is interested in educating themselves in sheepdog training must go with a plan. One of the biggest mistakes that I see new people make in training is their lack of planning. They go forth without thinking the process through. Where will they get a nice dog? Where will the stock come from? Who is available for help? If there is no plan, it is very difficult to find success.

I thought about the student on the way home from the trial. I was saddened to think his training experience didn’t go well, and that he was so frustrated that he had given up. It would have been great if he had a quality pup to start with. Or even had some nice dog-broke sheep to begin his training with. And of course I wish that he had sought out a mentor that could have helped him in his quest of sheepdog education. But at the same time, he hadn’t really planned for success, so it shouldn’t surprise me that he was failed.