Stages of a Competitive Dog's Life
By Patrick Shannahan

As published in American Border Collie Magazine..

It is always interesting to me to observe a dog through its entire life.  There are so many questions to ask when we look at the history of a particular dog. Were they a great dog all their life?  Did they start strong and slowly fade?  Or did they start really slow and finally come into their work with time?  Did it take another person or handler to bring out the good in the dog?

Sometimes we only see a dog at its current stage, whether he is very good, bad or mediocre.  But most dogs don’t start out great; it usually takes time and experience for them to develop.  And some dogs do start out great, and make us all excited about their potential. There are exceptions of course, but most dogs, like us, go through good and bad periods in their life.

In starting  dogs, I find that some dogs are very keen and eager at an early age.  They can handle both the physical and the mental part of training.  Others, though, have difficulty with one or the other.  Usually, it is the mental part of training.  They want to work, but they either can’t grasp the “team” concept, or they don’t have a strong enough desire to overcome the feelings of correction that come with training. Time usually takes care of that problem.  If the dog starts slow, that doesn’t mean it can’t become a good dog, it just means that he starts slow and we should continue to check on it to see when the “window of opportunity” for training will come.

Some pups are ready to learn and advance at a very early stage.  We have all seen young dogs at the Nursery Finals, competing and eligible for a couple of years of Nursery trials.  Others it might be a year or two before they can be trained.  Some of my pups easily make it for the Nursery Finals.  Others are just not quite ready to make their trialing debut at such an early age.  Whether the dog makes a great Nursery prospect isn’t a determining factor for me to keep a dog in most cases. 

It seems to me, that male dogs and female dogs also mature differently.  Just as in people, female dogs seem to mature physically a bit earlier and might be a bit more serious at a young age.  At the same time, males physically grow slower, and therefore it probably is a good effect that they mature slower emotionally so that we don’t stress their immature bodies.

 Recently, I was able to be at a clinic with a very nicely bred dog.  The woman attending the clinic really liked the dog, but was having trouble training it.  In training, the dog would “blow” up and run and grip when there was pressure put on the dog.  I saw it about 14 months and worked with her a few days.  At the end of the clinic, I told her that either “growing up” was going to take care of this problem, or the dog just might not make it as a sheepdog.  Last week, about 6 months had passed and I had the opportunity to see the dog again.  It was very exciting to see the dog as she had changed completely. She was very willing to try everything and had trained up extremely fast. She was everything the woman had hoped she would be when she bought the pup. It was concluded that earlier in training that the dog was just lacking the mental maturity at an early age in her life.

Usually at some stage of training, I see a dog fall in its confidence.  Sometimes it is early, but for my dogs, it usually happens at about age 2.    I haven’t always found a common reason that their confidence fails, but it seems to be something that isn’t too uncommon.  If I let time take its course and I am patient, everything fixes itself and the dog becomes confident again.  I once joked with a good friend of mine, that at about age two, my best prospects start to look bad and I think of selling them.  But luckily at the same time, they usually look so bad that no one is interested in buying them.  If I just wait it out….they become the dogs I think they are capable of.

We sometimes forget that dogs and people go through cycles.  If you watch any of the top athletes, they go through times that they can’t seem to lose, and other times they can’t seem to make it back on top.  They have winning cycles, and other cycles of growth.  It doesn’t matter if they are in tennis, golf or track and field, they have cycles in which they are much more competitive than others.   The successful people are actually those who can learn to recognize their cycles and plan their events during those cycles.

As our dog ages, they also begin to change.  We as handlers need to recognize the changes and use them in competition.  Sometimes a dog becomes very cautious in their fieldwork, and that requires a change from the handler.  Other times, they might actually build up “eye” and change the method that they are using on the sheep.  It is our job as handlers to “monitor” our dogs and look for the changes in their life.  As a trainer or handler, we work at bringing the best traits out in our dogs, so if our dog starts to suddenly run too wide, for example, it is necessary to realize this problem and correct it before it becomes a constant problem.

Most of our dogs are great athletes and can compete past their prime physical years.  But at the same time, if a dog begins to lose their hearing or eyesight, it doesn’t matter if they can stay in peak physical shape.  It takes all the functions of the body to be working properly  to make it at a winning sheep dog.

Now the article I am writing is about the stages of the competitive dog, but we have to address at the same time, what is happening with the handler. It is very difficult for a dog to stay on top if his handler is having a difficult time in their own life.  If a person has a tough time staying focused, how can the partner (our dogs), stayed focused without him or her.  Many times some of the top handlers drop out of the winning form, not because their dogs are running poor, but because something is going on in a person’s life that is distracting them from staying on top.

You can usually ask any of the experienced handlers and they will tell you how their dogs have changed through their life.  Some dogs start out hard and soften as they get trial experience.  Others might start out well, but have a difficult time as the pressure of the trialing circuit mounts.  As much as we would like to think that all dogs are the same, we have to realize, of course, that each is different. It is our job as owners and handlers to guide our animals through this process.