Starting Pups by Angie Pickle
Working Border Collie: May/June 1998There are a lot of different opinions about when to start a pup. Some like to start them as soon as they show interest in working, that may be at 4 or 5 months of age. That's really a lot younger than I personally care to start my dogs. Just because a yearling colt might be big enough to ride doesn't mean he's ready mentally. I guess that's my thought on young dogs as well, are they mentally ready for work, and training, are they acting mature enough? I don't think it hurts to wait until a dog is 10 to 12 months old to start training, even if he was showing interest at 5 months. I believe if they've got it they'll keep it, if they don't they never will.
When a dog reaches 10 months of age he should be big enough to stay up with stock, and hopefully he will be pretty mature about things. Dogs just like anything, people included, mature at different ages. When I say mature, I'm talking about the way he goes to stock, if he acts sensible, is his head and tail down, does he seem to be thinking about what's going on, not just busting the stock and diving in. I realize there will probably be a certain amount of that during the first few times the pup goes to stock, but after a few days of working with him I would hope such nonsense would stop. If it doesn't, he may not be ready mentally. I won't wait forever on a dog to "mature". He may never act the way I like a dog to, if he's 10 or 11 months old, I'll not be upset yet, but by the time he's 13 or 14 months old, I may be finding him a new home. Especially if he's showing no interest at all.
I think that once a dog is introduced to stock, he needs to be worked a few times a week, more or less depending on his maturity level. Hopefully by ten months of age they can take some training pressure, not too much, but simple corrections, and they will understand what they are for. Where as a six or seven-month-old pup may not take to these pressures too well. This is a very important area in training, where the trainer must read how his dog is accepting what he is doing, one certainly doesn't want to over do the dog on anything.
When I take my young dogs to stock for the first time, I take them to a pen 60 x 100 ft. I'm using 5 or 6 very dog broke sheep. I use that size of pen because that's what I have, a smaller round pen might work better, but since the sheep are so dogged it really isn't an issue. I like starting in the pen so I can keep the dog under better control. He may not even have a down on him, so I can put the sheep behind me on the fence and I can get between the dog and block him until he stands, thereby teaching him to stand. I'm not trying to teach the dog flank commands at this point, I just want him to balance the sheep to me and stop eventually.
By starting a dog in a pen I can usually keep a really aggressive dog at bay, and a very timid dog in the pen with me. I don't allow a dog to be vicious with the sheep and a good tap on the head is enough to deter much unnecessary roughness. I know there are those that believe in only positive reinforcement but there comes a point in time (when the dog has a sheep by the throat) that negative reinforcement is a must. Look at how dogs establish pecking orders and discipline the young pups, they use negative reinforcement then get over it. I don't mind a few nips and bites, but when the dog is going for a kill, I won't stand for it. Usually a large part of the biting will stop in a few days, but if it continues consistently through training at all distances, cattle may be the best teacher for this type of dog.
The timid dog that is willing to work but offended if I say anything to it, or even correct it with my body position, may want to quit and go back to the kennel, but the pen keeps it from leaving. By being in the pen the dog can't get out away from me and I can reassure him all is ok, while at the same time, I've learned something about the dog and not started a habit of him running off. Sometimes timidness is really a confidence problem that can be fixed by encouragement and positive responses, other times it's a temperament problem. I think rarely does this type of dog ever overcome a temperament problem and make a good useful working dog.
When I first start a dog in the pen, or take him to the pasture for the first time, it's not uncommon for him to just bust through the sheep and scatter them. To try and prevent this from happening again, I'll use my body and sorting stick (maybe tapping it on the ground) to push him out a bit. If I'm working in the pen and he's being pretty bad about busting the sheep, I'll put the sheep on the fence and get between the dog and the sheep. I'll just let him work in a half circle for a while until he settles down and gets the message I'm not going to tolerate him busting in.
After a few sessions in the pen I'll move to the pasture. I'll use the same dog broke sheep, and maybe an older dog (just staying back, but there if the sheep happen to get away). Hopefully I've established somewhat of a stop on the dog, most of that work was done on him in the pen with the sheep, and some yard work on a line. While working in the field, I'll just walk around and let the dog keep the sheep up to me. It's okay if the sheep pass me, I'll just turn and go the other direction, letting the dog go around and catch them. I'll also insist the dog stop when I say. After a little balance work, I'll start doing mini outruns, and asking the dog to stop when he gets behind the sheep.
As the dog progresses and I have pretty good control of him as far as stopping, I'll change stock. I'll use some sheep that are not as dog broke and offer the dog a bit more of a challenge. He will have to think more and be in the right place or risk losing his sheep. The sheep will teach the dog a lot if allowed to. After the dog has been working a few months on semi dog broke sheep, I like to put him on some lambs, that will really make him think about what he's doing and slow him down if he's been working too fast and close. A few days of working the flighty lambs, or any kind of flighty sheep, will usually make a difference. The dog will be thinking more about what he's doing and how fast he's doing it. I'm careful not to let the sheep get the best of him by out doing him, they can be very frustrating to a young or even old dog. If the sheep are behaving semi nicely I can work for 20 or 30 minutes. If they are being real boogers I'll and stop before all goes hay wire even if I only get a 10 minutes work. 10 minutes of positive work is far better than 20 minutes of wrecks and getting beat. The sheep are often the best teachers, even to the trainer.