Sheepdog Training 03 – Working for Reward

What Makes the Dog Keep Working?

Some time ago, some neighbours stopped to watch a training session and asked me how I could get the dog to work so well and for so long without giving it some praise or reward. I know little of training other breeds but in the case of Border Collie Sheepdogs, the greatest rewards you can give are:

  • To allow the dog to work or continue working.
  • Show the dog you’re pleased with its work by the using the tone of your voice when giving commands
  • Verbally praising the dog when it’s working well, with an enthusiastic, gentle voice.
Working Sheepdog Dot

Like most working Border Collies, my first dog Dot, was desperate to work sheep and responded well to praise. At home, she craved attention – desperate to be held or stroked – when there were no sheep around.

When she was working, Dot would immediately obey the “that’ll do” command – and come racing back to me with the most joyful of expressions. In the early stages of Dot’s training I encouraged this immediate response by crouching down and stretching my arms wide to welcome her whilst calling “that’ll do” enthusiastically.

Quickly I realised she wasn’t racing back for the congratulatory hug I had in mind for her! Inches before we made contact, she’d spin around and face the sheep again (completely ignoring me until I gave a command for her to work again).

Dot came racing back enthusiastically because once I’d called her off, it was her best chance of continuing to work the sheep! Dot flew to the USA in December 2003 where she worked on a cattle ranch.

Dogs need to be corrected during their training but it’s important to note that just as we humans hate being bellowed at all the time, so does a dog – and just as we’re more likely to be cooperative if we’re instructed in a civil tone, so’s our canine friend. (I wish I could remember this more often, myself)!

To train a sheepdog from a puppy is a long process and will take you through various stages from euphoria to utter despair. Sometimes, you’ll think your dog can read your mind and at others, you’ll feel utterly humiliated and think the dog’s forgotten everything you taught it. You must be prepared for this (just like us) and remember that the bad times will become fewer if you believe in your dog and yourself. When you hear someone say: “I had to get rid of Fido – just couldn’t stop him (doing this, that or the other)“. What really happened is that they couldn’t work out the reason Fido was behaving the way he was.

If you think carefully about your dog’s behaviour, you can normally find a way to correct faults. It’ll take time and patience but it can be done. Trials winners are the trainers who are best at this and of course, the clever trainers are the ones who can choose a young dog which is likely to have the least number of problems. I believe that almost any young Border Collie can make a useful sheepdog – in fact to test this theory, I advertised on our website for young Border Collies that people needed to rehome.

I stopped taking the “rescue” dogs in because more often than not, we had problems with them barking.
Incessant barking is something I won’t tolerate, and I don’t expect our neighbours to have to endure it either.

Once the advert appeared, the telephone was very busy and over a year or so, we took on ten of these “rescues”. If I remember correctly, I only turned one away from our gate (he bit me while I was talking to his owners).
I mention that because every one of those “rescues” became

a sheepdog that I would take with me to get the sheep back in. (The way I define a sheepdog is: If your sheep had escaped, and this were your only dog, would you take it with you to get those escaped sheep back, or would you seek the help of a friend or neighbour?).




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  1. Hello,
    I have been taking herding classes where I live in France with my border, Bella for a few months albeit at irregular intervals. Bella is a rescue dog whom I adopted at 4 years old. She is now 6. Although I do not know alot about her past nor her training, she was quite traumatized when I took her on. I am her 3rd and final owner. When she and I are in the ring with the sheep we both do okay on the first go round. She shows definite interest in the sheep, and when the instructor has taken her over from me, she does much better. I know I need to become a better leader. While we are waiting for the second turn she whines continuously and refuses to sit still when other dogs are taking their turn. In fact, she wont even watch the ring. When we get to the ring for the second turn, if I show any bit of weakness or fatigue she becomes almost uncontrollable and barks non-stop swirling round and round the ring.

    What are your thoughts on doing this type of training with an older dog whom I do not have that early puppy phase history with? Is this feasible? I realize I need to become fimer and calmer as well but when she starts barking and going a bit berserk, I kind of fall apart.

    1. I’m sorry, from your description, I don’t really understand what’s happening.
      When you say that on your first time in the ring, both you and the dog do OK, what do you mean? What is the dog doing right, and what is it doing wrong?
      In what way is the dog better when the instructor takes over? (What does the dog do for the instructor that it won’t do for you)?

      Why does the dog whine continuously when it’s awaiting its next turn? Does it want to get at the sheep or (more likely if it won’t look at the ring) does it want to go and do something else?
      What does your instructor do when the dog is barking and going “berserk”?

      My guess is (and without seeing what’s going on, it IS only a guess) that the dog is nervous of the sheep, but excited by them, and when you’re unable to maintain control, it races round excitedly – probably “dive-bombing” them and then retreating to a safe distance.

      If my description is correct, it could take a six year old dog quite a long time to calm down and start working properly – but you never know. I’ve known a ten year old dog which had zero interest in the sheep, settle down just before lunchtime, and it began to work so well, the handler was able to take the sheep out into the open field, and then bring them back into the ring again.

      Surely, your instructor should be advising you on this issue?

      As a general rule, if the dog refuses to stop whining, it’s disobeying you. Dogs whine when they want something, so if the dog won’t stop whining when you tell it to, take it away from whatever it’s whining to get at. Perhaps walk away from the ring, or whatever’s causing the dog to whine, until you’re far enough away for the dog to be quiet. Then after a few minutes, bring the dog a little closer to the cause of the whining. If it whines again, walk away again – and so on.

      If you allow the dog to whine (or do anything to disobey you) it means the dog has not fully accepted you as its leader. There’s an awful lot about this sort of thing in our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorials.

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