"Give me your Mind": Peter Gonnet's Approach to Working Stock Dogs

By Helen Knibb

We talk about it, this idea of getting ‘inside’ the dog’s head – but how do we do it, and how do we know when we have got it? Over a two-day clinic co-coordinated by Celeste Lacroix and Amanda Law, Peter demonstrated his ‘way in’ and that meant changing old patterns, attitudes and behaviours of both dog and handler, as well as validation of good stockmanship.

Peter brings a wealth of knowledge, not only from the trial field but as a rancher and stockman working with sheep, cattle, and horses. Add to that his love of teaching, which was self-evident. With dexterity he used a delivery format that included book-ending the arena work with question, answer, and white board sessions to demonstrate, review, and clarify. He wove his theme across the clinic and given the range of handler abilities and dogs (from just started to open, old partnerships and new ones, sheep dogs and cow dogs) he had lots of material to work with. He was a generous clinician, sharing a lifetime of experiences and stories from his approach to starting young dogs to judging, as well as the key influences on his own learning.

For Peter, having the dog’s mind is the way to create a thoughtful dog. “Fix the mind, and you don’t have to nit pick” he says. “Is the dog saying something?” “Can you hear it?” “Build the communication, build a relationship.” Getting into the dog’s mind creates softness and biddability. If you aren't in their heads, if they aren’t listening, they are tight and hard (Peter is not an advocate of pushing the dog out to develop flanks). It’s like dancing, he says. It’s up to us to adapt to the dog. It’s about feel and connection and moving together – in fact being together. Work the hard-headed dogs softer and quieter. The beautiful runs are all about feel; they are not mechanical. If the dog does something well, make it easier. If it's hard, make it harder in order to make it more right (we struggled a bit with that). Peter invited us to show the faults with which we were having difficulty. Don't avoid the wrong he cautioned, and make the faults show in training so you can manage them on the trial field. Look for the smallest change and reward the smallest tries.

 His approach helped handlers be more thoughtful, correcting the wrongs with a well-timed grump or low growl, using commands to direct the movement but letting the dogs figure things out, problem solve, and take responsibility. It is easy to forget that our dogs work the way they do because they are predators. We are dealing with hunting instinct in all stock dogs, and getting inside the dog’s head helps direct that, making a thinking partner that works naturally and “treats the sheep nicely.” And it makes us better stockmen.

Another clinic participant commented on how Peter focused on making sure the dog was ‘on your team.’ To get there, you need to make sure their mind is ‘right’ from the moment you are approaching stock. Peter talked about how to build this early relationship with a puppy, creating a resilient stock dog that relies on the team, not just on their instincts. He encouraged early exposure to stock but in a context which was safe and in which they would not get injured. Obedience coupled with instinct can create a great partnership. He cautioned us to be careful with the young grippy dog, in that we can unwittingly teach them to dash in and fly out, a pattern that gets hard to correct later once they are skilled and practiced at it!

Peter encouraged us to develop our observation skills. He shared his UK experiences and the influences of Tommy Wilson and especially Jack Knox, who were economical with their advice but who helped him to read his dog and sheep better and rethink the training of the outrun. You can figure out the problems yourself, he said, and you can solve them. We need to make time to watch the good handlers as well as pay close attention to our own dogs. Most of us need more and diverse experiences on different trial fields, hill work, and the ability to work distance better.

Depending on the needs of dog and handler, Peter offered exercises scaled to the arena to help improve pace, flanks, flexibility, connection, biddability, and boldness. He made outruns unpredictable, brought in the wide dogs, and helped the tight ones open-up and soften. He used the limited space of the arena well - circling exercises as a measure of control of the sheep, corner work to build confidence; helped develop pace and dissipate tension in the pushy ones. From the moment of first encounter, the dogs quickly accepted Peter as being on ‘their’ team. He also helped us find our sense of balance – over command and the dog is mechanical, not enough direction and the dog runs through you. Don’t fall in the ditch on either side, he warned, while helping us with timing, and moderating the tone, clarity and frequency of verbal commands and whistles. Most of all, he helped us be more economical in our commands. Do as much as you need to, he said, and then step back. Much like working horses, Peter encouraged us to gauge pressure and to look for the softening in the dog’s eye and release of tension. He masterfully demonstrated his range of handling styles and skills when he shifted to working the cow dogs on sheep.

With Peter’s help I was able to solve some challenges with my dog Griff, using new ways to break established patterns. I left with exercises that were replicable post-clinic, and clarity around training issues I had not quite grasped. The result? I could see and feel the change in energy and intention. The softening in the eye, the ‘give,’ and the drop in tension were palpable. There were moments when, quite clearly, Griff ‘gave me his mind.’

If I were a stock dog, I think I’d rather like to be working on Peter’s team.


Many thanks to Celeste Lacroix and Amanda Law for coordinating and hosting this event. Although I was asked to write about the clinic activity and not the food(!), it would be remiss not to mention that the event was exceptionally well organized, the arena facility was a welcome respite from the rough weather, the sheep co-operated, the food was excellent and plentiful, and lunch time was a terrific opportunity to meet the interesting mix of participants and socialise. Thank you to our hosts and everyone who helped make this happen.

Note: All pictures by Anne Wheatley except for Griff and the puppy (taken by Helen Knibb).