Using Terrain as a Training Tool

By Bruce Fogt, reprinted with permission of the author and The Working Border Collie in 2009 OBCC newsletter

Using a variety of terrain when training a dog is perhaps one of the most important tools in building a really useful stock dog. A dog which learns to work in a variety of conditions will seldom fail to find and bring in the stock. However, dogs we train only on flat rectangular fields, will be lost when asked to find sheep that are over a hill or across a stream.

We want the dog to work properly despite the terrain on which it is running. The only way to do this is by using a variety of odd shaped fields and hills. I am fortunate enough to have variety in my pastures and field to set up almost any training situation needed. Other people are not as fortunate and must travel to work in more difficult surroundings.

Following are a few ways I use the shape and contour of the land in training. I normally use a flat, non-challenging area to start young dogs. I try to begin in the open, away from fences, trees, or other obstacles. This allows the dog every opportunity to begin correctly. After the dog learns the very basics of handling the stock, I will gradually start working in more challenging areas.

As a dog begins to do medium length gathers correctly, I begin sending him up hills to gather sheep. Running up hills tends to pull most dogs in tight on the sheep. Going up the hill takes more effort and most dogs will try to take an easier path by slicing off the top of their outrun. They must be pushed out and taught to give proper distance to the sheep regardless of the hill.

Gradually I start sending the dogs for sheep that are out of sight over the hill. Sending the dog on short outruns, with the sheep out of sight for just a few yards, makes this easier to learn. Gradually I increase the distance and difficulty as the dog gains confidence. I am trying to teach the dog to look for its sheep as it is running, and to keep running in proper direction until he finally does spot the sheep.

A series of small hills that allows the dog to see the stock momentarily each time it crests the hill will do wonders in teaching him to look for his sheep. This will also help teach a dog to think about what it is doing and mentally calculate the distance to the sheep. To avoid confusing the dog, I gradually increase the distance and difficulty; too much too fast can create problems by shaking the confidence of the dog.

Hills are helpful when teaching, or fine-tuning, the "look back" command. The dog can be working one group of sheep while the other group is hidden behind a hill. With the second group hidden, the dog must learn to leave the sheep it is working and trust that the other sheep are there.

Another way I use the contour of the hill is to hide my approach to the dog and sheep. This is especially useful in correcting dogs that push the sheep too fast on the lift or fetch. I will have the sheep standing just over the crest of the hill. After the dog starts its outrun, I will start running up the hill toward the sheep; the roll of the hill conceals my approach as the dog makes his lift. Depending on how fast I run and how well I timed the correction, I can burst through the sheep and give a correction right as the dog begins to push too fast. The effect of surprise is remarkable on most dogs. This begins to create the helpful illusion that I could suddenly appear in the middle of the sheep anytime the dog misbehaves.

Other natural obstacles I use in training are streams and ditches. I try to teach dogs to go across small streams and ditches to get to the stock. However, I do not want them to blindly go crashing across extremely uneven ground. I want them to look where they are going and cross hazardous areas slowly. If the dog is approaching a deep ditch too fast, I will give a verbal correction in an effort to teach them to slow down. I want them to watch where they are going to avoid injury.

My early mentor, Lewis Pence, was a firm believer in training dogs in corn stubble after the fall harvest. He always said that if a dog learned to work properly in cornfields, they would work well anywhere. For those who have never had the privilege of trying to run across rows of corn stubble let me explain the situation. After harvest, what is left is the corn stalks, standing about 12 to 14" high and just over an inch in diameter. The stock is brittle, but stiff and resembles bamboo. Often the top of the stock is still attached but broken over, filling the gaps between plants. Corn is planted in straight rows approximately 2 ft apart with about a foot between each plant. To a dog this resembles a wall of hurdles with very inconvenient spacing. Running across the rows is difficult but running along in between them is easier. Consequently, the dog would much rather run with the rows and be tight on the outrun than to jump rows and stay off of proper distance. This gives some unique opportunities to train a dog to work properly, instead of just doing what is easy.

Asking the dog to fetch sheep diagonally across the rows is a terrific balance exercise. Neither the dog nor the sheep like crossing the rows, so there is plenty of opportunities to give the dog little reminders about bringing the sheep in a straight line.

The noise made by both the sheep and dog as they crash through the brittle stocks gives the dog a good excuse not to listen, more reminders. As Lewis Pence used to say "it's amazing what a dog can hear when you make it listen."

Bruce Fogt is a two-time national champion, handler, trainer, and clinician with over 30 years' experience raising, training and running sheepdogs.  He is the author of Lessons from a Stock Dog.

*All photo credit - Tracy Hinton


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