The Learning Curve Chronicles - Sticking with a Plan

By Susan Shipton

I started sheep dogging with my first Border Collie Gin, and like most I found all aspects of it challenging. Far from being able to ‘read sheep’, I was afraid of them. Walking backwards across uneven farm fields I constantly worried I’d fall on my head. I was never in the right place. My mind burst with new terms. Most daunting of all though, was trying to understand the instincts and learning process of my young Border collie so that I might move forward with her training, and develop a partnership with her. 

Overwhelmed, I struggled to make effective use of the stock stick. I always seemed to be pointing it at the wrong spot;  in front of Gin when it should have been at her shoulder, at her flank when it should have been behind her. Sometimes I even held it in the wrong hand altogether. Watching video of my sessions was painful. I looked like I was using my stick to extinguish a small grass fire. It was no wonder neither the sheep nor Gin understood what I was on about. 

I gave it a good try, but last season I dropped the stock stick as a training tool altogether, opting instead to use it primarily as a walking aide. It wasn’t working for me anyway, I reasoned - and there was something else - I had noticed that not all trainers used one.

My curiosity piqued, I thought I’d ask around.

I contacted some top trainers in the field, gave them the questions below as a guide, and encouraged them to say whatever they wanted to about the stock stick.

  • Do you use a stock stick in training? If so, how do you use it? Why do you find it effective? 
  • If you do not use a stock stick, why not? Do you think it could have detrimental effects, or is it just not a tool you reach for? 
  • Is there a handler/trainer misuse of the stock stick you see often? 

Here, in alphabetical order of their surnames, is their response.

Robin French

I do use one. It's great for helping me stay on my feet. :-) I also do use it in training, but I am very careful how I use it and try to make sure the impact it has on my dog is intentional and well thought out, and that the pressure is released when I get the reaction I am seeking. 

It can be a very strong tool and very easy to use incorrectly. The two biggest mistakes I see are handlers keeping constant pressure on a dog by always pointing the stick at them with no release, and using it to cue commands (smacking the ground for every stop and lifting the stick to cue every flank.) It's also very easy to use too strongly with a dog. Many times when I am giving lessons, I will take the stick away from handlers for just those reasons. It makes them stop to think about how they use the stick and be more thoughtful about how and when they use it when I give it back.

Some handlers use the stick lightly and correctly, reading the dog to see its reaction and gauging use of the stick in reaction to that. Others use it too much as a crutch or use it too strongly or at wrong times for the dog. So it really comes down to the ability of the handler to read the dog, and their skill as a trainer, rather than the actual tool in the hand.

But it's great for leaning on while you are standing around in the field!

Scott Glen

I carry a stick much of the time. Its an extension of me, used to make myself bigger when I want to guide the sheep, or make my meaning clear to the dog. I may give a couple of swats on the ground with it. Instead of walking three steps off to the side to get the dog to shift over, I can take one step over and hold the stick out the way I'm moving to save two steps (it's all about reducing those steps!). 😆 

Ill use it with a dog until I figure the dog is relying on it too much as a visual to understand me, then Ill stop.

I also carry a stick so my dog gets used to it so they arent worried about it at the pen or the shed.  A dog thats worried about a stick at the pen isnt going to be much good to you. If your dog is afraid of the stick its possible its been used incorrectly, or the dog is not familiar with you using one, or is too easily discouraged. 

Dont wield the stick like a monkey with a machine gun.

The ground gets slippery with snow sometimes and I'll use two sticks like ski poles to help a step be a step. If I don't have them it's one step ahead then slide half a step back and that's a dance that gets tiring by the end of the day. 


Peter Gonnet

Yes, I do use a stock stick. I use it as an extension of my body. I always use it for blocking a direction that I dont want the dog to go. I never use it to point to the direction I do want the dog to go. Its all about pressure and release, so I use the stick to apply pressure on the direction that I dont want him to travel and then release it when he goes the direction he is supposed to travel. 

I have seen abuse with a stock stick over the years. I wouldn't say I have seen any lately, but I'm not saying there are no longer any handlers who do use it that way. But I feel those handlers would be cruel with whatever they used. You can be cruel with a rolled up feedbag if you are not careful. It's all about the mind of the dog and you can apply too much pressure with any training tool. It's all about the handler reading the mind of the dog.  

I also think when you train with a shepherd’s crook your dog is comfortable with it in your hand because it is a valuable tool when you’re shepherding; especially when you are pasture lambing, as it is your means of catching a ewe that needs some help. If your dog is afraid of the stick, he won't be much help to you.  


Tracy Hinton

It's an interesting question because I rarely go out to train my dog without grabbing a stick...but when I think about how often I use it, I would likely say not that often. But when you need it you need it!  lol

Mostly I use a stick in training as an extension of my arm for showing direction to a young dog or blocking a sheep at a pen or gate.  Tap on the ground directly at a dog's head to apply pressure to a dog that won't turn off their sheep.  Tap on the ground at a sheep that won't turn.  Used in shedding as a practical tool to assist in sorting.   

I do feel that it is important that we don't use the stick when we don't need to.  When not in use the stick should fade into the background.  No flailing about waving unnecessarily without purpose...or whacking the ground every time you say lie down.  I recall an instructor taking my stick away from me in my early training days because I couldn't keep it still when giving my flank commands!   

Finally it is important that the dog not fear your crook/stick, so I think it is a good idea to bring it out in your training so they get used to it.  Besides, it's also handy to keep you upright when the footing is slippery....heck you can even use it as a perch to lean on!


Viki Kidd

I remember when I was starting out I was told not to use a stick by one clinician.  So I didn't for a while, only for another clinician to exclaim how could I come to the training field without one!

I do use the stick in my training most of the time, though not for young puppies. For me it is an extension of my arm/hand when training.   It is my "magic wand".  It is a simple tool that does so much.  I use it for both sending and stopping the dog. For guiding them in the direction or path I am asking without excessive body language.  For creating a visual barrier to change directions from a distance,  pushing dogs out on a flank or out run etc. 

I encourage my students to learn to use it appropriately.  Not to just carry it around, as this actually hinders their concentration and/or focus on the task or skill being attempted.  And it is NEVER a weapon or to be handled in such a manner.


Jen L’Arrivee

I use a crook most of the time.  If I am just starting a young dog, I may use instead a bag or flag.  I really watch how the dog responds to the tool as some dogs are very sensitive to it and others become very excited by the stick.  At some point, if the dog is going to compete, he must be comfortable with the handler using the crook. 

Some handlers overuse the stick, excessive waving, throwing, so for this, I recommend getting out of that habit and to do so, not carrying a stick for a while.  The crook should really only be used as an extension to the arm.  

I have seen excessive throwing by some handlers and it's not something I support.  I have seen a dog get injured by a flying stick. 

Once the dog understands basic blocking and how to self-regulate it's pace, then these tools (and body language), should be eliminated.


Lee Lumb

Yes, I use a stock stick as a training tool.  I use various forms of training tools  including a rolled up bag, occasionally a flag, a traditional stock stick, small PVC pipe, etc. depending upon what the dog reacts to as each dog is different in what it will consider to be pressure.   

The stock stick is an extension of my arm that allows me to block a dog’s movement or increase the pressure I can put on the dog when teaching it about pressure and release.  Some dogs will get too worried by the noise of a flag or a bag while others require the noise of a bag or a PVC pipe being hit on the ground to break into their behaviour and get them to tune into what you are trying to teach them.  The wrong tool or the incorrect use of that tool can turn a dog off its desire to work stock or its willingness to work for you.

Probably the most common misuse of a stock stick that I see with new handlers is that they forget to take the pressure off.  They will raise the stick or wave the stick around to create pressure but when the dog does do what it is being asked the handler doesnt put the stick down - take the pressure off - so the dog never understands when it is right or wrong, or it becomes de-sensitized to the use of the stock stick. 

Stock sticks that have been used incorrectly as a correction can also lead to a dog becoming stick shy - which does not help you when it comes to penning or work where you are needing to use your stick or crook to control sheep. 


James McGee

Firstly I dont use a traditional shepherds crook when starting young dogs!

Sometimes I would use a short piece of plastic piping about 2 feet in length. Generally I only use it with a stronger minded type of dog, and I use it to slap my Wellington boots. This is done to break the dog’s concentration on the stock. While slapping my boots Ill make a harsher noise with my voice at the same time, basically simultaneously, but its really my tone I want them paying attention to. 

When lambing and general shepherding I always take a crook, its invaluable as a tool in my opinion. It’s an extension of my arm for catching ewes needing assistance at lambing, or to give a lamb some milk by sucking. Again, for catching the lambs its a wonderful tool, I couldnt work without one. 

As for trials its a big extension of my arm for penning work!

So in summary I dont use it much for training but in work and trials.


Warren Mick 

I rarely use a stock stick for training. If I use a training aide, it's to amplify my presence, visually or auditorily. A stock stick doesn't do this very well. I often use a rolled up feed bag that I can slap on my leg or wave in the air and, if needed, toss across a dog’s path for even greater impact.  

Given most people have lousy aim, tossing a stick toward a dog isn't a good idea. If I'm practicing shedding or penning I might use a stick so my dog gets used to me having one, since I usually will in competition.   


Amanda Milliken

1.  I do not use a stock stick in training.  Mostly my young dogs are not criminally inclined.  People who I know that use a stock stick, are mainly chasing out a young one, to demand distance between the dog and the sheep.  I am not so fussy about this distance: the intelligent young one, and I hope I have bred for brains, figures out this distance as training progresses.  I gently scold for chaos.  But I rarely chase out and I never do it with a stick.  If a smart dog responds successfully to the stick chasing, it is unlikely to forget that later when you want a stick for its prescribed purpose.

2.  We have all seen, to our amusement, a dog at the pen who interprets the presence of a handler's stick to mean "get out”.  Obedient to the letter, they do get out, and the sheep do not pen with no dog to properly cover the side.  Maybe with the prevalence of ‘over easily penning sheep' in our regional trials, we miss the repercussions of stick chasing dogs in training.  The sheep pen regardless of the dog and handler.  

The stick is a visual aid in penning.  An extension of the arm in appearance.  It can dissuade a sheep's wrong turn at the pen.  If in using it that way, you frighten your dog out of the park, a stick is unuseful.  

Some hands use white training sticks in trials.  They should get a proper one.  If a hand is sufficiently committed to training all the way up to trial level, rise above the appearance of using a crude training aid, and get a real stick, of which you can be proud.   A stick with which you will not thrash around and smash obstacles in its way.  IF you lend it and the borrower breaks it, a crime has been committed.  


Cynthia Palmer

I use a stick sometimes.

What I see often is people using their sticks in an inappropriate manner.  Either always keeping the pressure on the dog with the stick, pointing it at them like a wand or banging or waving it when it isnt needed.  I see it used as a pointer, as in - go that way.  Or - stay away from the sheep. 

I try and keep my stick as neutral as possible using it mainly to block sheep for penning or shedding. I dont use my stick very often in practice with the exception of teaching square flanks. 

And I love a stick to walk with! 


John Palmer

I did not use a stick for quite a while. Went to the post a fair bit in my first year of Open without one.

It's a good tool to use as an extension of your arm when in situations where you want to guide or block the sheep.

Be aware of using it to put pressure on your dog. It may get you when at the pen etc when you're trying to block the sheep from going by you and the dog moves off your stick.

And finally, be absolutely careful if you are thinking of throwing your stick to apply pressure on the dog to get it out!


Mary Thompson

According to Wikipedia -

“A shepherd's crook is a long and sturdy stick with a hook at one end, often with the point flared outwards, used by a shepherd to manage and sometimes catch sheep. In addition, the crook may aid in defending against attack by predators. When traversing rough terrain, a crook is an aid to balance. Shepherds may also use the long implement to part thick undergrowth (for example at the edge of a drovers’ road) when searching for lost sheep or potential predators”.

The paragraph above is always what I thought was the original use, although I hadn't thought of fending off predators, only nasty sheep.  In more modern times I think it has been used as a comfortable walking stick with it's rounded handle and comfortable weight.

I do use a stock stick after a young dog understands how to give to my body pressure which is enhanced with a rolled up grain bag.  I introduce the crook/stick later on as you need it for penning; it's an extension of your arm to cover your side of the pen.  The dog needs to be comfortable with you carrying it and not be afraid when you use it for blocking.  

It can have detrimental effects on the dog if used for intimidation.  I use it primarily to block sheep. 

I do see novices use the stick inappropriately.  Slamming it on the ground at the pen, or at the post turn.  I believe it should be used for blocking only, and quietly at the pen with a "tap tap" action. 

The crook/stock stick is a tool like your whistle or body movements,'s not to be used for punishment.

I also use it as a comfortable walking stick, and hike with it all the time.  It's also good for reaching those wild apples that are hanging just a little too high.


Gordon Watt

Yes, I carry a stock stick. The only reason I use a stock stick in training, (but not used all the time) is to strengthen the pressure on a young dog so I don't raise my tone of voice to a level I don't want to use.

The effectiveness of the stick is how you use it; it is not used for every single correction, and the stick has to disappear as quickly as possible.  Also, the dog has to learn not to be afraid of the stock stick.

I do see the misuse of the stock stick, it must never be used to abuse the dog.

I have been a shepherd all my life. I had to carry a stick as it was an important part of shepherding and the dog should never be afraid of it, but should also respect it. 


Dave Young

I personally do not use a crook or stick often in training. I usually have one on the bike but it is used mostly to jab into the ground to act as a post. The other times maybe when Ill do a shed.

You ask if there is handler misuse with a stick. YES THERE IS! The stick is not a channel to vent your frustration through. I have often seen young handlers pound the ground in an attempt to get their dog’s attention, but it just shows that either one or both of them is not ready for what theyre trying to do. 

It's best, in my opinion, to be able to handle your dog without a stick.


Photo Credit- Tara Dier



Final Thoughts

This brief survey has given me lots to think about. There are both differences in approach and common themes in what the trainers said. Perhaps it’s the commonalities that are most important. Here are my take aways; understand pressure and release, however you use a crook or stick get your dog comfortable with it in your hand. Whatever tool you choose, use it thoughtfully and safely. If you use a stick to help you walk, stand or lean, you’re in good company.  And…never borrow Amanda Milliken’s crook.

It’s incredibly challenging to train and form a partnership with a working Border collie; for a very long time it seems, what you know is far less than what you have yet to learn. I do believe my skills have improved, at least my stick flailing days are behind me. I just wish Gin had stayed around long enough to benefit. But that seems to be the way of it; our first dogs suffer through the steepest part of our learning curve, and for that we spend the rest of our time silently thanking, and apologizing to them. 

So… sorry ‘bout all that Gin.   And thank you. 

And a big thank-you to the contributors.

Robin French
Scott Glen 
Peter Gonnet
Tracy Hinton
Viki Kidd
Jen L’Arrivee
Lee Lumb
James McGee
Warren Mick
Amanda Milliken
Cynthia Palmer
John Palmer
Mary Thompson
Gordon Watt
Dave Young


Susan Shipton and Gin
Photo Credit- Bruce Copeman


Thumbnail Photo Credit- Jen L'Arrivee

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