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Handler Skill
Kathleen Ward and edited by Lynette Trollip


Buying a good roping horse does not make a Calf Roper out of you, nor does buying a well trained dog or having your dog trained by someone else make a Skilful Dog Handler out of you.

You might be armed with book knowledge, watched a video, been to a training course, but you still need to develop YOUR HANDLING SKILL. I always like to refer to my experience learning to ride a bicycle. At first I had to have someone hold the bike and push me as I learnt to balance. Then using a downhill to ‘Free Wheel’ while trying to stay on top. Steering and Balancing were out of the question. So I could not take the corner at the bottom. When I got to where I could keep better balance I could start making the turn at the bottom. As the balance got better, I could tentatively start peddling. There, were many falls, torn knees and tears.

As MY SKILL developed, peddling and taking the corner at the bottom and to keep going became easier. There were still mishaps but I was doing more peddling than falling off.

Eventually it was “Look Ma, no hands.”

If had I wanted to go on to be a cyclist I would have needed constant guidance. I would always have been looking for new and better ways to do things as would my “trainer”.

So, as you read through the “bicycle story” you can relate to every step to your own situation with dog training.

With dog training you also have to develop YOUR HANDLING SKILL. How you do this, will depend on your circumstance. You might be in the fortunate position to get someone to help you get started. And keep giving advice along the way. You might be able to go for regular lessons. It is certainly worthwhile trying to get in contact with someone who can help you.

There are different methods of training. So if one method does not really attract you remember there are other people who might do things differently and this might suit you better. Handlers develop their own particular methods. This can often be a combination of little bits taken from different methods.

You need to know what to expect from the dog and what kind of dogs you get. Dogs differ in style and character, thus your approach in training will change. To, understand and read sheep. Learn about the different breeds of sheep and what is more suitable to train your dog on. What kind of reactions you can get from the stock and why. You must also know the terms/expressions used for sheepdog training. Eg.: Casting, lift, heading the sheep, balance, the pressure point, loose worker, little or no eye, too much eye, weak dog, strong dog, stylish dog, a left handed or right handed dog. These are just some of the expressions used. What would be the correct distance for your particular dog to keep from the sheep? You must know if he is a naturally wide dog or a very tight dog. Do you have a fast, forceful dog or a more tentative dog? This will also influence what Whistle commands you will give the dog.

You do not want fast zippy whistles on a dog that is already forceful. The tentative dog must be encouraged.

You must decide on a set of commands before hand and be comfortable with them. So that you don’t give wrong commands and confuse the dog. You need to get yourself a whistle and practice blowing tunes. Blowing consistently is very important once you want to go onto the whistle commands.

Watching the young herdsman separating the calves from their mothers you realise that at a young age they learn how to work with stock. If he works incorrectly he makes a lot more work for himself as the calves would run away. You need to work with stock so you know what reaction you should be getting and not make unnecessary work for your dog and also not to stress the stock. Counting large flocks of sheep has taught me where to place my dogs and myself to keep the sheep calm and allow the sheep to keep flowing past so as to be able to count them the first time. Understand how your body language and tone of voice influences the stock and your dog.

You want it to be second nature giving commands. There must be no hesitation in what you want to do, you have enough other situations to contend with.

As with the learning to ride a bicycle you need to get up and get back on after a fall and so it is with training your dog. There will be good days and bad days, and downright depressing days but to work things out and get back and perserver is what is needed and you will get there.

What better place to broaden your experience than by coming to sheepdog trials and getting into contact with people who have turned the corner. Join a club and meet people from all walks of life who train Border Collies and Kelpies and make them into “Sheepdogs”.

Join the Sheepdog Society and become one of “those” who can help others in the future.

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