How to Work More Than One Dog At A Time
In this article I am going to describe how I get two dogs to work together without reacting to each other's commands. If you want to work two dogs on the farm together, or take part in a brace competition, the same principals must be applied. For any sheepdog handler it would be one of the most satisfying things to have two dogs working together under perfect control, and it is not as difficult as some may think.
Before I even think of starting to teach two dogs to work together they must be trained to a fairly advanced stage on their own. When you start training the youngsters keep in mind that if you want to work them together they must have a different set of commands. Normally I will make the "stop" commands and the "get up" commands the same. Some people like to use different "get up" commands as well, but I like to keep it as simple as possible. The "stop" command is the crucial one, both dogs must stop immediately. During a brace competition the timing is very important and good stops on both dogs are vital.
The first thing that we are going to teach the dogs is not to work on each other's commands. I put a lead on the one dog and make it lie down at my side; with the other one I will start working some sheep in a circle around me. Every time I give a command to the working dog the one at my side is likely to try and get up. I make it lie down every time it tries to make a move. I will keep it going for a minute or two and then swop the two dogs around, making the other one lie down. When they start getting the idea of waiting their turn, I start moving away from the one at my side, until I am about 20-30m away.
It is important to remember not to overdo this exercise and keep the lessons short; some dogs can be put off working with other dogs if you are not careful. When you feel you have got them under control in this exercise you can go on to the next stage, but there is no point in going on if they are not under proper control at this close range.
In the next exercise we try and teach the dogs to feel the pressure of their partner and to help them understand that they don't have to do all the work. I'll put some sheep in a corner so that they will not be able to get away. The dogs I place 50m away, next to each other, whilst I stand to the one side, close to the sheep and facing the dogs. Be careful not to stand between the dogs and the sheep, let them see the sheep properly. The reason for standing in this position is to be able to put some pressure on the dogs and to have good control over them. I will give a "get up" command and immediately flank the dog on the left to the left and back again, as soon as it looks like it's going to cross sides I stop it and give a "get up" command again. I then flank the dog on the right out and back again. At this point I like both dogs on their feet the whole time. While the dogs are coming forward I flank them out and back again and try to get them as close as possible to each other without crossing sides. They will soon realize that the other dog is covering the one side, and they are not allowed to go there. During this exercise communication is very important and I do a lot of talking and commanding.
It is now time to send both dogs out to fetch some sheep. It is not worth trying to send them out too far because you will not be able to be in control. I send them no further than 50-70m the first time. The one thing you want to achieve when sending two dogs out to fetch sheep is for them to arrive at the back of the sheep at the same time. This can be quite difficult because the natural outrun of dogs can differ a lot. If you have a wide runner and narrow dog you send the wide runner first, and then you must try and figure out how long to wait before you send the second dog. With a little practice and experience you can get a good idea of how long to wait, taking into consideration how far the sheep are. I send my dogs, one to the left and one to the right. When they arrive at the back of the sheep I stop them. A lot of handlers prefer their dogs to cross at the back of the sheep and they teach them to do so. I like my dogs to come in naturally behind the sheep, if they cross of their own accord I don't mind. Once the dogs are behind the sheep I stop them, and I try to get the dog on the left to flank out more to the left and then stop it again. The one on the right I try to flank out further to the right and stop it there. The two dogs must be in a ten o'clock and two o'clock position. I will now give a "get up" command and allow the dogs to bring the sheep to me and only if they try to cross sides will I stop them and flank them out again.
Teaching two dogs to drive together can be very easy as long as you have some heavy sheep, which will give you time to stay close to them. You walk in the middle between your dogs, helping them to drive and not allowing them to cross sides. After a while you start walking slower and slower and letting them do it on their own. When you work farm dogs the crossing of sides is not so crucial, but it does help if your dogs work more or less on their own sides, they don't get so tired because there is not so much ground to cover. There is no point in putting two dogs behind a big flock of sheep and both of them are covering all the ground behind the flock, then one dog could just as easily do the job. Sometimes two dogs with experience will sort each other out knowing who is working where behind a flock of sheep, but some dogs just cover the most ground they can without taking any notice of the other dog.
Not all dogs are cut out to be good brace partners, some are too selfish and want to do all the work, while others are too sensitive and can't keep their cool. If you are battling trying to work two dogs together I would advise that you try and identify which one of them is causing the problem and replace it with another partner. You can ruin a good dog by forcing it to work with another dog. During the year some handlers have told me that after trying to brace their dogs they developed problems in their single runs. Unfortunately some problems or habits may develop. One of the most common problems in brace dogs is that they tend to work only on the one side of their sheep, even when working alone, and because the dog is not on the balance point the sheep will go off line. Another problem can be stopping short on the outrun because they wait for their partners to lift the sheep. All of these problems must be addressed as soon as you notice them, but a lot of them can be prevented if you change your dogs' sides on a regular basis. Most people send their dogs on the same sides every time, allowing them to create a habit of working on the specific side every time, but if you change them around they can't get into a habit of just working on one side.
A good brace pair doesn't just happen, it is hard work and what you put in is what you get out, but believe me when they are working well, there is not much in the sheepdog world to match that feeling. I remember my first trial I ever attended, the brace made such an impression on me I decided there and then, that is what I wanted to do. Now 1 would like to challenge you handlers out there to try and get two dogs working together, it is more than worth it.
TO THE FARMERS
The other day a farmer asked me how much time I spend on training. I replied, " as long as it takes to get them working properly." You see, most farmers tell me they don't have the time for training their dogs. I think it is time we farmers realized the value of our dogs. I don't feel bad to go out there and train my dog in "working hours", in fact 1 put it in my weekly planning as a priority, because the dog is part of my farming business. A well-trained dog is an investment for the next 8-10 years. Make sure it is worth it.