(This is a guest blog by Erin Feery)
Doyle’s birth six years ago this June was the start of a new chapter in my life. Doyle is a wonderful teacher. He taught me about a partnership of trust, understanding, and clear communication. He turned me into a dog trainer; the trainer of a reactive, high energy, highly intelligent dog in need of a job.
Together we enjoy training in herding and rally. He is my constant companion in all that I do and in the evenings likes to curl up next to me on the couch and sleep.
Of all the things Doyle and I do together, training in herding is what we love the most. It’s the single most difficult yet rewarding activity for both of us.
We’ve been training in herding and working on our partnership off and on for about four years now. In the beginning Doyle and I struggled with everything. As a handler, it felt as if I couldn’t do anything right. At home I had taught him sit, down, come, stay and a few cute tricks.
But with sheep, it was as if I didn’t even exist.
Our partnership of trust, understanding, and clear communication was pretty much non-existent. I did not have the clarity about how to proceed when he got excited about the sheep and we lost our communication. I couldn’t even get him to sit at the gate when I asked him. But I was not about to quit. I was committed and determined to make our partnership work. I wanted a dog I could trust and rely on in any situation. I wanted to build a trusting, long-lasting partnership.
There were moments when it was so difficult that I wanted to quit, but I was committed to Doyle.
At times it felt like we took two steps forward and one step back. There were moments when it was so difficult that I wanted to quit, but I was committed to Doyle. At home, under circumstances that Doyle found stimulating, I worked on sit, down, stay, and come. We also worked on self-regulated impulse control. Little by little I started to see a change in our partnership. I also started to become a better handler. I began to read the sheep better and make moves that made more sense to Doyle. As time went on I gained more competence about herding and this helped Doyle settle into calmer work on sheep.
And then just as we were making great strides forward Doyle’s autoimmune disease flared and he also shredded his ACL.
In July of 2011, Doyle had surgery to repair the torn ACL and then spent months in rehab. Then in March of 2012 we had our first herding lesson in a year. I was really nervous. I spent the entire week leading up to our lesson worrying about how it would go. Would we be the same heart-connected team we were a year ago? What if Doyle was a total knuckle-head and chased sheep around the pasture? What if I had forgotten all I had learned? I was really worried that Doyle and I wouldn’t work as a team.
Kathy and I talked about all of this and came up with a plan. Rather than just walking into the pasture and working, my plan was to reconnect with Doyle in the context of sheep. We went back to basics. Sit/stay while I walked a little toward the sheep and then called him to me. Praise and treat. We also worked on flanks. I would walk on Doyle’s flank and then call him to me; squaring up in front of the sheep. Again, praise and treat. This helped Doyle and I to reconnect in the context of the work. This then translated nicely to the work on sheep; because I was much calmer and confident so was Doyle. We now start all our lessons like this. It helps us both to connect and our work on sheep is always better!
As for the future… clarity is always something I will need to work on. Sometimes I just don’t know what the right move is. Other times I have trouble putting all the smaller pieces together into the big picture. But, there are days with clarity. I see the big picture. I make good moves. The sheep are calm and controlled. For me, it’s about the work and the partnership. And that’s a beautiful thing.
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If you’d like to use the same formula Erin uses to train Doyle, download your free copy of my guidebook: “5 Step Formula for Dog Training Success!”