Pace: An Interview With Warren Mick

Pace: An Interview With Warren Mick

by Fiona Robertson
This article was originally written for DogSport, a Canadian magazine targeting a broad audience of dog sport trainers and handlers. The entire article as published can be read in the May/June 2004 issue of DogSport.

The word "pace" was apparently not in my little Jess' vocabulary. Even now, at age 9 she does everything at warp speed, preferably within inches of the sheep's tail end. When I started training Jess (after I learned the difference between a sheep and a chicken) I thought that she, being so well bred, would naturally keep the correct distance behind the sheep in order for them to exert the right amount of pressure to move them the way they were supposed to be moved, "in a calm, workmanlike manner-not overly exciting the stock nor allowing them to dawdle". (I had read this in a sheepdog trial program somewhere.) Well, Jess' sheep never dawdled!

I remember my very first trial, back in 1997. Jess and I were running at a small, local trial in the Novice/Novice class. The course was small, about a 100 yard gather, 50 yard wear and a pen. We had trained for almost 2 years, and I thought we were ready. Sure, our "LIE DOWN" command was not 100% yet on the field (i.e. When sheep were present), but it would all work out, I thought.

Or not…

After I sent my dog on her outrun, all I could do was stand there and yell my commands till I was blue in the face, while Jess completed her version of the course and even some "extra obstacles" - all in less than one minute. What could I have done during her run to help Jess slow down and keep a better distance behind her sheep, therefore moving them in that "calm, workmanlike manner" I was striving for?

I can answer that myself: Pretty much nothing. Sure, if she had taken even a few of my "Lie Down" commands, I may have been able to "steer" my sheep better. However, the best thing is to teach PACE to a young dog from the very beginning. I've asked a well-known expert about PACE and how he teaches it.

For anyone who doesn't know Warren Mick, our current NEBCA President, he lives near Albany, NY. He currently runs 3 dogs in NEBCA & USBCHA Open trials and lives with 7 others: 2 successful trial dogs belonging to his wife, Maria, a pup (or two?) in training, a couple of nursery dogs and a couple of older dogs, now retired from the trial scene.

FR: How do you define pace?

WM: When we see a dog moving at a nice steady speed behind a group of sheep we usually think "there's a dog with nice pace". It's a pretty thing to see. But it's more than just a dog that knows how to walk on command. It shows a dog that is in control. The dog will adjust its speed as necessary to keep just enough pressure2 on the stock. Furthermore, the dog has learned how to move about the stock so as not to alarm them. Its turns, stops and starts all have a similar character. At a deeper level, it suggests the dog has developed some self-confidence with the position it's in.

FR: Some dogs "seem" to be more naturally inclined to keep a more correct distance behind their sheep, while others (like Jess!) seem to be like a horse running with the "bit between their teeth"; the handler constantly battles for control. Can pace even be taught to a dog like this?

WM: Much has happened to get the dog to the point described above (my definition of pace). Some dogs take to the concept of pace more readily than others. And a select few dogs are truly great at it. But I don't believe pace is a trait that will come out completely on its own, without some help.

There are some specific exercises that one can do to develop pace in a dog. But pace is part of the whole working picture. If the other parts are not right, pace won't be easy to achieve. I'll bet Fiona's young Jess was not stopping or flanking3 properly either. The trio of pace, flanks and stops are dependent on one another to the extent that if one is not right the others will be adversely affected. Two other important ingredients are how the dogs starts and/or how it lifts4 of the stock. A dog that lurches forward when asked up as well as one that "hits" (comes into) the stock too hard at initial contact will not likely fall into a nice pace afterward. Each time the dog startles the stock, it will have to get them resettled and walking before it can also walk. Running stock acts just like a powerful magnet pulling on the dog to do the same.

Before, I address any more questions about pace; I'd like to expand a little on the flanks, starts and stops. Really these topics deserve entire chapters to cover. All I want to do is describe what to look for to know if these aspects of working are right or not. A problem that people new to herding always have is seeing the true root cause when something is not going right.

First the stop. I like to see a dog that stops willingly when asked and with reasonably few extra steps. Dogs can stop pretty quickly if they want to, even from high speed. The dog should be stoppable in virtually any situation. You will surely need a more emphatic command if the situation is chaotic or unexpected, such as sheep breaking away or the dog on an outrun. And the stop should hold until a release is given. Here also, a more definitive command may be used to differentiate this permanent stop from a temporary one.

Starts and lifts must be controlled and not startle the stock. A lift normally refers to the first contact the dog makes with the stock during a gather and process of getting them moving. Thereafter, each time the stock stop moving the dog must "re-start" them so the two events two are similar. A dog that lifts its sheep correctly is often well on it's way to developing pace. The control and restraint required to properly lift the stock are the same attributes that will be needed when moving along at a nice pace.

Lastly, flanks. Simply put, bad flanks, specifically tight, slicing flanks, do more to unsettle the stock and destroy any possibility of pace than anything else. Flanks must, like everything else, must be controlled. They must be wide enough so as not to push the sheep forward and not overdone, requiring another flank in the opposite direction to compensate. When a flank is done correctly, the dog will be able to pickup where it left off before the flank without having to re-lift or re-settle them.
All the comments above about, stops, starts and flanks are easier said than done. Achieving these goals is not a prerequisite to working on pace. Rather, they will usually all progress together.

FR: OK. So pace can be taught! Next question is how? What exercises do you use to help teach a young dog to pace itself correctly behind the sheep?

WM: A dog can start learning about pace pretty early in its training. It should be to the point where it can balance (circle around the stock countering my moves) on the stock without diving in and also stop on balance when asked. That's really the point in training where you can get the sheep between you and the dog with the action stopped. From that arrangement, me-sheep-dog all stopped, I will step back from the sheep and calmly ask the dog forward. If I get anything but walking, I'll immediately reverse direction, moving toward the dog, and at the same time giving a verbal cue (not a stop command) that I'm not happy. My action is intended to startle the dog a bit to the point that it will hesitate slightly the next time it is asked to move toward the sheep. Absolutely key is stopping the dogs approach. Do not let the dog avoid the correction by darting around you to get to the sheep. And be very aware of the dog's reaction to your correction. It should be just to the point where the dog yields, no more, no less. I'll then repeat the sequence. If the next time the dog moves forward slowly, I just continue to move away, and let the dog bring the sheep as a reward for coming on slowly.

This basic strategy of stopping the action when the dog presses on too much and letting it work if does so in a controlled manner is really the only approach to develop pace. You'll start applying it up close but you also use it when the dog starts working farther way from you. When the dog is starting to do longer gathers, you need to be prepared to get all the way up the field and stop the action if the dog is pushing to hard (wear your running shoes!). Sometimes you need to anticipate a problem and start your trek up the field before the dog has reached the stock so you can time a correction right at the point of the lift. Yes, that means a long run up the field, or many of them, to get the point across. But there is really no substitute for it. In the long run (pun intended), not only will pace improve, but you will also get a dog that is obedient at any distance.

FR: Do you use the same exercises for every type of dog? What if a dog is ultra soft or sensitive to training pressure?

WM: Simply put, yes. The one adjustment that is needed is in the level of intensity we use in the corrections used to stop the dog. If the dog is hesitant to work then pace is not likely a big problem. I might actually accept a quicker pace from this type of dog since my main concern would be to boost the dog's confidence level. But if it were just too quick, I apply the same sequence but use milder body language and verbal corrections. At the other extreme a dog that comes on like a freight train would perhaps need a very intense backing off to get the point across.

What if the dog is very soft? It depends if the dog is soft in relation to the stock or soft to training and corrections. In the former case, there's not likely to be much of a pace issue. By definition a soft dog on sheep is not pushy. Of course, if the sheep are very light and running, even a soft or weak5 dog will run after them to keep up. I would probably just use a stop command intermittently to control the pace. In the latter case of a dog that is very sensitive about corrections, I would just tone everything way down as mentioned earlier.

FR: OK, so I work with my dog, and do the exercises you suggest. Things are going well and I want to now take my training "on the road", maybe on different sheep, in a different location. How do I know that my dog finally understands pace?

WM: If the dog is worked on light or flighty stock if should be easy to see how much pace the dog has. On the other hand, if the stock are very broke6 and hard to move, it may not be so easy to determine. And that brings up another point. If a dog were laid back in all aspects of working, I would not conclude that it has pace. The same goes for a dog that is hesitant or even afraid of the stock. To really demonstrate that the dog understands pace, it also needs to be able to push when needed. It's hard to control something you don't have. One other sign your dog understands pace is that you won't be using as many stop commands as you used to.

FR: I have already answered this question myself, but need to hear it from an expert. Was there anything I could have done as a "quick-fix" for that particular run, described above?

WM: Aside from using a stop command, which was being totally ignored, I'm afraid no. Little Jess was doing what she felt necessary given the situation. It was all new to her and new to you as well. And instead of you being reassuring to Jess, you surely added to her anxiety. Your voice and manner probably conveyed to her every bit of stress you were feeling. Such is the nature of dogs that they can read these signs.

FR: It seems as if the "Stop" should be covered in this first lesson. Stopping is one of the first things that we teach a young dog. Why is it that so many novice dogs (and quite a few open dogs) seem to either completely ignore it, or maybe just brake slightly, then continue? What can we do to make sure the dog's stop is 100% in all situations?

WM: Let's save that for another installment!

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