When you get a number of dogs in for training invariably you'll end up with all sorts. Many are just mediocre, but a prerequisite for training dogs for a living is, you must accord them as much time and energy as you would a superior one. The problem with that is it tends to burn you out as the amount of emotional energy to get those type trained is immense. Every once in awhile you get a "star" and it makes you remember why this sport is so enjoyable. When you have a "top notch" protégé it makes all stages of training pleasurable.
There are some dogs that are immensely talented workers but at the same time are not enjoyable to train or work. Some have ability but are so tough you have to almost "break" them every single training session to get them to listen to you. Others are so soft and sensitive that you end up begging them to take a quick flank. It's a rare thing to get that "special pup" that's both biddable and talented. It's these special dogs that remind me why, no matter how "down" I get when training dogs, that basically I love to watch young dogs develop --- this more than lessons, trialing or anything else related to the dogs. When you put so much energy into trying to bring out the best in dogs, only to discover many have very little to give, it can at times become discouraging. You need the good ones to come along just to refresh your memory as to what fun training can be. Instead of making yourself go out and work a dog you find excuses not to do other things in order to work the special pup.
This pup was young when she first "turned on" and even then I could tell she had talent but again it takes more than just "raw talent" to advance into a great dog. As in athletics, having ability without discipline will get you nowhere. Discipline allows you to "focus" this ability and thereby work toward a goal but without discipline you have zero. So these dogs have to be able to take the stress and vigor of "basic training" to find out if they're capable of moving into the more refined "aspects" of training. It's these other "aspects" that I would like to touch on in this article. In the more "advanced" stages this type of training is called "seasoning" - meaning putting on the "special touches" that will hopefully conclude into a top trial dog. Reflecting on what all was needed to get the most potential out of this dog started me down the "thought path" of what I think Novice people forget to do with their dogs before they begin their trialing careers. So I guess you could call this article "mini seasoning" as it will deal with a few things Novices should to do before they trial their dogs. I believe if Novices would do more of this there would be fewer wrecks at trials. These wrecks can knock the confidence out of young dogs and handlers not to mention the people putting on the trials.
Let's start with an obvious one, different locations. Customarily you won't be trialing on the same grounds you train on, so you need to take some actions to prepare your dog for this "change of venue". I've had dogs that worked competently as long as they were in familiar surroundings but taken off their "home turf" became completely different workers. Characteristically these dogs do not evolve into good trial dogs. However some dogs even if they are competent, will go through a stage (usually at trials) where you wonder if they're even trained. They seem not to remember any of the commands they took so automatically at home. So go armed with this knowledge and if your dog is not listening don't stand at the post and let circumstances get chaotic. Think about what lesson he's learning while you stand there --- "at a trial I can run amuck and all you will do is stand at the post and yell". What trials should be used for with a young dog is to find out the areas a pup needs help with --- So go out and HELP him. However something even more advantageous would be, before you ever attend a trial, get him accustomed to strange places and stock. In other words get him conditioned to the unfamiliar in a less tense situation (i.e. training instead of trialing).
The reason for this article is to try and explain what are some of the steps you can take to set up situations that a dog might encounter during his trialing career BEFORE he ever gets to the trial. This seems to be a common mistakes beginners make - they go to a trial only to discover they never worked on problems that might, and I might add, often do occur. Consequently they have no experience with repairing wrecks or even perhaps halting them before they transpire.
I had a person that occasionally took lessons from me but to be candid never truly learned anything considering his inability to truly listen. I'm sure he heard "the words" but never endeavored to put them into action. He worked his dog 3 or 4 times a week, which is more than many students do. I've had some that don't work for months on end and then work the dog until he's exhausted the day before the trial hoping, I guess, to make up for lost time. This person would go to a trial and time after time crash and burn. At which point he would get upset and blame his dogs. After doing this a number of times he finally decided to listen and attempt to sort through his problem. "The problem" being he would set out panels, hay and his "dog broke" sheep, send his dog and run a perfect course. He went through the same motions work session after work session. Never once setting up a different scenario, one that he and the dog could work on fixing together. He wanted all his work sessions to go "well" so he set things up to go as smoothly as possible. Of course, this "perfect scenario" never happens at any trial he attended and whereas he had not practiced anything except that "scenario" he had no idea of what to do when things went wrong! Practicing all the things at home that might go wrong at a trial is part of seasoning a dog, and I might add, a handler.
I will endeavor to give you a few ideas that although simple will add a vast amount of experience to your Novice dog's training.
Let's start with a problem I've seen Novices have numerous times at trials. Our Novice handler is walking to the post and suddenly the dog sees the exhaust sheep and from that moment on will not look up the field any further. So let's begin with a trick that will help teach your dog to listen on his outrun. You need two groups of sheep that won't kill themselves trying to run back together. A group of goats and a group of sheep work great for this or if you don't have access to goats then Barbs and Woollies often will stay apart. You will set one group where the dog can see them and the other where the dog can't. (You do this while the dog is in the car or at least out of sight.) When you start to walk to the sheep walk toward the ones he can't see and say "sheep ... sheep". When he looks at the ones in full view you say "no" and again walk toward the ones in hiding. Try to get him to look away from the ones he sees and to look at least in the direction of the ones you want him to go collect. If he won't then go ahead and send him (obviously you will have to send him to the opposite side of the ones he can see ... i.e. if your hidden sheep are on your right, send him "away to me") and when he starts to cut in toward the ones he sees, lie him down and walk out so you are in-between the ones he sees but in the direction of the hidden group. Try again to say sheep and pull his attention away from the ones he wants and towards the invisible ones and send him again. Keep downing him and positioning yourself until he sees the ones that were hidden. Don't get lazy and give him a chance to just bring the ones he sees you have to make sure he gets to the hidden ones. While you are doing all this give a special flank command, say "go bye" with "back" added or anything that you will consistently use to mean "go wider than what you think"! This exercise will do two things. The first is it helps the dog to learn to widen out even if he doesn't understand why he has to. The second reason is to convince the dog that you have knowledge of things he doesn't and if he will only listen then you will guide him in the right direction. In other words if done correctly it builds trust. Don't get angry and start yelling at him ... you know the other sheep are there ... he doesn't, so don't punish him for something he doesn't know. Just keep walking out with him until the "light bulb" comes on and he understands what you are telling him.
Another problem I see at trials is dogs becoming bewildered when trailers are used to put the sheep out. Try and acquire friends with trailers that are willing to haul sheep and help you train your dog. You need to look at things from a dog's point of view. At home he's always gone out lifted his sheep with no one around. You take him to his first trial and suddenly he has the commotion associated not only with trailers but also people sitting at the top end with lawn chairs, dogs, etc. So he's left alone to deal with strange places, people and sheep all at once. Some dogs aren't sure these sheep belong to him when another dog is in the picture. Also remember when a "put out" dog is holding the sheep (needed at some trials) the balance point is different. You need to get him accustomed to as many things as possible before you ever start trialing. Let him learn that even when another dog is holding "his" sheep they are still to be brought to you.
A major hurdle to overcome with Novice people is the tendency to work only dog broke sheep. Frequently these type of sheep come straight to the handler even when the dog is in the wrong position. Routinely at a trial even dog-broke sheep (especially since they don't know your dog) will go any direction except straight down the field towards you. The poor dog, use to nothing except his own dog-broke sheep, is in for a shock coming in contact with these wild/fighting/heavy/whatever sheep and is liable to do anything. So take the time before you are under "trial pressure" to work different types of sheep. I realize it's often difficult for people to find various types of sheep. However, the point I am making is, if you can't then don't get mad at your dog when the first time he gets behind non dog-broke sheep and they take off running and he goes berserk. Again, leave the post and go up to help your dog regain his composure. Don't just stand there and yell. I realize Novice handlers are confused since they don't see Open handlers leave the post but remember you are a Novice handler with a young impressionable dog.
Not only locations but also terrain is also a major consideration. If the dog has never run up a hill on an outrun you can take bets, even if he's a good outrunner, he will be tight. So look around and find a location that has a variety of terrains and work him on it. Even something as simple as a shadow on the ground can make a dog run tight if he perceives it as a barrier. Set a variety of different situations up such as having to cross a ditch to run out correctly and then make sure he does. This means you need to walk out and correct him if he tries to cut in front of you or just runs tight.
These are just a few suggestions that might broaden your "dog's horizons" before you ever go to a trial. We need always to keep in mind there would be no trials if not for the dedicated people volunteering their stock, time and energy. If we don't treat both with respect we may not have any trials to go to. So if you are at a trial where your dog is just "chasing" the sheep, do everyone a favor, including you and your dog, go out and try to regain control over the situation thereby helping your dog, the stock and I'm sure the owner of the sheep.