Originally Published in Working Border Collie Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
In teaching flank commands, you start the transition of the dog taking cues from your body language to listening for voice commands instead. Eventually, voice commands should override body language. The gradual weaning of the dog off body language to voice commands is left out of many dogs' training and is important when working your dog on sorting sheep, penning, shedding, etc., where you’re using your body to put pressure on the sheep to do certain things and you don’t want that same body language to cue the dog.

By this time, you should’ve developed some sort of consistent body language communication with the dog such that it understands when you move a certain direction, it signals the dog to move in a certain direction. If you've been doing everything I’ve described in these past articles on body language, positioning and having the dog go to balance, then you'll need to develop a smooth transition from body language to voice commands. The way to ease this transition is to start with the body language and work in the verbal commands that naturally go with the dog’s actions. Then you start to wean the dog off body language until it’s only responding to verbal commands. Finally, you give the opposite body language to the verbal commands to proof its response.

The natural way to start teaching a dog flanks is to incorporate the command with something the dog already has an inclination to do. For example, the dog already knows to balance the sheep to you. If you turn and start walking off balance, the dog will want to flank to find the correct the balance
point again. If, as the dog flanks, you give the appropriate flanking
command, the dog will start recognizing to go around the sheep to balance when it hears that command. Since the sheep are between you and the dog, this is termed an “outside” flank.

After it appears the dog has an idea about these commands to go to balance, the next thing is to teach the dog to flank off balance on the outside flanks. Until you try to flank the dog off balance, you never really know whether your dog understands the flanking commands. Up to this point, all the dog has known is to go to balance unless it is being held from doing so. Now you must teach them to move from balance when, and in the direction, you tell them to.

In order to help the dog be more comfortable off balance, start with easy, settled sheep that will not make the dog feel like it has to get up and cover to keep them from getting away. It may even help to go back to the roundpen or some area where the sheep are comfortable simply standing around and have no where they want to go. If your dog has been working more challenging sheep, it would be better to scale back to easier sheep when it is time to learn something new. That way the dog will have more confidence and less stress in the new situation.

I start teaching off balance outside flanks by telling the dog to lie down, and keep telling it to lie down as I move to an off balance position. Here is where voice commands start taking precedence over body language. If you do this for awhile the dog starts to recognize that sometimes you want it to stay off balance. This way, the dog has some introduction to off balance before you just - bang - one day expect them to flank off balance -- something entirely against their previous training and their natural instinct. Weaning off the body language in this way will help this transition. Also, it helps to keep things calm and positive as much as possible. If the dog feels tense and upset because you're yelling or because the sheep are acting badly, then it will want to go back into default mode and return to balance, something its natural instinct is telling it to do. So the dog must feel comfortable with lying down and allowing you to move off balance. If you're asking the dog to lie down and the sheep start escaping, then you must either let the dog cover or you must fix the situation yourself so that the dog doesn't become too uncomfortable with this new task.

In the next stage, I give the flanking command by standing in a balance position and asking the dog to flank. As I do this, I give some of the body language it already knows, such as putting the opposite hand out to indicate that it should go the other direction, but I don't move from balance. The dog might want to stay on balance but I keep encouraging it to take the flank with body language and voice commands or give a mild correction if it doesn't respond. Then dog may flank in the desired direction but it will soon show signs that it's uncomfortable and wants to reverse and go back to balance. As soon as I see this tension appear, I lie the dog down and keep repeating the lie down command. I especially don't want the dog to flick back to balance. I want the dog to keep going in the direction I originally asked, so I must make things easy by asking it to do something it already understands from earlier lessons -- simply lying down off balance when I ask it to. Then I walk toward the dog in the opposite direction I flanked it and walk past the dog, still asking it to stay down. Now I'm on the side that will make the dog naturally want to take that same flank I was asking for but this time it can return to balance. The reasoning for starting off balance flanks this way it that you're making it easier for the dog to do a new, hard thing. The dog will have more trust in you when you ask for off balance flanks in the beginning if it realizes it will eventually be able to go back to balance even though it is still taking the same flank.

As the exercise progresses, I expect the dog to flank further and further away from balance and toward me before it becomes too tense and I have to stop it. In time, I expect the dog to come all the way to me on the off balance flank. At this point I may actually start the dog thinking about driving the sheep away from me once it will flank all the way back to me. In this way, the dog will start to realize there might be some purpose or a "job" to the off balance flanking rather than just some uncomfortable, mechanical thing it is being made to do for no apparent reason. The other thing I do once the dog will flank all the way back to me is let it pass behind me and go all the way around back to balance on that same flank. Basically this is circling the sheep - flanking from balance all the way around and back to balance on that same flank. This circling is not something you want to overdo -- but it will help the dog feel trust that you are eventually going to let it go back to balance if it just does this hard thing you are asking.

As time goes by and the dog becomes less and less tense flanking off balance, I decrease the number of times I let it return to balance after taking the off balance flank. Eventually, it will take them without needing to come back to balance unless you need it for your purposes. The key points to remember when starting to teach these off balance flanks is that if your dog is a good one, this is a difficult thing to ask it to do. You want to make this transition as easy as possible in the beginning. You need teach these flanks in such a way as to build trust in your dog that when you ask it to do something it's uncomfortable with, you'll let it do something to make it more comfortable soon. Each dog will have its own tolerance level with this type of training. It's your job to read your dog and decide how fast you can proceed without taking too much out of the dog or the partnership.