Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Pressure of Being a Working Dog

A young sheltie ties to convince a much larger sheep that it is serious and up to the task.

When a working sheep dog moves sheep, he is said to be exerting "pressure" on the sheep by using body language, movement and voice.

If the dog puts too much pressure on the sheep, they may scatter in several groups or bolt off stampeding in the wrong direction. If the dog is too aggressive or too timid, a protective ram may decide it can bluff the dog into submission or that it must charge the dog in order to protect the ewes. Under either scenario, the dog can end up being chased by the sheep.

Herding is difficult because every flock is different, and so too is every pasture. A working collie cannot afford to make too many mistakes, and that is especially true in a timed herding trial.

If the dog is too amped up, it may press the sheep too hard and they will bolt and remain spooky for the rest of the run. If the dog does not put enough pressure on the sheep, however, they will be slow to lift and valuable seconds will be lost on the clock.

While things are a bit different in the world of working terriers, the concept of pressure is the same, and the same kind of see-saw is at work, only it is all done underground.

If a terrier does not put enough pressure on a groundhog or badger, it may dig away and soon be lost to both dog and digger.

Conversely, if a terrier puts too much pressure on a groundhog, fox, raccoon or badger, the animal may decide it has no other option but to stand and fight. If that occurs, the dog may be injured.

Intelligence and balance are treasured and valued in working collies. As Patricia B. McConnell notes in her very good book, The Other End of the Leash:

"A good, steady dog with an innate sense of pressure is worth his weight in gold, because he can move sheep or cattle without causing a fight or a stampede, smoothly moving the herd where you want them. The brilliant ones make it look so easy, you wouldn't know what all the fuss was about, until you watch a dog with no finesse, who moves in too fast, and panics the flock."

The same can be said about a working terrier. When a really experienced and well-balanced dog goes to ground, they do not rush in full of fire and belligerence, but creep in listening. They are not trying to move anything yet -- they are simply trying to locate, and they are trying to get a sense of how much pressure will be required to move whatever is in the hole.

When the dog does locate and opens up to a bay, he will be using his voice -- and probably his voice alone -- to move the quarry to a bolt or a stop-end of the den pipe. While a young and inexperienced dog may rush in with grabbing teeth (and get the muzzle bites to prove it), an older and more useful dog will know the easier way to get the job done.

The quarry in the hole is not the only thing under pressure, of course -- the dog is too. The pressure felt by the terrier is directly proportional to: 1) the amount of experience it has had underground; 2) the size of the hole it is working, and; 3) the mood of the animal it is facing.

I think this is the proper ranking of the main pressure-builders within a working terrier. An experienced dog is comfortable underground and knows enough tricks and ways of working that it is pretty confident that it can get the job done no matter what is found down there. An inexperienced dog, however, is not battling the quarry so much as its own fears.

Whether the dog is experienced or not, frustration rises and falls in direct proportion to the size of the hole. Even a confident and experienced dog feels pressure and frustration in a very tight hole where it cannot move forward or backward without substantial struggle.

The quarry itself can exert pressure on a dog, of course. Both a raccoon and a possum can make enough noise that they can spook both dog and digger alike. Groundhog and fox, on the other hand, are less likely to voice their objections than demonstrate them with slashing teeth.

All of this take place in the pitch black, of course. While a sheep dog can receive visual cues from the sheep, the terrier must rely solely on sound and scent. And while too much pressure on the sheep may result in the flock moving too fast or breaking in two, too much pressure by the terrier may result in a rip to the muzzle that will take weeks to heal.

At the end of a dig, just as you are breaking into the pipe, is when things often go bad when you are working terriers. Emboldened by the presence of light and reinforcements, a terrier that has used his voice alone up to this point, may decided it can now go in and grab.

An experienced terrier will try to grab his quarry by the cheek or ear, since a groundhog, fox, or raccoon gripped by the side of its head cannot easily move to bite back. Not every dog is smart enough, or lucky enough, to get such a good hold, however, which is why a smart terrierman will generally step in and pull his dog as soon as he can in order to save his terrier unnecessary injury.

Bottom line: As it gains experience, a working dog learns to relax a little more and begins to develop a bag of tricks and techniques it can employ to tackle different situations. In both herding dogs and working terriers, an experienced dog learns to stay attuned to the pressure building up on the other side of the field or pipe. There is a fine line between too much pressure and too little, and the very best dogs walk this shifting line with the grace and skill of a ballet dancer.


kabbage said...

Comparing a herding trial dog to a working terrier isn't quite fair. I think it would be better to compare a working stockdog to a working terrier. Something like an Aussie working to get range cattle vaccinated or treated is a lot different than moving a small group of sheep around a field. First they have to gather cattle that are not used to either people or dogs, then they have to put these semi-wild animals through chutes for doctoring or care.

A cattle-working stockdog may have to move steers or bulls that weigh 20 times or more what it does. Sometimes it can be done with presence, but sometimes the dog has to go in for the grip, usually on the nose or heel. In stockyards, the dog is limited on where it can go to get out of the way. Often smaller dogs (say 30-35 lbs vs. 50 or 55) are used in chutes so they have room between the bars for getting out of the way. Maybe they can see what they're going up against, but they tackle more than one at a time on a regular basis.

PBurns said...

Pressure is pressure. Different animals require diffent amounts administered different ways -- the core point of the post.

A terrier working quarry underground is putting pressure on an animal that might weigh twice what it does (or three or four times if there are two fox or coon in the hole), but not 20 times. Sheep weights vary, of course, but they are anywhere from two to four times what a dog will weigh.

Not all sheep are easy to work. Hill sheep, and certain species of sheep like the Barbado, are very tough to work, not only for their tendency to split into small groups and run in opposite directions, but also for their horns which can hit with some force. I am 200 pounds and I am not all that anxious to be knocked flat by a ram again.

Working sheep and stock dogs occassionally grip, in order to show willful stock that they mean business, but it's a maladaptive strategy, as it can lead to an over-amped sheep-herding dog killing stock, while cattle-working dogs can end up with shattered jaws and limbs. With both sheep and cattle, most of the work is done with body movement and voice alone. It helps, of course, that both cattle and sheep are herd animals -- they tend to follow each other.



kabbage said...

My point is that trial and real life work cannot be compared, so I don't think it's fair to compare a trial sheepdog to a real life working terrier. The grit needed to get sheep around a 10-20 minute course is considerably different than that needed to put several hundred head of semi-wild range cattle through a chute for once or twice a year care, much like the grit needed to tackle wild game in a sette is considerably different from digging for a rat in a cage during an earthdog trial.

I suspect your view of herding/stockdog work is influenced by living in the east. I live in the west, and the realities of stockdog work can be considerably different. A sheltie can do trial herding and an AKC Ch. PRT can do earthdog, but I doubt there are any serious cattle ranchers using shelties, even as you didn't shop in the AKC world for your newest JRT.

PBurns said...

The sheltie pic is up there simply because it's a good shot of small dog *trying* to put pressure on a larger sheep. In fact, shelties are not real herding dogs at all, but descended from pets designed to keep chicken, ducks and sheep away from the house.

You are right that trials and field work are different, but field trials are not necessarily easier. Almost all sports that emulate real work (sheep dog trials, skeet shooting, lumberjack contests) are both harder and easier than their real-world cousins. In the case of timed herding, the issue is that the dog must decide the pressure equation pretty fast and get it right the first time. A stock-working dog in a non-trial situation has a lot more time to get the equation right, and therfore a lot more leayway to make a mistake. A similar issue is at work in go-to-ground trials, where a dog has to be to ground and baying very quickly, with points deducted for exiting a false exit and not coming out when called just once.


retrieverman said...

Patricia McConnell taught me most of what I know about training dogs, except for the "folk wisdom" that came down from my grandparents.

sfox said...

On a lighter note, I have a rough collie who occasionally tries to herd the cats, who occasionally let him.

yucatec said...

Dear Patrick,
Interesting. Most sheep and cattledog trial dogs are trained far more than they're worked. I'd guess that no more than 20% of qualifiers for the Sheep and Cattle Nationals work every day. That's not to say that they can't handle difficult stock. They are better at it than routine dogs.

BUT - some dogs are kind to their sheep and some are not. A sheep kindly dog- generally - is trusted by sheep of any breed. Yes, it helps to have worked the breed in question and yes, it helps to have experience on particular terrain but, in general, sheep kindly dogs are kindly as soon as they are trained and pushy dogs will be pushy until they retire. Experience does count and genetic predispositions can be modified, but with stockdogs what matters most is
character. Easy to see/hard to create.
Donald McC

smartdogs said...

"Pressure is pressure."

Yup. And that proper balancing of pressure (and release) is a vital skill in training any animal.

This is a concept that horse people and livestock people typically grasp well and quickly but that pet owners sometimes never come to understand.

When you boil it down, effective dog training boils down to pressure, release and direction on how to find release. Sometimes it's a human applying and releasing the pressure - and as you point out here - sometimes it's another critter.

Vermin, livestock and game do as much training of working dogs as we humans do (and they don't need to go to school to learn how to do it ;-)