25
Sep 11

Thoughts from a Sheepdog Man

On the "Return to Common Sense" dog training email list, one of the trainers recently asked if timing is something that can be taught. Donald McCaig's answer was so beautifully written, I convinced him to share it with you. Enjoy.

Can Timing Be Taught?

By sheepdog trainer and author Donald McCaig

Dear Trainers,

Jill asked a wonderful question--so wonderful I've come awake three midnights thinking about it. This was Jill's post:

"I do think timing is something that can be learned. But can it be taught? And if so, I'd love to hear stories, strategies, and/or techniques for how you teach it."

Yesterday two students came to our farm. It didn't go well. The sheep were too difficult, their dogs unready for outrunning 150 feet. Next week we'll set up differently.

They are ideal sheepdog students. They train horses and humans for a living; they own a hundred ewes. Their dogs are out of good working stock (three of the four could become open dogs and the 4th loves her owner enough to overcome her inadequacies.)  My students came to me without excess baggage: neither has ever been lectured on "the 4 quadrants".

When a sheepdog is half a mile from your feet, timing commands is difficult. For starters, there's a 2 second lag between uttering and the command reaching the dog's ears. It will be faint of course, fainter if the dog is at a different elevation or if wind is blowing from dog to handler. There may be dead spots between dog and handler in which the dog can't hear anything.

At 800 yards, three, four or five sheep are a glisten, a smudge, difficult to pick out from the sagebrush and since it is directly behind the sheep, the dog is invisible.

There are strategies to improve results: louder whistles, rewarding more independent dog work, grosser commands. (At three hundred yards on a calm day one might ask for tiny moves several times per second. At 800, one can ask for very big behavior every five seconds.)

That's the goal. That's where you want to get to: handling wild sheep at the greatest possible distances elegantly and efficiently.

Without a moment's thought. If you think, you clutch.

How to get there with students and dogs who can't send a dog two hundred feet without it turning into a three species circus?

I am no memoirist and my life has been unexceptional. Since my sheepdog biography is ordinary,it may encourage novices who are no more talented than I.

I was forty-two years old, farmer/writer, struggling to make the mortgage payments, arrogant and "wordy" (convinced that words could do more real work than they can). We'd owned sheep for five years; I did the grunt work, my wife Anne was the shepherd.

A friend meant to pick up a Border Collie pup at the Virginia State Fair and I hadn't a birthday present for Anne. "Get me one too," I said.

I didn't know anybody who worked stockdogs and back then, there were maybe ten trials every year in North America, no handler's organization, two tiny inefficient warring registries, no sheepdog magazines and the only book I found in the Sheepman's Supply catalog was John Holmes "The Farmer's Dog".

Luckily Pip was clappy (readily downed), biddable (I trained his outrun WITHOUT SHEEP), hardheaded, and ultimately--forgiving.

Remembering those days and what I knew, thought and thought I knew--I recall that when Pip was completely baffled by my ill-timed opaque commands, he'd circle my legs, yelp and nip my calves. But one afternoon, without my asking, Pip outran 300 yards gathered a hundred ewes and brought them to my feet.  I'd never seen anything like it. It was beautiful. So beautiful that next day I put Anne's best replacement yearlings in a small field to show her what Pip could do. Oops. Those sheep hit the fence so hard it was a wonder none broke their necks.I gratefully recall Anne's courtesy...without one word, she walked back to the house.

A friend heard about a sheepdog trial nearby.I remember wondering why the handlers kept telling the dogs to lie down and the dogs didn't lie down. Pip..now he'd LIE DOWN!!!!!

At the trial I heard about a sheepdog clinic and, some months later, arrived at Ethel Conrad's farm where Jack Knox was instructing twenty of us would-be sheepdoggers.

When Pip, I, three Barbadoes sheep and Jack knox were in a fifty foot snow fence ring, there were too many creatures, moving too fast.  BLUR/WHAT?/BLUR.

Pip jumped over the snowfence and slipped under my VW and couldn't be coaxed out.Actually, I thought Pip had a pretty good idea.I would have joined him if I could.

42 years old I was beginning a new life.

The Scots say it takes ten years and three dogs to make a sheepdog handler. Although Pip ran and even placed in open trials, it was ten years and two dogs later before i won my first.

So no, I don't think timing can be taught.I think that what the dog and sheep are actually, in real time, DOING can be explained and if the student is ready to hear--some explanations stick. My students and their dogs are much improved from when they first came. If I died tomorrow, they'd continue to get better without my help. They're plugged into sheepdog culture and know other sources.

10,000 hours.T hat's the famous estimate of the time required to achieve mastery. Plus good mentoring. When I taught writing, I warned my students: Time is not compressible. If they wanted to write, they had to give something else up. For many, that was harder than developing writing skills.

10,000 hours.

I had no dog theories when I started and owned a flock of sheep. Good. I like to learn  Good. I'm opinionated. Bad. I can't dance. Very bad.

I persisted because of that morning when Pip swept out and gathered those ewes and it was beautiful; because I wanted to do that again. I wanted to be part of that.

After yesterday's not very good lesson at my farm, one student kept exclaiming about my dog Fly. She'd shed off fifteen training sheep from a 150 ewe flock and balanced them to me, despite their desperate attempts to break away, until I got a gate open.Yes, she was beautiful. My student saw something there he'd like to be part of.

The motel breakfast room at my first IACP conference was open to the lobby and off limit to dogs.  Janeen McMurtrie's two Leonbergers sat/stayed just outside, like two amiable wookies for twenty minutes while Janeen ate. They were beautiful.  I could be part of that.

Timing takes the time we devote because we cannot live without beauty.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacificland all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Donald McCaig (with an assist from Mr. Keats)

Donald McCaig is a well known author and poet, One of his most acclaimed books is Rhett Butler's People, the second sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. He is also well known for his contributions to National Public Radio's All Things Considered , Dog lovers will enjoy his books such as Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching through Scotland in Search of a Border Colllie. The photos above are of him teaching students and their Border Collies, plus one of his dog "Fly" working sheep on the his farm in the Virginia mountains, where McCaig practices his true love, training and working Border Collies.

You can read more about Donald McCaig in this American Magazine interview, where he talks candidly with fellow author Michael Fedo: A Visit with Donald McCaig.

 

 

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Comments (18)
  • Patti  - Sheepherding

    What a beautifully written article. I have always loved border collies and their intelligence and beauty. Awesome!

  • Melanie S  - Border Collies

    Patti, I have been receiving emails telling me to be sure to read Mr. McCaig's books about his work with Border Collies--I bet you would like them too!
    I've ordered one, and have added them to the Amazon store on my Knwoing Dogs blog. One of my neighbors, who is a minister, took the time to write me an email about how much he admires Mr. McCaig as an author. I believe he met him at a book signing in VA after he wrote Jacob's Ladder.
    Your rescue work may not allow much time for reading, but if you do read any of the McCaig books, let me know what you think! I so look forward to them.
    Glad you enjoyed the article. It was something he posted on a dog training list, and gave me permission to post as an article on the blog. I agree, so beautifully written.

  • Joni

    Lovely post. PLUS some good advice for my aspiring writer son! I will pass it along. :)
    Reading about Mr. McCaig's dog, Fly, reminds me of a Siberian I bred, also named Fly. I suspect both got their name from a similar origin. Of course Mr. McCaig's dog is much more qualified to have that name than our girl Fly (http://khovaki.com/Khovaki's%20Sno-Magic%20Firefly.htm)!

    Joni

  • Melanie S

    Joni, I have been so happy about hearing of Adam's interest in writing, after you told me about taking him to the conference recently. I look forward to reading his work! Maybe he should go ahead and start a blog?
    I thought about your girl Fly when I read that Mr. McCaig has one too!

  • Anonymous

    BTW, I know that feeling of wanting to be a part of something beautiful (in regard to dog activities)...it is the same feeling you get watching a team of well-matched, joyful Siberians working in harness together with each other and with their musher. The dogs couldn't ask for anything more than doing what their breed was developed to do, with a human friend to help them, look after them and enjoy their pleasure in it.

  • Melanie S  - sled dogs

    Yes, that is a beautiful thing to experience. When I was young we ran a 3 dog pleasure team, and we volunteered with the Hampton Roads Siberian Club so we were "posts" for their races and it was so much fun to see the big teams out on the trail.
    Years ago, Phylis McLean and I were on a kennel hopping trip and Bob Landers (Krisland Siberians) took us out on a wooded trail, on a Volkswagon chasis with a 14 dog team. Wow...going through the woods (snow on the ground, I believe they lived in NH, it was in the early 80s, I believe the Landers are no longer in dogs)....amazing how much the dogs loved it and it was such an experience for us. Very different than going on a 2 mile run with our 3 dog team of show dogs back in Va Beach!
    It was almost like a beautiful dream.

  • Diane Gallagher  - well yeah, but.......

    I DO believe we can teach "timing" as it is the cornerstone of all, yes -- ALL! -- dog training endeavours.

    When I re-wrote my training manuals back in 2005, it came to me as the proverbial thunderbolt > It's all about the timing. If I can figure out how to teach people timing, I can enable them to teach their dogs anything they want.

    Some will acquire the skills more readily than others, such is the reality of what I do. But teaching the inept how to become ept, well -- that is indeed the magic of my craft. When I can help a human **get** how to communicate effectively with their dog? Wow, whatta rush. It is the "juice" in what I do.

    In what Mr McCaig does, not only do people have to learn the read of the dog, but the read of the sheep as well. doubleplus difficult. In my world, all the student has to master is *what IS this dog thinking?*.

  • Diane Gallagher  - Can timing be taught?

    Well yes, I believe it can. I do it Tuesday thru Saturday, week in, week out. All year long. For nearly 30 some years now.

    The big (HUGE) difference in what Mr McCaig is teaching and what I am teaching is the sheep. His students have to know not only what their dog is thinking, but what the sheep are as well.

    In addition to my day job, I train working retrievers for men who want good hunting companions. I have to translate what I have done with their dogs to them, as well as transfer authority. Sometimes the retrieving job is very straightforward, but sometimes not. My clients have to learn when to trust their dogs' abilities, nose, and presence in the field, and when the dog needs to offer an obedient response to direction.

    I will give that timing comes more readily to some handlers than others, but yes, Virginia, it can be taught.

  • Melanie S  - timing with Diane/hunting dogs/etc

    Diane, I know from watching you train companion dogs that you have a "gift" re timing!

    I would love to come down to the beach once I am feeling a tad better and go out sometime on the weekend and watch you training the hunting dogs.

    Perhaps that work is a little bit similar to Mr. McCaig's work as well....re you mentioned he has to teach people to watch the sheep as well as the dogs, don't you have to teach people to watch the birds while they are training their hunting dogs?

  • Diane Gallagher  - hunting dawgs

    well, generally speaking, the ducks are deceased when we send the dog to retrieve. Some are (unfortunately) wounded, and quite lively when we send the dog, which is where the real partnership begins. In Sheepherding, the Sheep are very MUCH alive, and possessed of a strong desire to go ANYwhere besides where the dog suggests. Therein lies the rub.

    There are aspects of herding that are reminiscent of retrieving as there MUST be a communication betwixt handler and dog, but I believe herding requires a much greater leap of faith on the part of the handler in terms of accepting the DOG'S reality of what needs to be done in the moment.

  • MelanieS

    yes, I get what you are saying Diane.

    Sheepdogs really do have to be trained not only to look to the handler for direction but also to watch the sheep and make a lot more decisions on their own, based on what the sheep are doing, in comparison to a hunting dog...is this what you are saying?

    interesting wording re a much greater leap of faith on the part of the handler in terms of accepting the DOG'S reality of what needs to be done in the moment.

    I have always wished you would write more, but I realize you are always busting your tail working every second of the day, so not much time for recording thoughts on paper. Although I do remember you often posted well thought out things on IACP list that were very helpful.

    Haven't been on that list in quite some time. You?

  • Linwood Cook

    Hello Melanie,

    Brenda and I are praying tonight for you and your Dad. May Duke be God's voice and hands for you tomorrow.

    You need to read Donald McCaig's Nop's Trails, Nop's Hope, Eminent Dogs and Dangerous Men and the book I fond most interesting, The Home Place. In this book you find him researching the land of his sheep farm from the time of the woodland indians to the time when he purchased it. So much history in this book. The others are novels about his sheep dogs. Nop's Trails got me hooked on his writing.

    You would love his dog books!

    Matt and I met him at the book signing of *Jacobs Ladder which really paved the way for him to win the rights to write Rhett Butler's People. This *book was written from letters from the soldiers of the civil war.

  • Linwood Cook

    Hello Melanie,

    Brenda and I are praying tonight for you and your Dad. May Duke be God's voice and hands for you tomorrow.

    You need to read Donald McCaig's Nop's Trails, Nop's Hope, Eminent Dogs and Dangerous Men and the book I fond most interesting, The Home Place. In this book you find him researching the land of his sheep farm from the time of the woodland indians to the time when he purchased it. So much history in this book. The others are novels about his sheep dogs. Nop's Trails got me hooked on his writing.

    You would love his dog books!

    Matt and I met him at the book signing of *Jacobs Ladder which really paved the way for him to win the rights to write Ret Butler's People. This *book was written from letters from the soldiers of the civil war.

  • Rick

    Really enjoyed the article!

  • sylvia  - know as much as your dog does.


    I found this article quite interesting. It's not only the dog who is trainned but the handler as the dog already has the essence of the job at hand because it is nature to his breed. The handler needs to watch and listen to his dog so he can find the right way to convey what he wants his dog to do because the dog will know what is necessary to get that job done.

  • Robin B.

    Wonderful article! I love to watch the herding dogs do their jobs. They also look so happy!

  • Melanie S  - replly to Robin/herding dogs

    I agree Robin, I think they are really happy! I just finished Donald McCaig's short book, A Useful Dog. I loved it, I bet you would too, as he talks about life and relationship with his dogs. It is not a dog training book, it is just like beautiful stories of his life with the dogs, a wonderful read. Easy to find now too, I added it to the Knowing Dogs Amazon Store!

  • winpromote  - www.winpromote.com

    Excellent points and the details are more specific than somewhere else, thanks

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