Diego and I are still new to sheep herding, and I'm pretty bad at it. Sheep herding is a team sport, the handler and the dog work together to accomplish the tasks. Or, that's how it's supposed to be!
When we started, Diego was incredible at his distance downs at distances up to 10ish feet. That means I could say the word, "Down" and Diego would lie down right away, even if he was 10 feet away and looking at the sheep. He was the same with his sits. We were nailing it as a team and I was impressed with him.
Then I started taking over the sheep while the instructor watched and directed. Again, I am bad at this! I'm slow, don't really know what I'm supposed to be doing, and I wave around the orange flag like I'm at a parade. Diego slowly stopped responding to me, and he decided it was way more fun just to chase the sheep. The last couple weeks were incredibly frustrating, and last week, I found myself repeatedly saying, "Right now! Just do it!" anytime I asked for a down, because D was just blowing me off. I was annoyed with Diego, frustrated with my lack of herding abilities, and truly not having a good time.
And then it hit me, why should he "just do it?" What's in it for Diego? I had completely stopped paying him, and actually, we were often asking for a "down" as a time out. LAME! Diego learned that lying down meant a break in the game, and that it was not at all beneficial to him. Why should Diego just do it? I had also been confusing him with my chaotic herding style (I use "style" loosely)! If I don't know which way to go and what to tell him, surely he should just work on his own. I'm sure he was thinking, "This lady is not at all fun to work with, might as well make up my own rules!" I felt so silly when all of this came to me. Of course he stopped listening to me, I wasn't worth listening to!
Dogs are self-interested beings who do things to produce consequences. They will only expend energy if the action will generate something good for them, or keep them out of harm's way. This doesn't make them stubborn, dominant, or naughty, it makes them animals interested in their own survival and well-being. I know this, I know better than to demand a dog do something for nothing. Sometimes even dog trainers go astray though and end up in a frustrating spot!
Today I strapped on my treat pouch full of cheese and tuna fudge, and we practiced getting paid for downs around the sheep before we started herding. Throughout our lesson, I made sure I was in my happy place and letting him know what a good job he was doing, and trying to ensure he knew I was a valuable teammate. He still wasn't perfect, but neither was I.
Cut your dog some slack and examine your interactions. Are you worth listening to? Are you paying your dog for doing what you asked or want? Dogs do not care if we are pleased or not, unless it affects them in some way. What they want to know is, "What's in it for me?"
If you want your dog to pay attention to you, be clear in what you're asking and pay them appropriately for the job. Even if what you're asking isn't quite as "expensive" as distance downs around sheep, your dog still deserves a paycheck!
"Behavior doesn't just flow like a fountain. Behavior is a tool animals use to produce consequences."
-Dr. Susan Friedman