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Sport Culture: Whisper at your dog

Each dog sport has it's own culture and rules, and as I compete in more and more venues I am noticing that sometimes these cultures may not serve us or our dogs well.

I just recently returned from a ten-day trip that circled through northern Arizona, Colorado, the length of New Mexico, and back through southern New Mexico and then on home. During that time I competed in a three-day herding trial in Durango, and a three day dock diving trial in Las Cruces. The people in both venues were incredibly kind and friendly, but their cultures were vastly different, and as mentioned above, the accepted norms in both sports (as well as others, which will be discussed) may not always serve our dogs or our best interests.

Today I'll discuss what you can learn from a herding trial that will be relevant in al of your training!

The herding trial I attended was AKC. During an AKC Trial the owners use their voices to communicate with their dogs, unlike the large field trials where whistles are used. This is an important distinction, as I will explain in a moment.

The breeds in a herding trial are all necessarily herding: Australian Cattle Dogs, Border Collies, German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, etc...

The goal of a herding test is to move sheep calmly through a course using the dog. The dog must know how far off the stock to remain to keep from running them, must have a clockwise and counter clockwise cue, a stop, and a walk cue.

At a herding trial you will be surrounded by dogs, but almost never hear one bark. This is because the culture demands that the dogs remain quiet so that the stock aren't unduly stressed. Stress, and stock are a bad mixture.

The big cultural 'norm' I saw at this and other AKC trials was an unpleasant compulsion by some handlers to yell at their dogs. Most cues by certain handlers were yelled at their dogs who in most cases were mere yards away.

Yelling at a dog has several effects - none of them particularly helpful. First, raising your voice can tend to stress many dogs, and while some dogs stress down - becoming flatter and duller, others can become more amped. Neither is particularly helpful when trying to make minute changes in direction and keep everything flowing and calm.

Another effect, and one that may lack scientific rigor, but I believe to be true, nevertheless, is that yelling cannotes lack of control. Think of people who yell, are they people you would want to do a fiddly, difficult task with? Not likely. A person who is yelling is not a good leader.

Can your dog hear across a few yards at a herding arena? Yes. Did the handlers who won high in Trial, and Reserve High in Trial yell? No. They whispered. I whispered. If a person whispers at you, you will find yourself leaning in, and concentrating more fully to catch every word. Our dogs do the same!

This is where many may say, "But they're not listening to me!" And that may be the case, however, how loudly you say a cue will not affect your dog's desire to perform it in the least!

If you have something important to say to your dog, I urge you to whisper it. Your relevance is not increased by the level of your words, but by their importance to your dog. If they're not important enough to hear at a whisper, I guarantee, they're not important enough when yelled.

Before I walk into the ring, I remind myself to whisper. Does that mean that everything out there is all rainbows and kittens? No! Of course not! Tagg gets tight and struggles with exploding into stock when frustrated, and Cody sometimes struggles with stopping, and can be directionally challenged! But, the arguments (discussions?) I have with my dogs on the field are private affairs. The only words spoken with any volume are the words of praise after we finish, because my love and appreciation for my dog's efforts, regardless of outcome, are for everyone to hear.

Happy training!

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