Of Pups and Commands

We host a small tour event tomorrow and at the end of the month company is expected when Tanner’s owners arrive to discover what he’s learned over the summer and pick him up. Gosh I will miss that boy.

Having Tanner as a wee pup and working him now has been a treat, and so different than BlackJack it causes me to wonder how they are brothers. Then again the two of them started out very differently their first time on sheep too.

BlackJack went right to doing something with the sheep, and ended up in the middle of the little group before he got around them. Tanner was hesitant and not really ready to start. A ewe read him right away and gave him a bit of trouble.

Today Tanner is well ahead of BlackJack in how he handles himself and thus the stock. He shows a lot more eye as well. Jack is all guts but no finesse. He’ll come along but he is going to be a longer term project.

When I put pups on the ground with sheep the first few times, I do very little to influence what goes on. I’m there to keep them as safe as I can but otherwise want to see them present what they have, I want to see their natural instinct. Most will cause motion to start, some will hold sheep on a fence and control motion, some will charge up the middle, some will look the other way or tip toe around. Any and all starts are available with puppies. When they turn on, it can look like chaos has ensued. There are no commands early in the game as there is no need.

showing stalking behavior as wee pup
I used to teach very mechanically (without thought to how it was all connected) and I think most people do until we become fluent in the purpose of what we’re trying to teach. Now I don’t worry overmuch about getting a pup onto commands as much as I do about having a pup be in a good frame of mind while working. This is where I see a big distinction in BlackJack and Tanner. Tanner can approach work with his thinking front brain engaged and hence have greater control of his actions. Even as a youngster he can think while working. BlackJack approaches life with his hindbrain engaged and working with him means constantly finding ways to switch him from hindbrain to front brain and getting him to stay there while he works. This causes him to be far more of a hair trigger dog. They both have very strong instinct to control the motion of livestock but two different approaches to doing so.

As we progress in training I put the commands to what the pup is doing as they’re doing the action. So they learn the commands from me, over time, and through repetition. There are many ways to teach though and others will have their tried and true methods as well. For me I like it be pretty straightforward and non - complex. Life is full of enough complexities as it is.

file photo,  coming around on livestock


  1. OK...I can tell you right now that you have just spoken volumes to me. I have had so many reservations starting with my pups that I haven't. I have no mentor here or knowledge of where to start. I know we have similar philosophical approaches to dogs so I trust and understand your thinking on things "dog". Thanks for giving me a boost. Now if I can find a book or guide that thinks in similar ways I would grab either or. I want to use what my dogs know and already have in their database. Both of mine are very dissimilar so I know I will be challenged in totally different ways. Love to hear your insights. Thanks

    1. Your comment makes me smile. You're very welcome. Several books have helped me although I can't say there is one that was 'the guide.' If you get a chance to work with Dave or Trudy Viklund, they'll help in this regard too.

  2. Thank you for this really insightful post. You are like a mother to these pups, calmly watching each personality develop without too much interference, only correcting when needed. They must feel safe with you, and this gives them the confidence to be themselves.


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