CASE STUDY: The Herding-Obsessed Aussie
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Description:

Poet is a 3 year old male neutered Australian Shepherd.

Presenting Problem:

Poet becomes very excited when he sees other animals moving quickly. He becomes focused on them and will ignore his owner. This is a major problem if the dog running agility immediately before him is very fast. If asked to run agility in this state he will attempt to herd his owner by cutting in front of her and nipping at her legs.

History:

Poet was obtained from his breeder when he was 9 weeks old. His owner was looking for an obedience prospect and chose Poet because his breeder had obedience experience. Poet's father had 2 U-CDX legs along with being major pointed in conformation. He also worked a bit in agility and herding. Poet's mother herds sheep regularly.

Poet has earned the following titles:

AKC: CDX, OA, OAJ, PT
ASCA: STDc, STDs, RS-N, JS-N, GS-N,
1 leg each OTDc, OTDs, STDd, 5 points RS-O
NADAC: NAC, NGC, NJC
AHBA: HTD1s (1 leg)

Poet has attended obedience classes since he was a young pup. His owner also works with a small group training agility and herding.

Poet regularly works on his owner's small farm herding sheep and goats.

Previous Episodes:

Poet's owner reports that this behavior (in the context of agility) began when he was about 18 months old. He began training in herding at about a year old. The 'herding type' behavior occurs not only in agility but also at home with the other dogs in the household.

It is possible for Poet's owner to prevent him from engaging in this behavior if she keeps her attention on him and tells him to stay. She reports that she feels the need to stay intensely focused on him when he is in this state. She worries that she will not have this control at all times. Poet has only appoached another dog in public once when in this state (at an agility seminar). Poet stopped and returned to his owner when called.

Previous Treatments:

Poet's owner has tried a number of techniques in dealing with this behavior. She has made him lie down, then resumed the course. She has told him "no". She has tried to refocus him back on her when he's on the start line and focused on the dog running in the ring. She has worked on obedience behaviors to distract him at the start line. According to his owner "none of these things have worked too well."

Observation:

Poet's owner sent me a videotape of two of Poet's agility runs. The first run was following a very fast dog and Poet was in his 'herding mode'. The second run was after a quieter dog who did not elicit the excited behavior from Poet.

I observed that Poet barked almost constantly in both runs. His excitement level didn't seem to make a difference. Once a dog, especially one of the herding breeds, has learned to associate barking with performing agility, it is extremely difficult to impossible to extinguish the barking. Luckily, in most of these dogs (Poet included) barking does not interfere with the ability to work.

During the 'herding mode' run Poet would jump up at his owner and spring off her body. He would cut closely in front of her. He also exhibited a moderate amount of spinning. At one point the handler had to stop and let Poet settle down before she could continue.

During the 'regular' run Poet did not jump on his owner or cut in front of her. The spinning was decreased but not eliminated.

One of the things that I observed on the videotape was that Poet's jumping coincided with his owner using a hand signal that was either over her head or from the off-side arm or both. She used the 'bigger' signals more often in the 'herding mode' run than in the regular run. Also, on the 'herding mode' run the handler worked much closer to Poet than she did in the regular run. This closer proximity may have led to some of his behaviors, particularly cutting in front of her. More on this interaction in the Comments section.

In both runs the spinning seemed to be related to Poet's uncertainty about the next obstacle to take and to back crosses by the handler that were a bit too close.

Diagnosis:

Poet is displaying breed-appropriate behavior for a dog with strong herding instincts. He is displaying an automatic, reflexive response to quick and erratic movement. Poet does not have a behavior problem as such. The problem is that he is displaying a normal behavior (herding) in an inappropriate setting (agility).

When Poet's herding instincts are stimulated and he cannot reach his target (the other dog) he then must displace the arousal that results from those drives and emotions on an available target (his handler).

This drive cannot ever be completely eliminated. It is part of the neurological hard-wiring herding dogs are born with (though some display it much more strongly than others). However, the herding behaviors can be decreased to some extent and can be restricted to more appropriate situations. It will be a long-term management issue because Poet's innate drives will cause him to naturally regress towards this behavior. This process is called instinctive drift. When he is aroused and excited Poet's instincts tell him to herd. His owner tells him to perform agility obstacles. In the face of these competing demands, Poet's behavior will eventually drift towards the continual demands of his instincts (herding).

Recommendations:

Poet's owner has good control of his behavior due to his previous obedience training. This has proven to be very helpful in maintaining control of him when he goes into 'herding mode'. This owner control suggests the possibility for a good outcome in this case. I would measure outcome in terms of improved attention on the owner and decreased attention on the external moving stimuli (other dogs).

Poet's owner also has a perfect training opportunity readily available as she lives on a small hobby farm with access to livestock. This makes it easy to work on 'herding type' behaviors during training sessions. For Poet (and for most good herding dogs) the ultimate reinforcer is the opportunity to engage in herding behavior. Poet's owner can control and use this reinforcer when Poet behaves in desired ways. See #5 below for more specifics.

1. DETERMINING TRIGGERS & COMFORT ZONES. As with any good herding dog, Poet is acutely aware of movement. His switch into 'herding mode' is an automatic response that is not controlled by conscious thought but by instinct. As I said earlier, it is not possible to eliminate this response. However, the response can be attenuated by working within Poet's threshhold for this stimuli.

When working on this problem it is important to determine Poet's triggers (stimuli that automatically elicit the behavior) and his comfort zones (distance from the triggers). Information such as how and how fast another animal must move before Poet becomes focused on it, and how far away another animal can be before it elicits Poet's interest is important to know. Working Poet when the triggers are weak and he is in his comfort zone is likely to be successful in terms of his ability to avoid the distraction and to perform. However, when the triggers are strong and his comfort zone has been invaded, it is likely that Poet will not be able to perform well. Poet's owner needs to be very observant regarding his threshhold for distractions and make every effort to train just below his limit. Trying to work him once he has reached his threshhold is futile and can only result in frustration for both dog and handler. The handler's focus should always be on setting up the situation so that the dog can be successful.

2. FREE SHAPING ATTENTION. It will probably be futile to attempt to get Poet to completely ignore other fast moving animals. However, Poet's ability to attend to his owner and to comply with her cues, even in the face of distractions, can be strengthened. Teaching attention as a voluntary behavior using the clicker is a great way to improve a dog's focus on his handler.

In this case Poet's owner could start by working close enough to other dogs who are performing agility so that Poet is interested and aware of them, but far enough away so that he is not overwhelmed and completely distracted by their presence. He needs to be on the edge of his comfort zone. He should be on a leash or on a long line and the owner should stand on it, but leave it very loose. This will keep Poet in her general vicinity but allow him some freedom of movement. The owner should be armed with a clicker and the most high-value treats she can find. I use bits of salmon in these cases; stinky but incredibly effective! The treat should not be used as a lure or bribe. It should be out of sight in a pocket or pack until after the behavior has occurred.

Poet's owner should NOT tell him to watch her, even if he knows that cue. The purpose of this type of training is to make watching her in spite of distractions his default (automatic) behavior, not a response to a command. This makes watching his handler Poet's responsibility. The trainer's job here is to be ready, to be observant, and to wait. This is the hardest thing for most trainers! Rather than making something happen, free shaping relies on waiting for the dog to offer the behavior, then reinforcing it. This training technique requires patience, good observational skills, and excellent timing. However, it is definitely worth the effort. Behaviors taught through this method are extremely strong and long-lasting.

Whenever Poet glances in his owner's direction she should click and give him a treat. No talking is necessary. Both commands and praise are distracting at this point. The clicker marks the correct behavior and the treat reinforces it. That is all the information the dog needs for learning to occur. As Poet begins looking at the owner more and at other things in the environment less his owner can wait for a second or two between the time he looks at her and the time she clicks (the treat always immediately follows the click). She is increasing the duration of the behavior by withholding the click for a few more seconds. If Poet looks away before the click simply ignore that behavior but click a second or two sooner the next time he looks. Continue working in this fashion until Poet has a good, solid 30 seconds of attention.

At that point it is time to increase the distractions and decrease the duration of the behavior. His owner might move him closer to the other dogs and might even have the other dogs moving about and playing in a more animated fashion (their owners will probably be happy to help her with her training). She should "go back to kindergarden" and start over just as she did in the initial stages of free shaping. Following the same process, she should slowly increase her requirement for attention before each click and treat. Again, her goal should be a good, solid 30 seconds of attention in spite of the added closeness of the distractions.

Next, take Poet to run-thrus and show & go settings to practice this exercise. Whenever he is not able to be successful the owner should decrease the distractions and then slowly move back up again.

The basic process of free shaping attention involves first reinforcing for any attention while distractions are at a mild level. Increase duration requirements (up to 30 seconds) at that level. Then increase distractions and decrease duration (back to 1-2 seconds). This is a stepwise progression for reaching the ultimate goal of attention in spite of high distractions for a reasonable period of time. Taking this slow, structured approach will work, it simply takes planning, time, and patience.

3. THE PRE-RUN RITUAL. Poet's owner reports that Poet is kept crated away from the ring during trials. About 5 dogs before their run she takes him out to eliminate and to loosen him up. She practices heeling to keep him focused on her. Then she warms him up on the practice jump. She goes 'on the line' when required, but this is the point at which Poet may become focused on the dog currently running and go into 'herding mode'.

It may be helpful to experiment with some changes in this ritual. First, I would suggest much more exposure to the activity in the rings prior to Poet's run. Taking a casual walk around the edges of the activity and reinforcing whenever Poet offers his handler attention would be a helpful exercise. Stay within Poet's comfort zone at first (far enough away for him to notice the activity, but not close enough to overwhelm him). At first, Poet may be very distracted by the activity going on around him, but this exposure at a low level will eventually lead to increased habituation (getting used to and ignoring stimuli in the environment). If you are concerned that the exposure prior to a run may make him too excited, do it after your runs at a few trials and see how it goes.

I would suggest avoiding the use of a clicker at trials as this may be very distracting to the dogs and handlers who are working. Instead, use a verbal reinforcer that is always paired with treats, toys or play. Common ones are "Yes!" "Great!" or "Bingo!". Use the verbal reinforcer as you would use a clicker.

Asking for compliance with obedience commands when Poet is distracted will probably lead him to learn to ignore those cues rather than comply with them. Instead, teach and practice some fun tricks. Most dogs quickly learn and enjoy tricks such as spin (a natural for the herding dogs!), give me 5, roll over, sit up and beg, etc. The tricks serve the purpose of a physical warm-up while allowing for focused interaction between the dog and handler. I have found the tricks to be very helpful for those times when you are 'on the line' and there is a delay. You can set up for training practice, go through your pre-run ritual, move to the line, practice tricks, then click, treat, and leave the course.

4. VERBAL CUES & DISTANCE WORK. From observing Poet and his handler on the video, it seems that Poet is capable of working well with verbal cues and at a distance. These capabilities could be very helpful in avoiding the 'herding mode' behavior that Poet exhibits towards his handler when running. He would be unable to engage in these activities with more physical distance from his handler. Also, response to her verbal cues rather than body cues should lower his responses to her movement while running the course. There are many resources available (books, videos and seminars) that describe methods for teaching distance work.

5. USING HERDING AS A REINFORCER. Through his behavior, Poet is giving his owner important information about his ultimate reinforcer. He clearly enjoys the opportunity to herd and to engage in herding behaviors. His owner can use this information to her advantage. Rather than viewing herding behaviors as something to be avoided, view them as a way to reward Poet for performing desired behaviors.

Poet's owner might approach this process by setting up a jump in her yard. When Poet completes it successfully she could allow him access to the livestock as a reinforcer. She could backchain by always having the 'release to herding' at the end of the agility behaviors that are required. For example, once Poet understands that doing a single jump correctly leads to being released to herd, add more obstacles to the beginning of the agility exercises. Poet's owner might set up the sequence of 'jump, jump' and release to herd. The next sequence might be 'tunnel, jump, jump' then release him to herd. Her next sequence might be 'weaves, tunnel, jump, jump'. As he is successful she can add more obstacles and complexity to the beginning of the required agility sequence. If Poet does not perform the agility behaviors successfully, he is simply denied the opportunity to work the livestock and given a slightly easier sequence to perform on the next practice trial.

To transition this to practice at other places and to trials might be a little tricky. Obviously, Poet's owner cannot transport her livestock and have it available at the end of each run. That would, however, make for some very interesting trials! One option would be to allow him to engage in some 'herding-type play' with her as a reinforcer. However, this is a decision that must be made on an individual basis. If his owner can control his play and turn it on and off, this might be a viable option. However, if she cannot control it or is concerned that he might escalate to an unacceptable level of physical interaction, she should not explore this option. My business partner has a rough Collie who loves to nip at her ankles and cut in front of her. She allows him to do this as a reinforcer for good heeling. This gives him an acceptable outlet (from his owner's perspective) for those tendencies and uses them to increase the desired heeling performance. Using herding type play as a reinforcer can be taught by the same process described above for using the actual activity of herding as a reinforcer.

6. NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT. One other possibility that may decrease Poet's herding behavior during agility is the use of negative punishment. In behavioral terms 'negative' refers to taking away or removing something and 'punishment' refers to a decrease in behavior. Therefore, negative punishment is the removal of something desired by the subject in an attempt to decrease an unwanted behavior.

Poet's owner had already used this technique to solve the problem of his breaking his stay at the start line. According to the owner "I used to have a real problem with him breaking his stays... I went to a seminar, and he was breaking stays at the start, and whenever he would break when it was our turn to do an exercise, I'd take him off the course and let a few other dogs have their turns, and then we'd try again. After about 2 or 3 times, he decided it wasn't a good idea to break the stay because it meant he wouldn't get to play the game". Removing the opportunity to do agility led to a quick change in Poet's behavior for this problem. I'd highly recommend trying the same technique whenever Poet engages in any herding behavior during agility. At the first sign of herding, the owner should completely stop and take Poet off the course. Herding behavior in the ring leads to an immediate removal from 'the game'. This will have to be repeated systematically and consistently to be effective. If the handler continues to run sometimes and stops others, it will be unclear to Poet that his behavior causes the game to end.

It is very difficult to stop in the middle of a run at a trial, especially if the possibility of earning a leg is there. It might help to practice this technique in practice, at run-thrus, and in games and non-titling classes (when the outcome isn't as important as the opportunity to train).

Comments:

The reciprocal two-way nature of handler/dog interaction is interesting to note here. After reviewing the videotaped performance provided by Poet's owner it seems that she is unconsciously changing her handling when she is aware that Poet is in his 'herding mode'. In an attempt to maintain control she stays closer and gives bigger, more dramatic signals. This change in handling may be leading to some of his changes in performance. Unfortunately, this situation becomes a visious(sp?) cycle. Poet gets into 'herding mode' and his handler responds by being more directive on the course. The increased intensity of signals and closer proximity of the handler lead Poet to display more jumping, cutting in front of her, and spinning. All of these lead her to attempt even tighter control the next time Poet goes into 'herding mode'. The answer is to begin breaking the cycle. This starts with the owner's awareness of her changes in handling and then making a conscious effort to keep her handling constant despite Poet's behavior.

Poet is a bright, fast, typical herding dog. By making changes in her handling and training techniques, Poet's owner should be very successful in changing his behavior.

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