CASE STUDY: The Herding-Obsessed
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
Poet is a 3 year old male neutered Australian
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
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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