Up and Coming: Tosh

By Victoria Lamont
*photo credit to Victoria Lamont 

If you went to any of the Ontario novice trials last year, you might have noticed me and Tosh at the post. You might have seen Tosh run around me in circles looking confused, as if he’d never seen sheep in his life. You might have wondered what that woman was thinking, entering an untrained dog like that.

Every dog I have ever trained has taught me something fundamental about training, and Tosh’s lesson for me began at the post when he wouldn’t leave my feet. I knew he wasn’t ready when I entered him, but I did think he would at least make it to the sheep. I was fully prepared to run up the field, reinforce the stop, and retire. I might even congratulate myself for having the good judgement to leave the post to help my dog. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that far. Back to the drawing board.

Tosh is from my own breeding. I don’t breed often, but his mother was a good dog for me and I really wanted a puppy from her. She goes back to Supreme Champion Star (Stuart Davidson) and there are a number of well-known North American dogs in her pedigree. I bred her to Joe (Jane Kessler), imported son of Aled Owen’s legendary Cap. I picked Joe because I really liked his authoritative yet easy way with sheep and his even
temperament. Dram can be a bit sharp and I thought Joe would balance that nicely. I seem to have been lucky in that I got what I bred for: Tosh is free flanking and forward like his sire, with his mother’s quickness and keenness.

You would never have guessed from our inauspicious debut last year that Tosh had actually progressed quickly in his training early on and showed a lot of promise.  Although he’s not the most powerful dog in the world, sheep respect him. He rarely gets challenged, but when he does, he will stand up to them as soon as he knows I have his back. I love how he comes on to his sheep. It’s hard work to keep a dog moving that is prone to lock up, so I’m really enjoying a dog that just carries on. I don’t love that he can be hard to stop, but that’s how it goes with sheepdogs: your best asset is often also your greatest liability.

I think we ran into problems when I got too ahead of myself in training and started asking for more advanced skills before Tosh was really ready. His mother is a natural outrunner, so I didn’t pay as much attention to the outrun as I should have. I also focused way too much on driving. In hindsight, I think I accidentally trained the outrun out of Tosh when I let short-term goals get in the way of what he actually needed as a young dog. Tosh wanted badly to be in control of the sheep at all times, and it took a lot to make him hold the line on the drive and not head the sheep. This led to a very adversarial training relationship in which I inadvertently taught Tosh that going around the sheep was a bad thing. I also skipped important steps in teaching the drive, like progressing in my body position from ahead, to beside, to behind the dog, and teaching a correction that the dog would respect and understand. Tosh had been corrected so many times for heading the sheep, instead of shown what I wanted, that he came to believe that driving, and driving alone, was the point.

Fortunately, as clinician Faansie Basson said to me, “the hunter will always want to hunt for you,” meaning that a bad habit can be retrained. That is what I have spent the last year doing—retraining bad habits, especially my own. I went back to basics, breaking down everything into small pieces and making sure those pieces were in place before we progressed. I focused on the process of training and worried less about the results.  Most importantly, I think, I prioritized earning Tosh’s trust. He was very determined to stay in control, so I had to show him that he could trust me with control. This required an approach to training that was very gradual and methodical.

Knock on wood, Tosh has his outrun back, and he’s now driving pretty well too. He trusts and respects me enough to let the sheep go when I ask him to, and to stop (for the most part) even when it doesn’t feel good to do so. It’s great to have really biddable dogs that will bend over backwards to please you—but those dogs also let you get away with dumbass decisions. Dogs like Tosh are not going to give up their control of the sheep just because you tell them to. You need to prove to them that you are a trustworthy leader. Tosh taught me that.

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