Dancing Hearts Blog

Frustrated dog and person transform into a working partnership.


Fleck, a close up

Tresa and Fleck: Enjoy Partnership through Learning Together

(This is a guest blog by Tresa Laferty)

My husband and I have had border collies for about 17 years. They are a big part of our lives in every way. For many years, we did flyball and agility and dabbled in herding with them. When moving to Wisconsin a few years ago, a big requirement was to find a piece of property where we could have the space to exercise and work the dogs.

Soon after the move I got a border collie that I wanted to “do herding” with. Previously, we had only trained and competed in arena style herding like AKC and AHBA so that is where we started with the new kid. We bought some ducks to keep at home and we had a great time learning to work them. I could easily maneuver the ducks and didn’t need too much space to keep them.

We did well and acquired a few titles, but something was missing.

My intense little BC was a rocket and pushed the ducks around the course very quickly and I was in a constant state of reaction verses being in charge of the whole thing. This situation really became even more apparent when we trained on larger, faster stock like sheep.

Fleck would quickly take off up the field, sometimes straight up the field, and get to the sheep, scoop them up and run them down the field towards me.

I kept getting the same advice that never worked for us.

Seeking advice, I went to many trainers and many clinics. They all said the same thing. “You’ve got to make that dog listen to you. He has no respect for you at all.” So I became quite frustrated since my pal was “blowing me off.” We spent many years in this frustrated state and neither of us was happy about it. But we were both equally determined to sort it out since Fleck LOVED to herd things and I loved to share this with him. What could I do with this intense dog and my lack of authority?

I didn’t know what I thought I knew.

I felt that Fleck knew how to go up the field and get the sheep. Our problem was just that he did it too quickly and wouldn’t lie down when I asked him. I also wanted a nice “pace” while we moved sheep around the course. We had placed in several trials and we got around the arena courses pretty well – we even had a reserved high in trial ribbon! Seemed that we both understood the basics.

Since most trainers felt that Fleck was “blowing them off”, he was subjected to some “less than positive” methods. I was frustrated at the lack of progress and the fact that I was being expected to be a “ruler with a harsh hand” and that just wasn’t me.

I love my dogs and if doing this herding thing means I have to scream at them and throw things at them, well, it might not be for me.

After reading that Kathy’s herding coaching was centered on partnership and calm, clear behavior- from both of us, I decided to give this new way of training a try. After all, herding is a profession centered on calm, kind care of stock so why shouldn’t our training be like that too?

Fleck working ducks at a trialWe were both ready for a fresh start.

When we started training with Kathy, it was a refreshing new approach – just what I was looking for. But after a few lessons, it became clear that I didn’t know what I wanted from Fleck. My big goal was to do well at trials. I thought if we practiced the courses we’d both gain an understanding of how to get around them in a better, more polished method. This seemed to work with our agility training so why not here?

I also believed what everyone had told me up to that point “Get that dog to listen to you!” So if I could just get him to lie down when I told him, all would work out.

Kathy quickly helped me realize that the breakdown in our relationship was that I didn’t have a clear picture in my head of what I really wanted Fleck to do.

Kathy quickly helped me realize that the breakdown in our relationship was that I didn’t have a clear picture in my head on what I really wanted Fleck to do – every step of the way. I knew I wanted him to gather the sheep, but how? How did he take his very first step when leaving my side? Kathy helped me realize that this critical first step set the tone for the entire run. Not the fact that he was too tight on his outrun or rushed the lift or wouldn’t lie down. If he couldn’t leave my side properly, the rest really didn’t matter. So what do I do now?

If I could ‘see’ what I needed from my dog, he would willingly do it.

With Kathy’s coaching, I began to see it was ME that had to know what I wanted. I needed to have a very clear picture in my head on what it would look like for Fleck to perform these individual tasks. What would it look like if he left the post in a perfect manner? What would it look like if he kept his shape perfectly when on the outrun? What would it look like if he had a perfect lift? What would it look like if he had perfect fetch down the field? I’m not saying that he actually needed to be perfect, but if I didn’t have a clear picture of how these tasks should be performed perfectly, how was I supposed to communicate to him what I wanted him to do?

All these years I went to trainer after trainer and clinic after clinic trying to “fix my dog” and all the while I just needed to fix ME.

So having the clarity on what I wanted was a missing component in our partnership. After I had that, it was on to asking for it consistently. Since we had years to practice the old way, I had to be really consistent in what I was asking him to re-learn or we’d both become quickly frustrated. This seemed to be a hard part for us. We found it easy to relapse into our old way of doing things since it kinda, sorta worked. Well, it got the sheep out of the pen and into their grazing field, right? So we needed a new commitment to doing it right – all the time. That meant that it would take me longer to sort my sheep and put them out each day, but that commitment to getting the details right was something that we would work on every step of the way.

Tresa and Fleck at a Coaching Session with Kathy

During our coaching sessions, Kathy’s expert eye could quickly see the moment things began to break down and stop the progression. She would help me see where the communication between my dog and me was no longer working. When I began to see this, it helped with another problem I was having – getting upset. I would get angry when it seemed that Fleck should know what I’m asking of him but wouldn’t do it. Nearly every time things went awry, it was due to my lack of concentration and consistency. When she would point this out, my frustration at Fleck’s actions were null and void since I wasn’t holding up my part of the bargain – communicating very clearly what I wanted him to do.

Fleck working.Fleck and I have a new respect for each other.

Our journey continues and we have a new respect for each other. He is a very keen, hard working dog and I adore his dedication to getting the job done. He loves solving problems and seems to enjoy when the unexpected thing happens on the field. “Oh boy, a new problem to solve,” is what he seems to say. We will always be challenged with our old habits, but with Kathy’s coaching, we have the understanding that we are both working through these things together.

I know that our relationship both on and off the field is a work in progress. Staying 100% focused on the task at hand is a challenge but we chip away at it. I no longer get upset when things fall apart. We just look at each other and realize we broke our concentration and being very a dynamic situation, things fall apart.

I now have tremendous respect for my canine partner and with this new way of working together, we have a lot more fun and a have deeper connection in everything we do.

Tresa and Fleck -- partners!So our regular work program includes two sessions. First, one that is just focused on sorting my stock for open fieldwork. In these short, focused work periods, we just focus on sorting our sheep in small, workable groups – correctly. We work on partnership, clarity, good skills and we take our time. We then take a break and relax. Later, we can work in the open field or do some flanking exercises all the while staying connected, remaining clear on what I’m asking for and becoming competent in our tasks at hand.

Kathy’s 5 C’s concepts have been simple, clear and easy to understand. The simplicity makes our coaching sessions more productive. Our progress is evolving and the main joy is that we have found a happy place in our partnership. We both enjoy working together and learning from each other – a great partnership.

Tresa Laferty • www.tresalaferty.com


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