Every so often you read something in the paper which grabs your attention. For me this was a piece I saw about wolves. Apparently researchers, working with wolf cubs who’d had no contact with humans, tried throwing a ball for them so see what happened.
It seems that the cubs in two litters ignored it completely, but the cubs in a third litter chased it and brought it back to the human (a species they’d never met) so that the person could throw it again.
Now researchers have always assumed that this behaviour is something that wolves/dogs have learned since they were domesticated. But it seems not. It’s something innate in the species, at least at some level.
Now I wouldn’t claim to be the world’s finest trainer of working dogs, or even to be a good one. But my experience is that you do not teach the dog new skills. You merely get your dog to display the ones they have in a somewhat moderated form. Working with Border Collies, the breed I know best, they all seem to have the instinct to herd livestock. Your job, as their (hopefully) senior co-worker, is to ensure that this instinct works out to everybody’s mutual benefit.
So, for example, with Sal, the challenge has not been to get her to work sheep, but to stop her doing it at ridiculously high speed. Her ideal method of working sheep was initially to charge into the middle of them at high speed, much like a snooker player breaking up the reds. She’d then fetch the sheep to me one at a time, because it was more fun that way and she got to spend more time doing the job. From her point of view it was the best way to do it, and training her consisted (and to an extent still consists) of reminding her that a more traditional approach to the task is more efficient.
Indeed it often strikes me that a lot of Border Collies are not so much ‘domesticated’ as they’ve just learned to rub along with people for mutual support. Certainly I don’t remember ever having to house-train one, if only because they very rarely come into the house. Ours have always referred to have their own accommodation in the yard. The ideal position was somewhere where they can see what is going on and keep abreast of events.
It has to be said that if the weather is particularly cold or particularly wet, Sal is brought inside to a utility room. Old Jess, when she lost her leg and was recovering, was brought into the kitchen, and quietly took it over as hers. In winter she used to love lying down on the hearth rug in front of the fire. But when you’re sixteen, you’re entitled to pamper yourself a bit.
But looking back, I’ve never had dogs that were great ones for ‘playing’ with balls or sticks. One, old Lassie, did like to chase sticks. But only if you held it, and she’d then jump to try and catch it. If you threw it, she promptly lost interest in it. If she did catch it and wrestle if off you, then she quickly ran away with the stick and put it somewhere. There was no nonsense about giving you it back so the whole process could happen again.
Lassie was unusual in another way as well. She’s the only dog we’ve ever had who loved water. As far as I can make out, all Border Collies can swim, but they don’t particularly enjoy it. Yet if I went to look heifers, Lassie would accompany me, and she would jump into every water trough on the way. When I went to fetch the dairy cows home for milking and they were down in the bottom fields, Lassie would run round them, swim the beck to get behind them all, and fetch them back over the bridge. Every other dog we’ve ever had used the bridge.
Still it wouldn’t do if we were all alike.
Still, in case you’d missed it, I thought I’d mention that my collects of tales of dogs, quads, sheep and rural life are all now in paperback.
And sometimes I just sits?
Fancy meeting you here