Using a clicker to mark behaviours in the herding arena


I recently had someone online ask if anyone had any experience with using markers, like a clicker in herding. These days, most trainers that use positive reinforcement can think of multiple ways to use a clicker to shape behaviours in other sports like agility, obedience or scent work but we struggle with how we might use it in the context of herding.

In response to that request, I’ll share here my experience with observing the use of a clicker and using one myself to teach herding behaviours.

I witnessed the first example of the use of a clicker at one of my very first herding clinics. The instructor was working with a dog and handler team that were trialing at the advanced level. My memory is fuzzy on this one but I will share what I remember, how I remember it. The issue this team was having was that the dog was not taking his flank commands at a distance. This team had a number of accomplishments in other dog sports and worked well together, in general, but were struggling with this specific skill. Once the dog took the correct flank, it was able to complete the work, but getting it started, from a distance; behind the dog was a challenge. The instructor knew the team well and knew that they had experience using a clicker to shape other behaviors so she suggested that they use a clicker to mark the dog’s correct choice of direction. A food reward was used, but I do not remember where or how the food was delivered. What I DO remember was that in a matter of a dozen repetitions, the dog was moving in the correct direction when asked and it moved confidently.

The second time I witnessed a clicker being used in herding is much clearer to me. A clinic participant had a dog that had plenty of courage and is really comfortable moving stock away from it’s handler in a drive but was having difficulty balancing sheep to the owner in fetch position. This work was done in round pen and the instructor had the handler clicked the dog at the balance point and offered a reward from her hand. the reward was twofold, food and coming to the handler pushed the dogs away from the handler, which she liked. after a few repetitions, the dog started to pause near that point and maintain control of her sheep. The instructor stopped the session at this point and discussed options for going forward with the handler. They discussed tossing the treat as an option and progressing to working on a down at the balance point, then gradually holding off the click as the handler backed up and the dog kept balance. I know the owner of this dog and she did report back a few weeks later that she was able to take this learning into her larger arena with success.

My third clicker herding experience was with a dog that was having difficulty working through it’s handler asking for flanks while in fetch position. Every time the handler would turn to face the dog and ask for a change in direction (with or without a stock stick to block the wrong direction) the dog would disengage from the stock. In this case, they went to the round pen and planted 3-4 people outside the pen with food rewards. Our job was food dispenser and we did not look at or engage with the dog, unless she had been ‘clicked’ and was close enough for us to offer her a reward. The handler would ask for a change of direction and any behavior that indicated the dog was going to move in that direction was clicked by the instructor, and the dog received a reward from the hand of the closest person to the dog in that direction. There was a bit of ‘food seeking’ once the dog realized those of us standing outside the pen were food dispensers, but once the dog realized she had to work for us to offer rewards, she was able to offer behaviors. Like before, the reward here was twofold: moving away from pressure AND food. After a few repetitions, the instructor was able to delay the click long enough for the handler to ask for a flank, and stop with the dog in fetch position at balance.

The final clicker herding experience was with my own dog. We were working on inside flanks at a clinic with my 5 year old Rottweiler bitch, Epic and she didn’t quite seem to be getting it. The more we tried, the slower she got. Eventually she stopped working. The instructor wasn’t 100% certain what was going on but she shared that she had worked through a similar issue with another upright herding dog and asked if I would mind experimenting in the round pen with a clicker.  Epic was exposed to a clicker in the whelping pen and we have used it as a communication method since the day she came home so I was more than willing to give it a try. Food dispensing people were placed around the outside of the pen. We began by asking for a flank in fetch position. If she moved in the correct direction, the instructor would click and the food dispensing human outside the ring closest to her would offer rewards. After a few repetitions I asked for inside flanks, the instructor clicked and food was offered from outside the pen. By the end of the session she was taking her flanks and not even looking for food from the dispensers, which I took to mean that the work became more meaningful to her than the food. What I really noticed about this exercise is that my dog relaxed and she worked. In hindsight, I think that when I would block her for taking the wrong flank, she interpreted that action as me telling her that she could not have stock and she disengaged. The clicker (and the smaller pen) allowed us set her up for success and to communicate effectively that she could have stock. I’m sure that without having that particular communication device with the years of reinforcement history behind it, it would have taken us days much longer to get her back to the same point that took us only 20 minutes with a clicker.

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Carting with Epic – May 5/19

Today, while beginning to unload some firewood from Sean’s truck, I had a moment of brilliance/insanity. Is there a word for an idea that has equal potential for wild success or epic disaster? A Schrödinger’s idea, maybe?

My idea was to the Epic with some weight in the cart (firewood) to see if I could use her tendency to lean in to pressure to help us make progress.

I loaded up the cart with some fire wood and, like last time, began clicking and rewarding with food for any weight shift or movement forward. What was really interesting, was that the pressure of the weight distributed through the harness did not seem to help us move faster, but it did help Epic relax enough to actually open her mouth!

I can hear a few people saying “Yes, her mouth is open, but it looks like she is stress-panting.” You’d be correct, which is why we worked for exactly 5 minutes and then unhooked her. Overall, i think the weight was a goid idea and so.ething we’ll use next time. 

Bit by bit, I think we’ll get there.

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T17-039 Trial Results

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Judge Ayoka Bubar (Carberry, MB)

Round 1 – Excellent

  1. Racer – 191/200
  2. Fred – 172/200

Round 2 – Advanced C

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 3 – Advanced Team

  1. Rook & Nanuq – 184/200

Round 4 – Advanced Team

  1. Jetta & Fred – 183/200

Round 5 – Versatility

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 6 – Novice B

  1. Shoney – 170/200

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T17-038 Trial Results

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Judge Patty Rollheiser (Brandon, MB)

Round 1 – Novice A

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 1 – Novice B

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 2 – Novice A

  1. Monet – 196/200

Round 2 – Novice B

  1. Shoney – 178/200

Round 3 – Novice Team

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 4 – Novice Team

No Entries

Round 5 – Advanced A

  1. Rook – 191/200

Round 5 – Advanced B

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 5 – Advanced C

  1. Epic – 193/200

Round 6 – Advanced B

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 6 – Advanced C

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 7 – Excellent

  1. Savi – 196/200

Round 7 – Excellent C

1 Entry – No Qualifiers

Round 8 – Excellent

  1. Savi – 200/200
  2. Fred – 176/200

Round 9 – Versatility

  1. Shaylee – 183/200

Round 10 – Versatility

2 Entries – No Qualifiers

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Carting with Epic – April 19/17 (VIDEO)

Since I posted about Epic being worried about our cart this past Monday, I’ve been mulling over how I might approach our next session to encourage her out of her cart induced paralysis. Today, I decided to use her supper as a reward instead of the yummy soft treats I use at agility class. She loves those soft treats but, if it was a contest of treats vs. supper, she’d choose the bowl – Any day! Of course, feeding a dog raw food, certainly complicates things when it comes to using meals for training rewards.

I could just bite the bullet and use my hands to feed her mouthfuls of food, but I’ve tried that and…GROSS! Instead, I feed Epic mouthfuls of food from a spoon. Yes, that’s right, my princess eats off a spoon. I’m pretty sure her breeder taught her that in the whelping box.

One spoonful at a time, we were able to move across the yard getting 1-2 steps per ‘spoon’. This was a HUGE improvement from Monday when there was a lot of standing, a lot of stretching and very little movement.

Here’s a short video, showing part of today’s session is below.

One thing I’ve noticed in the video is that I really need to take a look at the cart shafts and make sure to place them further forward in their loops on the harness. Placed further forward, they won’t be poking her in the shoulder and that, in turn, may make her feel more comfortable.

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To Cue, or not to Cue?

A few weeks ago, I had a bit of training dilemma, followed by a training epiphany, followed of course, by a new training dilemma.

Training Dilemma #1

Epic and I have been working a lot on heeling lately for rally trials. Occasionally Epic will drift a tiny bit. Sometimes it’s a forge, sometimes a lag, it doesn’t seem to be consistent. I want to help her and so I say “Here Epic!”. This causes Epic to come to me, and then drift away almost instantly scanning the room. This part is consistent enough that I know it’s something she’s learned but I’ve been struggling with where the communication breakdown is.


After watching some video, I finally realized that “Here” is the cue I use to indicate there is food on offer and I’m going to throw it for her to snatch out of the air, or to chase along the floor. I have used this cue consistently since we started training. So consistently, in fact, that I can go to video of myself with 4 month old Epic and hear myself use it. To Epic, the cue I have been using does not actually mean what I want it to mean, which is “Pay attention,  something exciting is going to happen!” To Epic, “Here” means, “Pay attention because you are going to have to chase something soon, and you better be ready to catch it”. OOPSIE!

word meme

Training Dilemma #2

After some thought, I came up with a potential solution. In order to rectify the cue confusion, all I need is another word that means, “pay attention come to me, something exciting is going to happen”. Simple right?


Removing one word from my nervous chatty vocabulary is going to be really hard for me. I have major brain/mouth disconnect when handling either dog. I see something happen and plan to adjust my handling by spitting out an appropriate cue. Ninety per cent of the time, a different cue comes out or I spend so much time thinking about what I’m going to say that I spit the correct cue out at the wrong time, usually too late!

*Silent Scream*

As I write this, I wonder if it’s a nerves thing or if it’s some kind of processing disorder. Regardless, retraining my mouth is going to be really, really, REALLY hard. Like impossible hard. Or rather, impossible hard unless I break down learning to say the new word behaviour into tiny bits, much like I break down behaviours for any of my students, human, or canine. Right now, I’m looking at a three step process.

  1. Stop saying the old word when the behaviour occurs.
  2. Teach Epic the new cue outside of the heeling context.
  3. Learn to say the new word at the right time.

After some more thought, I realise that going through the process of teaching her this cue is going to be a lot of work, even if I work on steps one and two simultaneously.

I also realise that a “pay attention” cue is really useful and something I should teach Epic, but using the cue is going to cost us a lot of points in the CARO rally ring (and eventually the obedience ring), even if I save it for The Most Dire of Circumstances.

Especially if I save it for The Most Dire of Circumstances! If she’s so far gone in the ring that I need to use my cue once, I could live with it. Right now I can see myself needing it a few times and herein lies the problem: Teaching a new “pay attention and come to me” cue, to use when I find Epic is out of heel position, will do absolutely nothing to teach Epic to maintain heel position.

What is a blabber mouth trainer to do?

In the end I have decided to just stop ‘helping’ Epic with the extra cues if she drifts. That’s right. I’m shutting the hell up! If you know me at all, you know how hard this is going to be.

Instead, I am focusing on giving her as much positive reinforcement as I can when she is with me, in position. This means a click and a food, toy or play reward. Drifting means no cues, no begging, no pleading, no opportunity for reward. Sometimes I stop moving when she drifts, sometimes I take my cookies and “go home” by ending the session and thinking about how I can help her be more successful next time.

We’ve been working on this consciously for a couple of weeks and in practice I think this is really helping. In a “real life” scenario like the rally trial we attended last weekend, still revert back to the wrong cues and they were not helpful, as to be expected. Fortunately, they were not horribly hurtful. We did qualify once, but the second run, I was so nervous that I asked Epic for a wrong station. In over 100 runs, I have never once made that mistake once with Bear, but it’s not a surprising error when I consider hard I was focusing on trying to NOT use the useless cues. We have a few months before our next trial and now I know that I still have some work to do achieving fluency with my own behaviour (shutting up) as well as Epic’s (staying in position). Stay tuned for updates!

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CARO and CKC Comparison: Eligibility

Cornish coast path at Bessy's Cove - - 522399

The same, yet different.

 One of the things that drew me to CARO originally was the fact that CARO rules allow for the participation of a wide range of individual dogs and people. CKC, on the other hand is a bit more restrictive although I am very pleased about the recent changes they have made to allow the participation of a wider variety of dogs.

CARO Canine Eligibility

  • Dogs of any breed, or mix of breeds.
  • Dogs 6 months of age or older.
  • Dogs registered individually with CARO.
  • Course adjustments may be made for physically challenged dogs at the judge’s discretion.
  • Dogs that appear to the judge to be in pain or discomfort may not compete.
  • Bitches in season may not compete.

CKC Canine Eligibility

  • Purebred dogs registered with the CKC (or dogs eligible for registration).
  • Purebred dogs of CKC recognized breeds that have an event Registration Number (ERN) or a Performance Event Number (PEN).
  • Purebred dogs of CKC listed breeds that have a Miscellaneous Class Certification Number (MCN) or a Performance Event Number (PEN).
  • Purebred dogs of breeds not recognized by the CKC that have a Canine Companion Number (CCN).
  • Mixed breed dogs that have a Canine Companion Number (CCN).
  • Dogs must be 6 months of age or older.
  •  Lame dogs (in the judges’ opinion) can not compete.
  • Dogs may not be entered under a judge (or an immediate family member of the judge) that owns, sold, held under lease, handled, boarded, trained or instructed a dog regularly in the 6 months prior to the trial.
  • Bitches in season may not compete.

The main differences, at the moment, between  the eligibility of individual dogs in CKC and CARO include a streamlined registration process for CARO and an allowance in CARO for course adjustments for dogs that are physically challenged. If a handler would like to request course changes for a dog with a physical limitation for a CARO trial, they may do so in writing and should include this request and with their trial entry. In my time as a judge I have approved a few course modifications including: Lower jump heights for mobility restricted dogs, extra time to complete the course for older, slower moving dogs and, obstacle substitution for visually impaired dogs.

CARO Handler Eligibility

  • Handlers must own the dog they handle, or be an immediate family member of the owner (Junior Handlers are an exception)
  • Course adjustments may be made for physically challenged handlers at the judge’s discretion.

CKC Handler Eligibility

  • Dogs may be handled by the owner, family member or another person
  • Trial Secretaries, Superintendents and Trial Chairs may not handle a dog at any trial in which they are acting as an official.
  • Exercises and routines may be adjusted for handlers, but only if the modifications do not provide and advantage to the dog and the dog is required to perform all exercises.
  • Individuals may not compete under a Judge who is an immediate family member.
  • Individuals may not compete under a Judge who as attended regular training classes held by the exhibitor in the 6 months prior to the trial.

The main differences for handler eligibility between CKC and CARO revolves around who can and cannot handle a dog under whom. I am not sure how the CKC rule about accommodations for handlers with physical disabilities plays out and what kind of modifications have been allowed. In CARO the process is the same as for dogs, it must be done in writing prior to the trial, preferably when you send in your entry. In the past I have seen a request from handlers for exercise substitution (someone who could not run), for extra time and even for leniency with the tightness of turns for handlers with balance issues.

That just about covers my understanding of the eligibility rules for which dogs can and cannot compete at CKC and CARO rally trials. If you are serious about competing in rally at either venue (to me, serious means you are have or are considering entering a trial) you owe it to yourself to read each organisations rule book.

Click the following link to go to the CARO Master Handbook – 2013

Click the following link to go to the CKC Rally Obedience Trial Rules and Regulations (January 1, 2012)

Next week, we’ll compare CARO and CKC classes and titles!

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