I consider myself still having a lot to learn about herding even though technically I've been doing it for many years. When I first started with Leysha I really didn't have a clue what I was doing. I didn't have a chance to go for regular lessons and at the time I didn't have access to sheep on a regular basis. I knew I had a dog who knew a lot more about it than I did. We some how managed to earn our ASCA started sheep and ducks titles with very little training, in retrospect. We earned our last sheep leg when I opened the take pen and the sheep used me for a launching pad. I seriously hurt my back and became afraid of take pens after that.
When we moved out to Stacy I had use of my neighbor's sheep for the first year or so and then I got a few of my own for awhile. Then Nancy bought some sheep and wanted to keep them there. Having access to sheep I learned a little more - I spent more time observing sheep behavior. I also got some ducks.
Then Nancy introduced me to Marc Christopher clinics. I audited my first one and learned a ton. I finally started to figure out what we were doing. I had read some books on herding but it didn't click until Marc drew pictures and demonstrated things. While his methods are very different from what most Aussie people use I have found that the technique of using a line to help the dog be correct in learning flanks and learning walk-ups has been invaluable. Instead of using a line just to keep a dog under control, the line is used as a training tool. It helps slow things down for the people and for the dog. Being able to work with Nancy on teaching foundation herding skills using March's methods to Sinco has been great.
For my "thinking dog" Sinco, the line method of training has made a huge difference. She likes to be shown what to do and doesn't like trial and error learning. A lot of the Aussie training methods, of which I learned more about this past weekend, seem to use trial and error learning. But unlike a clicker that marks the correct behavior, in herding the wrong behavior is corrected by the handler/trainer putting pressure on the dog. I think this would have been a very hard way for Sinco to have learned her flanks. Using a line and helping her to be right and releasing pressure when she is right seems to have worked well for her. This may be in large part to her learning style. She doesn't like to be wrong and she likes to be shown how to be right.
Now that we are progressing in her our herding training I see that there is a need, maybe just for my dog but I suspect for other dogs out there too, for a combined training method. Again like in agility there are different learning styles and there are different ways to train things - the same is true in herding. We are starting to use some of the training techniques the Aussie folks use with Sinco to help her learn to cover her sheep. When she knows what she is supposed to do and a correction is given she responds readily to it. Just as in agility, when she is corrected for making a mistake in a behavior that I know she knows how to do she can handle it. However being corrected when she doesn't know how to be right is very stressful for her.
I think there is room for lots of training techniques and the one size fits all approach just doesn't always work.
The other thing that I've been learning about in stock dogs is that there is a trend favoring the "tougher" stock dogs. I think part of the idea is that these dogs will handle cattle better but I also think part of it is that they will handle correction based training better. I've learned that many of the older Aussie lines from which Sinco comes (on her dam's side) had softer temperaments. Apparently many of the ranchers didn't know how to work with a softer dog even if that dog was keen on stock. So they bred away from these lines and are breeding for harder and harder dogs. When dogs are tougher on stock it means that they will need a handler/trainer who is equally or more tough. I've seen these dogs in agility and herding with people who are not up to training a dog like this. I know I've learned that I don't do well with a very hard dog. The sensitive dogs can still move stock and run fast in agility. It may take more finesse and more thoughtful training to get to that point. As many of you have seen Sinco in agility - she started out very slow and careful in her learning and now is running quite fast. I will say that she is not an easy dog to train and she may not have done well with a novice handler/trainer. Sensitive dogs are often not easy dogs to train either, they may not be very forgiving. A harder dog may be more forgiving but they can be harder to get a point across if they find things self rewarding.
I honestly think that a softer thinking dog can be a fine stock dog and can be just as tough on stock if trained properly. So much of moving stock is about the confidence and presence the dog has. The handler also has to have confidence in their dog too so that it goes down the leash to the dog.
I've had hard-headed Aussies and BCs and give me a softer dog any day - they are much more fun to train and do not require the 2 x 4 to get a point across. I'm not into physical violence :) If every training session is going to be a knock down drag out battle then it is not at all fun for me - I've been there and done that and it is just not enjoyable for me.
So knowing the kind of dog you like to work with is very important when selecting a dog. The kind of dog that works well with one person may not be the kind that works well for you. I know many people who do not do well at all with the softer dogs. Sometimes we have to try on different types of dogs before we find the kind we like to work with.
The main thing is that just because a dog is soft/sensitive doesn't mean that dog can't be fast and successful in agility or be tough enough to work stock.