Tony Diaz Herding Clinic

This is an account of a herding clinic taught for mostly novice handlers with mostly AKC herding breeds. It includes an excellent account of the fundamental foundation stones of training a herding dog. The teacher, Tony Diaz, is someone I studied with for a lengthy time and from whom I learned a great deal about the subtlties and sophisticaions of training.
This article was originally written for the Northern Californai Working Sheepdog Association quarterly, "The Shepherd's Whistle" while I was editor of that publication. I will leave in some of the details about individual dogs and handlers as I think these details are instructive.


reviewed by Pam Green (©1995)

All too often all too many of us succumb to "the Stranger from Afar Syndrome" : we assume that the exotic expert flown in from far away has more to teach us than the good old "local boy" whom we tend to take for granted. Those who attended the May 13, 1995 training clinic taught by our own Tony Diaz at his own Fame Farm, near Vaccaville, Ca, found out that this local boy knows as much or more than the exotics -- and can teach it very effectively ! Incidentally, without an expensive plane fare to be covered, participants got an unusually good bargain on their clinic fees.

This clinic proved to be a marvelous symphony of variations on the fundamental theme of putting a truly correct foundation on a dog. Out of the 18 dogs in participation, most were somewhere in the first 6 months of work; but the variety of breeds, ages, and backgrounds was considerable. Breeds included Australian Shepherd, Bouvier, German Shepherd, Kelpie, Pembroke Corgi, and one unknown mixed breed (my own "black & white tail dog"), as well as the usual expected Border Collies. A dog is a dog, and the same fundamental techniques apply to all, but the nuances of application varied considerably from individual to individual.

Tony began the day with a short talk with diagrams on the dry erase board to orient participants to his goals in basic training. Throughout the day, Tony carefully explained the key points of the work with each dog, pointing out the individual dog's reactions to stock & handler influence.

The very first thing the prospective herding dog must learn is to go around the sheep in a perfectly true circle, ie a perfectly circular circle, with no flat spots, slices, or cut ins. As every starting dog naturally tends to flatten, slice, or dive in at one or more portions of the circle, the handler must be constantly alert and must constantly focus on correctively influencing the dog to "get back" or "get out". As the dog begins to enter the forbidden zone within the circle, the handler steps towards the dog just enough and creates just enough influence from body position and/or gesture of cane, buggy whip, rolled bag, doubled over leash (or whatever this particular dog will respond to) to get dog to respond to the admonition to "get back" (or whatever the chosen phrase). During the clinic, we saw that Tony used many different tools, with different gestures and great variety of emphasis of use, in order to get the various individual dogs to respond. For many dogs, his influence was very subtle and gentle. Tony always begins with very gentle gestures, progressing to more emphatic ones only if needed. Sometimes a single more emphatic correction would make a real change in the dog's response, allowing Tony to de-escalate to more gentle influences. As the dog works, Tony gives plenty of sweetly & softly spoken encouragement and praise : "that's a lovely dog" being a favorite phrase. Really, he often sounds as if he were seducing the dog. It certainly works, especially with dogs who might lack confidence in the work or dogs who might be sensitive to correction. Tony talks to the dog a lot and uses the dog's name a lot, especially to re-focus a dog that begins to lose contact with the stock or with the handler.

As the dog circles or flanks, the handler must watch the dog's trajectory & body language to see if the dog intends to continue on the true path or to cut in. Every dog is an individual, so you have to be able to "read" this particular dog, but most dogs give recognizable warning of their intent. If the dog is going to arrive at the other side (12 o'clock) true, then the handler REWARDS the dog by stepping back and "letting the dog have the sheep", to walk up and fetch them a short distance. Then the handler turns aside to change the balance to set the scene for another flank.

Going around in perfect true circle is fundamental to all sheepwork. You will never get a decent outrun if the dog is not absolutely reliable about staying on a true circle when you are up close to the sheep. Later in the clinic, we could observe that some dogs demonstrate their respect for the circle quite dramatically by acting as if there were a glass bubble surrounding the sheep. As such a dog arrives at the rear of the sheep, the dog can be seen to check itself as if to avoid bumping its nose on the glass bubble. Such a dog will wait to walk onto the sheep until the handler yields ground backwards to make room for the sheep to move (lift) forewords. When the dog has reached this state of mind, it becomes easy to get a natural pause at the top of the outrun and a naturally smooth lift, as if the dog were setting a soap bubble into motion. Such a dog develops a real feel for the flight zone of the sheep. Some dogs get to this state easily & naturally, but for most it takes a lot of repetition of circling and flanking with alert adjustment from the handler. One of the clinic dogs who clearly showed the glass bubble effect was a young Rottweiler who had been worked less than 2 dozen times; so don't think that only Border Collies have this sort of natural sensitivity. (I've also got a Briard cross who shows a lot of glass bubble whenever the handler's influence is right.)

During the basic training the pup must learn to respond reliably to all the basic commands : get out, stand, walk up, etc. This does not necessarily include the right & left flank commands, as Tony usually just "shooshes" the beginning dog around, without an express flank command.

You cannot skip over the basics, can't hurry the training, and can't correct too much at once. It takes a lot of repetition to let the dog learn and understand. The dog must become comfortable with the commands so he can obey them while paying attention to the sheep. You can't "crack down" hard on a dog who doesn't yet understand what you want.

Tony's essential philosophy is to "chip away" at faults, seeking just a tiny bit of improvement at a time. It's almost a sculpting process : you remove everything you don't want just one little chip at a time. Of course some dogs are made of harder material, so you metaphorically use a sharper chisel and a stronger tap of the mallet, but still take off only a small chip at a time. Tony finds that those who try to whack away at faults, trying to make big changes right away or to "knock the fault out of him" all at once, often destroy the dog's confidence or desire to work. Even a dog who is a very tough customer or very aggressive cannot be reformed all at once, but only by consistent chipping away over a long period of time.

In the early lessons , it is too soon to tell how good the dog may be capable of becoming. It takes several months of work to really assess a dog's potential --- and I think that means several months of daily work by someone who knows what to look for.

When Tony is raising a well bred pup, he gives it a little light exposure to sheep between 6 months and 8 months, then stops for 3 months to let it mature, then gives another few months of light work, and perhaps for the keen dog a bit more serious training. Tony has observed that there is a "teen" period , beginning at age 13 to 15 months, when most Border Collies "take a dive" and cannot respond well to serious training efforts. Attempts to grind on the dog during this "dive" phase are unproductive and harmful, possibly souring the dog permanently. Instead Tony will just work the dog gently on "maintainence", ie doing familiar work that the dog is comfortable with, without trying to advance his level of training and without putting much pressure on him. Then at about 2 years, most of these dogs emerge out of the dive phase and are now finally ready to profit from serious training. Tony attributes the "dive" to the raging hormones of puberty, and feels that it is a phase that would occur in dogs of all breeds, though perhaps not at the same age range in a breed that would be slower maturing.

To those with breeds other than Border Collie and to those who are only able to work their dogs once a week, Tony offers encouragement based on much experience working with such dogs and such schedules. Yes, you really can eventually attain a very advanced level of training. You just have to realize that a dog who works once a week doesn't accumulate many work hours in the course of a year , so you cannot think that a year is such a long time. Don't make excuses for your dog based on his breed -- or anything else. At this clinic we saw dogs of a variety of breeds responding very favorably to appropriate influence from the handler. Set your goals high and be willing to work hard and long to attain them.

One of Tony's pet peeves is the handler who says "my dog can't / won't do such-and-such." What is really happening is that the handler himself does not know how to get the dog to do such-and-such. Only when the handler changes his definition of the problem to "I don't know how to get my dog to do it" do solutions become possible. Most dogs can do a great deal more than their handlers know how to get them to do or help them to do. The handler must have the humility to accept this and seek help.

Tony considers free moving looser eyed dogs to be easier to handle, not requiring as much skill from the handler. Real stylish strong-eyed dogs, especially sticky ones, require skilled handling. During the clinic we saw several dogs of each kind, and could see the difference in handling needed.

With dogs that tend to stick or "lock up", it's is useless to beg the dog to walk up. Instead take a step or two to one side or the other to provoke the dog to flank a little. With such dogs, for quite a while you will keep moving in a very snaky path, ie turn this way and that way almost continually to keep the dog moving and keep his mental momentum. Don't move in a straight line for more than a few steps, ie not more than the dog can maintain a flow and momentum. Several dogs in the clinic exhibited this tendency and were worked in this manner. Incidentally for those who believe that this is only an issue for the strong-eyed breeds, Tony and I have been working my little Bouv bitch Sweetie in just this way for just this reason : she was very hesitant to walk up enough to push her sheep forewords, instead tending to merely follow them or even just let them go off altogether. But a lot of snake-walking has made a wonderful difference to her enthusiasm, her push-power, and her balance.

The handler's body posture and manner of orienting his body towards the dog is highly influential and can be critical to the dog's reaction. Some dogs are far more sensitive to this than others. Several dogs in the clinic exhibited a high degree of sensitivity to the difference between the handler facing the dog frontally , ie chest and shoulders square to the dog's path, versus having the handler's body sideways to the dog. Such dogs tend to stop or suck back when the handler faces them front on. This can be very useful to you if you keep aware of it; but if you are not aware of how the dog is reacting to your posture, you will probably get to feeling very frustrated. With such a dog, keep yourself sideways to the dog so long as you want him to flank, and only face him frontally when you want him to pause. For dogs who are too hesitant to walk onto the sheep as you face them frontally, ie as you back away from the sheep, you may have to instead walk away from the sheep with your back and butt towards sheep and dog. Over the next few weeks I tried to apply these new insights to working my Sweetie to overcome her tendency to stop short and hesitate to walk up : very big improvement resulted. Several dogs in the clinic were sensitive to difference between handler "standing tall" versus a slouched or slumped posture. One GSD was responding poorly, ie with total lack of respect & response, to the handler's attempt to push the dog out with an arm gesture that caused the handler to lean and slump sideways towards the dog; when the handler was given a light whip to flick towards the dog while maintaining a very upright posture, the dog's response improved dramatically --- really night and day difference ! My own mixed breed pup Chris is highly sensitive to the subtle difference between normal upright posture versus the slight exaggeration of pushing my chest forewords & upwards ("bust your bra" gesture) towards him to push him out or change his flank direction --- a response we were able to share with our fellow students.

Tony's overall approach to giving handler's lessons reminds me very much of really sophisticated horsemanship lessons (probably not a coincidence, as Tony is also an expert trainer of reined stockhorses). There's only so much that can be conveyed by the teacher talking about general principals. The student really learns by the teacher carefully coaching him moment to moment into achieving the desired interaction of student rider/handler's posture and action with the horse/dog's response to it, so the student can "feel" and experience being right as the teacher identifies the magic moment "yes, that's it." Careful attention and effort from the student is of course essential for such teaching to be successful.

I would very much recommend attendance at any future Tony Diaz clinic to anyone who seeks to become more subtle , more accurate , and more influential in working their dog. The difference between being "sort of right" and being exactly right is a huge difference. Tony is a master at it and can guide the attentive student towards it.

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1995 revised 8/17/03
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