How old is old enough...

How old does my Border Collie need to be before I send it for training?  

I get that question several times per month. There is no simple answer. If you ask ten experienced dog trainers that question, you will get a lot of different answers.  Being ready to begin training is more than physical size.  It also includes other things such as mental maturity, attention span and the persistence to keep working when corrected.  Many dogs show impressive instinct at a very young age.  An example of that is a bitch that I imported from Wales in 2014.  The video of her in this post shows her working at about 14 weeks of age.  She was doing things by pure instinct at that age, but wasn't ready for training until at least eleven months because of her inabilty to accept correction.  My preference has been to wait until about one-year of age to start training.  Just like people, dogs mature at different rates, both mentally and physically.  It is the final product that we are all interested in and dogs will take different paths and amounts of time to reach that final product.

We start kids in school in the US at about 7 years old.  I suspect that part of the the reason for that is tradition, but it is also likely rooted in the fact  that by that age, most are mentally mature enough to begin learning many new things that will be useful to them throughout their lives. They will learn much more quickly than when they were younger because their vocabulary and understanding of the world around them is much more robust than it was at three or four years of age.  I think working young dogs is a similar situation.  Start them as young as you wish, but remember that as they age, they develop a greater understanding of the world around them and that will help them focus on working stock as opposed to being overly distracted during those early training sessions.  

I hope that I can remain open to new ideas related to how young training should begin.  I have been giving some thought to starting dogs off a bit younger and will be trying more of that in the next year using a round pen and low pressure training as described by Tony Rofe in an audio interview by Paddy Fanning (Churchmountsheepdogs.com). As always, I welcome you thoughts and questions via email.

Start with the end in mind...

When I first began to watch folks work and train Border Collie dogs, I was in awe.  Not only of the dogs, but of the trainers and handlers.  I think that my career as a university professor prepared me well for the fact that learning happens in small bits and that a strong foundation is essential.   For me, training a dog is just like building a plan for a course that I teach.  First, I must know what the learning goals are for the student.  That is, to follow Stephen Covey's advice and "begin with the end in mind". Once we have a learning goal (the end) in mind, we can develop a plan for how to get there.  Just like teaching people, training a working Border Collie is not something like a recipe you can look up in a cookbook. Every creature learns in a different way.  The best teachers are those who can quickly see what type of instruction best suites their pupil, and adapt their style to that.  For dogs, this not only applies to the method used, but even the order with which we introduce skills. As an example, some dogs can begin to learn to drive very early on, while others aren't ready until much later.  The goal of the trainer is to help each dog reach it's maximum potential. That potential is not the same for all dogs.  Some will be much more advanced than others and some handlers need more advanced dogs than others. The skill set of an open-level USBCHA trial dog is very different that those of a dog who will work daily for a livestock producer.  Some might argue, but I believe that both are equally impressive when trained and handled appropriately.  I think that one of the things that draws me to Border Collie dogs is that to watch them work is truly a thing of beauty.  They know why God created them.  They are on earth to be a stock dog and they are 100% sure of that.  If we could only be so lucky as to fully understand our purpose, the world would be a very different place.