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Rick - Hard vs Soft Dogs

This Article was originally published in Dog World Magazine
More information soft dogs is available in the book
Rescue Your Dog from Fear

Abby watches people from her crate, leery. She doesn’t trust them. Human actions, their demeanor, is something her mind doesn’t naturally process. Rick Hardin takes her out of her crate and you wouldn’t believe this is the same dog. Abby responds well to him. They work sheep together and her bold, championship performance leaves you expecting this dog has no reservations about anything. Abby is what Rick calls a soft dog. Through specialized training Abby has learned to feel comfortable working with Rick, even though by nature, this dog has a communication problem with the human species.

Like most events, herding uses the natural talents a dog has coupled with training the dog to follow the commands. Rick has earned numerous titles on dogs, trained stock dogs, and is an ASCA and AKC herding judge. Through his vast experience working with dogs, Rick has come across some training problems we might all see in dogs we are trying to train. The two kinds of dog personalities Rick sees the most issues with are what he calls hard and soft dogs. Both dogs need specialized training to learn to work with a handler.

Soft Dogs

Soft dogs, like Abby, react poorly to pressure. These dogs are not shy in that they are not afraid of the world. Soft dogs have a high degree of reactivity towards people and their commands. This kind of dog has a genetic predisposition to this nature, and if not handled correctly other problems can evolve. Some of these dogs end up as fear biters.

In a regular training class, you’ll see these dogs react differently to common training techniques. Let’s say you want to teach the dog to heel. Many classes will have you walk along with the dog, and if the dog forges forward, you give a leash correction. A soft dog will shut down when you do this action. Instead of returning to your side, the dog may stop all together or crouch behind you.

Rick has learned to work with soft dogs as young as possible. He now watches for them when they are still in the litter. He has found soft dogs tend to hold back when the other puppies come forward. They often avoid eye contact. To help them when they are young, he will take the puppy aside and work them one-on-one. He strokes the pup under the chin to help build confidence. Rick handles the soft dog every day, working with the dog or playing with the dog until the dog becomes comfortable with him.

When Rick begins to train any dog for working sheep, he often uses a leaf rake to block the dog or to teach the dog how to change directions. Rick refers to this part of the training as teaching the dog a kind of partnership like you see in dancing. The dog learns to watch for your cues and learns to move with you as they work the sheep. Once the dog learns they need to watch for his body movements and his communications, he no longer needs to use the leaf rake to block or turn the dog.

When Rick works with a soft dog, he finds he must watch the dog closely with any action he takes. Merely picking up a leaf rake can result in the dog turning his head away in avoidance. If that happens, Rick knows that tool is deemed to harsh by the dog, so he will work to find something the dog is less reactive to. Rick finds he needs to balance getting the response he wants to his actions, with allowing the dog to build confidence. He works to balance his training between getting his directions followed, and simply allowing the dog to build confidence by working the sheep. He is slower to interject his guidance with a soft dog, something the dog takes as pressure, until the dog can learn to feel comfortable working with him.

Soft Dog Training Guidelines

For people wanting to work their dogs in a class or train for competition such as obedience, they may need to abandon training that worked okay on other dogs, and focus on their dog’s needs. In general, you will find that you should not use a choke collar on the dog, or do any kind of leash corrections because that is too harsh. Instead, use a treat to lure the dog into a heel position. Slowly extend the time you use the treat to lure before you reward. When beginning turns, stick that treat close to the dog’s nose and after the turn, praise and reward. If the dog tries to snatch the treat while you are working to lure the dog, don’t say “no.” Many soft dogs will find any kind of reprimand too harsh. Instead, simply remove access to the treat by clamping your hand over the reward. Use a “reveal or removal” of the treat to manipulate the dog into the action you want. When the dog does the task, praise and reward. As you work the dog, and work on your relationship, you will find the dog learns to trust you and will become more tolerant of pressure, allowing you to give verbal corrections such as an “et.” 

Tips For Soft Dogs

  • Never scold the dog. Scolding is too harsh. Instead, keep training positive and look for behaviors you can reward.
  • Use shaping to get the behaviors you want. Shaping deals with encouraging small steps along the way to your final goal. Be generous with praise and rewards.
  • Try clicker training. Many soft dogs do well with this kind of training.
  • Playing with this dog can help build confidence. But you may find that you need to start with a short play session and work into a longer play session.
  • Tug-of-war is a good game to play with this dog. Don’t be afraid to let the dog win some of the time.

Hard Dogs

Hard dogs also have communication problems. When Rick works to train these dogs for herding, he discovers they find people an annoyance, something in their way. Like a soft dog, these dogs don’t want anything to do with humans, but for quite different reason. Hard dogs are bold about blowing off commands and ignoring any attempt by people to intervene in their task. They may cherish affection from their owner, but don’t associate love with compliance. The dog’s lack of compliance leads to the dog losing respect for their owner. Hard dogs take specialized training to get them to work.

One thing that you will find hard dogs and soft dogs have in common is that they don’t respond well when you try to force them to do a task. Hard dogs will resist force. You can’t pressure them into complying, or threaten them, or punish them to get the behavior you want. If you push on them or try and force compliance, they will push back and you’ll find yourself in a power struggle. When Rick tries to work a hard dog, he finds the dog will ignore any attempts he makes to get the dog to respond to him. Since the dog doesn’t feel he needs Rick to do what the dog wants, the dog will run past or through the rake Rick uses to block the dog or to change the dog’s direction. Punishment is not an option, because herding is a team effort between dog and handler and punishment can destroy the dog/hander relationship.

How Rick Resolves Hard Dog Issues

To gain the cooperation of a hard dog, Rick controls the reward. For a dog intent on herding sheep, taking away that opportunity to work sheep takes away the reward. If the dog refuses to respond to him, he puts the dog out of the working area, therefore removing the dog’s opportunity to work sheep. A crate can be used to give the dog some time to reconsider. Simply putting a dog in a crate doesn’t solve the issue unless Rick is willing to give the dog another chance. After a few times in and out of the crate, Rick’s hard dogs begin to reconsider that the only way they get to do what they want, herding the sheep, is to listen to what Rick tells them to do. However, Rick has noted it often takes two or three weeks before the dog is willing to give in and comply.

Training Techniques for Hard Dogs

The NILF was created with hard dogs in mind. NILF stands for nothing in life is free. To help convince a hard dog that your directions need followed, you need to charge the dog for almost everything. A lot of people who use the NILF principle fall short by only working with food. At feeding time, they may ask the dog for a sit and stay before setting down the food bowl. That’s a great idea, but don’t stop there. Here are a few other ideas.

  • If your dog wants attention or affection, ask the dog to follow a command before you pet the dog. Never give the dog affection if the dog nudges you or otherwise demands attention on his terms.
  • Don’t pet this dog under the chin. Just as this action helps build confidence in a soft dog, it can work against you with a hard dog. This action suggests to the hard dog that he is superior.
  • Play can become something the hard dog values, even more than treats. But beware that you don’t let this dog dominate playtime. This is a poor dog to do tug-of-war with because this dog will try too hard to win, and the dog mustn’t be allowed to dominate this game.

Dogs with a hard or soft nature can pose more of a challenge to train. However, by taking time and doing things right, you’ll find both the hard and soft dog can modify the nature they were born with. Hard dogs become better at following your guidance, and soft dogs learn to be less sensitive. Some soft dogs, over time, often learn how to tolerate your disapproval. Whether you are working to train a hard or a soft dog, be sure to work at the dog’s pace to gain success.

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