Attacking the Broom

A few times a month I receive an email that comes out of left field. 

Here’s one that I received today:

“I was wondering if I could interview and cite you for a research project I am doing. 

My topic is “Why Do Dog’s Attack Brooms”.

I have two Aussies, one is a beginner in herding. My current instructor uses a broom for training. 

Is this common? If so why do trainers use brooms? Do all herding dogs respond to this technique? If so why?

Overally, I am trying to understand if breed type could be a reason why pet dogs are afraid of brooms. But if you have any other thoughts I would greatly appreciate it. 

Anyway, I appreciate any help you have and would love to cite you in my article.”

Since it takes time and effort to get back to such questions, when I am busy I tend to simply ignore them. However, I sometimes choose to incorporate my response into a blog post.  That way I can share the knowledge with more than one recipient, and it’s worth the time.

Colby, here’s my reply:

First, it’s not necessarily accurate to state that a dog which is “attacking” a broom is afraid of the broom.  Having worked with dogs and their people for over thirty years, I have come to the conclusion that it’s best to simply describe a behavior and not attempt to explain why the dog is presenting it.  Until we can sit down and ask our four-legged friend, “why do you do that?” it’s best to refrain from psychoanalyzing her.

Still, I would be less inclined to “guess” that a herding-working breed of dog is fearful of the object, than perhaps attempting to contain or control it.  Regardless of what may be at the root of a behavior, as a dog’s owner or trainer it’s important to establish and maintain boundaries for the dog.  Without that guidance, she can never know what behavior I find unacceptable.  If I don’t want a dog to attack a broom, then it’s my responsibility to communicate that in a way that the dog understands.

Terriers are inherently motivated to kill vermin.  Hounds are aroused to follow the trail of rabbits or raccoons.  Retrievers are inspired to fetch up a dead bird and bring it back to the hunter.  Dog behavior, even that which is motivated by genetic predisposition, can be addressed through training.  One needs to ask, “do I like the behavior, or not?”  If I like it or am willing to tolerate it, then I can merely leave the dog alone to do as he pleases.  If I don’t like the behavior, or I want the dog to stop acting a specific way, then I need to fix the problem.  I can’t go into the details on how to do that within this format.  However, most unwanted behaviors can be resolved through proper training techniques.  Those methods are rarely successful if the proper relationship is missing between the owner and the dog.

Dogs that “attack” or are “fearful” of brooms, vacuum cleaners, the windshield wipers, the beep of a microwave oven, the sight of the neighbor’s cat, the sound of a child crying – the list of possible triggers for unacceptable behavior is infinite – can learn to refrain from acting on their impulses. They are able to remain calm around a broom, a cat or even a tossed tennis ball.  I often consider the latter a dog’s heroin.   Many dogs become utterly obsessed with balls.  The longer that sort of habit is permitted or encouraged, the harder it is to resolve.  But, with the proper instruction (and relationship), dogs can be trained to refrain from becoming absolutely crazed about their objects of intense affection.

Regarding the broom as a herding tool, yes it is very common to use a long object like a shepherd’s staff, a pole, a stock sorting stick, a long horse whip or a broom in herding training.  Herding is about pressure; the pressure of the dog on the sheep, the sheep on the dog, and the human on the dog and even the human on the sheep. Many herding dogs inherently yield to pressure much like a horse yields to pressure.  When you see a horseman lunging a horse in a round pen, he is relying on the horse’s impulse to move off the person’s presence. In prey species like horses, that behavior may be driven by the fear of the predator. As a social specie), the fact that dogs yield to humans is more about respect.  Lower ranking moves away from higher ranking out of recognition of the authority figure.  If that is missing, herding training can be very dangerous.

During early herding training, the handler can use her presence to press the dog out and away from the flight zone of the livestock the dog is herding.  That is important.  If the dog moves to a position inside the flight zone, its influence on the livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, ducks, geese etc…) can feel like the force of a predator that is about to kill them.  A good herding dog adjusts his position to just “kiss” that spot that causes his charges to move away, rather than panic and flee.

Because some herding breeds, like Border Collies or Australian Shepherds are motivated to contain and control the livestock (not just push it in a single direction) they are driven to get to the “head” of the flock and turn it back towards the shepherd.   As the herding handler puts pressure on the dog to move off the sheep in a specific direction, the dog will feel inclined to continue in a circle to reach the point of “containment”  which is also called the balance point. If the handler continues to move, the process ends up looking very much like lunging a horse. When the handler stops, the dog reaches the balance point, turns in towards the livestock, and should stop outside of the flight zone. Then, the livestock settles near the handler.

The challenge that most herding dog trainers have is that they cannot get to the right place at the right time to put appropriate pressure on the dog as the livestock continue to move and be influenced by the dog’s pressure.  For that reason, extending one’s “presence” by using a pole or shepherd’s staff (or broom) can be advantageous.  It increases the handler’s reach of influence over a young dog to help him stay out of the flight zone, and also maintain either the clockwise (come-bye) or counter-clockwise (away-to-me) flank direction, or to help the dog change directions.

When I offered herding instruction, I occasionally encountered a wayward pup that took out his frustration on the shepherd staff (pole or broom.)  It was similar to watching a human toddler become angry with the cup that he dropped because he wasn’t mature enough to realize the cup wasn’t the cause of the spilled milk.  Dogs, like people, arrive to a learning moment with various levels of self-restraint, confidence, basic composure and faith in their handlers.  Let’s be very real.  If the shepherd tells the dog to “go left” when the situation warrants going “right,” the dog can be killed, especially when working a mama cow or ewe with a baby at her side, or a rank ram or bull.   Confidence in your leader is critical in some lines of work and herding is one of them.

Developing a trusting relationship with a dog so that she feels like her world and her people are reliable and predictable is a critical milestone to achieve before taking a herding breed to livestock.  With that said, it makes sense to resolve “object attacking” behavior in a future herding dog before adding a flock of prey animals to the mix!  Brooms are for sweeping the floor, not for frustration abatement.  It’s the human’s job to explain that to a dog.

I hope that helps. Good luck with your herding adventures.

Below, I’m posting a blast-from-the-past video. It is the first day I put DarnFar Switch (a Border Collie) on sheep. You will see what I consider the proper use of a shepherd’s staff or sorting stick (which is what I’m using in this video.) You will also see a dog with an exceptional, natural understanding of how to stay out of the flight zone of the sheep, and reverence for the human handler. A dog that is too pushy can not only rile the sheep, but can run them into the shepherd which could result in serious injury. Switch (an incredible dog that we just lost in October 2020 just after he turned 14 years old), was a calm, confident, relaxed, humble, kind and devoted dog. He showed those qualities even on the first day he encountered livestock.

Recorded October 5, 2008.

Switch was also a Therapy Dog and loved to participate in a Children’s Reading Program

We love you and miss you, Switch.

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