Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Our first trial

This past weekend, Taz and I competed in our very first trial. It was an ASCA trial, much easier than a border collie trial because not only is it in an arena, but you're allowed to literally walk the entire course with your dog. The ASCA started course consists of taking the sheep out of a pen, walking in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction up the side of the arena, fetching the sheep through two panels at either end of the far side of the arena, then bringing the sheep back to the pen and repenning them. Taz is still at the stage where he works pretty close in, so this is much more manageable for us than a border collie trial, where the novice-novice class consists of an outrun that could be a few hundred feet to a couple hundred yards, a lift, fetch, and pen. We're not quite ready for that.

I get very nervous about competing, so I was happy to start small.
We had practiced the course a little in the days before the trial. While Taz didn't exactly fetch the sheep in a calm and quiet manner, we got through the course with him doing kind of a combination of wearing and driving. He was definitely in control of the stock and he listened to my get back commands and took his flanks where necessary to correct when he got too pushy with the sheep. I thought we'd do pretty well, especially after seeing some of the lackluster performances of the dogs who ran before us.

Well. We did not exactly blow away the competition. I knew Taz would be a little wild and work fast--every time he works on a field other than Claudia's, Taz is wild. Actually, he often gets so excited he looks like he has never had a lesson in his life. I usually panic and scream at Taz to lie down in these situations. Um, as I wrote yesterday, this not exactly very effective. I thought this time, however, that things would be different. We had practiced, and we were in an arena, not a wide open field. I would be right there with him...

I tried to remain calm as I walked into the arena with Taz. I told the judge my number and unclipped Taz's leash. He sort of bounced around me but did not make any kind of beeline for the pen where the sheep were waiting. Phew; first challenge met and conquered! I had gotten lots of conflicting advice about releasing the sheep from the pen. The wind was quite strong, and the gate was tricky. I decided to lie Taz down at the hinge and see if the sheep would come out themselves. Taz sort of crept up the outside of the gate, but he stayed put until the sheep ran out. He started after them, but listened to my (frantic) pleas to lie down. So far, so good. After that, Taz raced like a bullet around the sheep--he would wear behind them, but then he ran around to head them before I could get any real forward momentum going. I would tell him to lie down, but he was too excited, so I would give him an away flank or just say "here," which he would take. He'd come back to me, and once at my feet he would lie down as requested. I'd try to collect my thoughts and make a plan, but then the sheep would move again and the whole thing would repeat. Everything was happening so quickly! We made it down to the panels, and he put all the sheep through both sets easily enough, but each time he wanted to cut across the curve of the arena to head them. Now on the way back to the pen, the sheep saw the safety of "home" and picked up the pace. Taz responded by picking up the pace as well, and when one sheep broke away toward the pen, Taz tore after it. The judge said something at that point, but I was too busy joining the race to hear her. After a second, I called Taz back and he loped around back toward me. At this point the judge repeated herself: "Leash your dog, please!"

Oh my god! Disqualified and asked to leave! How mortifying!

I passed the judge on my way off the field. She told me Taz had gripped that lone escapee sheep. I was pretty surprised. Taz doesn't really ever grip sheep at Claudia's, but I guess his excitement level ratcheted up so much he couldn't stand it anymore.

I was seriously bummed at our performance and almost didn't come back for the second day of the trial. I did, though, and I was in better spirits the next morning. I was more philosophical about everything, and lots of other, more experienced competitors shared entertaining stories about their own flailing first runs. We had a different judge for our second run, but the result was the same. This time, though, the sheep came flying out of the pen and ran to the far end of the arena. I walked Taz up to them and sent him on a slow away flank and a quick lie down and the sheep came forward calmly. We then did a beautiful, textbook fetch back to the starting point by the pen. Taz's calm work didn't last though, and we continued around the course in much the same fashion as we did the day before. Then the judge yelled something to me. Assuming we were being asked to retire again, I leashed up Taz and walked over to the gate. He yelled back that I wasn't being asked to leave and that I could continue if I wanted. I still don't really know why he initially yelled to me, but by then the sheep had headed back toward the pen where we began. I sent Taz on a longish outrun to pick them up, and he did--beautifully, nice and wide and calm :-) Again, though, his quiet work didn't last, and when we were negotiating the sheep around the panels, Taz headed and split them. One broke again toward the pen and Taz took off after it. This time I saw him bite the sheep, and that was that. Oh, well, I thought--we tried.

On my way back to the gate, I apologized to the judge and said something about Taz being so wild any time he worked in an unfamiliar place. He told me that this may be true, but the real problem was me. He said he could see that I was nervous and that I was too stiff out there and didn't move enough. He said Taz actually worked (relatively) nicely and quietly behind me as long as I was giving him a target to work toward.
He thought I'd have a lot more success if I just worried about Taz less and moved forward more. He also said to pay less attention to Taz and instead look at what the sheep were doing.

Now Claudia has told me this a million times, but somehow hearing it from a judge really made an impression. I decided to enter a third time to try this out. And guess what? It worked! Throughout my next run, no matter what happened, I just kept walking forward. And it wasn't super smooth, but Taz definitely settled in behind me and moved the sheep much more quietly. We did lose another sheep on a breakaway run, but this time Taz listened to me to let it go, and we finished the course with the remaining three. Yay! We did it! I was very proud of both of us, even though we didn't win (we came in fourth in that trial), because we really improved. Taz worked much more calmly, and I was more relaxed, too.

So I'm glad we went. We learned a lot, and I left with a pretty clear idea of what to work on. And I got my first trial out of the way :-)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Stopping and flanking

Taz did pretty well this evening during our lesson with Claudia. After Taz's blazing fast runs at last weekend's trial (I'll write about that soon), Claudia and I agreed that we need to concentrate on putting a stronger stop on Taz. So we did several shorter outruns, and I stopped him at the top. His stops are never fabulous, even at Claudia's (his "home" field). He slows down, but I usually have to tell him to lie down three times with increasing levels of frustration apparent in my voice before he drops to his belly. Claudia has been trying to get me stop yelling and only say "lie down" once and go up to him if he doesn't listen instead of just repeating myself, but it's been a tough habit to break. I feel like I don't reach him fast enough, and I'm afraid he won't make the connection because the timing isn't exact. On the other hand, yelling at him isn't really working either and only serves to make him more frantic. This is something we'll have to keeep working on a bit each time we go out, I think--it won't come overnight.

His flanks on the bye side were quite nice today. I'm now able to step off and send him from my side consistently. Only a month ago, I had to use the slingshot method to get him to turn off the stock when he was first sent, so that is some progress. He definitely prefers the bye side, and his flanks much nicer on this side. He still sometimes resists the away command and will sometimes shoot up the middle in what really appears to be protest, but by the end of the lesson today, he was widening out on the away side as well. He still comes in at the top too sharply no matter what side he comes up on, but that's a challenge for another day.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Taz and me

My name is Laura, and I've decided to keep a training blog for my 23-
month-old border collie, Taz. I've been trying to train him to work stock since he was about nine or ten months old, and it has been one of the most difficult things I've ever undertaken. I am determined to do all of Taz's training myself (rather than have someone else more qualified train him), even though I'm as green as he is and have zero prior stock experience. I do work with a trainer and I go to clinics given by some of the most accomplished handlers in the world, but it's a huge challenge for a novice handler to train a young dog without any stock of my own. Still, I know it can be done, and I'm hoping that recording our progress will help me see any holes or patterns in our work so I can become a little more methodical in my training efforts.

Taz is a strong dog, powerful and keen and a bit pushy. He has a nice sense of balance and can work quietly and calmly (though he often does not exhibit these traits when he is working with me). Even I can see he's got tremendous potential, and enough experienced handlers have told me as much. He works very nicely for other people, but we've struggled in our journey together. My timing is terrible, and my body language is worse! I chose this picture to introduce us because it kind of depicts our story--we're just getting started walking to the post, and Taz is leading the way, directing us toward the sheep. I'm not nearly as in control as I know I should be, but I am smiling in anticipation. I hope to be able to train Taz to high levels without losing that joy or resorting to harsh methods. I know we're not where we could be right now, but I'm hoping that with lots of hard work, dedication, creativity, and practice--and some help along the way from others more experienced--we will eventually get there. I don't have any illusions that we'll ever win the National Finals, but I hope that someday Taz will be able to compete in the Open class at ISDS-style trials. Taz may be 10 years old by then, but I won't care! We'll have accomplished this together, starting from scratch and learning from each other along the way. Future posts will detail our progress--and with any luck, we'll reach our goal sooner rather than later!