Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Taz at the top; Craig at the reins

In my quest to fix Taz's work at the top of his outruns, I had a lesson with Cathy this morning. We set it up so that she held four sheep with one of her dogs one on end of her pasture, and I brought Taz maybe 100 or 150 yards away (I am terrible at judging distance, and I actually have no idea how far away he was from the sheep) and lied him down. Then I went up about halfway between where he was lying down and where Cathy was holding the sheep and sent him on the bye side. The first time he went, the bottom of the outrun was great, and he did move to slice in at about 10:00. I immediately downed him and reflanked him. He took the command and recast himself further out. Woo hoo! He came in behind Cathy and the sheep and lifted and brought the sheep to me. (Actually he sort of ran the sheep to me, and Cathy had to remind me not to let him get away with such pushy work on the fetch just because we're concentrating on outruns today).

We set it up again a few more times, each time with me moving closer and closer to him and further from the sheep. It's nice to work in the snow in that I could be a little more methodical than I usually am—I was able to see and go back to exactly where I was setting Taz up and mark where I was standing and move incrementally from there. Anyway, Taz did really well. He was casting out wider when I reflanked him on the fly, which he hadn't been able to do consistently before, and he was coming in deep (if sometimes off balance—though it's entirely possible that he was reading the pressure correctly, he just wasn't coming in at 12:00) behind Cathy each time. Fantastic!

[I did once reflank him on the fly and then I didn't think he was recasting, so I lied him down. Cathy reported that he had in fact been recasting. Rats! I hadn't seen it correctly. I am trying to get better about observing everything faster and more accurately in my quest to develop better timing, but it's slow going. I think my timing has definitely improved lately, but the next step will be to spot and correct the dog when the dog is thinking about doing something wrong, like slicing in, rather than when he starts doing the wrong thing. This is when the corrections will be most effective and meet with the least resistance from the dog. We're not there yet, not even close, but I know that's the next step.]

On the away side, he started a bit more narrow the first time, but was much wider at the top. I could tell he wanted to come up on the bye side, so maybe that was why he started tighter on that side. I moved closer to him when I sent him and he then widened out on the bottom on the away side as well. His outrun is developing into a pear-shape now—he is not usually really squaring at the bottom, but he checks in and kicks himself out as he approaches the vicinity of the sheep. I can live with this, and actually was told that this is preferable in a younger dog, as many dogs widen naturally as they age and so if they are square at three years old, they will soon become too wide. Anyway, Taz was a little more hesitant on the away side as he approached the point where he would usually slice—a couple of times he stopped altogether. I just reflanked him, and he cast himself out nicely here as well.

This was a great session for Taz. He did really, really well. He did not have any trouble picking the sheep up off Cathy and her dog. I know he is a bit more comfortable with Cathy than Bill, but I am hopeful that he is learning that it is no big deal to pick up sheep off any person at all. We'll see what happens the next time we work with Bill (which may be months from now, with the stupid snow not melting at his ranch—grr!). I think it was very helpful for Taz to experience sheep staying put until he reached them at the top. In the past, he has had to compensate on his outrun for sour sheep making a break for it as soon as they had an inkling he was approaching—this wasn't teaching Taz anything good. The sheep were actually training him to hurry more and push harder to reach them, when he needed to learn to back off them to better control them. So, he wasn't able to learn and practice what it feels like to control them from the proper distance, rather than always using his body. I don't think his success today will mean he automatically does his outruns correctly now, but at least he is able to understand what it feels like to do it right for a change. Then, hopefully, we'll just need some practice until he develops a bit of muscle memory and the confidence to rely on the judgment he's developing.

I worked Craig a bit, too. We did not have as successful a day, though I do think I am learning something important with him. Unfortunately, in my effort to ease up on the pressure I was putting on him, I seem to be letting him off the hook too much now. He's starting to blow me off again, doing what he wants to do and not stopping when I ask him to. I know this is not what Elaine recommended, and I need to get out of this all-or-nothing mindset. I began enforcing my commands again a bit toward the end of our session, and he began listening to me again. Phew, all is not lost! But I want to work him again soon to reestablish our roles with each other. I think we actually have the potential to communicate really well, if we can reach that sweet spot in the middle, where I have enough control over him that he listens to me but I do not overcommand his every move.

I may go out on Friday again, and I'd like for Cathy to hold the sheep again for Taz, and maybe hang out and watch Craig and I to give us some feedback on how close I am to finding that middle ground with him. I'll be away for a week over the week between Christmas and New Year's, so obviously we won't work then, but there's another novice trial the first weekend I get back. So there's not much time to prepare, but I'd love to have both dogs back on track by then!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I agreed to go let out Cathy's dogs and feed her chickens this bright snowy morning while she's away, so that I could grab another opportunity to work Craig and Taz. The snow, plus a freelance project I've been working hard to finish, has meant that I haven't been able to get the dogs out very much lately, and Taz and Craig have been a little out of sorts. They've never been the best of buddies, but lately I have been witnessing an escalation in the tension between them, and I am wondering if Taz is beginning to get "in touch his inner stud dog" (in the words of wise Andrea in a discussion about this here). In any case, clearly a work session would do all three of us some good.

They get along so well when there's
any possibility of sheep to be worked...

After I got Cathy's dogs and chickens squared away, I set out to work the dogs. The first thing I noticed is that all the gates were open in the pastures. I closed them behind us and grabbed Craig, since I know how much he likes doing practical work. Well, here I saw that Cathy's husband Bill had left all the gates open in the pens as well. Normally this wouldn't be such a big deal, but since the last bunch of lambs were born Rufus the guard llama has been getting meaner and more suspicious of other dogs (and who knows how he feels about people these days). According to Elaine, Craig has a history of llama hate, after an unfortunate incident with Steve and Lynn's llama. Eesh, this isn't good...

Rufus looks ready to show us we're not welcome!

Well, this was just great! How was I going to get the sheep out with a big hairy llama in the way? After pondering the situation for a few minutes, I came up with an ingenious plan. I grabbed a handful of hay and fed some to Rufus, who instantly began feeling better about me being there. Then I held out some more hay in front of the sheep. Okay, sheep are sheep, and they're not going to come running to you just because you're holding out a bunch of hay.

But goats will! Oooh, we haven't worked goats in forever. I let three independent little guys out and we made our way out to the arena. I let Taz and Craig bring them toward the larger pasture together, but the goats were not being very cooperative. None had the slightest interest in staying anywhere near his goaty buddies. They also had no interest whatsoever in going through the gate to the pasture. I tied Taz up and let Craig bring them, and it was no small task. He'd get them moving toward the gate and then one would squirt to the side. He'd take half a step to cover, and another would squirt off to the other side. He'd back up and bring the first one back, only to have the last one run over to the place he just left. It looked impossible, but I let Craig get on with it with a minimal amount of commands, and then he pushed them on through. What a good boy! He knew it, too :-)

Craig understood what he needed to do to move those goats!

We did a few small outruns (there was NO driving to be done with these goats today!), and I put Craig up so I could give Taz a chance. Taz did really well, too! His flanks were super wide and he didn't seem to cut in at the top. Unfortunately the goats kept running back to the fence after the gather and fetch, so it was hard to judge how "correct" Taz was in his positioning, but he seemed to get the job done efficiently and orderly. His fetches were straight and he had to keep off them or they would squirt apart. A great lesson for him, and a good refresher for Craig, I think.

Taz paid attention...

...and learned some lessons about
the differences between goats and sheep!

Those goats proved challenging, but the dogs really seemed to thrive when working them. All in all, it was a great morning!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A natural paradox

Well, we didn't make it to the trial last weekend. I got up bright and early, put some hot cocoa in a thermos to ward off the cold, spent an hour and 15 minutes (no lie!) chipping the encrusted ice off my truck outside, and then went to put Craig into his crate in the back, and...the canopy's lock was frozen shut. I worked to unfreeze it for a while, and I did, but by the time I was ready to go, I'd gotten reports from friends about the treacherous road conditions and I decided it was too late to bother at that point. Really, I'm just a big scaredy cat about driving in the snow. I heard that a good time was had by all at the trial, but truthfully I would have just been white-knuckled the whole way down and back and I'd have spent the day stressing about getting home...

Ah well. Pam reported that she had a good day with Wink and Kirk, so I was very glad to hear that at least they had a good day! Elaine and Nancy helped organize everything, and I heard Elaine's account of the trial, too, tonight. That discussion led to a talk about what I need to do with Taz right now. Taz is a lot like his uncle Ben and his grandsire, Gel: powerful, fast, with just the right amount of eye, and a natural feel or his sheep. I continue to worry that he won't live up to anywhere near his potential with my clumsy handling. His biggest flaw is that he is a bit too pressure-sensitive. I said something about hoping my next dog had a natural outrun, and Elaine said that she thinks Taz, like Ben, actually has a natural outrun. Um, what? Did she forget we were talking about my straight-up-the-middle boy? She laughed and said Ben used to be the same way. Unlike Craig, who feels his sheep so incredibly well everywhere except during his outrun, Taz has shown that when he is working well, he instinctively understands just where he needs to be to calmly and efficiently approach the sheep. The problem is that Taz has practiced working incorrectly for so long, he doesn't realize what it feels like to do it right. I agree, he hasn't had a lot of practice doing correct work at the top. In fact, Elaine said, once the top of his outrun is fixed, she thinks he'll progress quite quickly.

But how to fix this? How to coax out that relaxed natural work when he has gotten away with slicing in for so long that this is what feels natural to him?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Location, location!

Yesterday, I took Taz and Craig out to Cathy's to work. She gave us a packet of about 12 lambs to work. I thought we'd work on things close in, so we stayed in her field, rather than going to her neighbor's much larger alfalfa field behind her field. Cathy later pointed out that this was not really a good idea—the pressure of the fences and the significant draw back to the barn for the lambs are still there, no matter how close in the dogs worked. It would be better for me to work in the alfalfa field all the time, unless we are prepping for an arena trial or something.

I kept things easy again. Taz and I started with small outruns. I tried to visualize the trajectory I thought he should take and mark it with little landmarks like a patch of scrub, but he usually didn't go as far out as the path I had picked for him. However, I didn't know if I could really fault him, because the lambs were already on the go back to the draw before he could even get much distance off them. Even Craig had the same problem. Cathy thinks the problem was working in the field, and that I will be able to set this up much better in the alfalfa field.

Driving went much better for both dogs. For Taz, I didn't much care where he drove to, as long as he could take an inside flank every now and then. He did wonderfully! He will be such a nice driving dog one day. He kept them more or less on line all by himself :-) and I was very pleased. For Craig, we drove to specific spots, but not particularly long distances. Craig, too, did very well! He listened to me, and only once did I have to go through the voice levels to the demand correction. (He hadn't agreed with my request to resist covering the draw while driving, but after the correction, he did everything I asked right quick!) So I was proud of both of us for communicating and not letting anything degenerate into frustration on both our parts :-)

This Saturday is another trial in the novice series. Craig and I are working a bit more like a team now, I hope. I am going to put Taz in the pro-novice category, since he has won the last two novice trials. I am excited to see how we'll do!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Craigor MacGregor and Tazimodo's fun day out

I went out to work Taz and Craig on my own at Bill's yesterday. It went really, really well, especially with Craig. I didn't go to the third level (demand) at all with Craig, though I did have to with pushy Taz a few times—that boy is a rocket ship, I swear! I let Craig walk with the sheep, did some very short drives and short outruns. Lots of praise. It did make a difference. He did fine! He was clearly having a blast, and he was actually bouncing off the field back to the truck. The test will be whether I can remain in charge while letting him have some control. But we had a great day today!

As to Taz, we did a bit of walking and some short outruns. He is starting wide enough but is doing the slice in at 10:00/2:00 thing again. I did lie him down there, and at first he just wanted to walk up to the sheep from that angle. (To be fair, he is fighting against the draw.) Again, I didn't want to put too much pressure on him yesterday, but I was able to get him to swing back behind. Yay! I mean, it wasn't super deep, but it was deep enough to properly lift the sheep. For Taz, the struggle is getting him to understand that he must do the same outwork regardless of whether there is a person and dog setting. He does okay without, and responds to correction if he's not in the right position, but when Bill is there holding with one of his dogs, Taz is very tight and stops short both on his own and when he's corrected. Tomorrow, we'll have a lesson with Bill and see how things go.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I had a long talk with Elaine last night, and it seems there was a bit of a misunderstanding about what she meant. She doesn't think I am ruining Craig—hooray! That's a huge relief! But she did have some sage advice for me. This is mostly for Craig, but it's helpful for Taz, too. These are important things to remember as I struggle to develop into the handler I want to be.
  1. Make sure Craig understands that he's been successful sometimes. This is really important to him; he needs to know he's doing what I want, correctly, every now and then.
  2. Don't require that he must be 100% precise in every single thing he does. That's a lot of pressure for him (for me, too!). That's not to say I shouldn't expect him to listen to me when I give him a command, but I don't need to command his every move. For instance, he can fetch the sheep to me in a less than perfectly straight line at exactly the correct pace once in a while.
  3. Ask. Insist. Demand. In that order, every time. Try really hard not to make every command a correction. This is hard for me, as I tend to "punish the dog for past sins," in the words of Kathy Knox. Give him a chance to succeed before treating him as though he will fail. It would be best to get solid on whistles asap.
  4. Take breaks to do fun, easy, or freewheeling stuff (i.e., short little outruns, driving without a precise destination, just walking around). The more difficult the session (for whatever reason, either the tasks are complicated, or we've been out there a long time, or the sheep are particularly stroppy, or he's having to listen to two people at once ;-), the more little breaks he should get.
  5. Wouldn't kill me to crack a smile out there once in a while :-)))
Taz and Craig are waiting for me to get my act together!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Slow down...

I had a lesson with Bill on Sunday, but I only worked Taz. Craig was limping a bit on Saturday evening after I got home, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to rest it. It's nothing serious, don't worry! He probably stepped into a cheep (prairie dog) hole while he was running on Saturday afternoon.

Taz went to get the sheep out of their paddock and Bill had me work in there for a bit to see how pressure-sensitive Taz would do with the obstacles. He did great! He didn't always want to take the flanks I gave him when it meant giving up the pressure, but he did it most of the time, especially as time went on. After a bit, Bill had me position Taz to move the sheep in a clockwise direction along the fenceline of the pen. Taz figured out what we were doing very quickly—what a smart border collie! Then we switched directions to move the sheep counterclockwise. Taz didn't like this idea very much and I think he thought I was flanking him incorrectly, since clearly the job was to move the sheep clockwise. Hmm, not so smart after all ;-)

We moved out to the field to do some more outruns, with Bill and Rocket holding the sheep. Taz was tight. Again! Even the trick of moving halfway up the field wasn't working as well as it had before. We shortened things up, and he did go around, but he's struggling with this. I spent some time just walking him around the field, which he loves. Then we repeated the fenceline exercise in the arena. I think I'll go out to Bill's again this week sometime and just walk again. By then Craig's leg will be better, and I'll walk both of them. And tell them what good boys they are ;-)

I think I'm going to chill out on the whole sheepdog thing for a little while. I'll still work my dogs, but maybe not as much. I am also going to try to back off immersing myself in sheepdog culture. It fascinates me, and I can't get enough of it, but maybe it's better to try to stay more grounded. I tend to throw myself into whatever activity I'm learning to do at the time—I did the same thing with whitewater kayaking—but maybe that is not very healthy. I'm probably putting too much pressure on my dogs and myself. So, I think I'll just try to slow down and play for a bit.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The dark

Learning to work dogs on stock is like trying to find your way in a maze in the dark. You're never really sure if you're making the best choices as you feel your way around. You may bump into people along the way who try to help you, but ultimately you've got to find your way yourself. It can be difficult to know when you're on the right track...

I worked my dogs again yesterday at Bill's. I tried to be a little more patient and flexible, but I don't know that I really succeeded. I worked on pace with Taz, and Elaine helped me work out a strategy whereby if I say "walk," he must get up a little slower, rather than the explosive spring forward that comes naturally to him. If he gets up or moves too quickly when I ask him to walk, I'm to lie him down immediately. "Walk up" means that he can quicken his pace. We practiced this a bit and he seemed to understand it after a while. He was also a bit tight on his outruns again. As Cathy had suggested, I walked halfway between where I lied him down and the sheep and sent him, and he kicked way out. That was good...if we ever enter a trial where it's not necessary to send from the post, we're golden [rolls eyes]. Just kidding, I know it's a progression, and he's still learning the correct trajectory and will eventually put it together if I continue to make sure he doesn't get away with being too tight.

Craig was tight, too. Elaine showed me how she used to get him to widen out, by sending him and stopping him if he didn't kick out enough. Then growl at him to get out and resend him. If he's still too tight, walk up the field to him and make sure he feels and looks away from the pressure of my coming up the field to him. This is not too different from what I've done with Taz. We practiced this a bit and did a little driving and penning as well.

I know Craig is a little confused when I work with Elaine. Although we have a good relationship off the field and a decent one when we're working on our own, our relationship really changes whenever Elaine is there—he wants to go to her. I don't exactly take it personally, but I don't truly demand he listen to me, either. I just kind of call him and go up to him while Elaine ignores him or pushes him away. He does listen to me for the most part when I'm working him, but if he doesn't respond to a command, Elaine enforces it. She
also recognizes when he's not doing what he's supposed to do a bit quicker than I do and corrects him. I don't know what he makes of it all. I do imagine it's frustrating for him to work with a novice again, after working with pretty experienced folks most of his life. I don't know if he finds working with Elaine there a relief or a source of tension.

Elaine told me he seems very unhappy, that I am not really letting him have any fun while he's working. She thinks I
am trying to maintain too much control over Craig. I've been trying to enforce what I ask for with him (and Taz) ever since the Scott Glen clinic to prevent him from walking over me. Perhaps I've become too strict. Elaine says I don't tell either dog when they've done a good job, and that Craig in particular is running really tentatively, like he's waiting for the next not-understood correction (due to my crap timing), and that if I keep it up he will soon quit working for me altogether.

I had no idea Craig was so unhappy running for me—that he is apparently so unhappy that he is near quitting
altogether. That is pretty upsetting; I don't want to make a dog so miserable that he stops wanting to do the one thing he lives for. I don't really know what to do—I can tell him he's a good boy more often, but if I stop enforcing what I ask him to do, then I'm afraid he'll run all over me again. It's difficult for me to understand when to require that control and when it's okay to give him more freedom. Craig can teach me so much, but I certainly don't want to ruin him in the process. Maybe we're just not a good fit for each other. Maybe he would be happier if he went to live with Elaine again???

Friday, November 23, 2007

One step forward, two steps back

I worked out at Bill's with Elaine today. It was COLD. Like, really cold. Maybe 20 degrees, with an icy wind blowing across the snow-covered field. No sun at all. This was one of the first really cold days of the winter, and I think maybe my brain was too frozen to function properly...

I worked Craig first. This was his first time out in more than a week, and I wasn't quite sure what he'd look like. Actually, he worked pretty decent, at least at first, but he wasn't really listening to me very well. But he was making good decisions, for the most part, so I kind of just let him get on. Unfortunately, his outruns got tighter and he got closer and closer to the sheep, but I felt completely passive and just out of sync with him. I didn't really correct him on his outruns at all, and sort of haphazardly lied him down when he was not far enough off the sheep during his fetches. I was just as bad when working Taz. I had him do his outruns with Elaine out there holding the sheep, so he'd have to pick them off her. He is still uncomfortable doing that. He was tight and super flat on top. I'd tell him to lie down, but couldn't seem to muster anything else to help him. I think I'm afraid of going overboard with the corrections, so I'm very passive and tentative in my commands, and then I get annoyed that the dogs aren't listening to me and I just start screeching at them. Yipes. It's so easy to revert back to my old ways! It's a wonder my dogs continue to put up with me!

Elaine spent most of the day reminding me of the different ways I should be helping my dogs, not just correcting them. I get frustrated too quickly, especially with Taz. I need to relax—when things are going wrong, it's not helpful to get upset. If something isn't working, repeating it more forcefully isn't going to suddenly make things right. Trying another tactic might. When Taz is tight or flat, lie him down, but then walk up the field a bit to get in a better position to make sure he kicks out. When he won't take an inside flank, move right or left to help him work off my body positioning. Craig just needs a more active partner, period. I need to check him, to stay in touch with him, without necessarily turning everything I say into a correction.

We also worked on turning around the post, and I'm happy to report that this went much smoother. I learned to flank the dog where he needs to be to keep the sheep's heads pointed in the correct direction. When the sheep approach the post, I should position myself to block the wrong path and then move with the sheep around the post. If I can move around the post in the direction we need to go and then keep the dogs balancing the sheep to me, the sheep have a clear path to go in the correct direction. So the sheep approach me on the fetch. I'd stand on the opposite side to where they need to begin the turn around the post. If the sheep are facing the correct way, I flank the dog in the same direction as the sheep and lie him down as soon as they see him and start to turn around the post. Let them take a step in the correct direction and reflank, and then stop him again when they see him and turn further. Continue as necessary to get around the post—but probably will only need one more flank. If the sheep settle and face the drive away panel, great—tell the dog to walk up and begin the drive. But if the sheep move too far around the post—perhaps I've overflanked the dog around the post or the sheep's momentum carried them too far—then send the dog in the opposite direction so the sheep see a dog there before they commit to the incorrect direction. It's difficult to explain, but once I was able to watch the sheep on the fetch (instead of the dog), I was able to turn them cleanly around the post and start the drive successfully a few times. I think I understand the mechanics now, so I can practice this on my own at Cathy's.

So I did have a bit of a regression in some ways today, but then a leap forward in another. I don't know why it's so difficult to remember all the things I've been learning when we're actually out there working, but I suppose that's just the way things go. I've been told many times that learning to do this is not a linear progression. I do believe it will eventually come together—and in the meantime, I'm lucky Elaine has the patience of a saint to want to continue working with me ;-)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A few more strategies to work with

I had a slight change of plans yesterday, as Cathy offered to see how we're doing and help out. So I explained what I was working on these days and took Taz out to the big alfalfa field behind her place. We worked her dorper-cross lambs. They've been dogged by a lot of different breeds and they were ready to run if the dog was at all too tight. This is good for tight-running Taz, but it's really good for me because it is then very clear when Taz is too tight—the sheep run! So it's easier for me to gauge when he is not right.

And he was a bit tight at first—not on the bottom, but at the top. He wasn't dramatically slicing in; he just wasn't kicking out enough. So Cathy had me go out halfway between where I was sending Taz and where the sheep were huddled and send him. This did work to kick him out a bit further, though still not enough to come in as deep as I've seen him do in the past. Still, this seems to be a good strategy for kicking him out without having to correct him (especially since I'm trying to keep things easygoing for now).

I also tried to get him to slow down a little. He wasn't listening to me when I told him to take his time, and I usually gave him a couple of "time" commands before resorting to "lie down." Cathy thought a better strategy was to try to use a bit of body language here and step into him when I ask him to take time. This worked a little, but was not a super dramatic change. She also suggested I don't even ask him to take time while he's driving because I am not in a great position to enforce it with body language (since I'm behind him ;-) We need more work on this, but I'm not terribly worried about this right now. I can stop him if necessary, and that's still the important thing to me at this point.

Finally, I sent him on a big fetch with the sheep somewhat near the fenceline. I sent him on the fence side, to see what he'd do. At first he wouldn't go at all (I think he knew he didn't have enough room to do it right and was possibly afraid of getting corrected), so Cathy had us change our positioning so that he had a bit more room. Then he did his hesitating outrun, where he'd go a few steps and stop and stare at the sheep. When he stopped, I'd give him another "Away!" command (shhhing him does nothing) and he'd go a bit further and stop again. Even though I set him up to come in on the tighter side, nothing he does frustrates me more than this hesitation—I HATE it because I don't know how to fix it. Cathy suggested a sort of growly "get out!" to break his concentration on the sheep. And wouldn't you know, it worked! He broke back into a run and got around them. He was pretty tight, and I started to correct him to widen him out, and Cathy quickly stopped me—this isn't the time to add more pressure; I should let him be successful first, even if it's not perfect. That makes sense.

So, I feel like I have a few more tools at my disposal. Remembering everything—and when to try the different strategies I'm learning—is going to be the hardest thing I think...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Picking sheep up off a person & other dogs

I worked Taz again for a couple of hours with Bill yesterday. We worked mostly on outruns, and having Taz pick up his sheep when a handler and two dogs are at the top. I've worked on this a little with Taz, and he has trouble with it. Bill was purposely yelling commands to his dogs when Taz got to the top and moving around a bit. It was tough! Bill was mimicking what we would be likely to see in a trial. Taz hesitated a lot but eventually did go around to pick up the sheep, and Bill said his lifts were nice (he was wide and deep at the top). He wants to try having Taz lift next off horses. Taz is definitely more tentative than he used to be these days, but Bill thinks Taz is sort of starting to go to the next level. He kept stressing to me that we put him in a very difficult situation with a lot of pressure and to try not to add to that pressure by coming down on him too much. He also said to make sure I don't let him get away with coming in too shallow or not lying down, and I am finding it difficult to put no pressure on him while not letting him get away with that stuff. I mean, if I enforce the lie down, isn't that putting pressure on him? Bill suggested that when I'm working on my own, I again just walk with Taz driving the sheep to loosen him up, letting him bring the sheep wherever he wanted as long as he wasn't right up their butts (and lie him down if he's picking up too much speed) or going past their shoulders (acht! him to send him back to the rear). Elaine suggested I also work him closer in for the time being. So I think my next time out with him will be a nice, easy-going stress-free session.

Also, in case anyone's wondering, Craig has been a little sick the past few days, so that's why I've been working only Tazzy lately. Craig is NOT enjoying his convalescence, but he should be up and running soon!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How to not help wily sheep beat my dog...

Taz and I worked somewhere new today (and I want to thank Elaine and Pam for holding and picking up sheep for us), and the sheep were very challenging for both of us. We worked on sort of a plateau on the top of a little hill, with the barn and house at the bottom of the hill. The bottom of the hill was the major draw. I was very curious whether Taz would continue to run wider and deeper in this new place or he'd revert to his old tight and slicy ways here.

He was definitely tighter and slicier than he has been, but this was not our main problem. The sheep were very flighty, and Taz had a hard time keeping off them enough to keep them from running, no matter what he did. His outruns were okay, definitely not spectacular, but usually not too terrible (not counting the couple of times he kept stopping short), but he had trouble controlling them at the top. The sheep would run left, Taz would rush to cover, then they'd fake right, while Taz scrambled to catch up. All I saw was a dog not in control of his sheep at all--gah! At first I tried to come down on him for not lying down when I asked him at the top of the outrun. Elaine wisely pointed out to me that I was only helping the sheep beat my dog when I demanded he lie down before he had them fully under control.

What? This is such a basic lesson, I can't believe I needed to be reminded of it! But she warned me not to be so hell-bent on maintaining my newly established control of my dogs that I go too far in the other direction--if I ratchet down on them too tightly, they will become frustrated and lose some of their power in the process. There's a balance, and I need to find it quickly!

Right, I thought, so I shouldn't worry about lying him down here, with these tough sheep. It's okay if Taz is a little tight, since we're working on not getting beaten by these wily sheep. After letting Taz do a tight outrun and saying nothing, I watched the ensuing struggle at the top. Elaine looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles, and I explained my plan. She shook her head slowly, and I could tell she was trying to figure out how to explain a (probably quite obvious) distinction in the simplest way possible.

I should stop Taz immediately if he's too tight or starts to turn in too early and then reflank, casting him out wider. That is not allowing the sheep to beat him, it's helping him get in the correct position so that they will be less likely to beat him. The time to hold my tongue is at the top, when he is trying to get and maintain control. Let him try, and if he can't get the job done, call him back to me and try again from a closer position. Do not let the sheep beat him, but do not allow sloppy work, either--especially if it's contributing to the problem. Aha!

I guess neither of us were quite ready for this particular challenge. Taz is still running a bit too tight, and I don't know enough about stockwork yet to be able to effectively help him out. So working these particular sheep may not be doing either of us any favors at this stage. Perhaps in a few months...In the meantime, Elaine told me I should concentrate more on watching the sheep's heads for signs of their next moves and where the dog is/should be. This will help me learn to read the situations a bit more accurately, and I can focus on this while working the sheep we're used to in the fields we're used to. I know it's necessary to work in lots of different areas, but it's not like I have everything conquered on my "home fields" just yet ;-) We'll come back to these sheep in a bit; for now, we'll continue to work on reading the situation correctly...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I am currently in the process of putting whistles on my dogs. Craig came to me with whistles, so it seemed logical to just learn his whistles, rather than try to make up my own. When I get solid using whistles with Craig, I'll start Taz on them. I have a pretty consistent and somewhat strong come bye (Bob White), away (D-U-E), and stop whistle (drawn-out wheet with a little tail), but that's it. I find it more difficult to make a strong low tone, but my lower tones do sound a little more consistent. Craig's walk up is wheet wheet, but I cannot do this well at all, and he doesn't take it. As much as I try to practice it, I can only do one wheet at a time. It's hard to practice, as I can really only do so when I'm driving without the dogs, which doesn't happen all that often. Eventually the steady is going to be the drawn-out wheet without the tail, but I'm not worrying about that one just yet. Craig doesn't have a recall whistle, so I am trying to use a sort of high-low-high-low one. Unfortunately, he doesn't really take it, and neither of my other dogs come back to me when I use it when we're hiking on the trail. Well, actually Taz does recall, but he's happy to run back to me the instant he thinks I want him to at all, no matter what sounds I utter. Sophie, my third dog (who is a border collie mix and is not a good candidate for working stock--heh, wasn't that nicely put?), completely ignores this whistle, which is a shame. Before I got Craig and I was just playing around with my whistle, I mastered the D-U-E sound and used that as a recall whistle. Sophie would come running from wherever she was. Those of you who know Sophie will appreciate how amazing this is. But I stopped using this as a recall whistle because it is already Craig's away whistle. So my question of the day is whether these dogs can distinguish between working and hiking/playing contexts and I can use a recall whistle with Sophie when we're hiking that doubles as the whistle Craig (and eventually Taz) will take as an away whistle while they're working? My gut says that yes, I should be able to do this--after all, lots of people have a different set of whistles for each dog they have and their dogs don't seem to get confused. Of course, I don't want to make things more challenging than they have to be for Craig and Taz, but on the other hand, perhaps finding the one thing that Sophie consistently recalls to should not be tossed aside so hastily...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sadness and distraction

I did go out to work my dogs this morning, but I was very distracted. A friend of mine received some very bad news yesterday, and it is weighing heavily on my mind right now. My attention span and organizational skills are a bit lacking right now, so our work session wasn't as productive as it might have been.

I worked Taz first. His outrun looked great--there seem to be few residual issues from last week, when he began hesitating and running very uncertainly when I sent him after I (perhaps unfairly) corrected him quite harshly. Last week, I sent him on an outrun where the sheep were sort of near the back fence of the pasture (not sure what I was thinking, except I guess that I wasn't). He ran nice and fast and checked in with the sheep and cast out to adjust his trajectory--all beautifully. But he started to come in just a teeny bit flat, so I told him to lie him down. I wish I'd realized he was probably that little bit flat because the fence was right there, but I didn't. He didn't want to take it, so I stopped everything and went up to him and generally made a big deal about how he needs to lie down when I ask him to. While I understand that it is important to enforce my commands these days, I think I overdid it a tad. He was very cautious the rest of that session, and I fretted that I had caused a big setback. Well, I needn't have worried. He was very eager and raring to go today, as usual, but he listened to me even better. I think it's all part of the process where he is sizing me up anew and finding that it is in his best interest to do what I ask him to do. I couldn't be happier about this.

We also did some walking around the pasture. I stopped him whenever he started moving quicker than the sheep, and he took the lie down immediately every time, and eventually slowed his pace to fall in behind the sheep and not require me to lie him down as much. Excellent. So I tried driving a bit, and it went okay, but this particular field is not very big and the draw is very strong, even for the lambs we were working. Taz really struggled with giving up the side he was holding them on. We eventually ran out of field and the lambs would want to run back home. Taz wasn't immediately taking his inside flanks and he was much too close to them, so we'll have to concentrate a bit more on that in future sessions.

My session with Craig went pretty well for the most part. I did work on driving with him, trying to keep him well behind the lambs and not ever go past their shoulders. I also worked on trying to anticipate the effect of his flank on the stock and be prepared to lie him down right away. He took most of the stops, but I was a little late with some of them. More work is needed here, too. I tried to work on turning around the (imaginary) post, but we weren't successful at all in getting the sheep to pivot around me in a V direction. I couldn't get them to not turn back in the direction they came, and then I got a little mixed up about whether I was allowing Craig to cross the course. (Unless it's with an outrun, I'm never really sure when the dog is in danger of crossing.) So I definitely need to practice that more, but I think maybe after another lesson, because I don't have the mechanics quite set in my head yet. Finally, we worked on whistles. This is the first time I've worked Craig on whistles anywhere but Bill's. He responded really well! It took a minute for him to realize what we were doing, I think, but he consistently took the come bye and stop and took aways with encouragement. I was all out of breath (for reasons unknown, I guess just being a little nervous using the whistle in a new environment), and many of the sounds coming from the whistle were way off, so I think Craig did terrific, considering what he had to work with. I know I need to get my whistles more solid before expecting him to take them consistently--so that is one more thing to work on.

So, mostly I'm left feeling like I have a lot to work on. Perhaps things might have gone a little better if I wasn't so distracted and sad.

Godspeed little Maddie!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Some general exercises

One of the trainers I work with has suggested I do the some exercises while working with my dogs by myself. For Taz, I'm working on sharpening his skills; for Craig, I'm working on sharpening my timing. Taz has already been doing many of the things these exercises consist of, but we're now guiding him to consistently work correctly. Here are some exercises for Taz:
  • Walk the sheep around the pasture. Lie Taz down every time he picks up the pace to go faster than the sheep are moving. "Acht!" at him every time he wants to go past their shoulders.
  • Work him in a tiny, tiny pen. He should square his flanks every time he moves when I ask for a come bye or an away. This means his shoulders move only sideways, never forward at all. He should be moving along the edge of the fencing. He should be taking each command, even if it's an inside flank. Graduate to the same level of response from him when I'm outside the pen and he and the sheep are inside.
  • Spend some time driving with him, but don't worry about distance at all just yet. Walk with him and ask for inside flanks and stops to control the sheep. Stay within 25 yards or so for now.
  • For me to remember, when I am thinking about which way to send him to get sheep out of a pen, remember to ask him to go on the side he won't cross me on. I should never ask him to cross when fetching them, only when driving them.
Craig already knows how to do these things. So, we should work on improving my timing when I ask him to do something. For Craig, I work on making sure he listens to me by asking him to do things that won't ultimately frustrate him. Here are some exercises for Craig:
  • Keep a distance of no longer than 75 yards between us when asking him to drive. That's the point at which he begins to blow me off (or maybe stops hearing me).
  • Do not let him get past the shoulders of the sheep. This requires understanding the draw and allowing him to work where he needs to to maintain a line but not go past it.
  • When I need him to "bump" the sheep back on line, give him a flank and then be ready to anticipate lying him down--sometimes, this means stopping him almost immediately after giving him the flank.
  • When guiding the dog and sheep around the post, pivot around the post with the sheep to give them somewhere to go. Craig is turning them back toward the direction they came from because I'm flanking him too far over and the sheep can see him. I need to stop him about a step earlier.
  • Practice whistles with him in the arena for five minutes or so.
  • Let him do some outruns to blow off steam; he loves doing outruns :-)
It's nice to actually have a plan when I go out there and not feel like I'm doing the same old drills. I like being able to mix it up and just build on the things we're learning in lessons. I can't wait to go out tomorrow and practice some of these exercises!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We're back!

It's been a little while since I've posted about my training progress with Taz. We've come a long way since then, and it was really good for me to read these early posts to see just how far we have progressed--at times, it has seemed that we weren't making any progress at all! But in fact we have learned a lot in the year and a half since those early days.

I'd like to track our progress again now, and this seems like a good way to do that. First, I'd like to introduce Craig, since he has joined our little pack since the last time I posted. Craig is a trained dog who used to belong to a friend of mine. She thought he was perhaps losing some of his hearing, and she didn't have time to work him as much as he needed. She also knew I was struggling a bit with my handling skills, so she very generously gave Craig to me. Because I'm just a novice, Craig will be working within closer distances to me, so any hearing loss he has will not be a big handicap on the field. I also can work him a little more often, as I have lessons at least weekly and my dogs sometimes see sheep as often as two or three times a week. So Craig will get to work more often. In exchange, he will enable me to focus on my handling skills, without requiring any actual training the way Taz does. So far, although I haven't been able to take full advantage of Craig's skills, he is helping me to improve my timing. Unlike Taz, who has a history of trying to figure out what I want from him even when I'm not being very clear, Craig does most of what I ask him to do. When I tell him to do something incorrect, or when I hesitate too long, he lets me know pronto. This instant feedback helps me better understand what I should be doing, even if I'm not always up to the task!

I've also been doing a lot of work with Taz. We're still novices, but Taz is progressing. He is nearly ready for pro-novice (well, actually, he's probably been ready to run a pro-novice course for a little while, but I have not been ready to run him there). Taz is a strong dog who has a great deal of natural talent, but he has been running over novice me for far too long. After seeing him run very nicely for various experienced handlers and lamenting that he was always so tight, fast, and slicy when I ran him, I took him to a Scott Glen clinic a couple of weeks ago. Finally (finally!), I began to understand what people meant when they told me that Taz did not respect me out there. I mean, people have told me this ever since we started working stock, but I just didn't really understand how to change that, or even what it really meant. Plus, I'll admit I was in a little bit of denial about it (he listens to me quite well off sheep, and who wants to admit their dog doesn't see them as the leader on the field?). Scott was able to break down Taz's behaviors in such a way that I understood exactly where he was going wrong, and he helped me understand exactly what I needed to do to correct him--and then he instilled in me that I have to be consistent in my corrections. So, feeling much better equipped to both look for and encourage Taz's correct behavior on stock, I finally began working my dogs myself, without a more experienced person overseeing our interactions. This is also really helping us, as I am unable to comfortably fade into the background and let someone else take over when things start to go astray. When it is up to me to take care of business, I am a much more active partner with my dogs out there. This is also helping my timing, I think.

So, there you have it--at least for now. It's an exciting time for me right now--I feel like I am finally beginning to understand this. Actually, I have long thought I understood some of this cerebrally, but this is the first time I feel like I might understand how to translate some of what I know into what I'm doing. I am starting to feel it now for the first time.

So it's really starting to get fun!