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.