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!