Sunday, December 28, 2008

A progress report from Scott!

Scott called me tonight with a report on Taz's progress in the field. Hooray!

It has been particularly cold and snowy in Alberta for the past few weeks, and this has hampered Scott's work with all the dogs a little. He is still able to work them nearly every day, but I think he's having to wait for a little of the snow to melt before doing everything he wants to do with the dogs in training.

The first thing Scott told me is that he likes Taz—he thinks he's a nice dog; nice to be around and nice to work. He likes how Taz rates his sheep; he is powerful but doesn't come on too strong, and he doesn't have too much or not enough eye. He also said he "doesn't have a dishonest bone in his body," and he agrees with my earlier assessment that Taz was mainly just confused about what was expected of him. He hesitated a couple of times with Scott right at the very beginning of his stay there, but he hasn't done it at all since. His outruns are "nice and deep" now with Scott, though the snow has prevented Scott from working with Taz to lengthen his outrun very much, and Scott is now working on shaping Taz's flanks a bit more. This is exciting, but I am not surprised—Taz's outruns looked terrific after the last clinic I went to with Scott. Sadly, it didn't last very long then, but Scott said that is the difference between working with a dog for a couple of days at a clinic and working him every day for a few months. He now has the opportunity to truly make sure Taz understands the correct shape of his flanks so that he does it right most of the time because he understands what he should be doing, rather than because he is intimidated by an unfamiliar clinician—and also if Taz does slice his flanks, he will understand what he is doing wrong when I correct him and will know what he should be doing to make it right.

Scott said Taz sometimes will start an outrun out okay, but then take a few steps forward before widening back out. Scott wants to make sure Taz starts correctly and remains correct all the time. However, he also said that Taz is really not wrong very often—in fact, he is going to have to work on setting Taz up to be wrong so that he can make it very clear to Taz what he is supposed to be doing. The deep snow has prevented Scott from sending Taz without first setting him up properly so he can see what he'll do then—will Taz still run wide and deep, or will he get nervous and try to rush things? Sending Taz on the fly will give Scott the opportunity to see how well Taz understands what he should be doing, and Scott will have more opportunity to correct him for anything less than perfect flanks. In addition, Scott will spend next month putting Taz on whistles.

And that's about it for now. All in all, a pretty good report :)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Quick Taz update

Okay, so I know you're wondering how Taz is doing. Well, I don't have a lot of info, but I have heard from Jenny that he's doing just fine up in Canada. Scott will call soon with a full work report, but I have heard that Taz is doing well in training. And in the meantime, Jenny says he's settling right in. He's eating well and has apparently gained back some of the weight he lost when I switched him over to kibble. (I guess I was about starving him—he'd lost about 5 pounds in just a week when I switched him; evidently, I wasn't feeding him enough. Who knew the recommended feeding amounts listed on the dog food bag is a big fat lie?) Taz is pretty skinny on a good day, so I was relieved to hear he is putting some weight back on. Jenny assured me he is adjusting well, and Scott's even given him a nickname—Paul Bunyon, because Taz loves to entertain himself with any bit of wood he can find. He picks a stick up and throws it back down, then grabs it and runs around with it, all the while barking up a storm. Silly boy; I'd wondered how he'd do without any toys. Guess the jig is up—Scott now knows Taz is not an All-Work-And-No-Play kind of stockdog.

Somehow, I think he'd already gotten that feeling...

Here are a couple of pics Jenny sent me of Taz in the dog yard. He looks good, right?

I can't wait to get a work report from Scott!

PS: I'm sorry if you saw this post earlier and then it disappeared—I dropped and broke my computer as I was editing it and then it disappeared into the ether—thanks to Robin Q for rescuing this post from the dark corners of cyberspace...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Working & hiking without Taz

I actually worked Craig today! We worked sheep for the first time since we got back from Canada—for all of half an hour. This winter has been tough for us, and we just haven't been able to get out. (I really, REALLY, need my own sheep...) It was freezing cold with a horrible whipping wind. We had an okay session, I guess. I'm actually surprised it went as well as it did, given it's been nearly a month since I've worked a dog (I actually had to think about which side was come bye and which was away to me when we were driving). I wanted to work on squaring Craig's flanks and thought I could practice what I learned with Scott, but things didn't go quite according to plan. For one thing, I had a hard time transitioning from sending him to driving with him. We were working in the arena, and the various draws were quite strong for the sheep, so Cathy suggested we just work on counteracting the draws and moving slowly on a line, instead of being sucked in by the sheep. Despite the long period of inactivity, after a rough start we did get a nice flow going by the end of the session.

So, without the opportunity to do much stockwork lately, we've been spending time hiking a bit. Last weekend, a couple of friends and I explored the South Boulder Creek trail. I took a few photos...

Three people, five border collies, and one Sophiedawg

It was very pretty!

Sophie (my other dog, who thinks she deserves a mention here every once in a while)

Craigor MacGregor (who is very happy Taz is finally out of the house—more attention for him!)

What good lookin' dogs!

Taz's sister Sage (left) and uncle Ben

A good time was had by all, but of course we missed Taz. But I've gotten some tidbits on how he's doing, and tomorrow I'll write a little update :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tag! I'm it!

So with Taz gone, there hasn't been an awful lot of training going on here. In fact, between the subzero temps and Craig's spondylosis acting up, there hasn't been much (okay, any) time spent with sheep at all. So we've been laying low here at Chez Tazimodo.

But we've been called out of hiding...

We've been tagged by Jenny Glen (who really should be writing a guest blog here, since, well, Taz is currently training at her house instead of mine). The rules are simple: go to your photo archives on your computer and go into the 6th folder and count up to the 6th picture and post it on your blog, along with the story that goes with it.

So, without further ado, this is the picture in question:

Aww, how appropriate! It's baby Tazzy! He was about eight weeks old in this photo, full of promise and ready for adventure. I was pretty clueless about stockdogs in those days (some might say still...) and found him on the recommendation of a woman in the local border collie club. I was looking for a dog whom I could learn to work stock with, and I lucked into a well-bred pup with tons of potential and a fantastic temperament. He is truly a dog like no other. I love my Tazimodo! it's my turn to tag six more bloggers...let's see...
Shoofly Farm
Pippin's Gentle Blog
Willow's Rest
Julia MacMonagle
Live Like a Rock Star
Crooks and Crazies

I can't wait to see what you guys post!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Adventures in Canada

Well, I did it. I decided Taz deserves the chance to work with someone who will be able to bring out a bit more of his potential, so early in the morning on Thanksgiving, Elaine and I packed up five of our dogs and headed up to Canada. She had never been out of the country before, and explaining everything to the customs folks was, er, interesting (seemed it was a Good Thing I had my iPhone with me, because it contained much of my email chain about bringing Taz up for training—the border patrol guys read every sentence to verify our story, but at least they did not search my truck). We did make it across the border unscathed, and half an hour later we arrived at Scott and Jenny Glen's place—Taz's new home for the next couple of months.

Scott and Jenny welcomed us warmly, and Scott took Taz and me out to the field to see Taz do an outrun. We'd already spoken a bit about what Taz's issues were, and I think he just wanted to get a quick idea for himself exactly where we were. He gave Elaine a lesson with her young dog, Jesse, and he gave me a lesson with Craig. I was a bit intimidated during the lesson, and that was the first thing Scott picked up on. "You can't be afraid to make mistakes," he advised. I definitely have lost a bit of confidence in myself after that last clinic, so I know it is important to get back on track. We worked on making sure Craig really bent out on his flanks—Craig will run tighter than he knows how to do if he is allowed. It is not surprising to me that my biggest weakness with training Taz turns out to be a weakness I have with running Craig as well. I don't insist on square flanks. I didn't really know how to get Craig to give me wider flanks, though. Scott showed me, not by doing endless outruns, but by driving (cross driving, actually) with Craig moving the sheep in a circle around me. Scott broke down Craig's training issues to find the most basic place where things were going wrong, which was sometimes the first few steps Craig took, and he showed me how to use my own body language to communicate what I wanted to see from him. I learned to stand off center relative to the sheep, wave a stick up and down once or twice to clearly show him which direction he was to go, and give him a flank command. Lie him down immediately if he moves forward at all; give him a there and let him walk up if he flanks correctly. It sounds really simple and basic when I write it down, but I struggled a bit when Scott had me try it. Part of that struggle is that I wasn't anticipating giving my next command quickly enough, which resulted in Craig waiting too long for instruction and then deciding to do something on his own. So once I give a command, I need to be ready right away with the following action in my mind. The other thing Scott stressed is to stop saying Craig's name in frustration; I should only be using his name when I am calling him in to me. This goes for Taz, too. It's a surprisingly difficult habit to break, but I'll work on it.

It was a great lesson for me, and I learned a lot. I sometimes struggle with how much I can or should try to change the way Craig runs because he is ten now and pretty set in his ways. But I think I have definitely erred too far on the side of caution and not tried hard enough to demand correct work. Craig is a great dog, so we've done pretty well without me demanding too much of him, but naturally he has gotten a bit sloppy with me and we have had a few power struggles on the field. I think I have a much better idea now of how to run him more effectively.

After the lessons, we went inside and had coffee. I was able to see where Taz would be staying and got a good sense of what his routine would be over the next couple of months. I chose Scott (and was lucky that he had room for Taz) because Scott has gotten the best work out of Taz in the past and seems to have a real way with him. After hearing more about how Scott would work with Taz over the winter, and hearing Jenny talk about the thoughtful care he would receive with them, I felt even better about leaving him there. He is in good hands, and he will hopefully come back a little less confused about what is expected of him and a bit more prepared to meet those expectations.

It will, of course, still be difficult for me while he's away. But I think this might be a good opportunity for me to work with Craig and really develop as a team. I'm looking forward to seeing where we all are in a few months!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To send out or not to send out...

So I've been considering sending Taz out to sheep camp to finally fix his outrun. As I've moaned about for flippin' ever, Taz's main problem is that he slices his flanks terribly and then overflanks at the top. I just can't seem to consistently widen him out at the top. I honestly think he doesn't fully realize that he is supposed to be wider and squarer than he currently runs. One reason for this is his on-again-off-again habit of hesitating on his outrun, making me a bit reluctant to correct him once he does get going. I don't think he is hesitating because he has too much eye—I think it's a confidence thing. But not a lack of confidence with the sheep—a lack of confidence in what he thinks I want him to actually do. I am not very clear or consistent when correcting his outrun (plus my timing isn't so hot), and I've lied him down too often—now I think he just anticipates being lied down so he often doesn't want to commit to going.

Taz is 4 now and I'm afraid the window for his learning to do this is beginning to close. I mean, he still learns very well, but he has some ingrained habits now and I'd like to fix them before they become something I'll just have to live with. I know he's got a lot of talent, and though I understand he'll never really live up to his potential with me, I'd like to get him a bit further than I fear I would if I don't get past these outrun issues. I have been told that it would be really difficult for me to get him to progress very much because I just can't work him often enough without having my own sheep. Working once or twice a week just isn't enough, for either of us. For others more capable, I'm sure it's possible, but not for me. I am, clearly, not a natural (rats!).

It's not like Taz would come back as a trained dog, of course. I'd just hope for his outrun to consistently get a bit wider at the top. I want him to build some muscle memory of what it feels like to do a correct outrun—to flank wider and come in a bit slower at the top. I'd like to replace his habit of running tight and fast with one of staying off his sheep a bit and allowing himself to feel them a bit more there. He has such a nice feel for his sheep when he is relaxed, but I have such a hard time getting him to that state (see my previous post...). I know I need to be able to run him more relaxed in order to achieve this—I need more training, too—and I am going to work on relaxing with my handling, too. I do think correct outwork depends a little less on handler instruction, so, again, I would just like for Taz to begin to replace the poor habits he learned with me with better ones. I want to get past his outrun problems so we can concentrate on driving, penning, shedding, and all the other fun stuff we work on here and there but never for very long because I know he needs to learn a proper outrun before we can move on. And I know how much the outrun and lift affect the sheep for the rest of a run. Of course, if I had my own sheep, and we had actual chores to do, his outrun issues might be resolved on the job, or maybe they wouldn't matter as much. But the fact is that I don't have sheep right now, and so Taz is always going to be more of a trial dog than a more all-around dog as a result...

This would be a big transition for Taz (which is a big reason I haven't considered sending him out before). He's very much a house dog, and I'll go ahead and admit that he is kind of spoiled. But he adapts well, gets along with other dogs well, and he has a great work ethic, so I think he'd be okay. Actually, I think he might love some time in training—getting to work every day with someone who really knows what they're doing.

Perhaps the real question is, how would I do without my little buddy for a couple of months?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Helsley/Shannahan Sheep Camp—November 6-9, 2008

Okay, I'd better write a real post about the clinic because the teaser I wrote earlier is being received much worse than I meant! I had a good time and learned a lot. Some things went very well, some things did not go so well, and I came away with a much clearer understanding of how to get the best work out of my dogs.

The clinic attendees were divided into two groups, and my group began with Don Helsley at his ranch. He had a big group of barely dogged range ewes for us to work. The first thing we did was learn to cut off groups of five sheep at a time in the barn without our dogs. As a non-owner of sheep who doesn't have a ton of stock-handling experience, this was really fun and educational for me, and not too difficult. We were then to bring the sheep out to the field. Taz was wild—fast, tight, and slicy—when we brought them out, and Don helped me slow things down. His main points for me were to stop lying Taz down all the time and to just sort of talk to him and check him with an acht when he was too tight or slicing or just coming in too fast. It worked like a charm—Taz responded to this very well, and over the next couple of days I was able to move sheep anywhere in the field and hold them with Taz, checking his speed and proximity to the sheep just by talking to him and achting when necessary. I still had a tendency to lie him down too much, but I was getting better at that, too. It was great! Thursday afternoon, we worked on our own, and I worked on driving with Taz. He did fine, but wanted to turn the sheep back to me every time I transitioned to a cross drive at a particular point on the field (exactly opposite the draw). I got frustrated that he kept wanting to turn the sheep back to me, and I began barking commands at Taz, getting louder and terser with each passing minute. Don came out and rescued us, and he got Taz easily back on track, but he warned me not to panic so easily—to simply let the bad things go and just try doing what I know works again when things started to go to pot.

This is my big lesson for this clinic, but it was advice I couldn't seem to heed right away.

We worked on Taz's slicing the next morning, and on lengthening his outrun. He did very nicely, again responding well to not being lied down all the time and just cueing off warnings when he came in too close. I told Don about his tendency to hesitate and Don recommended trying a configuration where I'd lie him down, move a little toward the sheep in the opposite direction I was sending him, send him, then walk in the direction he was moving toward. It's a little difficult to explain, but he said he used this method often to move dogs off sheep when sending, and doing this made it clear to the dogs what they were supposed to be doing, which should help the hesitation (since Taz's hesitation is not due to too much eye). Taz never did hesitate at Don's, but we practiced this anyway, and I filed the information away for future use.

Don also spent some time demonstrating how volume and cadence of whistles can really convey information to the dogs about where they should be and how they should be coming in. Mostly, he showed us how quiet the whistles can be to still be effective, which can give handlers much more range to work with when communicating with the dogs. It's long been time for me to get Taz on whistles, and I am going to try to teach him both quieter and louder whistles.

Next we worked on penning. This was very hard for us! Because things happen so quickly at the pen, and my timing is still not so great, I did bark commands at Taz. Taz also has a tendency to take a few steps after I tell him to lie down before he stops, which obviously affected the range sheep. It took us a long time to pen, and the longer we were working, the more fried he was getting. Between the sheep themselves, my rapid-fire commands, Don telling me what to say at times when my timing wasn't there, and the general pressure of learning at the clinic for the past couple of days, Taz was starting to take everything as a correction—he was turning away when I tried to lie him down and jumping back when I waved the rope for the sheep to see. We did eventually get them penned, but it was tough for Taz.

I worried (and possibly convinced myself) that he'd be done for the rest of the clinic, and this is where things began going poorly for me. We spent the next day out in the desert with Patrick Shannahan. I overexplained everything to poor Pat, and he watched me do a couple of outruns with Taz. Taz was a little tight, and I decided it was because he was still fried, and started to panic. I started a cycle of handling him in the opposite way that I knew was effective. I lied him down a bunch and I yelled at him. The tenser I got, the tenser he got, and the more he sliced and came in pushy and fast. Patrick recommended working Taz quietly, telling him to "listen" when he didn't take a command and repeating it once. This worked for Patrick, but I never really gave it a chance to work for me—I'd screech at him "Heeeeeyyyyyy!" and Taz would either ignore me all together or jerk around in response and we'd lurch toward the next command. Not surprisingly, he began hesitating, and we spent the next couple of days working on that (I did not try Don's suggestion now, as I wanted to see how Patrick would handle it; for some reason, I thought it might be poor etiquette to tell him Don's recommendation—how dumb was that?). At first Patrick thought Taz was sort of being passive-aggressive, purposely waiting until I got frustrated and yelled at him to move, but I think he decided later that Taz was simply not sure what the heck I wanted from him, since I got tense and then he got tense and then neither of us were thinking calmly. Back at Patrick's place we were able to get him to consistently move again by sending him from a position where I was ahead of him, and Patrick told me not to be afraid to park Taz a few feet behind me at a trial and send him from there. He was still tight and slicy though, and my handling remained very tense.

We worked on shedding a little—taking a huge bunch of sheep and just picking a point and having the dog walk through. Not even really making a hole first—allowing the dog to make the hole. Taz did pretty well at this (he was not being yelled at for once), and I'll have to play around with this a bit more at Cathy's.

By the end of the last day, as people were leaving, Patrick told me I could work Craig a bit and he'd be happy to evaluate us to see if I could do anything to handle him better. I got Craig out and, as I was working him, I kind of had an epiphany. It seemed I was handling Craig in that same tense, terse, loud, growly way that I did with Taz, and so Craig was working just like Taz did—he was tight, pushy, not wanting to lie down...

And the light bulb finally went on for me. The problem wasn't that Taz was too fried to work well in the latter part of the clinic. The problem was that I was way too tense and handling him much too forcefully. I was completely overwhelming him—not doing any of the things that Don or Pat was recommending. I got Taz out again and began working him slowly, softly, quietly. And you know what? He began to relax. He did not hesitate. He slowed up. He still sliced and was still tight, but less so. Pat came out and remarked on how Taz was actually quite soft and this was much better. I guess he'd known I was running Taz much too harshly and knew he'd respond much better with softer, quieter handling (um, like he tried to show me the first time we went out). I realized that he'd been telling me this all weekend. I don't know why I wasn't receptive to his advice earlier—I was just nervously reacting to what I thought was going on without taking the advice of the expert standing right next to me. What an idiot! This is exactly the advice Don had given me earlier—let things go and relax—but I guess I couldn't see it then. At least I got it in the end.

And I learned a lot at the clinic, even though I wasn't handling my dog well. I am sorry I wasted all my time with Pat handling Taz so poorly, but I feel like I learned a very, very big lesson in the end, so it was maybe for the best. I am looking forward to working with Taz and keeping in mind all I learned over these past four days—and really making sure I do not let my own tension get in our way!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back from Idaho

We had a rough clinic. I lost my mind and completely forgot how to handle my dogs. Result was not pretty. Poor Taz.
More later...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

More progress!

On Saturday, I continued to learn how to compensate for Craig's reaction to pressure when driving. I used to get very frustrated driving with Craig because he seemed to always overflank, moving too far up the sides to the heads, resulting in a lot of back and forth and not a lot of forward motion. Yesterday, I concentrated on flanking him and then stopping him right at the point that the sheep turned their heads and then letting them drift back on line. It worked like a dream. But today we worked a few yearlings in the big alfalfa field, and the alfalfa was green and apparently delicious—making the sheep very, very heavy. My strategy to drive the sheep with Craig did not work at all, because the sheep did not drift very much once Craig stopped them. That meant he had to lift them over and over again, bringing them on and off line over and over again. He was guarding the pressure and unwinding when flanked, only to swing back to the pressure side as quickly as he could, overcompensating by overflanking in the process. Today, with the help of Elaine, I was able to keep him moving these heavy sheep forward on a line by flanking him to cover the pressure side, lying him down, which did usually result in the sheep turning back to the other side, then flanking him to the other side but then telling him "there," which caused him to stop and walk in on the sheep, pushing them forward several steps before they began to drift to the pressure side again, at which time I'd repeat the process. I know it probably sounds very elementary and simple, but it was a huge breakthrough for us! The key to this strategy is to always keep the sheep moving, but in a controlled manner. Another little tidbit from Elaine, which I'd never really thought about before: after lying Craig down, make sure I walk him up before the sheep start to graze. This is so obvious that is embarrassing that I didn't know to do this, but I had been keeping Craig down as long as possible in an effort to let the sheep drift as long as possible when they were moving in the correct direction. But of course this meant he had to keep relifting them. Moving him just before they put their heads down eliminates that and increases the flow. I did really well after I figured this all out :)))

Taz and I had a good day, too. I think I am finally beginning to see a pattern to his hesitating, and I need to move a little slower with him on driving, walking a little bit with him, far away, but moving just inside his field of vision when necessary. He was driving and cross driving nicely today, and I realized he does everything (inside flanks and outside flanks) very well when he's within, oh, 200 feet from me (maybe 100 feet—I am terrible at judging distances), but he hesitates on his flanks and he looks back at me when he's further than that. So I need to take things a little slower driving with him (by staying closer in for now and walking with him). Elaine also said that if he ever tries to come all the way back to me when I ask for an inside flank (he did this only once today), I should walk into him and lie him down immediately, and once he lies down release my pressure and ask him to walk up on the sheep. He did not hesitate on his outruns today, but we worked close in today. I really think his hesitation might just be distance related there, too (but the distance here is between dog and sheep). So I maybe just need to think about extending his outrun more gradually.

I'm going out again on Sunday. It's rare that I get to work my dogs so often—and, boy, does it make a difference!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Downs and ups and figuring things out...

I've been working my dogs a lot this week :)

First, a quick recap of a lesson I had last week, where Taz's refusal to "see" the goats Cathy has and bring them along with the rest of the sheep as we were sorting earned him an entire lesson working with a mixture of about 12 sheep and goats, most of whom did not want to flock together. He learned that covering his stock means covering all of his stock and not just the ones who move easily for him ;-) This was a good lesson for him, as he did broaden his scope to recognize and bring all of the stock. It was also a good lesson for me, as it was really apparent that standing around telling Taz to do something twelve different times ("look back," in this case) is not an effective training strategy. I don't know why it is so difficult for me to truly get this lesson, but I do think I went a long way toward learning it for real this time. I began the lesson trying to cajole Taz into looking back and finding the goats scattered around the field, and getting more and more frustrated (and screechy) as he looked back right at the goats but would not move to go get them. Cathy kept her cool, though, moving forward to change the picture for him so that it became easier for him to see what we wanted him to do. Eventually, we were able to move less and less ourselves, as Taz moved more and more himself to cover. By the end of the lesson, he was looking everywhere and picking up everything!

Then, I started this week off with a couple of rather discouraging lessons. We've been trying to lengthen Taz's outruns, but Taz began slicing at the top again and then he began hesitating to boot on the come bye side (curiously, he looks fantastic on his away side—no hesitating, nice wide square flanks, no slicing at the top). Even though it was only on his bye side, it was a little disheartening to see these problems resurface. He did better on both the hesitating and the slicing when I walked in toward the sheep and sent him, but it really was feeling like one step forward, two steps back. And we were in the two steps back part. In addition, his driving really seemed to be falling apart. He was now hesitating when he was driving, and he was not taking his inside flanks consistently at all. When I tried to help him by saying "here" first, he often came all the way back to me before turning back to the stock.

What the heck? He seemed to be a little confused and unsure of himself, but perhaps this is just because he is learning and putting things together in his head...

I went out to work on my own on Friday morning. And this is when things started turning around. Taz and I worked close in on outruns, and he didn't hesitate at all. I began our session walking toward the sheep, and I was able to move back to sending him at my feet without a return of the hesitation. I also brought back the dreaded feed bag, which Taz hates but moves so well off of, and used it when he started to slice. And he did change his trajectory and widen out at the top. So far, so good. I also had him circle the sheep a bit, stopping him off balance in both directions and letting him walk in on the sheep at random places, and this seemed to loosen him up again. We seemed to be getting back on track.

I had a good session with Craig as well. I resolved to really pay attention to the sheep's heads during our drive aways to get more of a flow going well before we reached the panels, which Craig worries about. And we were pretty successful. The first three times we tried, we sailed right through the panels. Then we missed, but the following two times, we were successful again. Woo hoo! We didn't have as much luck on the cross drive. Here, the pull is very, very strong to the adjoining arena (where Cathy was teaching a lesson to another student, and the sheep there further strengthened the draw). The sheep kept drifting up toward the arena, and I could get Craig to bring them back on line, but I had a heck of a time getting him to take the necessary away to me flank to then move them forward toward the cross drive panels. He just didn't want to take it at all (he was guarding the draw to the extreme). So I moved closer to him, made him take several flanks in that direction all the way around, and then we were finally successful, hitting those cross drive panels a couple of times before we stopped. Hooray!

So perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the steps forward :-)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Negotiating with Craig

It's been an interesting week or so, trainingwise. I'll write about it in a few posts, since each session has been so different.

First, I had a great session on my own with Taz and Craig. I practiced ouruns with Taz, and he was pretty consistently wide and not hesitating. We did one outrun that was the length of Cathy's field, and he did hesitate just a bit on that one (he hasn't yet learned to keep casting out even if he can't see the sheep), but he took a "get out" and it ended up being a pretty decent outrun. He was slicing less often, so maybe he really is starting to understand that he should be deeper at the top? Too soon to tell.

With Craig, it's all about improving my timing. So we did some driving, and as usual lately, we were we a bit out of sync to start. But things got better the more we went along. Although the draw to the gate beyond the panels is strong in Cathy's field, we worked on actually hitting the panels. Craig has terrible panel anxiety, and if he does not have the sheep well lined up a long way before he reaches the panels, he overflanks terribly or simply ignores commands when directed to try to bring the sheep through the panels. That is, for example, why he cut the course a little at Dan Keeton's trial last August. It's something I haven't worked too much on, since Cathy's panels are set so close to the draw. But I decided that Craig is well equipped to handle that pressure, and I need to learn how to handle him despite that pressure. The first few times we tried, we didn't make the panels at all. We did the familiar underflanking/overflanking back-and-forth, so we didn't line up soon enough before we hit the panels. I knew I needed to stop stopping him too soon so he wouldn't have a chance to overcompensate. (If I stop him too short because I am afraid he will overflank, and the sheep do not change direction, then I must reflank him just a little to try to bump the sheep back on line; this is actually when Craig often overflanks, though. I am anticipating his oveflanking at the wrong time, and stopping him short actually makes him more likely to overflank. I need to stop doing that!) This is the most important thing Craig is teaching me: how much to trust him and let him decide what to do versus how much to guide him, to catch (even anticipate) the incorrect choices he makes in time to keep a flow going. It's really hard, but this is how my timing is improving, I think. By the end of our work session, he'd pushed the sheep through both the drive and cross drive panels successfully a few times.

I think Craig is negotiating the same working synchronicity with me—he is figuring out how much to trust me, how much to listen to me while still maintaining control of the sheep. We will get there eventually, but I wish I could work Craig more often. It's frustrating to always start out working through this stuff; I think if we could work every day or every couple of days, we could pick up right where we left off the last time, rather than working to rebuild trust and having to remember how we work together all over again first each time. I'm working on finding a way to get more access to sheep, and if I do find a way to work more often, I bet we improve much faster. It's not like with Taz, who is learning at his own rate—Craig and I mostly just need miles together to sort through this stuff enough that we can better anticipate and compensate for each other's strengths and weaknesses. Well, I don't know how much he'll be compensating for me—I'm not sure about whether all dogs have that perspective, though I believe at least some do—but I do think we will learn to better mesh our individual work styles if given a bit more time to work together.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Finally fixing Taz's slicing? Fingers crossed!

One of Taz's main issues is that he slices at the top. He has patterned this by now, and I believe he thinks it's the correct way to approach the sheep at the top. For a while I thought it was because he spent the early stages of his training working very broke sheep in a small arena, and these sheep would break back to me as soon as Taz reached the nine o'clock or three o'clock positions. Now, however, I think it may be that he is afraid the sheep will get away if he doesn't reach them as quickly as possible.

I've tried to fix this in the past by running toward him and/or the sheep to try to kick him out, too, but this has not been consistently successful—he either didn't really change his trajectory once he began to slice, instead racing toward the sheep faster, or he did kick out but I couldn't ever transition to not slicing when I wasn't running up the field. I also tried to work on this by lying him down before he reached the slicing point, and as my timing improved I could often get him to lie down, but this then often resulted in Taz hesitating at the beginning of his outrun. (This, in turn, made me more reluctant to correct him for slicing, which of course just made the slicing more ingrained.) Faansie Basson helped me to understand that part of the problem was that Taz was not moving off me enough to feel the need to change his instinctive/patterned behavior. So I had to work a bit on establishing a little more presence with him (which wasn't difficult to do, once I discovered how I could change his behavior without resorting to heavy-handed force).

I think I was also not seeing the bigger picture. With the help of Cathy, I recently realized that a big part of the problem is that he speeds up at the same time he begins to slice. Thus, instead of running at him (which often just makes him more frantic), I've been working to slow him down so he will begin thinking right at that point that he begins to slice and speed up.The past couple of times I've been out at Cathy's, I set him up to go the opposite direction of the draw (so he will be more likely to slice). I send him and walk (walk, not run) toward the sheep but just as he begins to speed up/alter his trajectory, I growl a "hey." He is starting to check himself now, which results in a very nice approach and lift. This strategy is not very different from what I've been told to do by top clinicians in the past, but I think the reason it is working now, apart from my improving timing, is that I've established a bit more presence with him—now he actually hears me when I'm not screeching at him.

Darci Gunter and Anna Guthrie have suggested that speeding up and slicing is often done out of fear and not liking the pressure of being close to the sheep. Taz is indeed a pressure-sensitive dog, but I'm not sure how this figures in to his behavior. In any case, I think the solution is the same, no matter what the cause is—some how, some way, I need to be able to slow Taz down at the top.

Of course, I don't know if this is truly going to be the fix I've been working toward. Time will tell. And even if it is, I think Taz may always have to be redirected on his outrun. But I don't mind that because as long as I can get him to slow down and think while he's moving, we can progress as a team. Such is the journey for a novice handler with a novice dog ;-)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Amazing weekend in the mountains!

Last weekend, I packed up all three of my dogs for a weekend of house, dog, and sheep sitting for a friend. She's got six sheep in her little pen, and she usually works them on the lower edge of her vertical property, which she's carefully cleared of sagebrush and scrub. I was very excited about working new sheep in an unfamiliar (to my dogs) area. I was also a little nervous about having no backup in case anything went wrong, since this cleared area abutted the road without any fences. Control would be very important, and this is something I sometimes don't have as much of as I'd like with Mr. Taz.

I worked Craig first, since I definitely had more control over him and he was more predictable in his actions. We let four sheep out of the pen, and they immediately took off in every direction. Yikes! I sent Craig and he gathered them immediately and all of them took off at run down the drive toward the clearing (and the road). I lied Craig down and held my breath. And the sheep stopped! I exhaled with relief, and Craig drove them nicely down to the clearing. Phew! These were good sheep :)

Craig and I did a bunch of driving and a few outruns. I continued working on making sure he was taking shorter flanks. We did pretty well, and I relaxed a bunch. Craig was enjoying working in a new place, I think, and he was pretty tuned in to me and responsive. The sheep went where he put them, and the draw was back up to their pen, not the road. We worked once a day all three days we were there, and, as usual with Craig, he worked better the more we worked.

I hoped I'd have as good an experience with Taz. The last (and only other) time I worked Taz here, we lost the sheep in the woods by the house and had a heck of a time getting them back. That was a while ago, though, and I knew Taz has come a long way since then. And I was right!

On Friday, the first time I worked him, Taz listened to me well as we brought the sheep back down the drive, but he was going pretty fast. I took the cap I was wearing and slapped it against my thigh as I told him to take his time. Taz's pace is usually fast, and I've never had much luck consistently slowing him down. This worked like a charm, though. He looked at me in surprise and checked himself. He slowed himself down a bunch, and for the rest of the weekend, any time I said "time," he slowed his pace! Amazing!

That was not the only amazing thing Taz did. He was like the best version of himself this weekend—he did everything well. His outruns were wide and relaxed, his slicing was greatly reduced, he was picking up sheep in the woods with no direction from me and bringing them back to my feet, his driving was straight and sure, he was taking inside flanks, and he was stopping on a dime. (Well, not on a dime, exactly, but fairly quickly.) He did not hesitate at all. I never got at all frustrated with him—he was working so well, the emotion I was feeling was closer to elation—and both of us were relaxed and having fun.

I kind of can't believe it. Maybe it's the sheep, maybe it's the unfamiliar setup (so no history of either of us working poorly here), maybe it's that he is finally starting to put everything together? I so hope it is that he is really putting things together, but I don't want to get my hopes up too much there. I know it is usually one step forward, two steps back. He is still not quite ready for a pro-novice course, as his outruns are still fairly short and he can't really cross drive yet. But this weekend definitely gave me a huge confidence boost, and reminded me why I like to spend so much time in the middle of remote fields with my dogs surrounded by sheep :)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Meh. A little discouraging. For now.

I've gone out a few times since my lessons with Faansie. Twice I went to Steve and Lynn's to work their Cheviots, with mixed results. The first time, the guard llama was in the pen with the ewes, and he wasn't so hot on the idea of a dog coming in to take a few away to work. This llama does not like dogs—actually it was a bad incident with Craig that caused him to dislike dogs in the first place—so we worked a few of the lambs and goats instead. Since lambs and goats are not ideal, we were able to sort off the goats and move them back into the arena so we could work just the lambs. Still, they were difficult for Taz to handle in a very controlled manner, and Craig and I struggled a bit as well, though we were able to move the sheep around the course. Craig hurt his foot when we were working, though, so the second time I went out I brought only Taz.

The sheep and the llama were in the big field, which we never work in because there are a lot of prairie dog holes. I almost always use Craig when sorting or getting sheep out to work, since he's so good at it and he loves it. But since he wasn't here now, it was up to Taz. I was a little nervous about relying on him, but I also thought it might be good for him to do some practical work for a change. The sheep moved closer to the llama when we arrived, and the entire group started moving further and further away from the gate. This wasn't getting us anywhere. So I called Taz and thought about sending him. They were getting pretty far away from us by now, though, and I wasn't sure I wanted to send Taz to pick sheep off a llama that might fight him when I was too far away to help. So I played it safe, and we made a long wide arc around the sheep and llama, and when we got around them, they turned back in the direction of the gate. So we drove them forward a bit, and they spread out enough for me to send Taz to pick up some of the sheep, yet leave enough with the llama that he didn't try to drive him off and get those sheep back. Taz was all business and brought the sheep through the gate without any problems at all. What a good boy!

We practiced the corner exercise in the arena with pretty good results and then brought the sheep over to the other field to work. It's often a pain to bring the sheep to this field because there is a big pile of dirt right in front of the gate, and the sheep have figured out that they can split up and catch the dog out as he races from one side of the pile to the other, trying to be in two places at once to push them forward. But Taz was smarter than the sheep, and he surprised them by going over the dirt pile. I swear I could see the surprise on the faces of the sheep as they marched to the gate, mumbling "yes, sir, we're moving right along, sir."

We started out with some walkabouts. He was a bit tight, but I had a rolled up newspaper and threw it between Taz and the sheep and he jumped back again. He then stayed well off the sheep, but he began hesitating a bit. He seemed a little unsure, but perhaps he was just working things out in his head. He moved to cover the sheep when I wooshed him along, and we moved on to outruns. His outruns were reasonably successful—he was usually wide enough to be respectable, but I did lie him down a few times when he left too straight. This resulted in his hesitation returning a bit—not all the time, but he hesitated on maybe three outruns. I tried not to let that frustrate me, and I was able to get him moving again easily enough by telling him to get out of it. We moved on to driving, with me walking parallel with him, and this he did just fine.

A couple of days later, I took a lesson with Cathy, and she worked with us on driving and inside flanks. We worked in her arena, driving sheep along the fenceline and then criss-crossing it while accounting for the strong draw. Taz seems to have forgotten his inside flanks altogether. Plus, I was so used to driving with Craig that I kept forgetting to say "here" before asking for an inside flank (since Craig doesn't need that helpful cue before taking an inside flank). Taz listened a bit better to Cathy than to me, but he still had a strong tendency to take the inside flank only so far before stopping and walking in on the sheep wherever he thought he should (not necessarily where the handler thought he should). And then it was difficult to get him to unlock from the sheep. Still, we made progress; by the end of the lesson, at least he was taking most of his inside flanks again, if not perfectly.

I worked him myself at her place last Tuesday, and things did not go so well here. I started with the corner exercise, but I worked him in the corner opposite the draw. This may not have been the best idea. First one sheep squirted away, and though Taz went to cover her initially, he gave up when she kept running. She ran the entire length of the field we were in all the way to the gate. I wasn't sure if I should focus Taz on getting this runaway sheep or just let her go. I sort of tried to get him to get her before giving up and continuing the exercise with the remaining sheep. When another sheep did the exact same thing, I gave up, but I admit I was frustrated. I forgot all of Faansie's advice about not showing my frustration to Taz, and though we moved on to other things the rest of our session was not fantastic. We did some outruns (Taz was moderately wide) and some driving (he took some inside flanks), and I was happy to tie him up and do some work with Craig. We did some driving, and we were definitely not as sharp as we've been in the past. Nothing terrible, and we worked better the more we worked, but I think my own state of mind was hampering Craig's work as well. Eventually my hour was up and I went home a bit discouraged.

I had another lesson with Cathy a couple of days later, and I told her more about my lesson with Faansie. She was happy to try to work with me on some of the things I did with Faansie, and we began with the corner exercise again. This time was much more successful, with Taz coming straight in and then mostly covering the sheep as they squirted out. He still did need some encouragement to cover them sometimes, but he did better the more he worked. We did some more driving practice and some outruns, and things went pretty well, but Cathy had to remind me that repeating commands three and four times when Taz wasn't taking them was not an effective way to show Taz what I wanted from him. Too often I stand and just repeat commands when I should be changing my position or moving forward to present different cues for him so he better understands what he should be doing. I've only been told this six hundred times...

Sometimes it seems as though I am learning this at an impossibly slow rate, and it will never come naturally to me. I was about to house/pet/sheep sit for a friend in the mountains, and I was nervous about working her unfamiliar sheep on her unfenced property. Things seemed to go well enough when I was working with someone more experienced, but I wasn't very confident in our progress when I worked the dogs on my own.

I was very pleasantly surprised, though. We didn't do so bad. Actually, we did really well :)
I'm exhausted right now, so I'll write about our amazing weekend in the mountains tomorrow...

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Lessons with Faansie Basson, Sept. 15 & 16, 2008

Once again, I have fallen behind on the blog updates. So I'll attempt to catch up yet again.

Let's see...first, the lessons with Faansie.

What presence Faansie has ;-)

I had two lessons with him, on consecutive days, about two weeks after his clinic. He told me straight away that he could see that I'd been working hard with Taz during those two weeks, but he thought I was now being too tough on him! It seems I have begun to get inside Taz's head after all and had to now take some of that pressure off him. No more confrontations. He said Taz and I sometimes do a bit of mental arguing, and I have to be careful to find ways to get in his head without adding fuel to the fire.

Okay, well enough, but what does that mean in a practical sense? Well, we started the lesson by doing the corner exercise, with me in the corner and Taz pushing five or six sheep into me. He gathered them and then I had him walk up slowly, lie down, and walk up some more, so he was pushing into them, making them squirm and start to fight. He was a little reluctant to push in right at first, which puzzled Faansie, as Taz is such a pushy line dog, until I told him about the "other" corner exercises I'd been doing with Cathy, where he was encouraged not to come in straight, but to flank to the sides and come around between the sheep and the fence. He told me to work on this instead, make sure he pushes in and willingly flanks on either side to cover all of his sheep as they squirt out. Slowly I made my way out of the corner to one side. Taz was then a little reluctant to flank around when I was outside of the corner, especially in the off balance direction. Faansie told me to watch my body language: If I am facing him with my shoulders square, that puts a lot of pressure on him and he won't want to walk into that pressure. If I move to the side or drop a shoulder, that will encourage him to go in the direction I'm facing. After a bit of practice, Taz took his flanks, both on and off balance. This is what Faansie was after with Taz. He said Taz is a confident, powerful dog, but he doesn't understand how to really use his power yet. Again, he reiterated that Taz's early ideas about covering sheep somehow got screwed up and so I need to remind him how important this is. So he told me to practice this with Taz from time to time to keep him tuned up.

Along the same lines, we also did some more walkabouts on the field, switching directions and moving back, so Taz was forced to cover his sheep and bring them to me. Woosh him if he's not covering, acht if he overflanks. Don't even give him flank commands. It's baby stuff, but he didn't get any of it when he was a baby, so he needs this remedial covering 101. I lamented how walkabouts were fun for Taz, but kind of stressful for me because Taz just got faster and closer to the sheep until we were barely moving. Faansie was surprised to hear this (since Taz worked so far off us when he was around). He told me Taz always needs to go at my pace, not the other way around. So he stepped aside and sure enough, Taz picked up his pace and got much tighter on the sheep. Faansie told me to throw the taped feedbag between Taz and the sheep when he got too close. So I did, and Taz immediately jumped back twenty feet. Faansie told me to do this right when we changed direction, too, since that was when Taz was tempted to slice in. I did and he again jumped back. And then he stayed well off the sheep, giving us both much more room to move. This is one way to show him that slicing on an outrun wasn't correct. Faansie said Taz is soft enough that I probably only will have to do this a couple of times for him to truly "get it," if I time it right, and to pair it with a "hey" or something, so I can eventually just say "hey" and he'll move off the sheep. He told me to be very careful with the feedbag and do not overuse it, since he does respect it so much. For one thing, I don't want him to lose that respect, but I also do not want to turn him off. I don't think I would ever turn Taz off, but he is soft enough that I don't want to completely overwhelm him. (He did once turn off completely when confronted with a lot of pressure from a Big Hat clinician, and I am now ever mindful of that potential with him.) Faansie told me he recognized that Taz didn't do anything to try to be "bad," or disobey me, or even challenge me really, but he does sometimes feel a lot of pressure from me and reacts accordingly. A lot of it is that I do not always know exactly and/or convey clearly what I want from him, and when I get frustrated, he senses that and gets upset. But if it ever becomes too much for him, stop what I'm doing, call him in, give him a pat, and let him know it's okay. So if he feels the pressure too much, let him know he's okay. And that should reset both of us. But used correctly, these tactics are how to get inside Taz's head without "arguing" with him. No yelling. No nagging. No running up at him. No need to be unduly physical. The more I can affect his behavior while remaining cool and in control of my emotions, the more my dog will respect me.

The other way to address his slicing is to send him, lie him down right before he slices, walk up in a straight line to the sheep just a few steps or even until I am the same distance from the sheep as he is if necessary and resend him demanding the same wide casting out that I now expect in any outrun. One thing that I'd been letting him do since the clinic is, when he starts tight and I lie him down in response, I let him kick himself out instead of lying down. Since I was only lying him down to ultimately resend him wider anyway, I thought this was okay. Faansie told me it was not okay. If I tell him to lie down, he needs to stop entirely and only move when I tell him to go. If I really just want him to recast farther out, I do not need to always tell him to lie down, I can woosh him or reflank him or tell him to get out of it or whatever—but if I do tell him to lie down, he needs to lie down every time. Okay, good to know.

We also did a bit of driving, and though Taz can drive reasonably well in a straight line, Faansie wanted me to walk parallel with him (never getting in front of him), so that he never has to look back at me for instruction or reassurance. And that's all we had time for. We had planned to work on inside flanks and then do some shedding, but unfortunately it got dark too soon. Faansie may come out next year, so we can pick up again then. (At least as far as shedding practice goes, there's no big hurry, I guess—it's not like we'll be running in open between now and then ;-)

My next posts will describe my attempts to follow all of this advice. Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Photos from the National Finals

I went to the Finals in Sturgis, SD, last week and it was amazing. I met some terrific people and saw some amazing dogs! I took some pictures, but because I was volunteering (scribing and helping with the exhausting), I only got a chance to photograph a few of the runs. But here's a sampling of them:

Dan Keeton and Bingo

Don Helsley and Cap

Larry Adams and Mirk

Marilyn Terpstra's Gin

Libby Nieder and Lyn

Scott Glen and Maid

Dennis Gellings and Jan

Jennifer Clark-Ewers and Sweep

Laura Hicks and Jag

Handlers watching under the tent

Laura and Hub discuss business, while Denice looks on

Sheep were rambioullets

Exhausted sheep moving along

to join their buddies

Judges' tent

The 18 finalists were introduced to the crowd. Here, Don Helsley, Patrick Shannahan, Ron Burkey, Scott Glen, and Amanda Milliken are making their way onto the field.

Set out crew coming down from the hill for the opening ceremony

I spent a lot of time being "Bucket Girl," or, more affectionately, "Bo Peep." We used two sets of three bottle lambs as a draw for the trial rambioullets coming off the field into the exhaust pen, where we removed collars and sent them on their way. One of my jobs was to lure the bottle lambs around with the grain :-)

You can see a few more here. I had a lot of fun, and I look forward to going again, maybe one day as a competitor!

Friday, September 19, 2008


It's been a while since I've updated. So much has happened that it became difficult to know where to begin once I fell a little behind. But I'll try to remember everything. I worked Taz and Craig a few more times right after Faansie's clinic.

Taz and Craig are ready to work!

A couple of times were at B&I's place; both days were about the same. Things did not go so well—the sheep there are so light and really just want to run back to the draw, so it was difficult to insist on a proper outrun with Taz because in doing so the sheep would get away. Craig was able to compensate well enough to drive okay, but he was listening to me less and covering more (maybe this is a good lesson for me in reading sheep, though). The second time, I tried to bring the sheep far out into the pasture, but the sheep were just. not. flocking. and in trying to cover all of them as they split up, Craig invariably lost them back to the barn. I'm going to have to figure something else out.

I worked them again at Steve and Lynn's with Elaine a couple of times as well. These sheep are better behaved. The first time we went out, things didn't go so well for us. I just didn't have it together or something. My driving with Craig was awful. I was slow to give him commands and didn't really enforce anything, so he did a lot of overflanking because he wasn't taking my stops very well. This resulted in a lot of back and forth motion, not really getting a rhythm going. I think having Elaine standing next to me makes me a little more tentative when I'm working Craig because he used to be her dog. Larry was there also, working Raid and Mirk in preparation for the National Finals, and Elaine asked him to demonstrate driving with Raid (who is Craig's half-sister after all) to show me how to not use flank commands so much when driving so I can avoid the excessive back and forth motion I'd gotten with Craig. He was happy to oblige, but he ended up showing me something else entirely. It seems Raid likes to guard against the draw (hello Taz), so the command Larry mostly used as they were driving northwest was come bye, because the sheep wanted to go to the northeast corner. So although the draw was in one direction, Larry worked to place his dog in the opposite direction because his dog naturally covered and she would have turned them back if he didn't actively place her behind the sheep in the other direction. So he kept her on a come bye line the whole way because she was slowly covering the away side herself. The result was a perfect line through the panels. I don't know how well I'm explaining this, but it kind of rocked my world. Instead of looking at driving as an action-reaction exercise, I saw that Larry understood what his dog was likely to do and then handled the entire drive as a whole to compensate for/work with Raid's working style. Brilliant! This is the difference between training and handling! Elaine told me to pay attention to how Larry was able to set up a nice flow for Raid—he didn't do a lot of stopping and starting and having the sheep change direction abruptly. I know this is something I need to work on.

Craig works so much better when I'm confident and in charge!

And when I worked Taz, he was no longer leaving my feet very wide. I was losing my presence again. I walked toward the sheep and then over to him slowly and placed my hands on the scruff of his neck and growled at him to widen out. (I hate doing this. I am so soft.) He did bend out after that, but I had to kick him out with another "get out" command, and he began hesitating a little again, too. Eep. Things were not going well.

We took a break and Elaine and I went to get something to eat and talked about what I was trying to accomplish with each dog. Coming back, I had a clear plan and much better results! This time, Elaine watched Craig and I driving from afar, and we did much better. We definitely had a flow going, and there wasn't much back-and-forth. We hit the panels most of the time, and the pace was good. Hooray! With Taz, I don't really know what the difference was, but he was working much, much wider again. He still needed a redirect after taking a step or two, but he kicked himself way out again. Elaine thinks the difference with both dogs in the afternoon was that I had a clear plan and was ready to take steps to make sure the dogs acted in accordance with that plan. That my whole demeanor was different. My presence was being restored ;-)

He looks pretty silly here, but he was all business once I was, too.

I worked them again another evening last week myself and we had another good session. I was hopeful and feeling pretty good about their work, and ready to take another couple of lessons with Faansie after my trip to South Dakota to watch and volunteer at the Finals. I had a great time there, by the way. I'll post some pictures in a separate post. And I'll post about my lessons with Faansie separately, too—there's much to report about my plan for Taz!

More soon!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Still working well—but not getting away with anything

I went out to B&I's place this morning, and we had another productive session. I worked Craig first in the big field first, and Craig seems to have adjusted a bit more to the behavior of the sheep. The sheep still wanted to run back to the barn at every opportunity, but Craig stayed far enough off them to not allow them to fake back and forth anymore. We were actually driving the sheep today, as opposed to just sort of preventing them from returning to the barn, which is what we mostly did on Tuesday. We drove the sheep straight back to the little pen, let them enter the little pen and then gathered them back out, and then drove perpendicular nearly to the road. I walked with Craig as he drove, staying maybe 50 to 100 yards away. We did fine, driving straight, lying down, and correcting where necessary, until we turned back toward the general direction of the barn. Then, the sheep did just want to run back, and I didn't want to totally exhaust Craig, so we let them go. I did have to endure Craig giving me the stink eye several times as we walked back up the field, but once we reached the general area of the sheep huddled next to the fence by the barn I let him gather them up to bring into the arena to make up for it.

Next up was Taz. He continued to do crazy wide outruns. Who is this dog, and what has he done with Taz? I'm so excited! We did some balance work (which is tough with these sheep, since the draw to the direction of the barn in the northeast corner is so strong for them) and some driving, including some inside flanks. He is still slicing, as I reported earlier, which causes him to overflank at the top, and his lie downs were less than snappy. As soon as I realized he was merely slowing down or simply taking several additional steps before hitting his belly, I sent him, told him to lie down at the top, and when he didn't do it immediately, I repeated the command and slapped the empty water bottle against my thigh at the same time. He was down like a shot. His downs were much better after that. It's nice when he actually responds to my training efforts so perceptably. I was really feeling pretty good about Taz's outruns—at least the way he was leaving my side up until he sliced his flanks at the top, which again I'm hoping to fix with Faansie—so I went the length of the arena and decided to send him to gather the sheep, who were smooshed in the corner closest to the barn. I think if we were in an open field, he would have been fine, but he ran nice and wide until he reached them and then crossed in front of them! Taz never crosses, so I was surprised, and then he ignored my commands to lie down. It was like he lost his mind completely. I told him to lie down again, and he took it, and I made my way over to him, stopping to walk slowly toward him once I reached his direct line of vision (as opposed to coming at him from behind him a little, which might encourage chasing). Then, I let him know that I was not happy with him. We set it up again much closer, and his outrun was perfect. I decided to end it there, not wanting to undo the good work we'd done earlier, and I decided to work Craig one more time in the arena.

We did some driving in this more controlled area. I mostly used whistles (at some point I suppose I should start to train Taz on whistles), and with some back and forth, we drove the sheep to the northwest corner of the arena. I began a cross drive to the southwest side, and this was much tougher, since the sheep wanted to bend back in the direction of the northeast corner. Even with the draw, we should have been to handle this cross drive easily, and I realized we were having problems because Craig was not taking the short flanks I was giving him. Instead he wanted to do bigger, more sweeping flanks. So I let him return the sheep to me and we backed up to the fenceline. Here, I flanked him to bring the sheep back and forth, stopping him after two steps, ten steps, thirty steps, and changing directions randomly. I thought this might help him more a bit more responsive to my commands to stop and reflank him. It was hot and the sheep were panting pretty heavily by then, so I decide to wait until next time to see what effect this remedial work had on Craig. I think it will help, though, as he got better the more we did it.

All in all, I feel pretty good about what we did today. Craig worked better in the field than he had the last time we were out, and we zeroed in on a problem and worked to correct it in the arena. Taz had a tough time on that one outrun, which was difficult to begin with, but we dealt with it. His stops improved. His flanks are consistently wide—I did not have to stop him to push him out at all. So far, so good, then :-)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Maintaining our path on the right track

I've worked Taz twice since the clinic, once in Bill's arena and once at B&I's place, and we have done really, really well. He is continuing to move off me when I send him, and I am able to lie him down and have him kick way out with just a look. Also, I carried an empty water bottle and slapped it against my thigh once each time to remind him to stay behind me as we walked toward the sheep, and he jumped back each time and then didn't need telling again. To be honest, I really wouldn't care so much about him jumping ahead of me, but I think in his case it really does serve as a reminder that he needs to keep me well in the picture while he works. As Scott Glen says, he needs to be a little worried about me, from time to time. I think he is now. Before last weekend, I don't think he was at all, and I kind of liked that, in a "I love my doggy and don't want him to fear me" kind of way. I still don't want him to fear me, of course (and I'm confident he never will truly fear me), but I do need for him to not want to be in trouble with me, so he will override what he wants to do when it conflicts with what I want him to do more consistently. I hope this time, we'll make lasting steps forward. Faansie comes back in a couple of weeks to give lessons, and I hope then we can work on Taz's slicing. He told me how to work on this—pretty much do the same thing I've been doing when he leaves my feet too tight, so lie him down and mean business to get him to give ground, but I'd like to do it a few times with Faansie to sort of set it correctly in my head first. In the meantime, I can work on sending him from my feet and making sure he at least begins his outrun correctly.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Faansie Basson clinic report

I went to a Faansie Basson clinic yesterday and today. It was really good! Faansie is pretty laid back, yet extremely present. He is intense when necessary, but he is able to adjust his techniques and the level of pressure he places on the dog for each dog he works with. He made sure everyone understood what was going on with each dog, and he worked hard to make sure each dog's owner was truly clear about what they were doing and how they were trying to achieve their goals. I think everyone learned a lot. It was truly an enjoyable and very productive clinic!

Faansie told me all of Taz's problems can be distilled into one issue: my lack of sufficient presence. As crushing as it is to hear, Taz simply does not respect me enough to move off me. Faansie could make him move out 30 feet with just a glance, but it's a lot harder for me to get Taz to give ground. (Thus, he's tight, he slices, he's too pushy, his pace is too fast, etc., etc., etc. All the same issue. All can be solved fairly easily if I can get him to move off me.) However, he doesn't want me to run at him or yell at him or do any of the other things I've tried to do to get him to listen to me in the past that have clearly not been very effective. Instead, I need to "get in his head." He had me walk very slowly toward him, facing him full on, looking him square in the eye, and basically mean business about not accepting anything less than what I ask for. It's pretty hard for me—I'm constantly afraid I'm doing something wrong or somehow screwing him up (especially since he began his hesitation business), and that lack of confidence is undermining my authority with Taz. So I worked at it a bit, and by the end of the clinic today, I was able to get Taz to give ground by taking just a step or two toward him, and he was bending off me very nicely when I sent him. He was still slicing a bit and coming in a bit fast on the fetch, but if I apply the same pressure, we should be able to get past that. I have to be careful working on this, though, because it does put a lot of pressure on him, so I have to take breaks and do fun stuff with him, like balancing in the field, driving, etc.

In addition, as a complete aside, we solved the issue of Taz jumping around in front of me as we walk out onto the field in about twenty seconds by making him stay behind him with a feed bag slapped against his thigh. He did this every time Taz jumped ahead and Taz stopped in his tracks and scrambled back. After a few steps, I used the feedbag with the same results. Then I just needed to say "get back" and he would get back. The last time we went out today, he never even tried to get ahead of me. Um, wow.

So I'm pretty happy. He told me lots of very nice things about Taz—that he was one of the most talented dogs at the clinic, I wasn't ruining him (as I feared I was), he really liked him, and he would win trials with Taz if he had him. He also told me to be very careful about doing any kind of circling exercise with him, because he has a tendency to orbit mindlessly (I knew that, but did it anyway!), and to be careful about "get back" exercises. He thinks I should encourage Taz to learn/understand how to feel for that sort of thing on his own. Also, he told me I should stop "trying on" every approach I hear about, and stick to the one that makes the most sense to me and has the most effect on Taz. And I know he's right about that.

I finally feel like I have a plan, which is what I've been missing for a long time. Happy happy!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Working our way back...

I met Larry at Steve and Lynn's place bright and early Monday morning. It's an hour and a half drive each way, and I knew I wouldn't have very much time to work, but I was looking forward to working somewhere relatively new. The sheep were very light and wanted to run. This is great practice, since the sheep we're most used to working with at Bill's are very heavy.

Larry set five sheep for me and Taz maybe 125 yards away. I sent him with absolutely no idea what he'd do. He ran super tight, so I lied him down and gave him a redirect. He was still tight and sliced heavily. Aargh. We tried again, with similar results, and I tried calling him back to me to start over. He didn't get much wider (a little, perhaps) but he did start hesitating again. Aaaaack. Larry suggested we move the sheep into a fenced corner of the field and send Taz to get them from about 100 yards away. I did, and he was tight again. This time, Larry suggested lining him up correctly (so Taz was facing out) and taking a few steps in front of him before sending him and then walking up toward the sheep. I did this, and Taz immediately kicked himself much, much further out. YAY! It seems to me that Taz understands that he should be further out, but sometimes something happens to push him back to his default tightness, and then he simply needs a little reminder that he should be further out. It's like he was saying, "Oh! Right, I'm supposed to be out here, sorry 'bout that." I tried this a few more times, on both sides, and he was wide as long as I set him up this way. We moved back toward the center of the field, with Larry and Raid holding the sheep again, and I set him up the same way as we'd done in the corner. He again ran nice and wide (though he still sliced at the top). I was too happy that he was at least running wide again to correct him for the slice (though Larry warned me not to let him get away with slicing either). I know I shouldn't let him slice, but I just feel like I can't do everything at once. He'd lost his outrun entirely over the weekend, and I just wanted to get back to some semblance of a proper outrun. Taz was getting tired, and I was running out of time, so I decided to let Craig work for the rest of my time out. Taz and I would tackle his slicing next time. Maybe at Faansie's clinic later this week.

I had told Larry about our disastrous runs over the weekend, and I asked him to watch Craig and I drive for a while. We ran through the panels on the course set up in the field, then worked closer in, doing square patterns and then randomly moving around. As poorly as we did at the trial is as good we did driving now. We really did pretty well. Craig was listening to me (well, he didn't always take the first lie down, but he always slowed down, which is usually what I actually wanted—I'm going to have to start enforcing my "time" command, so I can go back to having "lie down" actually mean lie down again). He gave me nice short flanks when I asked for them and was generally relaxed and responsive. Larry told me my timing was fine and I was really improving. WTF? How could we look so bad over the weekend and so good now? Well, Craig knows this field and these sheep very well, for one thing, as he spent a lot of time here working with Elaine. Both of us were obviously much more relaxed. The weather was a lot better. I guess all these things make a difference.

We also did a little shedding, which was way fun! The sheep were separating pretty easily, so it was a good opportunity for me to practice calling Craig in and having him walk up on the rear set of sheep. Heh, Larry joked that with the right sheep, Craig and I could run open. Someday we might. In the meantime, I regained a bunch of the confidence I'd lost over the weekend. I'm really glad we went out!