Sunday, January 20, 2008


Pam and I went out to Mindy's ranch yesterday. Mindy has a great little place near Kiowa—well, it's hundreds of acres, so it's not so little, I guess. We had our choice of working in a giant field, a big pasture, an arena, or a fairly small pen. I immediately wanted to work in the big, open areas, since that's so much easier for my pressure-sensitive dogs. But Mindy, whose Wiz is similarly pressure-sensitive, recommended the smallest pen. Informed by her expertise with horses, Mindy is a firm believer in getting things perfect in smaller areas before moving to larger ones, and that if you don't have good control on your dog in the pen, you can't count on it in the field. Taz actually listens to me better in big areas, but anyone who has watched us work can attest that my control on him is not exactly what one would call "firm." In addition, he doesn't yet have much flexibility in the tighter areas, and this is something I should work on.

Mindy defined flexibility to be loose enough to readily go around the stock either way, stop on a dime, and generally be responsive to whatever is being asked. I hadn't ever thought in these terms before, and I realized that Taz isn't very flexible at all. Especially in closer areas, he prefers to hold the pressure and tends to then home in on the stock when he gets close to them. He also works in double speed and tends to be reactive instead of proactive.

Much, if not most, of this is my fault. I have not felt so awkward as I did yesterday in years. Because the space is so much smaller, everything happens much quicker, and my pea-brain can't work out what I want to see happen quickly enough. I hesitate, and then Taz locks in, or he stops and starts abruptly because I'm not fast enough to establish an easy flow. I also bring on trouble by often stopping Taz short, so he's not covering them when I ask him to lie down. I have a bit of trouble enforcing it at times, because he knows it's not right and he ends up just getting nervous that the sheep are getting away. This is probably one reason we work better in bigger areas—it's easier for me to stop him when he's covering because he's off them enough to stop a bit out of position and still retain control. I need to stop placing the dog where I think he needs to be and remember to look at what the sheep are doing while working the dogs and react accordingly. Ask for a change in the dog's behavior or position when the stock turn their heads or begin to change direction at all. Finally, I need to stop allowing Taz and Craig to work by themselves while I'm otherwise engaged. This is counter-productive and I need to prioritize stopping this behavior. Phew, lots to think about!

Mindy said she had recently come to some of the same realizations of herself and Wiz (as far as working in tight areas goes), so she recognized the problems we were having and coached us for a while. She suggested exercises such as putting the sheep in a corner, then standing between the dog and the sheep and sending the dog on both sides to peel them off until the dog was working slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. We also moved the sheep around the sides of the pen, putting them into each corner before moving on. It was surprisingly tough! This was especially difficult on the corner where the puppies (Callie and Willem) and Craig were tied up, as the sheep obviously wanted no part of entering that particular area. We never did conquer that corner, but we were eventually able to stay sort of close to the fence and move around in a semi-orderly fashion.

I found that we were most successful when I had a definite plan in place before I sent Taz. I mean, this is probably pretty obvious, but I usually think one step ahead of what I want to see, and yesterday I found that I really need to think two or three steps ahead or I'd get stuck (I need to work on my own flexibility as well). This is so so true with whitewater kayaking, so it makes sense here, too. Also, figure out what I want to do—then look at Taz, get ready to send, and send. Stop the endless prepping with him ready to go—that just builds pressure for him so that when he does eventually go, he's like a cork being sprung.

I'd like to continue to work on all of this with Taz. It's too bad Mindy lives so far from me! I can set it up at Bill's though, if I ever get back there. And Bill did have me doing some of these exercises the last time I was out there, before we had to stop due to the endless snow at his place (and word on the street is that enough has finally melted so I can start back up there again, hooray!). However, I think the biggest lesson for me today was this idea of flexibility. It's the underlying principle to learn in doing these exercises.

I did work Craig a bit, too, in the arena, and here I was able to pay a bit more attention to where he was positioning himself. There was a very strong draw back to the barn, so I could send him on these small outruns and really notice how he was covering them. I was surprised, because I did tend to think he was overdoing it, but the sheep would come directly to my feet each time. So where I thought he should be was not correct; Craig was correct. It was the same with driving, but here Craig does tend to overdo it or underdo it (I couldn't detect a definite pattern, though I may simply need to spend more time watching for this), so I need to be able to help him find the sweet spot. This is why he turns them back to me—he just over- or underdoes it on the pressure side a bit too much. I definitely need to play around with this!

Unfortunately, Craig couldn't work too long (we worked for about 20-25 minutes), as I noticed some blood in the snow and realized two of his paws were bleeding. Poor Craig, he really doesn't do so well in the snow. Even though this snow was not icy at all, his paws are a little more delicate I guess. I'll have to remember this and keep his work times shorter if we're working in the snow.

Anyway, a great time was had by all. Pam and Wink made some progress as well, and I left feeling pretty elated at discovering this idea of flexibility and knowing we can work on it with these different exercises. Thanks Mindy!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rock stars!

Yesterday was supposed to be the last warmish day in Colorado for a while, so I decided to take the dogs out to Cathy's. I wanted to work on the top of Taz's outrun again and spend some time with Craig just doing close-ish drive aways with me strongly enforcing his stop. After Saturday's craziness, I figured I might have a difficult time with both dogs adjusting to me again really laying down the law.

Well, they surprised me :-)

Taz did phenomenal outruns! He was super wide at the bottom and did flatten a little at the top, but still came in fairly far behind the sheep. What the...? Okay, so I decided to work on that bit of flattening, and I lied him down. He didn't strongly kick himself out, so I growled the "Get out of that!" and then he kicked himself way out! Unbelievable! This is one of those very rare days where I feel like this is easy! I don't know if it's because we were in Cathy's pasture again (rather than the bigger, more open alfalfa field) or that Cathy was the one holding, or just that he had maybe been thinking about what happened on Saturday or what, but Taz's outruns looked terrific yesterday.

His lifts were sometimes a bit messy, though, especially if I had lied him down in the middle of his flank. He'd wing and wang a little before getting things going, and often I had to lie him down again and let the sheep get some distance before he could bring them forward. His fetches were also not stellar. He was too close and fast most of the time, but I was able to slow him down some of the time with a few "hey"s. I'll have to work on this next, I guess, though I saw this as slight progress as well, since I am usually only able to get him to stop altogether on the fetch, rather than slowing him down. This felt like the some progress in his pace development. His turns around the imaginary post looked pretty good, too—not so fast and choppy. All in all, he really looked good.

Craig also looked terrific! He was listening to me much, much better from the get go. Even so, I did enforce the lie downs pretty strongly at first, which resulted in him not blowing me off so much throughout the rest of the session. We did a few outruns to keep things fun and light, and his outruns were absolutely flawless. Craig is so pretty to watch when he's correct and running confidently. He brought the sheep right to my feet without so much as a "take time" from me. Driving was a little more difficult, of course, but not so much of a fight. When he did get too close to the heads, I tried to just check him first, and often he would self-correct (as he had done for Mark, but not at all for me on Saturday). If that wasn't enough, I'd flank him. Sometimes he went too far, but we didn't have too much back and forth and we were usually able to recover. We did a nice cross drive and then ended our session with a successful pen!

It was so much fun! I was proud of my dogs and myself, too, though today really was mostly the dogs shining. I am going to try to make it out twice a week this winter—see if I can pick up a time during the week and one on the weekends, too. I think what also probably helped the dogs today is simply that it was only a couple of days between work sessions and we all could actually retain some of the lessons we learned the last time out!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Same song, fifty-second verse...

Despite feeling like I just wanted to crawl under a rock and lay as low as possible for the past two weeks with the misery-making flu-cold deathbug, my dogs finally stood around staring at me intensely enough to get me out of bed. As tolerant as they are, border collies cannot be expected to do nothing for days on end just because I feel like crap. I took them for a short hike in the morning with Elaine and puppy Callie (yeah, short, and pretty flat; nonetheless, I was wheezing and gasping for breath at times as my sluggish system adjusted to, um, moving again). At any rate, after getting some yummy sustenance at the Mexican Express Grille, I decided not to stop there, and we went to work Craig, Taz, Ben, and even puppy Callie for a bit at Cathy's.

Despite the six-inch-deep crystallized snow in places, we worked about eight sheep in the big alfalfa field behind Cathy's pasture. The sheep were really nice to work—they were actually pretty heavy, and while they often tried to make their way back to the draw, they were not concerned with moving toward the handler at all. I worked Taz first. He was wiiiiiild. And fast. And tight and slicy. He was Zat, Taz's evil twin (you know, the dog who usually shows up for trials ;-).

I lied him down when he was slicing in, but he wasn't quite lying down when I asked him to and then when I reflanked him, he just kept going on the same trajectory. I got between him and the sheep, and it made a small difference, but not a dramatic one. I felt my own frustration grow and tried to get more insistent with the lie down by yelling (rather than taking a few steps toward him or even running up the field, if necessary, which I know works; my weak and feeble response was surely due to my debilitating illness) and felt the stress cycle begin. Fortunately, Elaine also could see what was going on and she came up to me and told me to relax and regroup. Breathe. Do not get mired in frustration when things aren't working; try something else. She suggested a simple "get out of that" warning growl to him when he starts to slice. And, voilĂ ! It did work to snap him out of it—he widened out again. I mean, he wasn't doing perfect outruns all of a sudden, but he did seem to realize that he should be kicking himself out again. Amazing.

This to me is what I have the biggest trouble with when working on my own—with both Taz and Craig. It seems like I have a tendency to get frustrated when things start to fall apart, and I don't immediately understand what I need to do to fix things. It's very helpful to have someone come in and sort of "reset" everything and put us back on track. But I have to figure out how to do this myself, or we'll never get anywhere!

I also tried to do what Mark suggested—get him back up right after I lied him down on the fetch, but it seemed to backfire today. He would just get even more amped and get way too close to the sheep. It wasn't working the way it did last week, so I lengthened his downs again. He just seemed to need a moment to settle before coming back up. Hmm, maybe he needs to be in the correct frame of mind first, and then I can ease up on the length of time he lies down. He did settle a bit after a while, but it wasn't ever pretty.

He then had kind of a hard time driving the sheep, which I haven't seen much of before. He would get close to them and they'd run, so I lied him down. Then he didn't want to move forward as eagerly as usual. Taz is not a dog I generally have to cajole, but I had to keep telling him to walk up. And he did, but he was definitely more hesitant than he has been in the past. I guess we usually work light, dogged sheep, so though he always looks very powerful, he hasn't been challenged too much. I'll have to try to find heavier sheep for him to work, I guess.

I was excited to work Craig next, and to command him less and pay attention to where he placed himself more. That lasted about three minutes, as he quickly showed me that commanding him less led to him turning the sheep right back to me when he was supposed to be driving them away. Rats! Similarly, saying his name, rather than giving him specific flank commands, did not work quite as well for me as it had for Mark last week. He was either ignoring me or "unwinding," a favorite practice where he moves a bit too far to the ewes' heads, tucks back in behind them when checked, but then immediately returns to the incorrect position he was in earlier. He would lie down about the third time I asked, when I was at the "demand" level (ask, insist, demand), which yesterday meant the yelling level :(

Elaine rescued us once again. She told me the same thing she tells me every time I work Craig. I cannot let him get away with not listening to me. It's true with Taz, too. Make an impression right off the bat by enforcing what I ask, and neither dog will blow me off later. I think Mark was able to get the results he got with Craig because Craig listened to him straight away. I have the ability to make Craig listen to me; I just can't be lazy and not enforce my commands or allow incorrect work. Once Elaine "reset" us, Craig began listening to me again.

I feel like what I need with Craig is the opportunity to work him by myself, with this in mind, for two or three sessions in a row, without a whole lot of time between sessions. We were on a bit of a roll before, but somehow our momentum got interrupted, and we are not quite on the same page these days. I don't think it will be difficult to get back to where we were, but this piecemeal working once every week or so is for the birds. We need to get back to a regular routine, and I need to rebuild a habit of enforcing my commands. Then we can start to progress.

I feel like I am always learning the same lesson. Why is it taking so long to sink in?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Lessons learned at the novice trial

Today was another novice trial, this time at Deb Terry's. I was a bit nervous for this trial—even though these trials are really low key and informal, meant more to be educational for novices just beginning to trial than truly competitive—I haven't worked my dogs in nearly a month. Taz in particular is not one of those dogs who seems to benefit from a bunch of time off, thinking about everything he has learned and then taking a leap forward in progress. And I wasn't sure about how Craig would react—I haven't had him long enough to know how he reacts when he's taken some time off. So I had no idea what to expect.

Both dogs did pretty well, though my craptastic handling hampered both of them. Mark Henderson was the judge, and he spent a lot of time with everyone during our practice runs. He seemed to really like Taz, and told me that Taz has a lot of natural ability, so I could help him by commanding him a bit less. He told me to give him full commands of "come bye" or "away to me" as I send him (rather than the shorthand "come" or "way" that I've adopted in an effort to slow him down), as the full phrase alone can help widen him out. Then he told me not to say much more than lie down and walk up to Taz. If I need to interrupt him, just saying his name should do it for now, as he's better off figuring out what to do and where he needs to be for himself right now. Also, when I lie him down, I shouldn't wait so long to get him to his feet; instead, I should walk him up right away. This will help him establish pace. It sounded counterintuitive to me at first (wasn't the point of lying him down to give him a few seconds to collect his head and give the sheep some space?) but Mark pointed out that Taz was just getting nervous about the sheep getting away while he was lying down, so when I finally let him up, he ran frantically back up to them to regain control. Plus, it likely felt like a correction to Taz. Letting him up right away would probably not allow the sheep to move too far off him, so he could relax a bit and establish a flow.

Mark knows Craig already, of course. He likes Craig, too, and told me I was overcommanding him as well. Craig, he said, usually knows where he needs to be, and I can make sure he doesn't get away with doing things incorrectly by simply keeping in contact with him—saying his name will usually put him right back on line if he drifts or moves too quickly. Craig reads pressure very well, and if he puts himself in a certain position, he's likely correct. This is one of the big things he can teach me, and I should start listening to him more and trying to place him less. Mark pointed out some of the ways Craig was "saving my butt" out there, that I hadn't even realized. I am going to try to think less in terms of training with Craig and more in terms of trying to be more aware of where he is putting himself and what effect it's having on the sheep. Before I try to reposition him where I think he should be, I will try to see what's going on with the sheep. He almost always covers them, so I probably won't need to tell him where to be for that. Still, giving Craig this freedom will be tough, as I run the risk of waiting too long to reposition him if he is wrong, allowing the sheep to be moved where I wasn't asking him to move them. As always for me, driving will be the biggest challenge. Still, I am excited to see what Craig shows me, now that I am prepared to trust him a bit more.

Mark had a few other useful pointers, such as watching the sheep move around the post and trusting the dog to balance them to me as a means to transition into driving and also asking the dog to walk up and allowing the dog the freedom to think for himself how to cover, rather than flanking him and thus making all the decisions for him, as a penning strategy. Also, on a practical note, walk the dog up to apply pressure, and then lie the dog down when the sheep turn their heads away to release that pressure. I know this last bit, of course—I've heard it a hundred times—but it's really important at the pen.

Craig wound up coming in third place, I think, and Taz fifth, but I am not too bothered about their placings. I learned a bunch today, and I can't wait to play around with these new ideas :-)