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!
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