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 :-)