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?