Thursday, February 28, 2008

My amazing dogs :-)

I went out to Bill's today to practice some arena work with Taz and Craig this afternoon. With Taz, the arena is getting a bit boring, as he's lying down when I ask him to. I guess he's still not lying down at the moment I say it, but I am now actually wondering if this is always automatically a bad thing. I know I do have a bad habit of asking for a stop too soon, so I wonder if he takes a step or two to be in better position to keep control of the stock. So I didn't want to really do too much work on a faster drop until I was sure about that. I also tried doing just a little driving, and he resisted his inside flanks. Rats. The other thing that Taz was doing was hesitating/running narrow on the left again. I don't know why he's having trouble with the bye side like this. Bill came down to watch us for a bit and thinks the problem is mainly the arena. Saturday, Pam is coming down and we're going to split a lesson with Bill, so we'll see what Taz does in the field then. (I also want to work on lengthening his outrun again—it is going to be March soon! March! The trialing season is not very far away and we are nowhere near ready!) Mildly discouraged, I put Taz up and got Craig.

Craig was who I wanted to concentrate on today anyway. I wanted to be successful enforcing control with Craig without Elaine backing me up. Mentally, I went over my plan for what I wanted to see today and prepared myself to run if I had to. We did a short outrun. "Lie down." I said calmly yet firmly. He was down like a shot. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Walk up...take your time," I commanded carefully, and he listened to everything. Craig really seemed to remember Saturday's awful confrontations and was choosing to work with me today instead. I told him he was a good boy, and we did a bunch of mini outruns and mini drives. I did sort of run at him a couple of times, but to be honest I was just proving a point and I think he knew it. He never ignored me the way he did last weekend. Of course, the arena is relatively tiny, so it's not exactly the same situation, but I was very happy that I could get him to obey me so well. It's a start.

I decided to have him drive the sheep along the fence around the arena. We did really well! When the sheep tried to move toward the middle of the arena, he listened to my flank commands and lied down quickly when I asked. We stopped and started a bunch, and there were a few times where he went too far on a flank and turned them back, but I easily stopped him and we corrected everything. We went around the arena a few times in both directions. Craig did a great job, maybe well enough to no longer need remedial arena control 101. We're ready for the field again, I think.

I'd worked Craig for a long time, so decided to work Taz one last time before heading home. I am so glad I did! We did another outrun or two, and I decided to do a little driving so we could work on inside flanks. He resisted taking the first couple again—I wasn't sure why, since he'd been able to do this before (at least with me calling him in first). I tried to take a step in the opposite direction, to better balance the flank, but it wasn't making too much of a difference.

Then, all of a sudden, a switch seemed to click. I don't know what the difference for him was, but he began taking every single inside flank the first time I asked, without requiring any calling in or any steps taken from me. He was flawless, moving only as far as he needed to to get the sheep on line before moving forward. Both sides. Amazing. I don't know why he wasn't doing it before and now he was doing it completely perfectly, with only soft verbal cues from me. I almost wanted to quit, since this was such a high note, but I decided to try driving the sheep around the fenceline first.

Taz just blew me away. He took the sheep around the fence almost effortlessly. Rather than having to drive them with a lot of stops and starts, he pretty much kept them moving at a steady pace. I barely had to give him any stops or corrective flanks (but he took them right away!) because he was apparently moving at the correct pace and in the exact location to keep them going forward along the fence. We moved them in both directions, and the whole exercise took about half the time it took with Craig.

This is the Taz that takes my breath away. The one who I know could be great, if I wasn't screwing him up (not beating myself up here, any novice would do the same). He just has a natural ability that is amazing when it surfaces. I mean, I know this isn't open fieldwork at huge distances, but it's nothing like what he was doing at Mindy's or even earlier in our session. He was flexible, light, responsive, and most of all, he was right. He knew where he had to be, how much pressure he had to apply, how quickly or slowly he needed to move, pretty much by himself, though he was eager and quick to take my cues. He was simply amazing! I wish I had it on video.

So, I drove back home in high spirits. Both my dogs were terrific in their own ways today, and if we can build on it and move forward from here, well, perhaps we'll be able to trial successfully after all...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Working at Steve and Lynn's (part 2, Craig)

Buoyed by my success with Taz, I switched dogs and got a drink. Elaine had gone up to the far end of the field, since Craig still likes to bring the sheep to her instead of me (note: I said still because I am hopeful this will pass...) I sent him on an outrun and watched him arc perfectly. He lifted them nicely and began the fetch. The sheep were moving a little offline to the left, so I gave him an away flank softly. He didn't really take it, but the sheep sort of corrected on their own and reached my general proximity. We did a sloppy turn around the imaginary post and began the drive. At first things went well, but then the sheep started drifting to the right. I told him to lie down softly, and he ignored me again. Okay, abandon attempts to control him with a soft voice. I tried again, a bit louder. Nothing. The sheep moved a bit further, so I told him to come bye. He took that flank...all the way to their heads ("Lie down!" I screeched frantically. "Craig!") and turned them ("Craig!! Lie down! LIE DOWN!!!!") back to me. I reset the drive and the whole thing repeated, even worse this time. To say it wasn't pretty would be a gross understatement.

Huh? You talkin' to me?

Elaine started walking toward us. I think I saw steam coming out of her ears. She was not happy to see Craig blowing me off so hard. "Okay, I'm going to ask you to do something that is really not in your nature, but you have to trust me. You can't allow this to continue. This is what I want you to do: if you tell him to lie down, and he doesn't take it, the second you see he's not taking it, I want you to take this cap, run as fast as you can up the field at him, and wave it in his face. Tell him to knock it off, and say it like you mean it! Don't stop putting pressure on him, even if he starts running away from you—let him take a few steps backward! Make an impression! Show him you are really not happy with him."

I giggled nervously. I suck at this sort of thing—I feel like an idiot running up at a dog and I'm uncomfortable getting in a dog's face. Also, I am a big sucker, so I really want to let him off the hook if he looks away or takes a step backward. But I knew she was right—the soft commands weren't working with Craig and I couldn't keep letting this continue. I ran up at Taz a few weeks ago and that's what started his attitude adjustment. I guess I need to do something dramatic to get through to Craig as well. I took a deep breath and sent him.

All went well enough on the outrun. When he reached the top, I told him to lie down. He kept moving the sheep. "Go!" Elaine said, thrusting the cap in my hands. I sprinted as quickly as I could up the field at him. He looked away before I even got to him, but I kept running until I reached him. "What do you think you're doing?" I asked him sternly, waving the hat at him. He took a step back and rolled over. "You better start listening to me!" He got up and took a few more steps backward. "I mean it this time!" I told him, before jogging back to where Elaine was standing. The first thing I understand about this exercise is that I am no longer in very good shape.

We repeated this scenario two or three more times before Elaine decided it would be better to work in the arena. "Good idea," I huffed. "Less running..." It is also much easier for me to block him if necessary in an arena. The sheep are less likely to get away if I give the wrong command (like a wrong flank) or my timing is off (say, when I'm asking for a lie down). This means Craig will be less frustrated and have no excuse to blow me off.

So, we're officially back to basics with Craig, too. We moved the sheep to the arena and sent him a few times. I tried the soft voice again, and again he didn't listen, but he took the commands as soon as I said them a little firmer and stepped in to him. And then I remembered what Bill said about sounding confident when gave him commands. I tried again, this time using a firm voice to give commands from the start. He began listening and obeying the first time I gave him a command, every time. Huh. But maybe he was only listening to me now because Elaine was standing next to me. She left the arena and stood behind the edge of the barn to watch us work alone. He still listened to me when I used the firm voice. I stopped him at the top, during the drive, and when he was off balance.

So that is the secret with Craig, I think. I must remember to use a firm tone of voice when I command him, and be prepared to run up the field at him and let him know I think he is pond scum the second he doesn't listen to me. I hate doing it, but Craig has to know that I will back up my commands if he doesn't listen. I mean, I'm not hurting him or scaring him—I'm really just making him very uncomfortable by applying a lot of pressure. And then, when he does it right, I can't forget to let him know he's a good dog—he needs to know when I am happy with him as well as when I am not happy with him.

So once again, I realize I must practice, practice, practice this with Craig. He is just a different dog than Taz is. Taz is more sensitive, and he can figure things out on his own a bit more; Craig needs to be kept honest. I really have to remember the differences in their work styles when I'm handling them and adjust to tease the best work out of them.

I drove home completely exhausted. I thought it was from all that running after Craig I did, but actually I think it's probably mental exhaustion. Between Taz and Craig, it was a big day, with a lot to take in. We are learning things every time we go out now. Hooray!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Working at Steve and Lynn's (part 1, Taz)

This weekend, Elaine is ranch-sitting for some friends, so we got to work somewhere new. Well, I guess it was new for me and Taz, but Craig has been here before a lot when Elaine owned him. I was eager to see
(1) whether Taz would continue to listen to the "soft voice" in a new place; and (2) whether Elaine had any insights about getting Craig to listen to the soft voice.

I worked Taz first in the big pasture. I made Elaine stand out there with me, so she would be able to give me instant feedback and advice. Although we were in the big pasture, we moved up close to the sheep—I didn't want to undo everything we'd been making progress on. I sent him and hoped for the best.

No terrible slicing, no terrible dicing, and he lied down on top. Hooray! It's transferring! I did a few small loose outruns with him and he stopped easily every time. No fighting. He started slicing in once, and a quick "Get out of that!" kicked him way out again. (I have no idea why telling him this works, but his response is quite impressive!) He wasn't stopping immediately when I asked him to anymore, though. He was taking a step or two. As the day went on, he did this more and more, to the point that he's take a step or two into the stock. I knew this was no good, and Elaine cautioned me to stop this creeping sooner rather than later, because it'll hurt us when we pen and shed (if we ever reach the shedding stage...). I will try to remember to step into him as soon as he doesn't lie down immediately. He was doing great listening to my soft commands, though, and the few times I forgot and raised my voice I noticed that he got more frantic. Tracy was right—my yelling only made him lose his mind. I wish I'd discovered this a couple of years ago...

His pace was still a bit fast. I think he is responding to a soft "time" command, but it's still pretty subtle. Maybe I'm imagining it. Mostly I had to lie him down on the fetch to prevent the sheep from running to me. It was okay, because he listened to his lie down commands, so I'm going to see if he can learn a time command in a soft voice; perhaps I'll ask Tracy about this. It seems like it might be something that can transfer, because he's not working so frantically anymore. And when he gets back up himself, he is very calm and purposeful. I am going to go back to letting him get up by himself, I think. At least for now. He has a pretty solid stay, so if ever I don't want him to get up on his own, I can just tell him to stay and he generally will.

We also did some driving. I am never sure whether it's okay to work on outruns, fetching, and driving in the same session. I've been told it's not recommended, but aren't we going to have to do both when we're trialing? Plus, wasn't it going to get a little boring for him to just do endless outruns, particularly when he's pretty much doing them well? Perhaps it's okay, as long as there is a clear transition between fetching and driving. So we worked on some inside flanks. He had some trouble taking them. We've been stuck on this a little while—he will usually take them, but often not without a "here" before the flank. Many of the knowledgeable folks on the Working Stockdog forum have frowned on that practice of calling a dog in to get him to take an inside flank (generally saying that it is a crutch and a sign of a poorly trained dog), so I'm trying to wean off calling him in first. Elaine told me that if he's reluctant to take an off-balance flank, take one step to the opposite side, to make it a more balanced flank. Taz responded well to this.

Because Taz was doing pretty well listening and flanking, I tried to lengthen his outrun. We just haven't done very much distance work, especially lately, and I don't know if he'll be more likely to slice in on longer outruns. We set up the sheep along the fence (actually, they ran up there and would only come off if the dog made them come off). Once they settled, I sent him on the away side (which he is clearly favoring these days). He took about ten steps and slowed, turning back to me. I reflanked him. He took a few more steps and stopped. Oh no! Why is he stopping? Elaine thought it might be happening because we'd just done some driving (so maybe if I do decide to work on both skills, I should try to just do outrun work first). Anyway, I reset him at the bottom, told him to stay where he was, and Elaine and I walked up a few steps toward the sheep. Then, I sent him and he did just fine (and no dramatic slicing, though it was difficult to really tell if he was tempted to slice because the sheep were up against the fence). We repeated this a few times, and I guess the goal is to gradually reduce the space between him and me until I am standing next to him when I send him again.

Finally, I tried to have him drive in a square around me. This went great on three sides, but Taz just flat out refused to push the sheep parallel along the side where the draw was. He wouldn't listen to any inside flanks at all and kept turning them back to fetch them to me. Phooey. Elaine told me not to worry; apparently, this is quite a difficult exercise, so she wasn't surprised at what Taz was doing. The exercise for this is to practice off-balance flanks during the fetch. We didn't do it today, for fear that my head would explode. Another time, though :-)

Phew. That was a lot of lessons learned and practiced with Taz. I had an even bigger day with Craig, though. be continued!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Practicing and refining this way of control

Yesterday was an amazing day in Colorado—warm, sunny, and bright. I headed up to Bill's after work with the dogs, ready to work on control in the arena. Taz was up first. (I always try to work Taz before Craig, because he is so much faster than Craig. If I work Craig first, I get used to his more controlled pace, and then feel completely unprepared for Taz's speedy pace.) We just did lots of mini outruns, lying down at the top and off balance. He did great, listening well to my soft commands.

What a good boy!

However, I noticed he is still a bit reluctant to take the come bye flank. And when he does take it, he's pretty tight. He was pretty much running along the fenceline for the away side and coming in slowly around the sheep (who were plastered at the top) on the away side, but he was barely bending out on the bye side and hooking around the sheep (who saw him coming and started moving away from him) on the bye side. Was this partly due to the pressure of the draw? Not sure...I also did a tiny bit of driving, and I noticed he is a little more reluctant to take my softer commands when driving. Of course, I also slip back into nervous spouting mode when things happen quickly, as they do on the drive, so that's probably part of it. I think practicing short drives and concentrating on staying soft in tone will help both of us.

Craig was up next. Hmm. Things did not go as well here. He didn't listen to the soft commands so well. And by "so well," I mean "at all." I'd tell him to lie down, he'd appear to not even hear me, I'd walk up to him through the sheep and he turned his head away but didn't lie down. So, I'd repeat it. And then he would lie down. So I'd try again: send him, softly tell him to lie down when he reached balance, see no change from him, walk up to him, and have to tell him again. We weren't getting to the point where he'd lie down the first time I asked, and walking up to him never got him to lie down without me asking for it again. I tried not saying it a second time and just blocking him, but he didn't seem to understand what I was doing. Maybe I was doing it wrong. It certainly wasn't working with Craig the way it did with Taz.

Why won't he lie down?

Bill came out about this time and watched us for a bit. He told me I didn't sound very sure of myself. I explained what I was trying to accomplish, and he noted that I could speak in a softer tone while remaining firm in intent. Hmm, good point. I tried again with Craig, this time speaking with a bit more conviction, and he began listening much better. Much, much better actually. I could now stop him on a dime both on balance and off. I think this is one of the ways I'll have to handle Craig and Taz differently. Taz really seems to do much better with softer handling, but Craig is used to being told what to do in more of a no-nonsense way. So I need to be a little stronger with Craig, but I can still handle him without yelling. Excellent. More practice is needed, but I think we're moving in the right direction!

There, that's better!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Listening and learning...

Although I know I need to just work with my dogs for a little while to try to put some of the lessons I've recently learned into practice, I went to Bill's for a lesson yesterday. I haven't been to Bill's in a couple of months and I thought a lesson might be a good idea to get back in the swing of working out at his place. I mostly wanted to see what the dogs would do there and get his thoughts.

We started in his arena to warm up. I worked Taz for a bit (with a soft voice) and was pleasantly surprised that he was lying down at the top right away just about every time. The one or two times he hesitated, I took one gentle step toward him and he lied down immediately. I still can't believe this is really working! He was working calmly and not slicing. Bill wanted me to direct him to drive the sheep along the sides of the arena from outside the arena. I was a bit nervous about this, as I imagined I'd start yelling if he didn't listen to me and I also wouldn't be able to take a step toward him. Really, since I was getting such good results doing what Tracy recommended, I shouldn't have even tried to do something else, but I promised myself I wouldn't fall back on old ways if he didn't take my commands—that this would just be an exercise to see how he'd do. And I didn't resort to yelling, as he continued to listen to me pretty well. Yay Taz!

I worked Craig for a bit in the arena as well. His mini outruns were nice and his fetches to me were straighter than Taz's, but Craig didn't listen to me nearly as well. I think actually that Craig doesn't really listen to me as well as Taz does. When Taz blows me off, it's often more dramatic, but command for command, Taz listens and takes them much better than Craig does. Craig does what he wants much more often. It's just that he's sometimes right, so it's been camouflaged a bit. Like how Mark said he was saving my butt. But, as Tracy said, he needs to listen to me or I won't be able to really trial successfully with him. I need to spend time in Bill's arena just doing the same exercise with him that Tracy had me do with Taz. He needs to consistently listen to me, even if I'm wrong—if nothing else, it'll show me how I'm wrong, so that I can learn from it.

We moved to the southwest corner of Bill's pasture and I worked Taz in the tiny pen there for a few minutes (with me inside for a couple of flanks and then outside). This pen scares me because it's so small and there are two metal fence posts sticking up near the gate, making it even tighter. Bill wanted to see how Taz's inside flanks were coming. Taz didn't want to take them at first, but once he got around once, he came around pretty freely. Craig, of course, doesn't need to practice this exercise at all.

So I took Craig out in the field and did a few outruns and then some driving. He did really well moving the sheep toward the target (the first of a couple of black plastic buckets), covering the draw back to the barn while pushing them forward. I saw that I was stopping him a little short here—flanking him to cover the draw and then asking him to lie down before redirecting him to push them before the sheep were fully turned back. It's just such a fine line for their heads to turn before they change direction altogether that I am always afraid of being too late. Once we got to the first bucket, we did a cross drive to the second one—this was harder, and a bit messier. He turned them back to me a couple of times, but we recovered and kept going. I think maybe this should be my intermediate goal with Craig for now—recovering after he begins turning them back to me. I mean, it is likely that he will turn the sheep back to me during a trial; instead of getting nervous that it is happening, I need to quickly redirect so that we can continue the drive. We practiced this a bunch, and once he did ring the sheep because I asked for the wrong flank, but he was working with me. Not listening to everything I asked, mind you, but still working with me rather than pursuing his own agenda. Overall, I think he did pretty well—he was mostly waiting for me to direct him, even though I am slower to give him direction than he is comfortable with. "He's just rusty," Bill remarked. "You just need to spend some time with him working on this." I agree; we'll come out again this week and work on our own.

Next, we tried some outruns with Taz. Taz did pretty well for the most part. Bill and Blue set the sheep up maybe 150 yards away. I sent Taz on an away, and he went off perpendicularly from the sheep. What beautiful bending out :-) Halfway there, he slowed and looked around, before looking back at me. "Away!" I repeated, and he continued running. Bill said he couldn't see them and wasn't quite sure what to do, which was a good lesson for him (if you lose sight of them, keep casting out to find them again). He reached them nice and deep and I told him to lie down softly. And he did. Immediately. I got him up to fetch them to me (not very straight, but they got to me). After setting up again, I sent him on another away, and this time he didn't hesitate where he lost them before, though he did start coming in to lift a bit early. I told him away, and he swung back around. He was really listening to me!

So, of course, I had to find a way to screw things up. The next time I sent him, I sent him on the bye side..."Away, Taz!" He took a step and stopped, looking at me quizzically. You'd think that would have been a clue, but I told him away again. He took another step and stopped. We repeated this another couple of times before Bill yelled back to me "It's come bye!"

The mind boggles. How on earth can I still be making this mistake and what is it doing to my poor good dog? "Come bye!" I told him, and he went, but it wasn't very pretty. Darn. Still, this was my fault, and I was pretty happy with his performance. He hesitated a few times on his outruns, and his fetches were a bit sloppy, and he still has no real sense of a steady pace. But he listened to me better today than he has ever listened to me—and his lying down at the top was perfect in the field. He lied down immediately every time I asked, and he was working thoughtfully.

So I'll try to come out a couple of times a week for the next little while and we'll try to solidify everything. I know what to do for a while; we need to put in the miles now :-)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Zen & the art of quiet control

Sometimes less is more.

Or, how to be successful without resorting to yelling at your dog :-)

I have long admired handlers who softly direct their willing dogs to work recalcitrant sheep through tough trial courses. They never seem to lose their tempers or sound at all upset. Their dogs seem happy to do anything asked of them without argument. There is no stress evident from the handler, the dog, or the sheep. Usually, the sun is shining, there are are fluffy white clouds, and rolling green hills in the background. Seriously, it seems perfect; the ideal shepherding vision.

And thus it has always seemed completely unattainable for me. I have a hard time getting my dogs to consistently listen to me. Unexpectedly (and unhappily) to me, it turns out that I am a yeller—and a panicky one at that. I tend to begin communicating to the dogs by speaking quite sternly, as if I don't expect them to listen to me if I use a normal conversational tone. And it's true: I don't really trust them to do what I ask. I have been most successful by yelling at them to lie down (often three or four times), or sometimes declaring "that'll do!" with an emphasis on the last word, as if I am exasperated that the dog is not already at my side. I have greatly admired those handlers who can get the job done quietly, but I just had no idea how they managed to get their dogs to understand that they meant business without raising their voices.

Enter Tracy Derx.

I had a pretty enlightening lesson with Tracy on Wednesday afternoon. I didn't know too much about Tracy before I went up to see her at Linda Whedbee's place in Fort Collins, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I definitely wasn't expecting to uncover the secret to quietly communicating with your dog and having him actually listen.

I wasn't even thinking about it when we began the lesson. I wanted to work on driving—how to improve my timing, stop Craig from getting too close to the heads and turning the sheep back to me, and maybe work on improving Taz's inside flanks. But when Tracy saw me working Craig, she told me I flat out need more control on him before I would be successful trialing him. We went to an arena and worked on driving the sheep up the fenceline, but moving left and right laterally behind them and simply calling Craig over to me when he got too far to the heads. I was to watch the sheep's heads—not Craig—and, as soon as their heads began to turn in the opposite direction, call Craig to me. It took me a little while to understand the exercise (in such a small area, I kept inadvertently repositioning myself to turn the drive into a fetch). Once I did, however, things went much better. Tracy advised that I should practice this a bit, but that I really needed Craig to listen to me better before I could expect any real progress.

I nodded, having certainly heard this before. I thought I'd just have to continue working on enforcing my commands, etc., etc. I put Craig up and brought out Taz—not without some trepidation, I might add, because I figured if Tracy thought I didn't have much control on Craig, she was sure to be a little horrified by my handle on wild boy Taz.

I explained that we were working on control. She asked to see an outrun, so I set him up and sent him. It was a tight area, so I sort of just hoped for the best (one of my most popular strategies). And actually, he didn't really slice. Yay, Taz! I asked (er, yelled at) him to lie down when he reached the top.

"Whoa, whoa," Tracy interjected. "Why are you yelling at him?"

"Uh...I don't know," I stammered. "I guess I'm afraid he won't listen to me..."

She frowned and told me the yelling at Taz was seriously counterproductive. That Taz was likely anticipating getting yelled at, so he was tensing up as he reached the top—exactly where I was trying to teach him to relax.

That made sense, in a sad sort of way. So I am perhaps causing some of Taz's slicing and dicing. But I didn't know what to do about it. Fortunately, Tracy did :-)

"Try telling him to lie down in a normal, conversational tone of voice," she suggested. "If he doesn't take it, just walk toward him through the sheep and tell him again, in the same tone of voice." I nodded, completely doubtful that this would work. We set up again and repeated the mini outrun.

"Lie down, Taz," I said softly. Um, or so I thought. He ignored me. I rushed up to him through the sheep. "Lie down!" I said more sternly, and he did.

"What was that?" Tracy asked.


"You're still yelling at him—even that first lie down was pretty strong. Use a conversational tone every time. Let me show you what we're after here." I stepped back and let her work him. He did another outrun, and she told him to lie down in the exact tone of voice she'd been conversing with me in.

He didn't lie down. So, she calmly walked up through the sheep and told him to lie down again. Still nothing, but Taz began retreating and then turning to face the sheep, trying to get around her. Tracy remained cheerful in demeanor, but did not let Taz get to the sheep. I was afraid he might quit, but he kept trying to get around her. She just kept blocking. Then Taz lied down.

"Good boy," Tracy murmured, moving to the side. He came up to her and she gave him a pat. Hmm. She set him up for another outrun and this time when she asked, he lied down right away at the top. Impressive, but then she was the expert, with the solid timing and no history of mistakes with him. I wasn't so sure I could repeat her success. "Now you try."

And so I did. This time my lie down was much softer, and he took it the first time, immediately.

My jaw dropped open. Surely this was a fluke. I tried it again, with the same result. And again. Was this really all it would take? Amazing.

"So, if he doesn't take it the first time, and I start walking up to him and tell him again and he lies down, should I continue to walk all the way up to him?" I asked.

"Nope, once he gives you what you've asked for, take the pressure off him. You can let him get his sheep, or start over."

"Okay, and should I try this with Craig, too?" I asked. Craig is nine years old—is it too late to retrain him this way?

"Absolutely, you can do this with Craig," Tracy replied. "It's not too late, though he may give you more of a fight initially."

Oh my god! That's all there is to it?! Will it continue to work like that? I must immediately begin practicing this! It seems clear that I need to stay in small areas so I can cheerfully block access to the sheep if it's necessary—then gradually I can move back to larger areas. Holy guacamole, this is amazing!

And there you have it. The secret to quiet control, demonstrated in a way that I could actually emulate. And the best part is that I stayed pretty calm myself while working them—which does not always happen. Staying calm enabled me to think, so I know it must help Craig and Taz to think as well. (Really, who can think calmly with all that yelling taking place? This is much better!) I know my last few entries have contained a lot of different exercises and working methods, and I know now more than ever I need to get out and just work for a while. I feel really optimistic that I can do this, though, and finally break through to the next level of training—the level where I can start to focus on actual skills rather than simply gaining the control that has been so elusive thus far. find some sheep to work...

Monday, February 11, 2008

On confidence, making an impression, and appreciating a good dog

I've been thinking about how to write this entry for more than a week. It's about last weekend's novice series trial, which should have been a great one to write about (Craig won with an absolutely magnificent run). Unfortunately, it was kind of a bummer trial in other ways...but ultimately it was a very good learning experience for me.

This one took place at Irene's beautiful ranch. She was a gracious host, as always, and had fenced in a smaller pasture on the west side of her property since the last time I was there. It was a nice setup for the trial. My friend Morganne came to watch this trial—her Sage dog is a fantastic agility dog and is a littermate sister to my Taz. I hoped Taz would have a good run to show her what he can do, but I wasn't entirely optimistic—I had been really busy at work and finishing up a freelance project, and before that I'd been sick, so I haven't been working my dogs enough. They get a bit rusty when they don't work, but much worse is that I get very rusty. I need to work pretty regularly to maintain any level of competence at this—when I take time off, my timing goes out the window and I have to really think about the things that should come automatically (like which direction is actually come bye and which is away to me).

I ran Taz in the "pro-novice" class first. He was amped, I could tell, but I sent him to the right and hoped for the best. He started out nicely; he was running wide. When he got to about 2:00, I could see that he wasn't bending and I told him to lie down so I could have him cast out farther. I did probably tell him to lie down a split second too late, and he ignored me. He reached his sheep too fast and at too sharp an angle and scattered them. I then continued to tell him to lie down and he continued to ignore me as he chased them around at the top. I left the post and, feeling like I had to make an impression on him that he could not get away with ignoring me at a trial, I ran up the field at him. He lied down when I got closer and I leashed him up and walked him off.

I had planned for this since the Scott Glen clinic last October. My biggest problem in training Taz is that I don't always have the control on him that we need to progress. I do not have a solid stop on him, and he will blow me off at a distance if he gets carried away. For a long time I didn't really know what to do about that, so I weakly excused it on his youth. But at three and a half, many dogs his age are already running in open. I have seen how well he runs for more experienced folks, which suggests that the problem cannot be blamed simply on his age—it is clearly my handling. I knew I had to get a bit more insistent and enforce that control more consistently. It's something I should have been doing with Taz since the start, but I didn't know how then. I do now. I've been working on it, and I knew there might come a time when I would have to stop everything and make an impression on Taz that he needs to listen to me while he is working. He needs to understand that he is not to do just what he feels is correct, but what I want him to do. We are a team, and it will not work if he doesn't always remember that. So, I was prepared to sacrifice my run to make that impression on him. I knew what had to be done out there when I saw him ignore me—I had been waiting for this moment for months.

As I left the field and closed the gate behind me, I was greeted with strong criticism for my decision to stop the run. I was surprised at this—I was expecting to hear sympathetic "you did the right thing" kind of murmurs. I put Taz away and immediately began second-guessing myself. What should I have done instead? Not told him to lie down until he was in the correct position, I guess. But I felt sure of my decision to run up the field. Perhaps I should have done something else when I reached him? Should I have continued the run after he eventually lied down, walking down the field with him as he fetched the sheep back to the handler's post? I didn't know. I thought I was doing a smart thing, a necessary thing, sacrificing a run for the greater purpose of making a point, in the hope that this wouldn't happen again. My confidence eroded as I went back and forth over what I should have done.

Then it was time to run Craig. I knew I didn't have to worry too much about Craig's outrun—he might slice in a little, but he generally could recover and fetch them to me well enough without needing any dramatic handling. So we might sacrifice points, but I didn't have to worry about control with him. I sent him, and he was a little tight, but picked the sheep up and began bringing them to me. Here is where I fell apart. I completely switched my come bye and away commands and I was late giving them. I was rattled, and he knew it. He listened to me anyway, taking my incorrect commands, so we were having trouble. Somehow we muddled through the course, but it certainly wasn't pretty.

This was a nightmare.

After apologizing to him, I put him up and watched a few of the other runs. Poor Morganne was not exactly seeing our best work today. She was cheerful, though, telling me she thought we looked great. Is that a friend or what?

Then it was time to run Taz a second time, for his judged run. I didn't have any idea what this run was going to look like, and I wondered what I'd hear if it didn't go well. I know I shouldn't let other people's opinions affect me very much, but that earlier critique had caught me by surprise. I am used to hearing encouragement and constructive criticism from open handlers at these novice trials, and I just hadn't been expecting to hear such a blunt negative opinion (expressed to everyone within listening range) about my handling. I suppose I need to develop a thicker skin. I set Taz up on my right and sent him with a quick "away to me." He took off, not quite as wide as he had the last run. Not a good sign. But then he slowed down and looked back at me. Normally this is not a great move, but I knew for Taz right now, this meant that he had me in the picture with him and was asking me what I wanted him to do. I grinned at him. "Away, Taz!" He turned back toward the sheep and got around them. "Lie down!" I yelled. He did, immediately. I love this dog! The sheep drifted over to the right corner of the field, so I let him get up and cover them. He brought them toward me at a slower, much more relaxed pace. "Come bye, Taz," I'd ask, and he'd move over. Oops—too far. "Away..." And so we made it through the course. We missed the panels on both the fetch and drive, but the turn around the post was lovely and controlled, and we penned the sheep quickly. I could not have been happier—we did not have the cleanest run, but Taz was really listening to me. It seemed to me that my earlier decision to run up the field and cut short our last run indeed made an impression on Taz. It seemed like it was the right choice. Hooray!

I felt about a million times better. Many of the other novice handlers congratulated us when we walked off the field. They saw the difference, too :-)

Then Craig was up. Our last run of the day. I sure felt much better as we stepped up to the post this time.

He was nothing short of incredible! Okay, it was only a pint-sized course, but he left my side wide and relaxed, lifted the sheep smoothly, and brought them back to me through the fetch panels without me needing to utter a word to him. He rounded the sheep around the post, taking my soft commands easily, and drove them away right through the drive panels. For once, I didn't mix up my commands, and he covered the sheep without going too far to the heads. I rushed over to the pen after having Craig begin turning the sheep back to me, and saw that he was smoothly bringing them over. Craig took every command I asked of him, and we penned them with minimal fuss. This was hands-down the most in-sync with Craig that I have ever been. "Good boy, Craig!" I bubbled, though these words seemed hardly enough sentiment to adequately express the mixture of pride, joy, respect, and gratitude I was feeling for him. The judge showed us our score: 95. He told us he'd be surprised if it wasn't the top score of the day.

I walked off the field feeling jubilant. For now, after much thought and some hurt feelings, I think that I handled everything the best way I could have at the time. With Taz, I am glad that I stopped our run. At least I did something, and I've done a whole lot of nothing in the past with only his repeated "I don't hear you" behavior to show for it. And with Craig, I think I learned to try not to let other people affect how I run. I think part of why we did much better the second time was because I wasn't second-guessing myself so much. Both dogs ended up having runs I was very happy with. And Craig has a nice new collar to show for it :-)