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!