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 :-)