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...