Monday, March 31, 2008


Just a quick post, since I haven't written in a bit. I am currently finishing up a horrendous freelance project that has been taking all of my time over the past week, so I haven't been able to work the dogs. Yesterday evening, after tripping over the dogs for the millionth time, guilt overcame me and I set out for Bill's for a super-quick session.

Unfortunately, the gods were not on my side, as I had some trouble with my truck and didn't have much of a chance to work. I managed only to practice some whistles with Craig in the arena. He did all right, considering I am still not making consistent sounds and I am still pretty slow to work out which side is which when I'm sending a dog from an unusual position relative to the stock. I need to start practicing using the whistles in ordinary field work, I think, or we'll never completely work it out.

I did try Taz a little on the whistles, too, but we didn't get very far. I did start to introduce him to the whistles the same way I introduced Craig to them—verbal command, whistle, verbal. The whistles kind of key him up, though, and he was fast and zoomy. I just wasn't really in the best frame of mind to play around with this yesterday, though, between stressing about the transmission on the truck and my looming deadline, so I decided to call it a day there. My truck is going to the shop later today and the project is due on Wednesday, so we'll be back and happy to work again soon!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Learning to see the forest *and* the trees

Saturday morning at Bill's. I got there early and, since it was just me, I kept Taz on a leash and had Craig bring the sheep down. It was interesting to see the difference between how Taz brings them down and how Craig moves them. Craig worked further back, but not much, and a little slower, but again, not much. It seems the difference between moving these sheep efficiently and, well, kind of ugly is just a matter of degrees.

I decided to set Craig up to do some longer drives. I set us up about, I don't know, I guess 100 yards from one of the black barrels, and he drove the sheep up to it pretty straight, taking my direction when they started to waver off line. The sheep reached the barrel calmly, and I flanked Craig to turn them 45 degrees. Perfect. We did maybe a 75-yard cross drive nearly flawlessly. And then back to me along the fence—again, he looked great. We were working as a team, and moving the sheep very smoothly. Why is no one ever around when we work well? We did it again, and then we were both a little mentally exhausted, so I put Craig up and took a break. Driving tires me out more than anything else! But I was pretty darn pleased with Craig, and just a little more confident about running him in a trial.

Elaine arrived at Bill's about this time, and she suggested getting Taz to move the sheep out a bit so we could work on his outruns. She cautioned against working on driving too much right now, though. My little pea brain struggled with this for a little while—how would we get the sheep out in the field without driving them? "Um, you can walk with them, can't you?" Elaine asked. Uh, yeah, right, of course. Sometimes I concentrate so much on one aspect of something I'm learning that I stop seeing the forest for the trees. She walked with me, and Taz brought the sheep to us from behind us. I faced him and walked backwards, but I couldn't walk very quickly this way (or avoid the many prairie dog holes). "Turn around and just walk," she advised. But then I couldn't see Taz! How would I know where he was and how fast he was moving? "Let the sheep tell you. When you can hear their footsteps right behind you, you know he's too close, pushing too hard, and then you lie him down."

Well, this was pretty cool! It worked! Finally, I could begin to "see" what my dog was doing by looking only at the sheep. I've never really been able to do that before—determine what my dog was doing by the behavior of the sheep in a way that left me enough time to correct him if the sheep showed me he was wrong. Way cool!

And efficient. We pushed out the sheep in no time and set Taz up for an outrun. His first outrun started out wide enough, but then he sliced the top. "Lie down!" I yelled, and he did. He recast wider, and his lift and fetch were fine, but on his very next outrun he hesitated. Rats! I decided to try Carol Campion's suggestion of setting him up at 9:00, with the sheep at 12:00 and me at 6:00.

"Come bye, Taz!" Off he went. For the most part, he was able to leave without hesitating from this position. Yay! With a few more tries, we modified it so that if I took a few steps up to the sheep from that 6:00 position, he didn't hesitate at all. Hooray! All I need to do is gradually reduce the distance until I'm sending him from my feet again. This is sort of a modification of what I was doing at Cathy's a week or so ago, and I do think that if I practice it a bit and systematically close the distance, we'll fix this.

We set him up again. Elaine and I had discussed how Taz should be on the outside of a shrub when he flanked around. I need to use these landscape features to check that the angle of his trajectory is wide enough. He flanked again without hesitating terribly, nice and wide, past the outside of the shrub. I was elated.

"Lie him down!" Elaine said quickly. What? Why? He was wide enough! Wasn't he?

Elaine explained that he was indeed wide enough (in fact, she said she didn't think Taz needed too much work widening his flanks). The much more significant problem, she explained, is his slicing. Even if he is far away from the sheep, at some point—and it's almost always at 10:00/2:00—he locks in and goes almost straight in to the sheep from there. "You can see it in his eyes," she said. He looks out as he's casting, checking in where the sheep are every so often and turning his head back out, until he hits that 10:00/2:00 spot, where he locks on to the sheep and starts going straight toward them. I remember hearing Scott Glen talking about this, and Cathy, too, but I never have been able to really see it. The problem is that I have been concentrating solely on his trajectory, and using features on the landscape as a barometer of his positioning has been very helpful for this. But in addition, I must remember to also watch his eyes, as well as keeping general track of what the sheep are doing (are they breaking? when are they aware of him approaching?). This is hard for me, but I need to see the whole picture or I will never be able to consistently correct him at the exact point that he begins to come in flat. This is why my timing sucks!

As soon as I see him lock in, I need to lie him down. And if I don't catch it in time, he overflanks at the top. So this is a concrete action that alerts me every time he is not correct. Good. The overflanking happens too late for me to fix things for that outrun, of course (and I need to then be very careful where I lie him down; I have to make sure he's covering the sheep before I ask him to stop), but it tells me that I am not seeing things in time so I can watch for the slicing next time. I was able to get away with just telling him to "get out of that" after a couple of times, and he definitely improved at the end of the day. He even did a couple of completely correct outruns where he didn't need any input from me at all.

Excellent. I was happy with today's work—Craig and I did really well driving, and Taz and I had an outrun-fixing plan that seems to work for him. I won't dwell on my stupid mistake at the end of the session, when I leashed Taz and was going to have Craig bring the sheep back up the field, but didn't wait long enough for Elaine to get to the top with Ben. Yup, after my big revelation that I need to set Craig up for success with regard to this exact situation, I blew it and tried to work him too near to Elaine. So he brought the sheep to her. Dumb mistake on my part, so I will just try harder to not repeat it in the future!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Some new stuff, some thoughts about older stuff

So last night Elaine and I went out to Bill's again. It was really windy to start, but got calmer as the evening went on. I had Taz bring the sheep down to the opposite end of the field, while Elaine took Ben and Craig down. Taz was right up the sheep's butts again and wearing heavily. I let him flank around when he pushed them past me, but he was super tight here, too. I tried to fix that by having him do that circle-flank exercise Carol Campion recommends, but this method just doesn't seem to work so well for Taz. Perhaps I'm not doing it right, or maybe it's that he was allowed to circle mindlessly too much when he was younger, but Taz seems to stop thinking when we do these circles. He seems to stop feeling his sheep, rather than feel them more as he is supposed to, or at least he stops seeing me in relation to the sheep. I seem to become less a part of the picture, and he checks in with the sheep less. He really seems to just be zooming around and around, just awaiting instruction on when to stop. I am pretty sure this is not what Carol has in mind. It's too bad she is in Connecticut and doesn't much travel west, as I would love to have her watch what is going on and see if she has any advice.

What he really needs is a steady command. I do understand that these sheep are heavy and perhaps require some wearing, but he isn't using his eye or his presence at all. He's completely using his body to move them, and it's inefficient and unsettling for the sheep. If he would just slow down a little—have a speed between a stop and run—he could settle in behind them and keep the sheep moving more calmly. I think Taz is getting the idea of taking time on the fetch after an outrun, but it's not quite translating in other conditions yet. Well, I haven't really asked for it under other circumstances like this too much, since he really only seems to be starting to be able to slow himself down when I give him a time command and I don't want to mix thing up for him. Don't know if this is the best way to go about teaching pace, though, and he really needs to learn how to slow down...

Anyway, we did eventually make it to the corner pen, and after putting them all in, I decided to have Taz take a few out to work. This is the super tight pen, with a couple of t-posts sticking up on the side closest to the gate, but Taz listened to me really well, taking inside flanks and calmly moving between the fence and the sheep. We got three out easily and I called Taz out. The sheep bunched against the outside of the pen, while the sheep still inside joined their buddies, so there was a big group of sheep that happened to have a fence between them. I decided to try to bring another ewe inside the pen to the outside. This was much tougher than I thought it would be! Taz would start to come around, but then he kept locking on to the group outside the pen. He was wanting to work the wrong sheep. Elaine caught up to us and suggested stepping toward the side I was flanking him on, then giving him a "that'll do" as soon as I saw him lock on to the wrong set, and then immediately redirect with a "these" command to indicate the correct sheep to work. After a couple of tries, he understood and we were able to get another ewe out of the pen. We tried the same thing working the sheep outside the pen, with Taz picking them up even when he had to peel them off the fence away from the group standing against them inside the pen. It's difficult to describe, but Taz did seem to understand and was successful.

I put Taz up and got Craig out to hold the sheep for Ben. The sheep were heavy enough today to not need our help, though, and Elaine was able to work Ben without us up the field. I watched them for a little while, and I noticed how Ben runs so wide and comes in so deep that the sheep first notice him when he is quietly approaching them from behind. Wow. Neither Taz nor Craig can achieve that (at least not with me running them), and their lifts always begin earlier. Taz's lifts begin while he is still casting, unfortunately, but even Craig comes in much shallower than Ben does. I think I need to watch Ben and other open-level dogs work, so I can get a better idea of the correct work I should be striving for.

Anyway, since they were pretty far away from us, and the sheep were cooperating by standing still for outrun practice, I decided to get some out and work Craig myself. We started out okay, driving the sheep a bit away from us and then practicing a short outrun. All went well, so I decided to try to lengthen it a little. We drove the sheep out a bit further and set up for another ourun. I sent him to the left, and almost immediately he began to cross. "Hey! What are you doing?" I yelled in surprise. Craig doesn't usually cross. I think he was trying to bring the sheep to Elaine, way down the field! I called him back and resent him, and he did a correct outrun this time. We did a few more outruns, and each time I did have to reflank him so that he would cover the sheep and bring them back to me, not Elaine. Because we were working alone, I had him drive the sheep away before calling him back to set up for an outrun. His driving was fine, he listened to me there. One time, though, I let him drive the sheep a bit too close to the group Elaine was working and my group started heading toward her group. I gave Craig an away flank and he started to take it, but then crossed to bring the sheep to Elaine. Rats!

I called him back to me when it seemed sure the two groups would merge and he came back sheepishly (ha! sheepishly!). Without his sheep, of course. Craig ran over to the pen in hopes of getting the remaining sheep out. I didn't know if it was a good idea to reward him losing those sheep by letting him work another set, but I decided to give him another chance. Bad idea. He lost them right away on the drive out, moving tentatively and then just stopping, unsure whether he was supposed to bring me the sheep or Elaine. A bit discouraging. I called him back as the third set of sheep joined the others and Ben flanked to cover them.

I am sure Craig could hear Elaine's whistles for Ben, and I guess I can recognize that I was putting him in a bit of a difficult position. Instead of "testing" him like that, I should probably set things up so the conditions are more concrete and what is expected of him is less ambiguous. Elaine later said that it was also probably counterproductive to have her bring Craig down the field when I was working Taz with the sheep. Good point. The best thing would be if someone else could hold the sheep, so that she could help me by standing next to me, and Craig wouldn't be confused or tempted to bring the sheep to her. Maybe Pam can do that with Kirk one day.

So I put Craig up and walked over to where Elaine was working on shedding with Ben. She showed me the principle of the exercise she was working on, and then had me work Ben a little to try it myself. It was really fun, but I don't like working other people's dogs very much. So we tried some introductory shedding work a bit with Taz against the fence. I had him lie down on the other side of the sheep, with my back to the fence, so the sheep were between us. He lied down pretty much in the middle of the group. Then we'd sort of split the sheep and call in Taz. He was able to come in, which surprised me, as I expected him to always try to cover the "escaping" sheep instead (which, don't get me wrong, he also did plenty of ;-). The next step was having him stop after he came in, and then walk up on one of the groups of now-separated sheep. I could get him to come in and stop, but he wouldn't walk up directly into the new group; he just wanted to flank around. But that's okay, he's never really done this before, so I thought he did fine. He did keep wanting to circle the entire group, bringing them back together, moving behind us against the fence (now he loves that ;-), and here's the real reason I don't like to do that circle-flank exercise: Taz just defaults to mindless circling a bit too easily. I can call him off it and reflank him and otherwise interrupt it, but I don't think it's a good thing that he defaults to it. It's not good work, and he's not really thinking about what he's doing with any sort of purpose. So I'm not going to do that exercise anymore.

We decided to end with a couple of outruns for Taz, and he was pretty tight. This was not really surprising, as Taz had a day of learning new things, so he was kind of all over the place by the end of the session. Next time, I'll concentrate more on outruns specifically, and try to better set up Craig for success so he doesn't feel torn between working for me and Elaine.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bouncing back

Elaine and I went out to work the dogs at Bill's for a while. Elaine took Craig and Ben down to the opposite end of the field, and I walked the sheep down with Taz. He was doing a lot of wearing behind them back and forth, and pushing them a bit too fast. Bill's sheep are pretty heavy, but Taz was too close to them, and I didn't know how to get him to give them some room. Mostly I just downed him, which he always took, but he got up quickly each time. It was kind of frustrating for me, but I later saw on video that I often stopped or slowed down when things weren't going so well, which just encouraged Taz to balance the sheep to me. This is another instance where I would have done better to think about why Taz was doing what he was doing, rather than get upset that he wasn't doing things the way I thought they should be done. Not that he was right to be pushy and up their butts, but if I saw things from his perspective a little more, I might have been able to help him, rather than just get frustrated.

Anyway, we did eventually make it down to the far end of the pasture, and Elaine showed me a strategy for dealing with wearing too close. Fortunately, Taz works so much like Ben that Ben could be counted on to be a good example of a pushy, tight dog ;-) Elaine showed me how to walk ahead of the sheep and then block each side if the dog is wearing too far around and too close to the sheep. This meant being much more active than I had been because I had to get myself into position relative to Taz's position, which of course depended on the sheep's position. Eep. If the sheep did get ahead of Elaine, she simply flanked Ben around to regain control.

Then we worked Taz together, doing the same thing. He responded pretty well, and it was interesting how he showed how much he felt Elaine's pressure. He often turned his head away when he was lying down. But he was listening really well, and thinking and feeling his sheep. I think with Taz it's sometimes a fine line between applying enough pressure that he is working well versus just blowing his mind. But his mind wasn't blown now—he really worked nicely. We did some outruns and some driving. I didn't send him from the middle, but I will next time. Actually, Elaine had me take one step forward as I sent him, and I think that made a big difference. He was admittedly kind of tight but he did leave my side confidently for the most part. He did a great job driving—I barely had to direct him at all, as he was feeling his sheep really well. He took his inside flanks, though I sometimes needed to preface with a "here," and I did remember to let him go all the way around sometimes. In general, he was working well and he was working confidently. So it turned into a very good day for Taz. In fact, Elaine said she was impressed with how quickly Taz recovered from "wild boy" to "calm and collected worker."

I had kind of a similar experience with Craig. He started out listening to me well enough, though not exactly enthusiastically. I tried to show Elaine how he took my whistles now, but he didn't really cooperate, the stinker. So I put the whistle away and decided to do some driving with him. Now the sheep were kind of splitting up, with some moving up ahead and others slacking behind, so he had a tough job moving them, but he sort of stopped listening to me. But I couldn't really tell how much of it was my fault. At one point, I knew I was stopping him slightly out of position, so he didn't want to take an away. I started walking a bit closer to see if I could help him and asked for another away. He flanked to the left instead, and I told him to lie down. He kept moving, so I started jogging up to him and got in his face. I even waved my hat—unfortunately, I was wearing a woolly hat, which was not nearly as impressive as Elaine's cap had been a few weeks ago...but it seemed to do the job. We continued driving and he began listening much better after that. We struggled a bit on the cross drive because I stopped him too far over, which in turn stopped the sheep and even turned them back a little, but because he was listening to me now, we were able to recover and continue on. I need to keep working to find the sweet spot where he is far enough over to keep them moving forward but not so far that he stops them or turns them back.

Where to stop the dogs is where I make most of my handling mistakes these days. I still stop them too short, except when I stop them too far...Elaine tried to explain the optimum place to stop the dog relative to what the sheep were doing, but I didn't entirely get it. I mean, obviously I want to stop the dog just as he catches the sheep's eyes and not when he goes so far around that he turns them sharply, but where that point is exactly is not very clear to me. This will be a good lesson for another time, I think.

Anyway, Craig and I ended with a difficult drive along the fence—this was really tough, as one of the sheep kept challenging him, while some of the others wanted to turn and go back up the field to the barn area. But he handled them and kept them moving forward. So we also ended on a good note, with him listening to me and working with me successfully. I did walk with him as he was driving, so it's hard to tell what we're capable of doing on a drive distance-wise, but most of the time I was pretty far away from him. Next time, I'll try staying put when we drive. I think if he's listening, we'll do okay...and if he's not I guess it'll be time to run up the field again. As long as I can reset him, and Taz, too, so that even if we start out rough, we can get back on track, then we'll keep progressing :-)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Consistency is key

Since we haven't been there since January, I decided to go out to Cathy's yesterday to work the dogs. She held the sheep for Taz first, so I could see how his outruns looked today. Maybe it was too soon to try to send him from my feet again, but Taz has always worked pretty well (or, at least, very confidently) here, so I just wanted to see. Actually, though, I am not even sure what I did see, and it was difficult for me to tell exactly why things were happening the way they were. The sheep were really moving at the top, and the dog Cathy used to hold the sheep was actively working them even as Taz was approaching, which I think confused him a little. He left my side strongly and sometimes sort of stopped when he saw Cathy's dog working and other times buzzed in quickly and a bit too tight. I didn't really want to continue working in such confusing conditions at this stage of Taz's development (I mean, we're just getting the outrun back on track, so I don't want to muddy the waters here without at least having a clear plan of dealing with the situation, which I didn't have). So I decided to just walk with him a bit and send him sometimes, just balance and fetch other times, like we did at Bill's. But Taz wasn't working like he did at Bill's. He was fast, and too tight, trying to beat the sheep around, guarding against the pressure of the draw—actually, he looked pretty crap. I wondered if he was reverting to how he is used to working here, before I started working more seriously on his control and started having a better idea of what I wanted to see. Or maybe he was reacting to me—I am much more passive and unsure of myself when I work with Cathy. Cathy thought it might be her sheep, who are very dogged, and also that we were working in her smallish pasture with its very strong draw, rather than the big alfalfa field behind her pasture. The sheep tend to be a bit heavier out there, as they are both further from the barn and there is much more grass for them to forage on there.

In any case, what we were doing wasn't working. Cathy got another set of sheep out and we worked on the further side of the pasture to at least minimize some of the problems, and I did some outruns with him with me standing between him and the sheep. I was ready to kick him out from my position closer to the sheep, but he didn't really need me to—he seemed to understand that he had to work wider now. Whether this is because he sensed I would come down on him from this position or my mere presence closer to the sheep caused his change, I am not sure. But I guess I need to just work this way for a little while, gradually reducing the distance from where I stand and where I send him, until I send him from my side again. I'll have to try to be a bit more systematic about it than I have been (heh, I haven't exactly been systematic about it at all), but I don't think it will take very long to do.

I put Taz up and got Craig out. He continued to listen to me here, which was good, but definitely wanted to freelance when I stopped working to talk to Cathy. But he was also pretty easy to check. I practiced using the whistles with him, and again he immediately took the flanks but ignored the stops at first. However, after a few tries, he began lying down when I blew the stop. Hooray! And this was in the pasture, not the arena, so I am very happy about that. Cathy also noticed that Craig really respects the growly voice I have, so I shouldn't hesitate to use it with him. She also noticed that he listens to me much better when I convey that I am serious about his work. Often, when I am unsure about what I am doing or we are not actively doing a specific exercise, I let him get away with being sloppy and bossy. Once I let him know I still expect serious work from him, he shapes up quickly. This is a really good point, and I'll be sure to pay better attention to this in the future.

So for both dogs, I need to be prepared to always be on them—not in a ton-of-pressure kind of way, but in a the-same-rules-always-apply sort of way. I might need to change things to set everything up so that I am able to correct them as I have done in the past—not harshly but consistently. Hopefully I can get out to Bill's later this week to continue to practice all this. Yay for daylight saving's time!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Easy does it

After taking a full week off from working the dogs, I took them out to work at Bill's yesterday. I thought it was possibly enough of a break for Taz to give his brain a rest, and yet not too much time since the last time I worked Craig, so he will still remember that it's in his best interest to work with me rather than freelance. We had a pretty good day!

I tried to remember all the advice I'd been given about Taz, as we got the sheep out. I really wanted to keep everything light and easy today. I started by just walking with him and sending him around when he was starting to go in one direction or the other. No hesitation or balking whatsoever—he was nice and relaxed. I lengthened his outruns a little and he continued to take them, and I did some walking with him, "ach!"-ing him every so often when he came too close to the heads. Sometimes, I'd stop and let the sheep pass me, so Taz could drive some as well. He took his inside flanks, and I let him go to the top and find balance every now and again, then stopped him. He again seemed like he was starting to understand what I'm asking him when I told him to take time, slowing down some, though not hugely dramatically. After doing some driving and then asking for an inside flank, I lied him down at the top. He was doing quite well, so Elaine told me to let him fetch them to me at his own pace. This is what is meant by keeping things fun for him—do not demand perfection 100% of the time. Yes, he is bringing them a little fast, but they're not thundering down to me, so let him bring them at his own pace as a bit of a reward for doing the other things I've asked him. Aha! I can prioritize—not everything needs to be a lesson. Sometimes, we can just have some fun :-)

Keeping Ray's thoughts in mind, I only worked Taz for about 20 minutes. He did really well, and he seemed pretty pleased with himself, so there was no need to stretch the time we were working. This might be one of the times when a shorter session was more productive—our mission was accomplished for the day.

I got Craig out and Elaine and I did some round robin outrun practice with Craig and Ben. She held the sheep first with Ben, leaving them about 30 feet from where she stood. I sent Craig on a come bye, and he took off nice and wide. At about 10:00, he stopped. "Come bye!" I yelled. He ignored me and began moving in toward the sheep. I started walking toward him, repeating my command. He kept going and brought the sheep to Elaine. Rats! "Craig! Lie down!" I shouted, and he did. "Walk up!" And he did fetch the sheep to me, but obviously we had a bit of work to do to here.

We held the sheep for Ben, and Craig at least was able to listen to my instructions to lie down and come to me while Elaine was directing Ben. Ben brought the sheep to Elaine, and I sent Craig again on the away side. He did a bit better listening to me on this side, since the sheep were on the other side of Elaine, but I knew we had to work on being successful on the come bye side.

I shortened up the distance and sent him again. At 10:00, he started to hesitate and I reflanked him. He took it, but then stopped again. Should I ask him to come bye again, or should I tell him to walk up now, even though he's not on balance to me? I weighed both options in my usual s-l-o-w manner. "Tell him to come bye," Elaine called out helpfully.

"Come bye, Craig," I parroted, and he continued to arc over. "Lie down," I called when he reached the top. "Walk up!" He sort of started to bring them to Elaine again, but I told him to come bye every time he moved toward the direction of Elaine, so eventually he did bring the sheep back to me again.

The next time, I told him to come by at 9:45 (or, just before he would have hesitated at 10:00) and there was only a blip before he kept going around. One more flank at about 11:30 and a lie down at the top and he fetched them to me directly. He was getting it! We did it one final time, and he needed only the one reflank at 9:45 before stopping at the top and fetching them to me. He was bringing the sheep to me, even with Elaine there. Woo hoo! We still need much more practice here, but we ended on that high note.

Well, almost. I did hold the sheep with Craig a couple more times at the top of the field opposite the handler's post, so Elaine could practice a long outrun with Ben. After Ben's first go, I tried to pick up the sheep with Craig at a distance, and we struggled, with him wanting to bring the sheep to Elaine again. It was really quite a big distance, so perhaps too soon for that, but with another session gradually lengthening our outruns a bit, I have confidence that Craig will not be confused about who he should bring the sheep to, even with Elaine standing on the field. Patience, grasshopper!

I ended the day with some whistle practice with Craig. We hadn't worked with whistles together in about three months, so I was pretty sure both of us would be rusty. The main thing I want to get solid with a whistle is his stop. I blew it and he completely ignored it. "Tell him the command, blow the whistle, and give the command again," Elaine advised. I did that a few times, and then we graduated to just doing the whistle first and giving the command only if he didn't take it. My stop whistles were not very consistent at all, but we still managed to achieve maybe a 40 or 50 percent success rate. Not too bad; I'll practice making the sound a bit more without him before trying again. The problem is that I can blow it just fine when not working, but I seem to get all out of breath when I blow it when we're actually near any sheep. Rats. On the other hand, he completely remembered his come bye and away to me whistles, and I could blow them fairly well, so his flanks were pretty successful on the whole. Can't complain about that :-)

We ended the day with a nice hike along the edge of Bill's property. I think all of us were pretty satisfied!
Happy dogs!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Advice on helping Taz with his outrun

I asked for advice on what to do about Taz's outrun falling apart on the Border Collie Boards and got some great suggestions, both publicly and also privately by some pretty accomplished open handlers. The basic gist of the responses were that I am probably contributing to his outrun issues, but that they could be fixed relatively easily.

It was suggested that I should try to mix things up a bit more—I have a tendency to drill a bit when I train, which encourages Taz to sort of lock in on whatever behavior we're practicing, so he loses some flexibility in doing a variety of tasks. This is actually what Bill has also said, so I will definitely try to include a little driving, a little fetching, some close-in work, some distance work, etc., in more of my practice sessions. This definitely runs counter to what I thought I needed to do (if his outrun is suffering, I need to work solely on his flanks for a while), so I am glad to hear this is not a good idea beforehand.

In addition, I recognize that ever since the Scott Glen clinic, and especially since the Tracy Derx lesson, I've been putting a lot of pressure on Taz. He is finally now reaching a point in his training where I can start to put together some of the things we've learned over the past couple of years, and I guess I've been a bit impatient to bring him along, especially after being told by Bill last autumn that he would probably be ready to run in the pro-novice/ranch class this summer. We had to take some time off during the winter, and I have no doubt that Taz could be or could have been ready to move up if Bill was training him, but I am training him (with help, of course) and we just haven't progressed as quickly as we hoped. I know we're just not ready yet, so I can officially let that go and concentrate on rocking the novice class ;-) and therefore take some of that pressure off ourselves.

So we can be a little sillier and have more fun again. Anna Guthrie suggested that I shorten things up and relax a bit. Maybe just casually send him when we're moving anyway. Bill had suggested just walking around the field with a big bunch of sheep, and giving Taz no commands beyond an "ach!" if he goes too far to their heads. Although these two exercises sound somewhat counter to one another, I think maybe they are not really at odds with each other. I need to keep him behind me (since it's fetching, not driving), unless I clearly send him. Both exercises are fetching, really, or rather both exercises are actually balancing—one is just balancing the sheep behind me and the other is letting him balance them ahead of me and turn them back toward me. These kinds of things will hopefully loosen him (and me!) up a little.

Robin French also suggested that if I wasn't ever letting him go to the top and reach balance when he's learning his inside flanks, then he might be thinking I don't really want him going all the way to the heads anymore. Carol Campion reminded me that I am actually stopping him on an outrun when we are working on inside flanks. Taz was likely trying to be a good boy and anticipate my stopping him on his flank in order to start pushing the sheep out—even though it was clear to me that we were doing the different behavior involved with an outrun, it probably wasn't all that clear to him. So I should let him go all the way around once in a while, so he doesn't think I never want him to hit balance anymore. I had been trying to make the distinction between driving and outrunning very clear, which I know is a good idea, but not letting him go to the heads at all when he is flanking is probably not the best way to go about it. Cathy Balliu had actually told me to let him go all the way around once in a while when we were first learning inside flanks, and I'd forgotten that. I'll make sure to do it in the future, though, and hopefully this will help loosen him up as well.

Another trick Carol gave me was to set Taz up at a quarter to the hour and then send him to complete the top half of the outrun and slowly work back to where I am sending from my side again. I've never heard about this exercise before, and I'll definitely try it. She also recommended NOT sending him to the heavy side when he is driving, so that he learns to go all the way around to the heads (and past them) sometimes during a drive. This is something else I'd never thought about and can't wait to try.

Carol also reminded me to always try to look at things from the dog's point of view when things are going wrong, as it is usually something I have inadvertantly taught him. But rather than beat myself up about it, use it as a step to better understand how to get into his head to train him. She's pretty smart, that Carol!

Finally, Ray Coapman suggested that whenever I work on anything new or difficult, try to work on it only a little while before going back to easier, more ingrained things. We've done a lot of work on control and inside flanks lately, so go back to short and simple outruns for a little while. Try to integrate the new lessons with the old, so there is less of a tendency for the old lessons to "slip," and don't be afraid to enforce the shape of his outrun, so he understands that the same rules always apply. The main thing Ray stressed, though, is to work only for short times when learning new things. It's harder for me to want to do this, since I don't have my own sheep and thus I want to maximize my time out there when I do get a chance to work, but it's just not helping Taz learn anything.

Anyway, I am very appreciative of all the advice given to me, and I do feel as though I am better prepared to help Taz break through this tentative outrun phase. I think I will still give him a little break, but then maybe incorporate some or all of these great ideas. I really can't say enough about how great the border collie community is about helping one another out with training ideas. It's truly a terrific group of folks!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The good, the bad, and the ugly

THE GOOD: Craig's driving skills with me at the helm
THE BAD: Tazzy sort of fell apart when we were working on his flanks
THE UGLY: My annoyed reaction to Taz's outrun struggles

So Pam and I had a dual lesson with Bill yesterday. It was really warm—temps were in the seventies—but very windy at times. I think being able to swap out four dogs was really beneficial because it was so warm—none of our dogs are used to working in the heat yet. With Taz, I wanted to work on his outruns, specifically seeing whether he was actually having problems with his come bye flanks and working on fixing that if he was, or just lengthening his outruns if it turned out his issues with the come bye side were simply overly magnified when we were working in the arena. With Craig, I wanted to make sure the new-found control I had on him could transfer from the small, confined space of an arena to the open field.

I worked Taz first (well, technically Pam worked Wink first, then Taz and I had a go ;-). Bill thought we should only work on his come bye side today. He set the sheep with Blue so that the come bye side was opposite the draw. I sent Taz. He took a few steps and hesitated. I tried again, with the same result. "Walk forward," Bill suggested, so I did, and he did go, but he wasn't running super fast and he came in shallow. But I didn't think I should correct the shape of the outrun, since he was clearly running without confidence. We repeated this a few times, and ended with a short drive away. While Taz took his inside flanks pretty well on both sides, he was struggling to move the sheep forward. Rats. I put him up and and we watched Pam work with Kirk for a while.

Then it was Craig's turn. All I was hoping for was that he would listen to me, or at least that he wouldn't be too far away from me if he blew me off, so that I wouldn't have to run very much. But he did great! We did some driving around the field, with Bill next to me (for insurance with my timing) and Craig never more than about 50 or so yards from me (just in case ;-), and he did pretty much everything I asked him to without a fight. Because he was being so responsive, I accepted a stop rather than demanding a full lie down. I didn't have to run up at him at all. This is the Craig that shows his previous training, his willingness to work with a partner on the field, his ability to read and handle tough sheep. The Craig that will help me become a more competent handler. And figuring out how to get this cooperation from him is just one of the lessons I'm learning.

Things did not go as well the next time I worked Taz, though. We shifted positions so that he could cover the draw when he was flanking to the left, in case that was contributing to his tentativeness. But the results were the same. We even shifted it so that he was working directly against the draw, but this, too, didn't change anything. The problem wasn't the pressure of the draw. Taz was just hesitating. I admit I was getting frustrated. It's one thing to work on sloppiness or incorrect work resulting from overexuberance. But I had no idea what to do with a dog who moves tentatively. Once he (eventually) got to the top after mcuh cajoling one time, I asked him to lie down. The wily sheep bent around him, so I called for an away, which he took. Once at the top again, I asked for a lie down. But they just bent around him again. This repeated a few times, which must have been pretty frustrating for him, but he continued to take the stops. But then he just refused to get up and take another flank. He let them get away, which I don't think I've ever seen him do.

Yeah, here's the ugly. Instead of realizing I was asking him to do something very difficult (even Craig had had a little trouble at this exact place), I focused on his willingness to just let the sheep get away from him. I called him back but then wouldn't even look at him. I mean, I wasn't yelling and screaming at him or anything like that, but he knew I wasn't happy with him. I set him up and sent him again, but he barely went two steps before stopping, so I called him back and walked up to Bill. I think I just put too much pressure on him, when he was trying but just really confused about what he was supposed to be doing.

"He's fried," Bill confirmed. "Let's give him a rest. You can just do some fun stuff with him, maybe in the arena, if you like." I felt pretty terrible at that point. I just fried my dog. We did some easy walking and balancing in the arena after that, but I wasn't sure what to do with him. I didn't want to correct him at all today anymore, since he is feeling such a lack of confidence right now for whatever reason.

I talked to Elaine a bit later, and she reiterated that she thinks the hesitation on the outruns might be due to his learning to drive right now. I thought Taz had been driving for a little while, but she disagreed. She thought his earlier "driving" was really sort of going through the motions for him—that he didn't really understand that he was pushing the sheep out, not just following directions or doing some variation on a fetch. Now that he truly understands the concept of driving, he is getting a little confused about what he is supposed to be doing during an outrun. She said it took Ben almost a year to fully figure it out in his head, and since Taz works a lot like his uncle Ben does, this is probably not very surprising. When I told her about how Taz had let the sheep get away, she thought he might need a break for a couple of weeks. Of course, I didn't want to hear that—his driving was so good the other day, and besides we are going to the first trial of the season next month, but I will of course do whatever will be best for Taz in the long run. If he needs a break right now, then he needs a break. I can still work Craig, especially since we seem to be in such a good, if precarious, place right now. I had told Bill I was going to come work the dogs one evening this week, so I'll definitely work Craig then and just work Taz gently, to see how he does. If he still seems at all overwhelmed or confused, I'll just put him up and take a break with him.

So, while this business with Taz is kind of a bummer, maybe it's just a natural (or at least not an unusual) phase of his development. I am glad that it is coinciding with my new-found partnership with Craig, so we can hopefully continue to develop as a team in the meantime.