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!