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 :-)

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