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!