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.