Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hmmm . . .

I got to Bill's yesterday and found out that Larry had already been there earlier in the day and he had sorted off the lambs from the older ewes. I was a little disappointed to hear this, because I kind of wanted to mimic yesterday's conditions as much as possible. Jack, one of Bill's guard dogs, joined us as we brought the sheep down the field. Jack is still kind of a puppy, sweet as pie, but he can be kind of a nuisance to the dogs when they're trying to work. I tied him up as soon as we got to the other side of the field. Instead of going to the northern pen, I had Craig put them in the southwest pen because that was where the water was and it was still pretty warm.

Unfortunately, there wasn't as much grass for the sheep to eat on this end of the field, and this part of the field didn't benefit from the hill at the top of the field blocking the sounds and sight of the pens by the barn. The lambs were bleating their little hearts out for their mamas, and the ewes were much less content to hang out and wait for the dog to pick them up or set their course. I knew today would be more difficult than yesterday was.

I decided to begin with Craig. That was when I realized I'd forgotten my whistle. Rats! All those times I wore my whistle and it never made it to my mouth, and now when I was here specifically to work on my whistling with Craig . . . oh well, we could always practice driving. I wanted to improve my timing, of course, but also try to lie him down long enough to use the draw to my advantage and let the sheep drift back on line, rather than get into the familiar flank-counterflank routine.

We did all right, I guess. I tried to lie him down to take advantage of the draw, and it did work a lot of the time, but he fought me a little on some of the stops. I know he was just wanting to cover in case they broke. He also still had some trouble with the transition from drive away to cross drive. I tried to do the flank around to one side and then the quick flank around to the other to show the sheep the dog on both sides, but Craig didn't seem to understand what I was doing. We were driving in a triangle, so there were no panels or anything; I just switched directions when we came up to a landscape feature I'd spotted earlier or a black barrel lying on the field. Thus, he didn't have any real external cues for when we were switching to a cross drive or the drive back toward me. It's in these situations that I think he doesn't entirely trust me. I think he wants to do the right thing, but if he doesn't really understand why I'm asking him to do something it does seem to me that he thinks I might be making a mistake. So he doesn't always react immediately to my requests, which then creates situations where the sheep move a bit out of position, and then it no longer makes a lot of sense to do what I asked. It's frustrating to me, but I know I need to work with him more so I can improve my timing, so I'm wrong less often and thus build that trust.

Okay, onto Taz. I had a harder time with him than I did yesterday. It was harder to set the sheep up so that they weren't moving, and he was keyed up about that. He kept checking back to see if the sheep were moving back toward the barn when we walked away from them to set up for an outrun, and a few times he took a few steps to anticipate covering a break, should it happen. I admit I often stopped far shorter than I'd planned to send him because I wasn't sure if they would stop moving or they really would eventually break. I set him up wherever he wanted to go (usually about five or six feet from my side and about a foot ahead of me). This made me stepping off in the opposite direction a bit less dramatic for him, I think, and he seemed to begin hesitating just a teeny bit again sometimes. But he did leave my side when I sent him with the "ch-ch-ch" sound. I can't really put my finger on how it was different. It just sort of seemed like he was all over the place yesterday, and I couldn't seem to isolate the circumstances that made him, say, leave my side slower or run tighter. Maybe it was that he was taking off a little slower when the sheep were still, and a bit tighter when they were moving. But I don't think that was always the case. We actually didn't really have a bad day, though I think I'm making it sound that way. I just wish I understood more about what I was seeing when things didn't go perfectly right.

This is where I need someone more experienced to help me understand why things are happening. It's often just so difficult for me to interpret what exactly is going on and what might be motivating the dog to respond the way he does. It seems like Taz should have been wider if he set himself up, since it is his pattern to feel his sheep more when he can make certain decisions, but perhaps the threat of breaking sheep overrode this. Or maybe I have not guided his instincts properly and I've sufficiently screwed up his natural sense of that bubble that he now needs more direction when I send him. (Just to be clear, I'm not beating myself up for that; I am just wondering how to help him now.) I'll try to go out tomorrow, one last time before I leave for four days, to see if things become a little more clear . . .

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fixing Taz’s hesitation

Or, Robin French is a genius . . .

I went out to Bill’s this afternoon. Bill told me he was training his lambs to work with the dogs, so they’d be a little more difficult than usual. I was a little nervous about it—I sometimes still feel a little intimidated working the dogs by myself under the best of conditions. But it was fine. Larry was there when I pulled up and he’d already worked his dogs, so the lambs and sheep were ready to go, over in the northwest pen.

I brought the dogs down and tied up Craig. I’d use Taz to get a few of the sheep out. I usually use Craig for these kinds of jobs, because he’s so good at it and I know he loves doing more practical tasks. But Taz needs to practice these kinds of jobs, too. He did great, moving the sheep calmly and slowly. No lack of confidence here. We brought three sheep out and let them drift about 30 yards away. We’d start small.

I set him up on my left, trying to remember all of Robin's advice to try. I took two small steps to my right while saying nothing more than “ch-ch-ch-ch” (a sound I’ve never used with him before). He took off immediately. A little tight, but no hesitation at all. Yay! Again and again, Taz left my side when I sent him like that. I reduced it to taking one step to the side (which is allowed in a trial, I think). It didn’t work every single time, though. About the third or fourth time out, I set him up pretty far from the sheep (I suck at judging distances, but it was pretty far). “Ch-ch-ch,” I said as I stepped off. He took a step and stopped. So I tried a correction: “Acht!” He looked at me but didn’t move. “Get out of that!” I growled, and off he went. Telling Taz to get out of that often kicks him out when he begins to slice or hesitates further up in his trajectory, but it had never worked before when he hesitated from my feet. Hmm. Maybe with the new sound and stepping to the other side, we were breaking the cycle! I was very encouraged :-)

Another thing that I think helped was that Bill advised me to remember to break things up a little with some informal, light stuff, like just walking and sending him around occasionally. Also, I even practiced the “not those sheep, these sheep” exercise a little. We left a group of sheep in the field to do an outrun with (I must say, it’s really convenient that Taz is having this outrun issue in the spring, when there is plenty of lovely green grass for the sheep to munch on ;-) and walked back to get some distance to send him. We happened to be walking in the direction of the pen where the rest of the sheep were waiting, and Taz began focusing on them. “No, look” I told him. He turned away from the penned sheep. “These!” I said, looking toward our group snacking in the field. He spotted them. “Good!” Yay! Not a bad start.

I have a big question about Taz though: He sometimes still sliced at the top. I am reluctant to correct him when I see him start to slice because I am afraid it will make his hesitating worse. I know every time he does a slicy outrun he is practicing incorrect work, but which is the lesser of two evils? Is it a mistake to let the slicing slide for now or should I insist on correct work while we work through the hesitation? Maybe the answer depends on how quickly I can fix the hesitation—if we can work through it quickly, we can move back to addressing his slicing without worrying about the hesitation anymore, but if the problem persists, I’ll just have to work on both problems together, even though one may exacerbate the other.

I was happy with my work with Craig as well. I worked mainly with whistles with him today. He still didn’t take every whistle I gave—not by a long shot—but he was taking them more and more as the session went on. I did some difficult (if close in) driving and reinforced with fun, easy outruns. When he didn’t take the whistles, I made sure he took the voice commands I followed up with. So really, that’s what I was striving for—not perfection, but improvement. We mostly just need to practice with the whistle, I think, doing outruns and keeping things easy on the drive for now so he is more clear on what I am asking him. It may take a little while until he really understands what I am asking him. (I still ask for the wrong flank sometimes—sadly, the whistle hasn’t magically made that any easier for me. Also, though I’m much better than I was, sometimes the sounds that come out of that thing are not entirely consistent. Poor dog!) I let Craig bring the sheep back up the field and put them away, and I know he was feeling quite pleased with himself, so I think he felt like we had a successful time out, too :-)

I know I have to keep practicing with both Taz and Craig to ingrain everything we worked on today, so I told Bill I’ll be coming out tomorrow as well. I wish I could come out every day! I leave for a family trip to Florida on Thursday, and I might even be able to squeeze in another session on Tuesday, but that might be it for a little while. I am hopeful that this latest strategy to work through Taz's hesitation will have a lasting effect. So far, it definitely seems to be the most effective. And I am confident that Craig and I just need to establish a steady rhythm with our whistles. Maybe three straight days of steady practice doing what we did today and building on our small successes will be enough to make some real progress on both fronts!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

First trial of the season (Part III): Lessons learned

So many :-)
  • Transitions—begin thinking about them earlier. I tended to be so focused on whatever part of the course we were going through that I was not prepared or well-positioned to begin the next phase. I'll need to start thinking ahead a bit earlier.
  • When moving the sheep around the post when starting a drive—and also around the drive panels when starting a cross drive—flank the dog around in the direction the sheep need to go, but then quickly reflank on the other side so sheep think the dog is on both sides. This will help them set a line. On Sunday, I was able to do this with successful results around the post, and now I have to think about doing it after passing through the drive panels, too.
  • Lie both dogs down before changing commands. Taz isn't ready to take redirects on the fly consistently, and Craig has been trained with stops before redirects, so he will respond to such handling better.
  • But be careful not to lie the dog down too long. It's tempting, when things seem to be moving so fast, to take a minute to let everyone settle for a minute, but I have to pay close attention to what the sheep are doing to make sure I don't leave the dog down so long he has to scramble to cover them.
  • Take the draw into account. Throughout the entire course, not just on the outrun ;-) This means thinking about when to simply lie the dog down and wait for the sheep to come back on line themselves instead of always flanking the dog to correct the line. Sometimes I just need to "bump" the sheep.
  • Don’t forget to find landscape feature that is parallel to panels to use as gauge; check it if possible with dogs that run earlier.
  • Be careful redirecting Taz on his early runs; go from a softer tone to louder one. He may have been more likely to hesitate on his subsequent runs after I yelled at him to lie down so strongly during Friday's outrun. No need to bring out the heavy guns the first time.
  • Separate but related: work on my tone of voice—I get much too clipped when I’m tense.
  • Get both dogs solid on (my) whistles asap, especially in case it's windy. Train in all weather conditions so the dogs and I can run a course in any weather we get!
  • Try to introduce ch-ch-ch or shhh sound to excite Taz to move forward. Better late than never.
  • Wait until sheep really settle and set-out dog is way out of the way before sending. It's a fine line between waiting long enough and waiting too long, but maybe watching the dog's and sheep's behavior at the top during the runs before mine will help me decide the best time to send my dogs when I go.
  • Block view of the sheep being exhausted and waiting in the exhaust pen before the run for Taz.
  • Work on this exercise to help Taz focus on the correct set of sheep: Get two or three different groups of sheep on the field or in a pen. Tell him to “Look” to find one set of the sheep. Say “Good” when he does. Then step it up a notch and make sure he is looking at the sheep I am looking at. Say “No, these” when he focuses on the wrong set. Repeat until I'm sure he gets it. Apparently, although it seems to me like this might drive a dog batty, I'm told the dogs seem to like this exercise.
  • When approaching the course, walk to the post in the direction the dog will go for his outrun.
  • Some tricks to work the sheep at the pen to end a stand-off: wave arms, thrust stick in their direction or from side to side, stamp my feet, even kick dirt at them. (Is this only for broke sheep? Would range ewes take off I tried such shenanegans?)
  • Work on my own resiliency when things start to go wrong—no need to panic if something goes wrong. Just do what you can to fix it.
  • Retiring: don’t give up too soon; at my level, the judge will let me know if I need to leave.
  • Regarding Taz's tendency to hesitate and/or slice—there is no quick fix for it. I'll have to work on it in practice before I can expect it not to happen at a trial. This is Taz's biggest obstacle to overcome before he will be at all successful. So I need to get to work fixing it!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

First trial of the season (Part II): Weekend runs

Saturday and Sunday were much, much windier than Friday. So much so, that a small fire in the mountains overlooking the trial site (maybe 30 miles away, with plains between) we'd been watching on Friday easily quadrupled in size on Saturday, and increased about tenfold on Sunday. The wind was really whipping around! The courses for the various classes were changed a few times in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the wind, but the direction kept changing, so it seemed like no matter what the configuration of the field was, handlers were shouting their commands and blowing their whistles into the wind. The poor dogs weren't hearing very much.

I was a bit less nervous on these days. One of the things that was pointed out to me, which can be clearly detected on the videos of my Friday runs, is that when I get tense during a run, my voice gets very clipped. Elaine told me it was quite different from how I usually talk to my dogs while we’re working. Instead of the “soft,” relaxed voice I’ve been striving for since my lesson with Tracy Derx a few months ago, I sound choppy and that tension in my voice (along with my extra-stiff body posture) cannot be helpful for the dogs. Both my dogs (probably all dogs) work much better when they are relaxed; they feel their sheep better and they listen to me more easily, so this is something I tried to be a little more conscious of during my weekend runs. Too bad the wise and helpful open handler Robin French hadn't yet written this article before the trial!

One of my first errors in judgment was volunteering Elaine to do set out. I knew she wanted to give Ben a little more work, so when the trial host came around asking for help, I told her to talk to Elaine. Well, this was very nice for the efficient running of the trial, but it probably wasn’t the greatest idea in the world to have the set out person at the trial be the person who (a) Craig wants to bring the sheep to anyway, and (b) works with Taz and me a lot when we train. Yeah. What was I thinking?

We made arrangements to have another person set for Craig and just hoped for the best for Taz. Honestly I thought Taz would be okay. Time would tell . . .

Craig was up first. He did a sweet outrun, lift, and fetch again. But the drive was a bit, um, rough. I couldn’t seem to establish a line. We just went back and forth, though I guess we made the panels. We got only half of our cross drive before the sheep just turned toward the pen and I couldn’t get Craig to take my flanks to get them back on line. Not sure whether he could hear me. Rats.

Taz’s run was kind of a disaster. On this day, the nursery dogs were using the pen we’d been using for an exhaust pen in the novice class, so the sheep instead went into a pen directly behind the handler’s post. There was no tarp or anything to hide the sheep from the dog. I didn’t worry too much about this, but I should have. Taz began watching the handlers exhaust the sheep from the area where we were sitting and waiting to run, and he continued to keep his eyes pretty much glued to them as we walked to the little blind where the on-deck handlers wait to go. The blind was ludicrous—he was facing the other way toward the exhaust sheep. About this time was when I realized I might have a problem.

The sheep were set pretty far away. It turned out there was a walkie-talkie miscommunication between the fields, and sheep for the novice class were set at the same distance as they were for the ranch class. This, combined with the wind making it difficult for the novice dogs to stay in contact with their handlers and the temptation of the exhaust sheep right behind the post, proved to be too much for most of the novice dogs. Only two of the ten or so dogs competing received scores (and they were on whistles). As I walked Taz up to the post, he kept turning his body back toward the exhaust. I tried to show him the sheep on the field, but he didn’t seem to even see them. And when I sent him, he immediately began moving back to find the exhaust sheep. “No!” I said softly. “Lie down.” He complied. “Come bye, Taz!” But he didn’t want to get up now. “Brr!” I said, trying to egg him on. “Shhhh shhhh.” Still nothing. Making these kinds of sounds, which spur on every other border collie on the planet, has absolutely no effect on Taz. Elaine thinks it’s because he was never started as a pup with these sounds, so they don’t mean anything to him. Yet another mistake I made with him before I had any idea what I was doing, coming back to haunt me now.

I took a few steps forward and told him to come bye again. This meant I was retiring, but I needed to sacrifice a score to help him. He finally went, and he was fairly wide. I have no idea whether or not he sliced; I have a really hard time dealing with his trajectory if I’ve been working to get him to leave my feet. I hate this new trend of hesitating and not leaving my feet, and I really want to fix it before it becomes an ingrained habit.

Sunday’s runs were, well, unmitigated disasters (though I learned a lot, so I am very glad we ran). It was even windier on Sunday than on Saturday, so I decided to use whistles with Craig, at least on his outwork if necessary. Now, I’ve used whistles with Craig before, but he didn’t always take them when we practiced. But I thought I might as well try—I knew he really couldn’t hear my voice so I thought I had nothing to lose. I sent him and he sliced a bit, causing the sheep to move offline for the beginning of the fetch. “Lie down!” I yelled. Nothing. I blew the stop whistle. Still nothing. He was bringing them to me, but they kept moving toward the right. I blew another stop. Nothing. “Come bye!” I switched, trying to get him to cover them instead of just chasing them. Nothing. I whistled. Nothing. Finally, in desperation, I screamed at him to “LIE DOWN, CRAIG!!!” And he did. Shizer. That was a bit rough. And it rattled me a little. The sheep settled and we rounded the post. Here, I tried a trick Elaine told me: flank the dog around in the direction the sheep need to go, but then quickly reflank on the other side so sheep think the dog is on both sides—this will help them set a line. And it worked! The sheep moved off me easily in the direction of the drive panels and Craig kept them on line. There was a tiny bit of back and forth, but our line was pretty straight as we approached the panels. Somehow, though, we missed them completely.

That might be why I suddenly just blew it. I flanked him on a bye when I meant to flank him away for the cross drive. He was anticipating an away flank and started to go that way, but then stopped and went the (incorrect) direction I’d requested. The result was that the sheep were flipped back toward me. And I panicked. Just lost it. I didn’t know if this meant we were going off course (I don’t know why I thought that, since we were clearly on the course), but I just sort of freaked out and thought I should retire and began exhausting the sheep.

“What did you do that for?” The judge asked. “You actually had a competitive score going! I would have hit you hard for going offline with the cross drive, but there was no reason you shouldn’t have finished the course.”

But I hadn’t known it at the time. I was really flustered. I told her I thought we were off course or something, and she told me never to leave the post until the judge asked me to go. I think I am sometimes so concerned with doing things the “right way” (and I’ve heard lots of comments about retiring in the past from people watching a run go badly) that I gave up much too quickly. Phooey. But good to know.

Taz’s final run was even more of a kerfuffle. I was very careful to approach the course without letting him focus on the exhaust, but the previous days of stopping him took their toll. He hesitated when I sent him, and I had to take a couple of steps forward before he would go. Dang. But he did go. Unfortunately, there was still a bit of activity with Ben and Elaine moving the sheep at the top when Taz got there. (Elaine said I sent him way too early. Also good to know.) Taz brought the sheep—to Elaine. Oh noooooooooooo!

And he wouldn’t lie down or take any commands. I started running up in his direction and he soon lied down and began bringing them to me. We went over to the pen (in the novice class, we were encouraged to do the full course even if we were officially retiring) and the sheep were running in every direction. I half-heatedly tried to gather them and began walking off when it didn’t work immediately, but the judge stopped me and encouraged me to take a breath, relax, and try again. So I did, and this time we penned them much more easily (to cheers from the other competitors—I love how supportive sheepdog folks are!).

This has been quite a loooong entry, so I’ll wait until later to post the lessons learned wrap up. Suffice it to say that there were many, many lessons learned ;-)

Monday, April 21, 2008

First trial of the season (Part I): Friday's runs

I went to my first real trial of the season this past weekend—I had a great time and learned a ton! I don't know how I'm going to remember everything, so I guess I won't try to fit it all in one entry. Instead, I'll try to write a bit about it in several posts as I remember them and continue to think through everything that happened.

I was SUPER nervous the first day. Ridiculously nervous. Actually, though, it was our best day. Craig won his class and Taz came in second (by one measly point!) in the novice class, both of which were complete surprises to me. Everything happened so fast! There was a strong draw to the left side of the field, so I sent both dogs into the pressure on the bye side. Craig did a great outrun, lift, and fetch, needing not much help from me. I lied him down a little too long when the sheep approached the post, and the sheep ran a bit too far past the post. He got them back on line, though, and our drive away was a little wingy and wangy but we made it through the panels. Our cross drive started out really nice, but I lied Craig down too long again and the sheep turned toward the pen before they reached the cone we were supposed to turn them around. I flanked him to the left but then again lied him down too early, so they hesitated where they were supposed to turn back up toward the cone...and then kept moving forward past it (and still below it). Ack! Mindful of not crossing the course (I am still kind of unclear on when exactly I am in danger of crossing the course when driving, so I figured better safe than sorry), I reflanked to the right and they turned to come back down to the pen. I saw on video that I practically let the sheep reach the pen before I moved off the post, so I'll have to remember in the future to move a bit sooner. One ewe started to go around the back of the pen, but a quick flank stopped her and she rejoined her buddies at the mouth of the pen. I let them settle a bit, gave Craig a quick come bye command, and in they went :-)

Taz was pretty amped before his run. I wasn't sure whether he'd run straight up the field or do his hesitation routine and not leave my feet at all. He did the former, beginning his infamous lollipop outrun. I was elated that he left my side, but soon regained my wits and remembered that running straight up the field was not what I wanted to see either. I yelled at him to lie down (in retrospect, I wish I just asked for a lie down more softly, but I wasn't sure he'd take it—and, well, I guess the truth is I was a bit amped as well). He did, immediately. "Get out!" I yelled, and he kicked himself out. Yay! (It turned out I got hit pretty hard for that redirect, but as Elaine said, I'm looking at the big picture.) He still came in a bit tight, so his lift was a little offline, but he took my lie down at the top and we recovered. His fetch was fine; we turned around the post and made our way to the pen. The stupid rope was all tangled up. I grabbed it and sort of just held it in a bunch (instead of unraveling it and extending it—the judge later told me I should have taken a few seconds to untangle the rope and take advantage of the full length I had). I flanked Taz around, and he was a little tight but he was moving slowly and steadily. I lied him down. The sheep tried to get past me, but I guarded my side and gave Taz a come bye flank. He took a slow step in. Oops. I waved my arms a little and they moved to face the pen. I told Taz to come bye again, and this time he took just a gentle step to the right (my right, his left) and the sheep went right in. Hooray!

Those were the best runs :-)
Tomorrow, I'll write about the rest of our runs, which included some good stuff but also highlighted some areas where we clearly need much more work ;-)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mixed bag...

I went to Bill's for a lesson over the weekend. It was kind of a mixed bag...

We worked Taz first on outruns. Bill set them up about 150 yards away from us with his Blue dog. Bill's been busy with lots of nondog aspects of life lately, and so hasn't been able to work his own dogs very much. As a result, he had to talk kinda loudly and forcefully to Blue while they were setting. I set Taz up about 20 feet away from me and sent him to the left. He really hesitated, not even taking any steps forward at first. I walked forward, telling him to come bye a few more times. He did eventually go, but when he did reach the top, he kind of hesitated lifting the sheep and beginning the fetch. I think he was a little confused—he seemed to take some of Bill's commands meant for Blue, and it looked like he sort of started to maybe bring the sheep to Bill, then decided to sort of just chase them a little before taking my redirections to bring them to me. Yipes. I shortened up the distance a bunch, but he continued to hesitate, though he did better when Bill wasn't at the top. I think that I probably don't work him enough with men, so maybe that's why Taz has problems with Bill at the top. Bill's style is also really different from my own—he likes to give a dog a lot of commands and puts a fair amount of pressure on them. I don't, at least partly because at this stage I am wrong half the time (sigh). So I am not sure whether working with Bill is helpful for Taz (he needs to learn how to deal with people, especially men, commanding their dogs during set out) or harmful (since Taz does sometimes backslide a little in his progress when we work with him). Are we seeing holes in Taz's training that need to be addressed to round him out, or is working him with such different working styles just confusing to a novice dog trying to get to the next level?

We also did work on some driving and inside flanks. He took most of his flanks, but I did usually have to say "here, here" first. But then we haven't done much driving lately, since we're working on his outrun, so I thought Taz did pretty well here. I didn't really want to push him too hard, since I knew he was a little fried from the outrun stuff. Bill warned me again not to focus solely on fixing his outrun to the exclusion of driving altogether.

I also worked with Craig a little. It was very windy, so I think he did have some trouble hearing me. So I worked him a little with the whistles (we were marginally successful; we won't be attempting to work with whistles at the trial this weekend). Our lines weren't super straight, but I knew he did want to turn the sheep back to me and he never did, so that was a small success. I think he just had trouble hearing me. Once again, I realize I need to get him solid on my whistles because if it's windy at a trial, we'll be sunk...

I was hoping to get out to Bill's and work the dogs myself before we leave for New Mexico on Thursday, but I don't think I'll have a chance this week. Rats. Oh well, it's just for fun for me, really—it's not like the early-season novice classes are big pressure cookers ;-) though of course I'd like for the dogs to have good runs. It'll be a neat experience no matter what happens really—I can't wait :-)))

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Learning to adapt

After Taz's less-than-stellar performance at the last novice trial, I decided I need to work the dogs at more places. Last night, I went to work up at Linda's place in Fort Collins. She has very light barbs and barb crosses, which we did not have very much experience with. And it showed! ;-)

I warmed Taz up in one of her little pens. He looked great—even in that high-pressure environment he gave them some room and listened well to every command I gave him. I bet he remembers the last time he was here, during that lesson with Tracy Derx! After a few minutes, we moved to her pasture.

Out of the continued goodness of her heart :-) Elaine joined me to help me. I think she suspected things might be a little different for me here. She hadn't brought Ben, so we decided to have her hold the sheep for Taz with Craig. Now I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but to be honest I didn't think Craig would suddenly stop wanting to work for me if Elaine worked him again. I couldn't be sure, of course, but I figured that if he did stop taking my commands after working with Elaine again, I would just have to make sure I enforced my commands and he'd be fine. I mean, he kind of prefers to work with her anyway, so is there really that much of a difference between me working him when Elaine is around and Elaine working him when I am around? I doubted it; as long as Craig listens to me when Elaine is not around, I think it's okay if she works him once in a while, even though he's my dog now.

So she held the sheep at the top of the pasture at the opposite corner of their home, or "the bar," as Linda jokingly calls it. The draw was very strong for them, and the sheep were crafty about returning there and not very willing to placidly accept the dog's presence as a deterrent to trying to get back there. Craig was up to the task though, especially in Elaine's capable hands, so I went to the opposite corner of the pasture to send Taz from. I set him up to run into the pressure and sent him on an away from my feet. He started out wide, but cut in way too sharply, resulting in the sheep bending around him and making a made dash for the bar. Taz got to them quickly, though, and brought them back to me, so his outrun was a definite L shape. We repeated this exercise, and the second time, I shortened the distance he had to run. He didn't slice so badly, and he recovered a little quicker, but he was still sort of tight. One more time, with the same results.

Elaine came over to us. "So, what are you doing?" she asked. I gave her what was probably a very blank look. "I mean, you're not doing any of the things we've been working on."

"But I can't lie him down if he slices!" I stammered. "The sheep will run right over him if I do! And I know there's a strong draw here; I can't tell where he needs to be to cover the sheep! He knows where he needs to be better than I do," I whined.

Elaine nodded. "Yeah, you can't lie him down. But what happened to setting him up a few yards away and walking directly up the field as you send him to encourage him not to slice in the first place?"

Ummmmm, oh yeah. Somehow, I'd completely forgotten I was doing that. I guess dogs aren't the only ones who don't generalize what they've learned very well.

As I was smacking my hand to my forehead, Linda walked up to us and told us we might have an easier time of it if we worked on the opposite end of the field. So Taz drove the sheep down the field, and it occurred to me that the reason he might be a "natural" driving dog might actually be because he really just wants to guard against the pressure. Obviously, he doesn't get to always move them opposite the draw, but he loves nothing more than to keep moving them down the field, away from wherever it is they want to go...

Anyway, we got the sheep down at the bottom of the pasture and I set Taz up for another outrun, this time about thirty feet to my right. I sent him as I walked up the field a few steps, and he did great—he was wide and didn't slice. He brought the sheep back to me, and everything looked great, until we tried to bring them back over to Elaine. They started to run back up the field, so I sent Taz on a quick away flank; as he rushed to cover them, they faked him out and switched directions. He ran to catch up and they split up. Man, they were wily! As soon as he'd get them back down to us on the bottom of the pasture, they'd start their return run home. Taz kept his head very well, though, and I was quite proud of him on the whole. Things were happening so quickly, with obstacles often obscuring my view of exactly what was going on, that I had to trust Taz to figure out what to do to bring them back to me. At one point, they sprinted back to the top, and Taz lost them. I lied him down and gave him an away flank so he could bring them back down. He didn't see them, though, so he looked straight ahead and took a few tentative steps. At Elaine's suggestion, I ran over to his left and resent him on an away. This time, he cast himself out using my body positioning as a guide, even though he still couldn't see the sheep, and by running in the correct direction he did eventually find them and bring them back.

This kind of thing is really good for him, I think. So much of what I do with Taz is manufacturing work that I am not sure he gets a chance to see the point of it very often. Such is the lot of a weekend warrior's stockdog. But this was real—the sheep were trying to get home, but we needed them here, and he had to figure out what to do to accomplish that goal. Elaine told me it was great to give him the opportunity to work things out on his own, as long as I help him make the correct choices where necessary, like when I had to show him the sheep via physically getting into a position where sending him blindly made sense to him. This is awesome!

Taz's tongue was hanging down to Australia, so I put him up for a rest. It was Craig's turn. Here would be the test—would he want to work for me, right after having worked for Elaine? Happily, the answer was yes. We had thought maybe I'd have to enforce my commands a bit strongly after Elaine worked him to remind him that he still had to work for me, but he took my commands right away. While I was working Taz, I had realized that though Craig was happy to be working for Elaine again, he was trying to take my commands as well. When I gave Taz commands, I could hear Elaine telling Craig to lie down and that'll do immediately thereafter. That was probably not very fair for him, so it's obviously not something I'd want to do very often, but I was kind of pleased that he didn't want to stop working for me after all.

Elaine stood beside me as I attempted to drive the sheep down toward the bottom of the field with Craig. She would sort of say what Craig should do in a low voice to me, and I'd tell Craig. A couple of times I gave him commands at the same time she told me, which was the idea, but most of the time I was just a bit too late. I knew I had to take the pressure off by stopping or flanking Craig the second the sheep changed their direction (so, really the moment they turned their heads), but I was just a hair too late most of the time. Because these sheep are faster than Bill's, I was definitely having to step up my game.

When I moved the sheep through a set of panels (I wasn't particularly aiming for them, I was more just trying to keep the sheep moving in a straight line down the field), I heard a cheer behind me. Linda was watching us, and she asked us to pen next. "These sheep are so easy to pen!" she said with encouragement. I almost never practice penning—I think I've practiced it once in the past six months. It seemed like kind of an easier task with my dogs, though—Craig knows how to pen and I've been told that Taz is a natural penner. I ran over to the pen, full of confidence.

Which lasted about four seconds. The sheep darted around the pen, moving quickly around the dog I kept lying down. Craig was kind of close in, so I'd send him but then immediately lie him down both because things were moving so quickly and because I was afraid Craig would just push them past the opening of the pen. But we were not very successful. So much for the sheep being easy for me to pen...

"Do you know what you're doing wrong?" Elaine asked. Um, no. I realized that I can pen very well when everything is going right. I can apply and release pressure nicely when the sheep are standing at the mouth, ready to go in. Don't do so well when things are not going perfectly, though. Which means, I suppose, that I do not actually know how to pen.

"You're stopping him too short each time," Elaine explained. Lying him down too early left the sheep a wide open space into which they could move past the opening. By being afraid he would push the sheep past the opening and lying him down to try to prevent that, I was actually giving them the complete freedom to do so. If I flanked him around far enough to catch their eyes, they saw the threat and turned direction. Usually toward the opening of the pen.

"Watch their heads!" Linda called out. "Yeah," Elaine agreed. "You have to watch their heads." I should lie Craig down only when I saw the sheep turn their heads. Sure, there was a chance Craig might push them past the opening if he was too tight, but there was a bigger chance they'd escape if he wasn't in position to stop them. I was skeptical, until Elaine demonstrated and penned in about six seconds. Hmm.

Both Linda and Elaine really stressed how I need to be able to watch the sheep to be able to properly direct the dog. I really tried to follow their advice, and I was finally able to pen with Craig by myself. Hooray! I heard cheers from Elaine and Linda. I bet it had been a little painful for them to watch my awkward fumbling, but it was nice to celebrate the small successes with them. Elaine took me out to the center of the field again and we did a couple of exercises where first I told her where the dog was based only on what the sheep were doing, and then I directed the dog looking solely at the sheep. It was cool, and I think with some concentration and practice, I might eventually get this idea...

All in all, it was a great work session for me—lots of new things to think about :-)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Great work at home doesn't always mean great work at trials...

Saturday we had another novice trial. This one was quite fun, as I finally got to meet Anda in person, and Julia, Brad, baby Michael, Katie, and Chris all came down to watch. And we got to play with Nancy's little Soot puppy a bit :-)

The novices in my area are pretty lucky to have this series—these trials have been a great barometer to show us what we can do in situations that are maybe a little more stressful or just different than our usual practice conditions. They've definitely been pretty educational for me...

This one was at Cathy's. After the last time I was here, I realized that neither of my dogs run particularly well there. Taz typically runs fast and tight here—whether because of the sheep, the setup of the pasture, the alignment of the stars in the sky, or whatever, he seems to look like he's had barely any training when we work here. If I am taking a lesson, eventually we can work through it and he'll run reasonably well by the end of the session, but it doesn't seem to then carry over to the next time we work here. And Craig just wants to turn the sheep back to me all the time here when we're driving, no matter what. So I didn't have very high expectations for Saturday. Still, we'd been working pretty well lately, so maybe we'd have a good day.

The draw on this field is very heavily toward the south. The trial was held in the pasture with the post on the north side and the trial field running south toward the barn. In this way, the drive would be in the direction of the draw, but it was a left-hand drive, and the sheep were being kept in a pen on the right side, so the draw was somewhat mitigated. To further help our dogs, our judge, Carol Lucero, encouraged us to walk up the field a little while we were beginning the drive to sort of encourage the (very broke) sheep to not bolt (since they'd want to stay close to the person). So obviously this was not exactly mimicking the conditions of a real trial, but the pressure of competing in front of others was real enough for us right now.

Our practice runs were nothing to write home about. Taz was wild, fast, and tight, as I knew he would be. I had sent him on the bye side, for reasons unknown. Well, I guess I did it because the set-out person was having to stay between the sheep she just set and the pen holding their buddies, and I thought sending the dog on the other side might be easier for Taz. This was kind of a stupid idea, since I know Taz runs this exact field with these exact sheep much, much better if I send him on the away side. No worries then, I thought, I'll just send him to the away side for our judged run. Craig, meanwhile, decided to fight me up and down our practice run. He wouldn't listen, and with these sheep, timing really was everything since they just wanted to run back up the field. I had to completely abort our driving attempt, because the sheep were pretty much running up the field and Craig was kind of then chasing them to eventually just guard against the pressure. Ick. I knew I should run up the field at him because he was blowing me off—I'd done it before at Irene's novice trial with Taz with great results, and I've done it with Craig before at Steve and Lynn's with similar results, so why wasn't I running up the field at him? I didn't know. Maybe because I'd invited a few folks to come down and I knew they were watching me? Lame. People would always be watching during a trial...I actually had this entire conversation running through my head during our run. Sigh—I'm going to have to learn how to prioritize trying to get the best work possible from my dogs over being self-conscious if we are to be successful at all. I did pen with both of them easily enough on the practice runs, but I guess it's not that hard to pen sheep that follow you into a three-sided pen...

So, after these fun adventures, we were ready for the judged runs. Craig was up first. I was pretty sure this would be a disaster, since I didn't have that hat therapy session with him during our practice run. But he surprised me. He ran pretty well, though he was tight on his outrun—I sent him on the come bye side again (why? who knows?). His fetch was fine, he did a decent job of keeping them on line when they wanted to drift to the right. Around the post and then the drive. This went reasonably well. He was listening to me, which was great, but because I knew he really wanted to turn the sheep back to me, I kept lying him down right before (or sometimes, if I was late, just as) he'd get to their heads. This did actually work to keep them moving forward toward the panels, but it was pretty choppy. Then, just as they approached the panels, Craig moved a bit too far to the right. I lied him down and the sheep moved off line and then drifted back on line. I thought we were close enough to the panels that they would drift right through them, but was dismayed to see them cross right in front of them. RATS! I'd gotten it wrong—if I'd flanked Craig just a step or two to the right, he'd have caught their eyes and moved right through the panels. I cursed my crappy depth perception, but I'll take it as another lesson—when I think I've brought the sheep far enough to go through the panels, go another few yards, just to make sure. Or, as I was advised, find a clump of grass or something parallel to the panels to use as a gauge. Oh well, this was just a judgment error, not a communication error between Craig and me, so not a big deal in the grand scheme. He turned the sheep back down the field and we penned them with no worries :-)

Pam and Kirk went next, and their run was smooth as silk! They're a great team, and moved the sheep through the course seemingly effortlessly, proving that it was indeed possible to have a nice run here, if you were capable.

Then I took my turn with Taz. He set himself up to go on an away. Despite this, and despite my earlier solid decision to send Taz to the right for our judged run, I inexplicably sent him to the left again. What the hell? Why does my best judgment seem to disappear when I'm competing? So bizarre! Anyway, predictably, he was way tight and slicy, which meant that his lift was nonexistent and his fetch was fast and uncontrolled. Ack! I lied him down with the sheep at the post to calm us both down for a second. Okay, the turn around the post was calmer, and our drive was actually not too terrible. He kept his line well enough until he didn't take an inside flank immediately right before we approached the panels. I was actually pretty proud of his driving, though—because we've been working on his outrun lately, we haven't done much driving at all, and he took all his other inside flanks right away. So we hopped over to the pen and, after one ewe squirted out, and Taz managed to get her back to the mouth of the pen without her circling (yay!), he penned them. Carol later told us we ran about four seconds over time, but that was okay.

So, it was an interesting day. I think the biggest thing I learned today was that my dogs might look like superstars at Bill's, but that doesn't necessarily translate to looking fabulous at a trial. I should have made sure Taz was wider and lied him down when he started to slice, and I should have enforced my commands with Craig, especially since this was a novice trial, so they'd understand that the same rules apply at a trial as in practice. And I need to keep my head a bit better at these trials. At least we were getting some experience trialing in a fairly low-key setting. I kind of can't imagine going into a real trial without at least having some idea of our strengths and weaknesses—to know what to expect so I can try to work out some sort of plan beforehand. Our first real trial of the season is in less than two weeks. Gah!

On that note, I want to say a big thank you to the organizers of this novice trial series: Nancy Penley, Lisa Webb, and Elaine Wood. Your efforts and support for us novice handlers are very much appreciated!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Back in the saddle!

Finally, FINALLY, my project is finished and I could take the dogs out to work. Hooray! We went to Bill's right after work yesterday—with my new video camera. I couldn't wait to try it out! I thought both dogs would be pretty wild after sitting around not doing very much for a week and a half, but they actually were pretty calm. Well, maybe not so much Craig. I brought the sheep down the field with him. This was a little, er, choppy, but we got the job done.

When Craig and I take time off, our communication suffers and we tend to get a little out of sync. But we'd work more on that later; for now, we just put them in the pen and took a few out to work. I put him up and got Taz out so we could work on outruns.

I first set him up so that he was about thirty feet to my left and would be running into the pressure. I would take a few steps forward as soon as I sent him to encourage him to run widely. "Come bye." He took two steps, then stopped. "Come bye, Taz!" I repeated enthusiastically. This time, he ran out far and wide and confidently. He came in only a smidge flat, but I was too happy about the rest of his outrun to correct him in time. I set it up again, with Taz a bit closer to me. He repeated his wide trajectory, and this time, I told him to "get out of that!" when he just started to slice in, and he widened himself out. Yippee!

We practiced this a bunch, both on the pressure side and on the other side (where his flanks were a bit flatter, but not terrible). He didn't always widen out when I told him to get out of that, and I tried to be ready with a lie down if he didn't. One time, he did start to hesitate, so I yelled "away" again (a bit sharply; I'll have to work on that). He started moving again, but straight at the sheep. I told him to get out of it, but he ignored that, so I told him to lie down immediately thereafter. He didn't lie down, but he did stop and (after another sharp "away!") recast further out, so I guess we recovered. The sheep were spooked by his earlier straight-in approach, though, so we had no real lift, as they were already running down the field by the time he was in the proper position to reach them.

Although that outrun was a bust, I think it made an impression on him, because it was followed by this:

He was plenty wide, he didn't slice, his lift looked good. His fetch was a bit fast, but hey, you can't have everything! We were working on outruns, and this was pretty nice work for Tazzy today.

So I put him up and got Craig out. We decided to run a makeshift course. Things started out well enough—Craig's outrun looked good, though he hesitated when he saw Elaine on the other side of the sheep. "Away to me, Craig!" I yelled, and he took it :-) and brought the sheep to me. We turned the sheep around the imaginary post, sloppily but they went, and began our drive. Actually, things were pretty sloppy here, too, and on the cross drive. Craig was listening to me, but not quite sharply and immediately, and I was having depth-perception issues. We got the job done, but our lines weren't straight at all. I decided to try again.

We fell apart completely this time. Craig wasn't taking my commands, but that was probably because I was mixing up my sides. If I start getting confused about my sides, I tend to get worse and worse about repeating my mistakes, frustrating Craig and becoming horribly tentative in the process. It's an awful spiral, because then Craig loses confidence in me, so he stops listening to me, and I stop enforcing my commands because I am not immediately sure I asked for what I meant to ask for, and I certainly don't want to correct him for taking the command that came out of my mouth! On top of that, I feel bad for giving the dog unclear direction, so I become a nervous, wishy-washy handler. This was happening last night.

"Hey," Elaine said. "You need to take a break or something, because you really are going to frustrate Craig if you keep it up."

Rats! I drove a bit more and asked for a flank, a request that was ignored. "Maybe Craig needs another dose of hat therapy," Elaine suggested. Oh no, I thought—I don't want to go through that again...

And just like that, I snapped out of it. I sent him on an outrun to break the chain and clear both our heads. He brought them back to me and we started just driving the sheep forward. When I asked for an away, I meant for him to take an away. When he didn't immediately take it, I repeated it more growly, and with a whole lot more confidence. He snapped to attention and began shaping up. From there on out, we were fine.

I noted in one of my earlier posts that our best work seems to be done when no one is around to see it. Well, I think there is actually something to that. I think I'm a bit more relaxed when I don't have an audience, and I don't get into the tentative no-confidence spiral. It's tough, because I still do need someone to help reset me when things do go wrong—like even that simple comment from Elaine, which worked to bring me right back—but I also feel a bit more pressure when I know someone is watching us work. This is why I am afraid to trial. I know my nerves will play a big role in my performance, which will undoubtedly affect the dog as well. Elaine promised that it will get easier to work in front of others, and that I'll get more comfortable as I gain more confidence in what I can do with my dogs. I hope so.

For now, I think today was actually pretty successful. Taz did some nice outruns, and Craig and I were able to come back after losing a little confidence in each other. And it didn't even take very long. I know we can have trouble communicating after taking some time off, but if we can recover, and especially if we can recover quickly, well, that's a good thing.