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.

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