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 ;-)


Robin French said...

Wise?! Hmm, dunno about all that!

Got a question though - when Taz is hesitating to leave on his outrun, what would he do if you stepped to the side, away from him, as opposed to moving forward?

Laura said...

Definitely wise!

To be honest I haven't really tried stepping off to the side too much, but I think that's because he doesn't react as dramatically as when I take a few steps forward. But his hesitation doesn't seem to have anything to do with the actual distance of the outrun. Instead, it seems to me more like he understands that the cue to really begin his outrun (if he's unsure) is when I take a step or two forward.

Does this seem plausible?
Any ideas how to fix it?

Robin French said...

Actually, yeah, lots of ideas. It's too bad you're so far away, it would be nice to see the hesitation and read him. I'd try stepping away from him and see how that goes - sort of "you go that way, i'll go this way" and pair it with a command of some sort, a shhh, or flank command. You could even try a mild correction for his refusal to take the send command, same as you would if he refused to flank or something. Just give him a little correction for not taking your send command and when he moves off away from the correction, give him the command right away. Just a couple of thoughts.

Laura said...

Robin, you've no idea how much I wish I was closer to you! I'll try to get his hesitation on video. It is so frustrating, because it seems so counter to how he approaches stock. I mean, if anything he's normally a bit *too* gangbusters. I don't think it has anything to do with too much eye or anything; it seems like it's all about confidence in doing the right thing. I think one way I've contributed to the problem is by sometimes saying the wrong flank when I send him on an OR (aarggh!) but then trying to enforce the correct inside flanks when we're driving. So sometimes I think he has learned not to override my requests even if it feels wrong but I sometimes still do make mistakes, so he's not sure what I really want. Does that make sense? Or maybe I am just overthinking this and maybe anthropomorphizing too much!

I haven't thought of correcting him for not leaving my side. You mean just say an "aacht!" if he doesn't go? I will try it--hopefully today (I'm waiting to hear back from the person whose sheep I often practice with)--and step away with a new command. I may as well really introduce the "sssh" (better late than never) and see what happens.

Thanks for the ideas Robin! I'll report back on how it goes!

Robin French said...

I would definitely work on adding "shhhh" to your vocabulary to send him - makes it a lot harder to accidentally give a wrong flank. ;-)

Yes, that's the idea on the correction. I find refusing to do something to be a bigger "infraction" on the dog's part than things like taking a wrong flank, etc., so i get after a dog for it. I don't get upset with a dog for taking a wrong flank, that's just a mess up on his part. But refusing to even *try something* really makes me aggravated so i let the dog know it.

When you said "it seems like it's all about confidence in doing the right thing", if you think that's what it is, that's probably what it is. Your gut is probably right on it. So, let him know that just standing there is even more wrong than whatever it is he's worried about happening if he goes. And make sure you do let him go if you have to use the correction to start him, at least far enough to feel like he made the right choice to go.

Hope that all makes sense!

Laura said...

It does! We had an amazing day today, taking your advice. I'm about to start writing about it. I am very encouraged right now :-)))

THANKS Robin!!!