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 :-)


Robin French said...

Barbs are the spawn of the devil, I'm convinced! Did you have your camera with you? Sounds like it would have been a good session to study afterwards to watch the sheep.

Laura said...

I'll agree with that spawn of the devil statement! Holy cow!

I did bring the camera, but these sheep moved so quickly that I needed to focus every ounce of my brain power on working them, so I never even turned it on :(

I am going to go back up to Linda's soon, though, because I think it's really good for us to work such different sheep than what we're used to. I'll definitely record my future sessions, because I think you're right--I'd like to study exactly what the sheep are doing and be able to really observe the effect of my late timing on their actions...

Robin French said...

I can't tell if this comment went through or not so i'm trying again.

I'll tell you a really cool trick to try. First, set th camera up because you'll want to study it later on. Just focus it on an area and leave it. Get the barbs up against a fence, and drive them along it. Work on keeping them moving but still getting the dog far enough up in the eye of the sheep to slow them down but not stopping them. It's a great exercise and really educational to study afterwards. And, it usually will slow the sheep down for working out in the field afterwards too.

Laura said...

Excellent! Thanks Robin, I will absolutely try this (and then report back :-)