Friday, May 30, 2008

This is new . . .

I brought the dogs out to Bill's this morning to practice a bit.

Craig did very nicely when we practiced driving—he took nearly all of my whistles. That is a huge breakthrough, as it means I can now feel confident whistling him during a trial. The driving was intentionally difficult. We worked just three of the sheep in the area right next to their pens, where the rest of the ewes and their youngsters were. I was trying to see what we could do together. It was tough, because the draw was so very strong, but we did pretty well. I tried hard to just use a combination of the lie down and walk up commands, with only a few flanks to get us back on track if we strayed too far. The key seemed to be that if I did need to use a flank, then to lie him down right after the sheep turned, rather than rush to overcorrect with the opposite flank. Most of the time, the sheep settled and began walking forward. Revelation! We did some penning as well. Here, too, we worked as a team. It was lovely.

Taz also did well, but I think he is getting a little confused. First the good: He ran wide and sliced minimally. We started off doing the circle exercise in the arena, and this was fine, so we moved to the field. The circle exercise was working well here, too, so we graduated to doing small outruns. Taz ran very wide, bending out beautifully from my feet. Woo hoo! I was (and continue to be) very encouraged about this.

He did start hesitating just a little toward the end, but I was able to keep him going with a "get out of that." Letting him leave from slightly in front of me also helped this. It's definitely a confidence issue, and I think his hesitation is kind of a gauge for me to see how much he understands what I want from him because at the same time that he began hesitating, something new began happening . . .

He didn't want to lie down much. For the first time in more than a year, he didn't hit the ground when I asked. This had been building up since the clinic, I guess, when he first began really taking several steps forward (and usually into the sheep) when I asked him to lie down. Derek had told me not to worry about it, so I let it go. That will have to be the next thing we reinforce, though, because it's morphing into something else completely. Taz seemed to begin to confuse his lie down with get out, because when I asked him to lie down at the slicy point (10:00 or 2:00), he automatically bent out to go wider on his outrun. This would be okay, but he also started to bend out wider when I lied him down at the top. That is, he didn't lie down, but moved further along in his trajectory after moving out. Weird. He did still take a lie down when I was walking him up, to slow him to a true walk, but he was definitely not stopping/instead bending out when I tried to lie him down during his outrun. I did run up at him once when he did that, and he dropped immediately when I started moving toward him, and during his next outrun he didn't slice at all (so I didn't have to ask him to lie down again), but he also did hesitate. Not wanting to completely overwhelm him, I decided to end our session there—it was a good outrun, once it started—and maybe letting him think about things a bit will help him put all this together.

It is a lot of new stuff for him, and I think he is responding quite well overall, but I do want to be careful not to overdo it. I want to take things slow and steady, building on what we've learned. Things did not go quite the way I expected them to today, but I think he's just figuring things out. At least we do seem to finally be breaking some old bad habits :-)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lessons learned at the CHC SDT

Ever since the Derek clinic, I've been thinking about how I can transition Taz from the small circles in the arena to regular outruns in the field. It's been difficult to discern this next step forward from his book because his book focuses on starting a pup rather than fixing a dog you've screwed up ;-) I just haven't been able to visualize or work out how to make the circles a bit more fluid so that he can work the sheep from anywhere in the arena relative to me and achieve the same wide effect. I really wish I'd gotten the idea of how to keep Taz well off the sheep while circling a bit earlier in the week I was with Derek so that I could have worked with him a bit on this. I was quite perplexed about the whole thing, so I was sure I wouldn't risk anything by trying to run him in the Colorado High Country trial I went to this past weekend . . .

Ha! So of course I did run him ;-) but I am actually glad I did, since our run plus the follow-up analysis I did with Elaine helped formulate a plan for retraining the progression of Taz's outrun . . .

First things first. The trial was fun—Nancy and Lisa really know what they're doing. Lisa's ranch is such a beautiful setting, and everyone seemed to have had a great time. Tracy Derx was the judge, and I scribed for the open and nursery runs, so I really got to see how the runs were pointed and what the more successful dogs were able to do to best handle the heavy range ewes.

The novice and pro-novice runs took place on Monday, with the novice class scheduled first. I really was planning to scratch Taz, but was talked into changing my mind embarrassingly easily. "You may as well try," people told me. "Just don't let him get away with anything," they cautioned. The course looked pretty reasonable, so I decided to enter after all. I figured if he flanked way too tight, I'd just lie him down as quickly as I could and leash him up, so there was no harm in trying.

There was a heavy draw to the left side of the field, so I set Taz up to go left. I told him to lie down in the warning voice I learned to use at the clinic, and I really think Taz looked at me with the same expression he wore at the clinic, so I hoped he'd make the connection that we were really just doing the same thing here, sort of. "Come bye," I said in what I hoped was a soft, inviting tone. He took a couple of steps and looked back at me. "Get out!" I hissed, and off he went. And his outrun was nice and wide, nicer than he's ever done in a trial. He did slice a little at the top. I shouted "hey," but I was late—I wasn't prepared for the slice, probably because I was so pleased that his flank was so nice. I should have lied him down and then reflanked him or told him to "get" instead, but the sheep were heavy enough that the slicing didn't really have too terrible of an effect on them. He picked them up . . . and then circled around them in what I think was an attempt to bring them to the set out person on horseback. Rats! Taz doesn't have much experience (actually, I believe he has none) with people setting on horseback, so I couldn't really fault him for getting confused up at the top. I lied him down and that was the end of our run.

Even though we retired, I was very pleased with our run. I saw the score sheet, and we'd gotten only four points off the outrun and lift. I think Taz remembered the work we did at the clinic, and hope we're on our way to fixing his outrun for real. I just need to continue working to set it. After talking to Elaine, we came up with what I think is a solid plan to transition from Derek's circle work to actual outruns using the same philosophy.
  1. Send Taz in small outruns from my feet, but remember to start with the warning "lie down"—send with the inviting flank (and use the "get out" if he hesitates).
  2. Anticipate a slice at 10:00/2:00, so right before he gets there just lie him down.
  3. Walk straight to the sheep and threaten ground between the sheep and the dog (and also the ground ahead of the dog) while saying "get out." He will give ground and widen out. This is what I must be careful not to overdo.
  4. Graduate to just lying him down and saying "get out" (no longer having to walk up to the sheep and physically threaten the ground); then shorten to just saying "get."
  5. Then progress to just saying "get" without lying him down. Try to get to this point as quickly as I can, because if I lie him down too often, he may develop a habit of hesitating at that spot, anticipating the stop.
  6. Eventually, he may not need me to say anything and he just won't slice anymore. This is obviously the best-case scenario.
  7. But if he hesitates at that spot, I may always have to redirect him—I can live with this if I have to. It's better than having him slice his flanks forever.
So that's what I'll work on with Taz over the next few weeks. It might not be a perfect plan, but it seems like it might work. If it doesn't, I'll just go back to the drawing board.

I also ran Craig in pro-novice, which was TOUGH! Really, I was in a bit over my head. The wind was blowing pretty hard, and the sheep were a bit squirrelly in response to the front coming in. Craig's outrun and lift were flawless (no points off, according to the score sheet :-), but the sheep were drifting to the left during the fetch. I tried to get him to lie down to redirect him, but he wouldn't take it—he was too afraid of losing them. He wouldn't take an away on the fly for me either, so the sheep were pretty close to the post by the time he would lie down. They calmed down, and we made it around the post, but our attempt to drive was a whole lot of back and forth. I was afraid he'd turn them back to me (he really wanted to do just that), so I would underflank him for a while, until they were in danger of moving too far to the right, and then I'd overflank him, causing them to turn too sharply. I'd lie him down and things would settle, but then the same scenario would repeat on the left side. He turned them back to me a couple of times before I gave up and we retired. Ah well. Just as with the Free to Be trial in New Mexico, I should have just alternated between telling him to lie down and walk up. I think if I try to flank him too much, he's not quite sure what we're doing, whereas when I ask him to walk up, he understands that we're supposed to be driving and covers while pushing the sheep forward. I'll have to practice this much more before our next trial in a couple of weeks, and hopefully it will be a bit more ingrained for both of us.

Actually, I'm happy to have a plan for working with Craig as well. Usually I go out and just sort of aimlessly practice driving with him, but it feels a bit haphazard. I much prefer the idea of having a goal to work toward, and learning to effectively push the sheep forward with minimum side-to-side movement seems like a good one ;-)

Now, I just need to head out to Bill's to work on it!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Derek Scrimgeour clinic report (River Falls, WI, May 10-14, 2008)

I'm finally back from the Derek Scrimgeour clinic, and I really don't even know where to begin to write about it. There was just so much information to process! I learned a freakin' ton!

It took us two days to drive from Colorado to the clinic in Wisconsin, and the forecast for the days of the clinic was five straight days of pouring down rain. Yipes! Fortunately, the weather wasn't quite so bad, but the first few days were cold, windy, and wet. Poor Derek was pretty jet-lagged, I think, and the first couple of days were a bit confusing for some people (okay, for me). But each day, I was able to understand and apply a bit more knowledge, and, by the last day, I felt pretty confident that I understood and could apply the basic tenets of Derek's training system.

Derek's system is deceptively simple to understand intellectually, but it was a bit harder to translate into effective body positioning, proper voice tone and cadence, and correct timing. I am very glad it was a five-day clinic, as it turned out that I needed all five days to be able to incorporate enough of what Derek was teaching to be able to repeat his success (well, not to the same degree, of course ;-) by myself when I worked with Taz. (Because Derek's system is a bit different than that of most other trainers, I had decided to put Craig, who will be ten years old this summer and has already been trained in more traditional ways, in the clinic only if Taz wouldn't work for Derek for some reason. Happily, Taz did work for Derek, but really I was working him most of the time myself anyway, and he really responded well to Derek's techniques.)

The basic premise of his system is applying pressure on the ground rather than the dog. Rather than pushing a dog out, he makes whatever area of ground he doesn't want the dog to come in to dangerous. So, if a dog is slicing his flanks *cough, Taz, ahem* then he does not try to run at the dog or otherwise get in the dog's space to force him out; instead, he threatens the ground between himself and the dog, so the dog doesn't want to enter that space. By putting pressure on the ground, rather than the dog, you're claiming the space so the dog respects that he can't push into the area you're claiming. You make your space uncomfortable for the dog. At the same time, his focus is always in front of the dog as the dog flanks, which ensures that he is always in position to cover the sheep if the dog tries to slice in or spiral in while he is flanking around. It's important not to fall into old habits of chasing the dog around on his flanks; this just pushes him forward—it does nothing to keep him out and leaves me out of position if he slices in. I'm probably not explaining it very well, and there are a bunch of little steps that I had to keep straight in my mind to get it, but once I did, Taz was wide and didn't slice at all.

Some things I took away from the clinic:
  • Think in smaller movements, not big sweeping ones.
  • Clear, definite communication (even if I'm not exactly right) is vital. If I'm ambiguous or questioning in my commands, the dog is left to guess at what exactly I want.
  • Corrections must always be followed by praise for the system to be most effective. It's pressure > release > praise. Without the praise, it just becomes a negative system.
  • Invite a flank; demand a stop.
  • Walk up means walk. Walking up straight and slow is the key to more advanced stuff.
  • Organize the work; choreograph everything.
  • A correction is a "focuser" for the dog. Dog begins to respond to tones if they convey information consistently. "Lie down" can be said in a normal tone of voice to tell the dog what you want him to do; if he doesn't do it or if he takes another command incorrectly, "lie down" can be said in a harsher voice to convey that you are not happy with his choice. This is immediately followed by another chance to work correctly.
There's about a million other little things, and I'm still sorting everything out in my head, but I worked Taz this morning at Bill's and I was able to continue our success. Derek warned me not to overdo this, because I am putting a lot of pressure on Taz right now, but I need to ingrain it a bit more before transitioning to the driving stage (where I'll have to reteach Taz to drive a little according to this method). Because these lovely new flanks are not completely set in his mind yet, I think I am going to scratch Taz in next weekend's trial. I am pretty disappointed about that, but I am trying to think about the big picture here, and this is my best chance to fix Taz's flanks once and for all. (Well, I may have to remind him once in a while, of course ;-) But if this new foundation sticks, I think our progress forward will go a lot faster.

So, I know this post has been a little all over the place, but my mind is a bit of a cyclone right now. All these new ideas are swimming around in my head, and I'll write more about them as I try to make sense of everything I've learned. Elaine took some videos of Taz and me working, too, so I can review what was happening when things were working and when they weren't. If they aren't too embarrassing, I might even post them ;-)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Road trip!

Well, I've been back from my little Florida family vacation for a few days now, but I haven't had a chance to work the dogs at all—I've been totally swamped at work and at home, because I've been preparing to turn around and go away again tomorrow for nine fabulous days. This time, the dogs (well two out of three anyway) will be coming with me because . . . we are going to a Derek Scrimgeour clinic in Wisconsin! Yay! Derek is an internationally renown world-class handler hailing from the UK, and his methods are purported to be gentle yet very effective. I can't wait! I have been looking forward to this five-day clinic since I learned about it in January, and I can't wait to learn more about Derek's techniques and see what he has to say about Taz and Craig. I think I will bring my computer, so I might even be able to post some reports from the field (well, the hotel anyway). Woo hoo!