Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reading the situation correctly and responding appropriately

Over on the Border Collie Boards, I was bemoaning my tendency to screech at my dogs during training. Though I strive for calm control, I often get increasingly exasperated until I sound just awful. I think this is partly because I have an idea of what I think should be happening and I can be calm when things go roughly according to plan, but when the dogs don't do what I ask, I get upset. On the surface, this sounds right—I mean I should come down on them when they don't listen, but what about when I do not read the situation correctly? I often don't really understand what is going on quick enough to respond appropriately. This difficulty assessing things in real time is the biggest thing hampering our progress. It may come more intuitively for some folks, but definitely not for me! But developing the ability to read the situation is the key to progressing. I think if I can start to take into account why they might not be obeying me, I might not get so exasperated (and then screechy); if I can unemotionally apply a quick correction at the time he doesn’t take a command, I’ll be fixing things rather than screeching as it all goes wrong. Or if I can look at the big picture and see that he's actually making a correct choice for the circumstances, I won't be upset (I'll actually be pleased and don't want to take that out of him). This happens especially when I'm trying to work on something different than the problem at that point in time turns out to be (e.g., I'm concentrating on encouraging Taz not to hesitate on his outrun but then he pushes too hard on the fetch and doesn't stop when I ask him to).

I worked my dogs yesterday in Bill's arena, which is a little brutal for Taz (Craig's not a big fan of arenas either). He feels and responds to the pressure in a big way in arenas, but I've decided not to work in Bill's field for a while. I have, in fact, been working on Taz's tendency to hesitate on his outrun, and Denise Wall had suggested that I send both of them together on an outrun, as they may spur one another on. I did that a few days ago in the field, and the results were encouraging. So I decided to try it yesterday, even though we were in the arena.

At the risk of embarrassing myself in a big fat way, here is our first (and worst) brace attempt yesterday. Note the progression of the screech (not that you'll be able to ignore it). I was originally upset at my own screechiness, which I knew I was doing even as I was doing it, but only after seeing the video did I see that after Taz didn't take my initial "lie down" command, I should have either shut up and let him cover the sheep before asking for another stop or, perhaps even better, gone up to him and demanded the stop after the first time. (Or maybe that's not better, since the situation was changing so quickly, and besides I am trying to encourage him forward...but then I don't want to let him get away with sloppy work...but I don't want to chance exacerbating the hesitation...but...aargh!) I know I could have handled this better! I asked for, and received, feedback on the BC Boards, and got some amazing, very helpful responses!

I do want to add that I don't actually get mad at my dogs, I get exasperated at myself for being such an incompetent trainer...

Aside from that, we had a pretty good session. I was able to drive the sheep all over the arena (usually around the arena along the fenceline) using whistles only with Craig. At least until my whistle filled up with spit. Eeeuuuww!

What a good boy!

I also did a few off-balance stops and flanks with him to be sure he completely understands my whistles. He does—he took everything. I guess I need to practice a little further out, before trying again at waaaaay far out. I let Craig get a drink and unhooked Taz for our brace outrun practice. Things did get a bit better after that first try, but again Craig stopped going after a bit. I'm not sure why, maybe because Taz was being really pushy...

So I put Craig up and was anxious to see how Taz would do on his own. I decided to send him with another "Shhh" rather than a flank—Taz used to never go on a shh or chchch or any of the other sounds people make to excite their border collies. But Derek did it at his clinic, and Taz took it then to both Elaine's and my astonishment. So I've been trying to use it sparingly since then, and it does seem to work now, though I don't want to overuse it. He had obviously been taking it when I sent both dogs together, so I just continued that same practice. And the work with Craig might have been beneficial because he didn't hesitate at all. I mean, his outrun kind of was terrible in other ways, and his fetch fell apart at the end, but there was no sign of hesitation. Here it is:

In fact, he didn't hesitate at all for the rest of the day, and because he was being so pushy, I put a ton of pressure on him. Yay for Taz!

But his flanks were very tight, so we did a lot of Derek-style remedial widening-out exercises. I'll have to go back and reread my notes and rewatch the videos shot at the clinic, but I tried to remember everything I could about threatening the ground and staying ahead of him. It did work, as his flanks opened on both sides by the end of the day. In addition, I made him lie down every time he started walking up at anything other than a true walk. He was able to slow down a bunch, though I didn't have the heart to make him really w-a-l-k. Poor Taz—it was a day of practicing precision for him, but I am really pleased with how he progressed. He was back on track with everything by the end of the session, and he didn't hesitate at all.
Another good boy!
Now, I just need to work on putting it all together, seeing the resulting big picture in real time, and reacting to the situation appropriately! No worries, eh?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The unexpected handling details

There's an interesting topic being discussed on the BC Boards today. A novice like myself discovered with surprise how unprepared she was for the seemingly simple handling aspects of a sheepdog trial this past weekend, and she asked for help figuring out where she had gone wrong, clarification on what exactly she was supposed to be doing, and advice on how to do better next time. I sympathized with her when I read her post—I've certainly been there. As novices, we spend so much time learning about widening flanks and achieving straight fetches and dealing with pressure and covering sheep, and we don't often think very much about turning around the post or transitioning to a drive. Fortunately for me, I learned how to prepare for some of the many unexpected practical challenges a trial presents during our novice series this past winter. Lots of experienced folks generously offered their facilities, sheep, and expertise, and after reading that thread today, I am so happy I was able to participate and thus learn some of these tough lessons in the warm safety of a few novice trials hosted by friendly faces!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Whistles and hesitation and brace work, oh my!

I went out to Bill's this morning and we ran in the field for what will probably be the last time this summer. The foxtails are out in full force now, and I pulled several hundred (perhaps several thousand, no lie!) from each dog. I probably pulled about twenty to thirty from between each toe, and another thirty or more under their arms. It's too much, and I knew it was too much when I saw the little 2-gallon cooler of water I brought for the dogs had about 15 foxtails in it as soon as Craig went to take his first drink. This sucks!
Taz walks up on the sheep grazing in Bill's pasture for the last time in a while, thanks to the foxtails and spear grass.

I worked with Craig first. I had planned to work on cross driving with him, since I have such a hard time transitioning from a drive to a cross drive. But that's not quite how things worked out. We did some driving to begin with, and he listened to me quite well at first. However, there is a definite distance at which he either no longer listens to me or he does not hear me very well. For a long time, I thought it was that he didn't listen to me, but today he kept looking at me from that distance and definitely seemed to be seeking direction. Maybe this is the distance at which his hearing is beginning to fade. So I tried whistling him, and he took the whistled commands only about a third of the time. Thinking we were rusty on whistles again, I brought him closer and practiced whistles with him, reinforced by words. When we were communicating with the whistles again, I let him drive the sheep further out again and was pleased to see that he took more of my whistles at that distance. Not perfect, but better—he took my whistles maybe two-thirds of the time. We'll continue to sharpen the whistles up close in Bill's arena, but if we can't use the field, I won't be able to work with him at a distance very much. I'll have to get more creative (or brave) with finding other places to work...

So I put Craig up and got Taz. We did a few short outruns, and it seemed like he was getting a little tighter and slicier today. Hmm. He wasn't moving the sheep until he got to them, but he was overflanking, which he usually did only when he was slicing. I did give him some corrections, but I think what we need to do is a remedial Derek-style widening-out session. We'll do that next time. This time, I wanted to work on his hesitating, especially since this might be the last time we'd be working in the pasture for a while. I knew he was more likely to hesitate when I gave him a strong lie down to start. This was, I think, because he was starting out feeling a bit more pressure from me than he was comfortable with. I didn't necessarily want to add to the pressure by yelling at him right off the bat. This is something I can control, so I decided to stop putting so much pressure on him that way. Instead, I decided to elicit his hesitation by doing a longer outrun. It worked; he began hesitating just a touch when the sheep were pretty far away. I gave him a correction, and it worked to get him moving again. We repeated this a couple more times, but he was starting to hesitate at different points in his flank. I used a variety of corrections ("hey!" "get out!" step toward him, wave a leash at him), and he always got moving again, but when he did restart he was often tight. I was starting to feel like we were all over the place with what was going on, without steady progress forward, so I changed gears and just started walking around with the sheep and Taz for a bit. This seemed to settle him some, and I decided to try the brace exercise Denise suggested.

I unhooked Craig and lied both dogs down on either side of me. The sheep were about 100 yards away. "Shhh!" I said softly, and off they went—Craig on the away side, and Taz on the bye side. No hesitation whatsoever with Taz. As Denise had predicted, they crossed one another at the top and then brought them back to me together. Whee, this was fun! I did it a few more times, each time a little further away from the sheep, and Taz never hesitated when I sent both of them. He did, however, run tight, so it's probably not something I should do very often, but it definitely achieved its desired result. Actually, I don't know if I could do this too much anyway, as Craig stopped running very enthusiastically after a while when he saw Taz going. That's okay, we won't do it much. Was very fun to see though!

I think next time, I'll do the widening-out exercise and then maybe send the two of them out together a couple of times before continuing to work with Taz on his own. I didn't think to do a couple more outruns with Taz on his own after sending both together this morning (duh!) so I'm not sure what, if any, effect running with Craig had on his own outruns. I guess we'll see later this week!

PS Sorry the photos are kind of crap—I took them with my phone camera...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Crossing my fingers . . .

I didn't have very much time before I had to get to work, but I took the dogs out to Bill's yesterday morning. First things first—clipping them was a fantastic idea! There were a lot of foxtails out in the field, and I can only assume that nasty spear grass was lurking as well, but neither dog picked up much. And they don't actually look too different than they did before (I did sort of make a pest of myself hovering over the haircuts at the groomer's ;-)

I worked Craig first. I was curious to see what he'd do back at Bill's again. He definitely seemed to be feeling better these days. He had listened to me really well at the trial, and he ran fast and didn't get too hot or anything. And yesterday we worked both in the arena and then in the field, and he took nearly all of my commands and was quite relaxed as he worked. I don't know why he was feeling yucky for the past couple of weeks, but he seems to be over it now. Phew. Maybe he just needed a little time to acclimate to the sudden heat we got when the season changed?

After half an hour or so, I put Craig up and set Taz up for a few outruns. With this past trial out of the way, I wanted to concentrate on fixing Taz's hesitation for good, if possible. I'm tired of this habit, as we seem to conquer it for a while, only to see it rear its ugly head again and again—and, like pounds shed and regained on fad diets, each time it comes back worse than it was before. I wanted to fix it once and for all. I was ready to try Robin French's idea of getting after him when he hesitates and following that up with a soft, inviting flank when he started moving again.

His first few outruns were fine, no hesitation at all. In an effort to try to elicit it so we could stamp it out, I gave him a pretty strong "lie down" before sending him on an outrun. It did the trick—he took a step and then stopped. I repeated the flank in a harsh tone and off he went, but tight and tense. Wait, this wasn't how I was supposed to do it. I wanted to give him a correction, not repeat the flank in a correction tone—I don't want to add tension to the flank. Plus, I'd forgotten to follow up the harsh tone with an inviting tone. I tried again.

This time, when he hesitated after I flanked him, I said "hey," in a correction tone (and not a particularly harsh one) and when he jumped right out, I repeated the flank in a softer voice. This worked! His outrun remained wide and not slicy and he didn't seem overly anxious. I did this a few more times and we quit for the day. This was successful, and I wanted to just give him a taste of it, rather than risk drilling him and souring him. There's no rush. We'll work on this in the coming weeks and set another new pattern in his mind. Hopefully, this will work to end this hesitating behavior once and for all!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

CHP SDT report: WOOHOO!!!!!

I just got back from the Colorado Horse Park sheepdog trial, and we did great! Taz won the novice class Saturday (the only day they ran novice), and Craig came in second on Saturday and fifth today in pro-novice. I'm so proud of them!

The course was really difficult for the open, nursery, and pro-novice classes, and the sheep were really tough for everyone! In fact, nobody in the eight-dog nursery class managed to post a score at all on either day! There were also some dips and rises throughout the field, so some of it was completely blind for the handlers. The sheep were very heavy yet prone to running blindly forward at breakneck speed ;-) They were actually the same range ewes used at the Colorado High Country trial on Memorial Day weekend. For the open course, I heard the sheep were set up about 400 yards up a hill that sloped more gradually to the left and was steeper to the right. I am not sure how much they were able to bring the sheep in for the other classes—the set-out crew reported that if the sheep were set much farther forward, they would break. There was a bunch of scrambly brush midway toward the post, with a clearing just wide enough to place the fetch panels between. Then a bit further down the hill was the post, with the judge's stand set back from that a bit. To the left up another hill were the first set of drive panels, and then across the field the second set of panels stood (these panels didn't actually see much action...), with the pen maybe a third of the way out on the right toward the second set of panels. The exhaust pen was partially hidden behind a brushy berm on the right, just below the area where the competitors and spectators were sitting. Jack Knox was the judge.

Most people sent their dogs to the left, both because the slope was a little gentler and there was less brush to get through. Many, many dogs had trouble finding their sheep, even in the open class. Some dogs ran straight up the middle (erm, some dogs like Craig); others ran so far out they tried to pick up the sheep in the set-out pen. And once the dogs who managed to find their sheep picked them up, the sheep pretty much charged forward toward the exhaust. It was crazy! It was fun, though, and I didn't hear anyone complaining about the level of difficulty of the course. Actually, most of the competitors seemed pleased to run on such a challenging course.

I was nervous before running Craig, but the course seemed so beyond my ability that I figured I had no chance to do well, so I really wasn't that nervous. And I think this really helped me. He wanted to go to the right, but I just didn't think that would be a good idea, so I sent him to the left. He ran straight up the middle. This was Craig, not Taz, so I was shocked! Craig nearly always does a nice outrun. I tried to redirect him and he ignored me. At the last minute, he looped around to the left (someone from the set-out crew said he somehow managed to do this without disturbing them at all!) and picked them up. Then, at breakneck speed and too far over to the right, he brought the sheep to me. He ignored my whistles and commands to lie him down in the first half of the fetch, but once he past the brush, he did lie down and the sheep calmed down. We got around the post and started the uphill drive away. Here, Craig was fantastic! He listened to every thing I asked him to do. We didn't make the panels, but we were able to get a line going for a pretty long way before the sheep had other ideas and Craig turned them back to me to prevent them from breaking off course. Jack waved me on to the pen, so I ran over and tried to pen them, but we timed out. Jack later told me that I stopped Craig too short when he was going around at the pen—I kept lying him down when he had two of the three sheep's heads turned, but not necessarily the lead sheep's head. I will have to remember that for the future.

Well, even though the run was a little bit of a disaster, most of the other folks had even more disastrous runs, so we managed to get second place :-) I was kind of shocked at that but obviously thrilled. Yay for Craig! His run today was much the same, but today he crossed on his outrun (so I wonder what would have happened if I'd sent him on an away, like he wanted to do yesterday). His drive was even better today, though, and our overall score was actually higher today—even with the crossover—but we placed fifth overall today. I am very, very happy with Craig!

For the novice class, they set the sheep out on the open part of the bottom half of the course, so there were no hills, brush, or blind spots for us to contend with. The challenge for us was mainly these tough sheep! Keith Fassbender judged the novice class. We sent our dogs from the pen. I was first (why am I always first?). I sent Taz to the left. He didn't go at all when I said "Come bye," so I immediately hissed a "get out of that," and off he went. He was too tight and ignored my commands to lie down, but he didn't slice and the sheep didn't move much when he came around, so being a little tight didn't really hurt us. He lied down as soon as I asked him to at the top, and his lift was nice. His fetch was also pretty nice, and he took my couple of flanks perfectly to bring them straight to the pen. Unfortunately, I had no more luck penning them with Taz than I had with Craig (none of the novices were able to pen them). We had one sheep that was really stroppy. She kept breaking off from the others, and she really challenged Taz. Taz stood his ground, I'm happy to report, though by the end I think he was starting to lose it a little. I did get two of the sheep in the pen once, with the stroppy one in the mouth, but she squirted out before I could close the gate. I sent Taz around to start over, but we timed out. We ended up with a 44 out of 60 points, enough to give us first place. Hooray for Taz! I got a fancy leather collar for his novice prize :-)

So I am very happy with my dogs this weekend! I got lots of very nice compliments about my dogs and my handling, but one stood out for me. A fellow competitor took me aside and told me that he really liked the way I ran my dogs because I looked like I was having so much fun with them. He liked that I was able to laugh at myself when things went wrong and said I looked like I was enjoying myself more than anyone else out there. What a great thing to hear! I just had a great time, and, well, my dogs are fantastic :-)))

Friday, June 13, 2008

Another training session at Bill's...

I am way late updating this, and now after reading some of the comments from my last post it really feels outdated, but I'll write the update on the session from Tuesday morning. I went to Bill's again, and I started the session in the arena with Craig, just driving all of the sheep along the fence line. We did okay, I guess, but it was a bit uninspired. After a few rounds of this, Bill came out and recommended we go down to the other end of the pasture. So, we moved the sheep down the field (Craig actually did this pretty well, needing minimal direction from me) and, once there, put them in the pen and let five or six back out. This actually went really well—Craig does best when he knows the job at hand and can get on with it. I did a pretty long drive away with him, toward the biggish target area of "straight ahead" (as opposed to panels) because I think some of the issue with Craig tuning me out might have to do with feeling too much pressure from me and the heavy sheep. So I made it a bit easier and the sheep were definitely a bit lighter over on this end of the field. Craig was able to drive them way out—maybe 75 yards (which, for me, is pretty far). We couldn't quite get a cross drive going, but I didn't mind. It was pretty far out, so I called him back and, since he looked really hot already, put him up.

By now Larry and Bill had joined me, and Larry offered to set again for Taz and me with his Mirk dog. Taz did okay. He went around Larry just fine, but he seemed a bit tight to me. When I discussed it later with Elaine, she asked me if the sheep had moved at all during his outrun. I reported that they hadn't. "Then he wasn't too tight," she replied. Interesting. I have to get the picture of what I think is a perfect outrun shape out of my mind when I'm working the dogs and start to pay attention to what the sheep are doing and what else is going on to affect the shape of the outrun.

Also, when I sent him on the away side, toward the pressure, he stopped at about 10:00 and started walking in on the sheep. I commanded him around to 12:00, which he took, and then he bobbled the sheep a little bit before bringing them to me. After the second time this happened, Larry told me Taz was actually correct where he was turning in. He told me that Taz was stopping there because that's where he felt balance was, and if Taz lifted from that position, he wouldn't bobble the sheep at the top—he'd lift them straight and clean. I was surprised. I mean, I know dogs don't necessarily have to lift the sheep at 12:00, but this seemed really short. Hmm. Larry said I wasn't necessarily wrong to command him around to 12:00, if that's the way I wanted to run him, and many judges really like that 12:00 lift, but I risk Taz losing some of his natural feel for sheep if I do that. Since Taz is quite a natural dog and I barely know what I'm doing, I obviously don't want to overcommand him in this way, at least at this stage of our training. And sure enough, the next time I tested it and Taz was dead on, lifting the sheep in a perfect straight line to me.

Taz did have some trouble moving the sheep off me when we turned them around the imaginary post to push them forward for Mirk to pick them up again. The sheep kept trying to bend around him to get back to the pen, but he was really helping them by overflanking when trying to push them forward. We haven't really done barely any driving in the past few months, and he wasn't easily taking the flanks in the first place, and then when he did take the flanks, he went too far and turned the sheep back to me. Switching tactics, I'd get him going forward and when I thought he'd start sneaking up one side or the other, I lied him down. After a bit, Larry came over to help me, noting that I was lying him down too much and causing some of the problems. He though Taz was correcting for the sheep bending himself, and my lying him down was hampering him. Sure enough, when I tested this out, Taz was often able to make the minor adjustments necessary to move the sheep forward on his own. Larry wanted to work on his inside flanks with me a bit as well, and so we did, using the familiar "here here" method to call him in before sending him around. He did okay, but I suspected he was starting to get a little overwhelmed, so I asked Larry if we could do a couple more longer outruns again before we called it a day.

Bill joined us and between Bill, Blue, Larry, and Mirk, there was a lot of commotion at the top. Taz, who had been hesitating a little all morning, actually turned away from the "course" altogether and went back to the pen holding the rest of the sheep. I sort of knew he was struggling when I told him to lie down before sending him and he turned his head completely away from me. Then, as soon as I said "away," he ran back to the pen. He did come back as soon as I called him, but he was definitely feeling a bit too much pressure. I walked closer to the sheep and resent him, and he took the flank this time. I was definitely ready to quit then, but Bill and Larry wanted me to do a couple more, so we'd end on a good note. The first one after that, he was too tight, moving between the 4-wheeler Bill was on and the sheep, but the second one was really nice—he was wide, picked up the sheep nicely, and fetched them straight to me. The perfect way to finally end the session. Poor Taz was very hot and a little fried, I think, and he drank for a loooooong time after that. So I think we did work too long and do too much, but it all ended pretty well.

I guess we'll see what happens at the trial on Saturday...

PS: I made Taz wear his t-shirt again, and it did help protect him from the spear grass...but he picked up all these foxtails instead:
It's gonna be a looooong summer!

Monday, June 09, 2008

What's in a command?

As promised: the work session update. This'll be quick because I'm really tired but I have to get it done before I go to bed tonight, since I'm taking the dogs out tomorrow morning again...

Basically, Taz was pretty good. Elaine acted as the set-out person again for us, and Taz had no real problems going around her. He was wide and didn't slice. He was also clearly having a blast—I think Elaine was right when she predicted that once he understands what doing a correct outrun feels like, he won't want to go back to his tight and slicy ways. I just hope his nice outruns aren't limited to working at Bill's! Taz is still hesitating at times, though, and Elaine cautioned me not to overuse the trusty "get out of that" command to get him to go. But it's the only thing that has consistently worked to get him to commit to his flank, so it's hard to wean off it. And, well, I guess I just don't really know how to wean off it. If we have truly fixed his outrun now, I guess working on the hesitating will be the next thing to fix. Then, we'll work on lengthening his outrun a bit. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again. After all, trying to move too fast and not paying enough attention to his foundation work is what caused me to have to go back and reteach his outrun in the first place!

Things didn't go as well with Craig. He was really not in tune with me again, and actually he wasn't really responding very well to Elaine either. She wondered if maybe he was not doing very well physically. It's true he is very skinny these days, despite eating 20 ounces of (raw) food a day, and he seemed to get really hot really fast, and take a while to recover from the heat after resting. He was also dribbling while he worked, which I'd never seen him do before, and he had a couple of other symptoms that suggested a possible kidney infection was to blame. I took him to the vet and he drew some blood over the weekend, and he doesn't have anything obvious wrong with him, but he really just doesn't seem himself. He wasn't listening and seemed to tune out whoever was working him. It may just be that he was just frustrated with the sheep. We brought him to the arena to try to reset things, and he was a bit better here for me (he was much better for Elaine) and Elaine noticed that I use the command "there" in a way that Craig is not used to. I have always understood "there" to mean "that is the spot I want you to stop and then turn into the sheep at," but Elaine said she'd always used "there" to mean "don't flank past that point when you're driving." Which it totally different and might explain some of the communication problems I have with Craig. So I tried using "there" her way, and while we didn't suddenly become a team to rival Bev Lambert and Pippa, it definitely made a difference. Tomorrow I think I'll spend all of my time with Craig driving in the arena practicing this and seeing if we can get back in sync. This might be the last practice session I have with the dogs before this weekend's trial—yipes!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Stupid spear grass

I'm watching over Bill's sheep and feeding his slightly scary guard dog, Max, this weekend. Working at Bill's is both a blessing and a curse. It's absolutely gorgeous over there, and his pasture is big, with varied terrain and bunnies, foxes, deer, and the occasional elk sightings.
This photo of Taz moving the sheep across Bill's pasture was taken last winter. The smallest part of the rocky bowl behind his house and field is visible in the background.

As with all home flocks, his sheep are wise to the lay of the land and the draw to the barn is strong, but the sheep are not terribly broke. Bill is one of the most generous people I've ever met, and he doesn't mind sharing his space and his sheep with others. I am very lucky to be able to work my dogs here.

However, there is one main disadvantage to Bill's pasture. In his field grow these horrid little weeds that sprout spear grass, tiny spirally barbs that get caught in the dogs' coats and can burrow into their skin—and into their internal organs, sometimes causing major damage and, in the worst cases, even death. The last time we worked here, I pulled these out of Taz's fur:

They're kind of difficult to see in this photo, but I pulled out hundreds of the nasty little suckers. Now I'm a little paranoid about working the dogs there. I won't be able to train there much longer anyway, as it'll be much worse in the summer. Rats.

In an effort to hold them off for a while longer, I have an appointment to get Taz and Craig clipped this Tuesday. It'll be the first time I've ever brought any of my dogs to a groomer, and I know they'll look pretty funny, but I am hoping that clipping the fur on their chests and bellies will deter them from picking up so many of these little spears. In the meantime, I tried a homemade solution:

Don't they look cute? ;-) Taz and Craig sport t-shirts fitted to cover their chests. Craig's was off within the first five minutes of working, but Taz managed to keep his shirt on the entire time we were out there. I think they helped: this time, they picked up only a few spears (we did try to avoid the areas where we saw the plants dispersing the spears as well).

Next time, I'll write about our actual work/training session ;-)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Righting wrongs and setting up for success

Another morning at Bill's. The sheep were grazing in the pasture again, so I got Craig out and we put most of them in the arena and then worked on driving again. It was difficult again. The sheep were just so heavy! I lied him down whenever he reached the sheeps' hips, but it didn't achieve the desired effect because the sheep then wouldn't move forward at all for him to settle in behind. So I'd walk him up, and they wouldn't notice him until he was right up their butts—and then they'd jump and spread out. I had to flank him. Sometimes he lied down when I asked; other times, he'd just act like he didn't hear my commands and go all the way around. I think the sheep were frustrating him, too, and he didn't want to stop because having to lift them over and over again was such a PITA. It's not that he doesn't have the power to move them; they weren't challenging him at all, they were simply so engrossed in eating that they barely noticed him. I was getting very frustrated myself, because he wasn't taking a lot of my commands, but I really do think it's mostly the circumstances of heavy sheep and lots of grass. I took a deep breath and finished up walking with him as he drove, so he stayed in contact with me and together we moved the sheep through the panels. I was happy that we were able to work together at the end, but I think I won't work him so close to the pens anymore. The draw is so much stronger there, and there is so much more grass—it's too much for us to deal with right now. We'd be much better off if I set us up for success as much as I can right now, and one way to do that is to work down at the opposite end of the pasture. The sheep are less interested in the weeds down there and less affected by the draw, and so I can actually practice being successful driving with him, rather than being frustrated and having him being frustrated, and the sheep not responding to what we're doing. For right now, when it feels like we're just going backwards in progress, I think this is really important. We'll worry about working in challenging conditions another time; for now, we need to get back into a rhythm.

So I put Craig up and got Taz out. This session went much better! I practiced sending him on his away side several times, and he got progressively wider on this side again. He was hesitating again a bit, but I was again always able to get him to commit to his flank when I told him to get out of it. I'll continue to be patient with this, I guess...

Just as I was getting ready to leave, Larry drove up. He offered to set sheep for Taz and me with Raid, so we could work on his issues with bringing the sheep to the set-out person and running too tight when someone was at the top. Taz seemed to do just fine when I sent him on the side Raid was holding, but he definitely was a bit nervous going around Larry when I sent him on the opposite side. So I tried to fix it by sending him and then immediately walking as quickly as I could up the field toward the sheep and telling him to lie down as soon as he reached the top. By the fourth or fifth time I sent him, he was getting better about ignoring Larry. Unfortunately, I had to get to work, so I couldn't keep working on it with him (once I'm sure he's ignoring Larry, I'd like to reduce the distance I move forward after I send him, until I don't need to move at all), but Larry generously offered to come out next Tuesday morning and work on this a bit more with me. Hopefully, we can get past this little obstacle fairly easily :-)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Craig's driving; Taz's outruns (of course)!

I met Elaine out at Bill's yesterday morning. Bill had the sheep already out grazing in the pasture, and she put three in the arena to work her young dogs. That left the rest of them in the field for me. I worked Craig first, doing the same thing I did last time—driving the sheep through the panels on the course Bill had set, near the arena and the pens the sheep live in. This meant that the draw was strong. We had a hard time moving all 30 or so ewes and lambs when they were so intent on munching all the grass and working their way back toward the pens. Craig wasn't taking my whistles as well as he had on Friday, so I sort of half whistled, half shouted commands at him. I did try to lie him down and walk him up more than relying on flanking him back and forth. We made it through the first set of panels all right, but I couldn't transition into a cross drive, and Craig brought the sheep nearly all the way back to me. I reset our path forward and back into a cross drive, and we made it through those panels as well, but things were getting messier and messier. These were actually the fetch panels, so I decided to try for the third set of panels—the ones closest to the arena and pens. Well, we didn't quite make it here at all, so I had Craig bring the sheep back to me and tried to move them up to the first set of panels again. But the sheep had other ideas...Craig would get the ones at the front moving and they'd string out a bit, while the rear sheep would stop to eat. Then Craig would sort out the sheep at the rear of the group, and the front ones would start to bend back toward the pens. Craig would go to cover, and the sheep in the middle and rear of the pack would take the opportunity to eat some more. Craig got frustrated and began just gripping them. I am simply not skilled enough to help Craig move such heavy sheep through such lush grass so close to the draw. Things were just going downhill, so I put him up.

Later, I explained all this to Elaine, and she helped us move the sheep down the pasture to the southwest corner. She noted that I was underflanking him, and I realized I was underflanking him partly because I didn't want him to turn him back to me, as I'd noted in the past, but also because I was expecting him to not take my commands the first time. Craig takes my commands the first time I ask about half the time. So I need to go back and reinforce that he needs to take my commands the first time every time. Elaine tells me Craig has been trained with a two-command command ("Lie down. Lie down!"), but he actually takes a lot of commands the first time, so I know he can. I need to polish it so that he listens to me the first time or else resign myself to a two-command system, but whatever it is, it has to be consistent or my timing will always be a bit off.

The other thing Elaine noticed is that I'm slacking in letting him get too far to the sheeps' shoulders when he's wearing forward. He needs to go no further than their hips. When he gets to the hips, I should lie him down, let the sheep move a bit forward, and then walk him up. If he doesn't move in a straight line behind them, lie him down when he reaches the sheeps' hips again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Next up was Taz. I started again doing the same circle exercise a couple of times with the big group of sheep. He seemed to do fine, so we quickly moved to outruns. He no longer mistook a lie down for a get out (phew!) but I did notice that he was now favoring his come bye side, which used to be his weaker side. I think I've been working so much on that side that I've just neglected working on his away side with the new methods. So I'll have to practice circles and smaller outruns on that away side a bit to make sure he's comfortable flanking on both sides. On a few outruns, I did have to revert back to saying "get out of that," but at least he committed to the outrun as soon as I said those magic words every time. And even on these outruns, once he went he looked really nice. He continued to run way wide today and not slice very much, if at all. His lifts looked great, too.

Until I asked Elaine to pretend to act as a set-out person. I had a sneaking suspicion that Taz's outrun fell apart when he saw a set-out person, regardless of whether or not they were on horseback. And, after a few tests of this theory, Elaine agreed. With no set-out person at the top, Taz ran wide and lifted straight. He lied down when I asked him to, and fetched them straight to me. But when someone was there, he still ran wide (though this is when he was much more likely to hesitate), but overflanked around the person and began bringing the sheep to the setter. I could eventually get him to lie down and refocus on me, but it was more of a struggle and definitely very messy. I'd definitely have to practice this, but I am glad I was able to identify it. I guess I need to do smaller outruns with someone at the top and perhaps walk toward the sheep after I send him to make sure he sees me still in the picture and listens to me when I ask him to lie down, and then just gradually walk forward less and less until I don't have to walk forward anymore. It's a bummer because it requires another person, so I can't practice it alone, but Elaine said she's help us with this.

I'm going back to Bill's tomorrow morning, so at least I can work on getting his away flanks solid again. For Craig, I'll just work on keeping him moving no farther forward than the sheeps' hips and enforcing my commands so that we can build some consistency there.