Monday, July 28, 2008

Happy Birthday Craig!

My sheep tutor turns 10 today!
Here's to many more, Craigor MacGregor!

Friday, July 25, 2008

I did not yell at all during practice today...

...because both dogs were responsive and trying so hard for me!

I couldn't wait to get back to Bill's for more practice in the field, but my truck has been in the shop for the past few days (a cyclist crashed into it while it was parked in front of my house, if you can believe that), but I was able to pick my freshly painted truck up on Wednesday evening. So on Thursday morning, bright and early, I headed over to Bill's and we took five lambs down to the west end of the field. Actually, I kept Taz on a leash while I had Craig move them through each of the three sets of panels Bill has set up as a course on the east side of the field, and Craig did really well (we missed the last set by just a hair, but that was more a misjudgment on my part than anything). He moved them carefully and listened to what I asked him to do.

When we got down to the other end of the field, I tied Taz up and sent Craig on an outrun to begin our practice run. Last time we were out here, Craig did well but didn't want to take a come bye command to turn the sheep back toward me for the third leg of the drive. I decided today that we'd do the same "course" as we did last time, but this time in reverse, to see if the problem was the final turn or perhaps the draw, which does have a weird effect sometimes (it was in that same spot that Taz refused to take a come bye command a few months ago, shocking me because he had never before just let his sheep get away without going after them).

Craig did pretty well! He did not refuse any of my commands this time—he listened to what I told him to do and to my whistles. Our lines were not terrible (though one of the cross drives was pretty bowed; I need to be better about finding landmarks to help me keep track of where we should be), and we were generally able to get back on track when we were off. He had no problems turning the sheep back toward me whatsoever, so I do think the issue last time was the odd pressure of the draw in that spot on the field. That's not good either, but at least it's not a general problem with his driving. After a few fairly successful goes running the course counterclockwise, I decided to try it clockwise again. He did pretty well, but overflanked on a bye at one point on the crossdrive to begin bringing the lambs back to me a bit early. Rather than correct the line, I decided to let him bring them back, so we'd end the day being successful with the come bye turn heading them back to me. Two of the five lambs kept going off in different directions (from the other three and the other one also leaving the group, so often there were three little groups). So it was not the easiest group to handle, but overall I think he did great! I love working with Craig when he actually listens to me—it's just so much more fun to work with him when we are in sync!

With Taz, I decided to work on a few outruns to begin, since he'd been a bit tight and slicy last time out. Well, unfortunately, he was still kind of tight and slicy on this day as well. I tried to do a few Derek-style circles to widen him out, and he did get a little wider, but he continued to come in kind of flat at the top. Not enough to really upset the sheep terribly, but he did overflank as a result. I think it's been a while since I've read over my notes from the clinic and looked at Derek's training book and watched his DVD, because I didn't have a lot of success fixing Taz's outrun with this circle practice. It is so fine a line between doing this exercise correctly and counterproductively chasing him around that I am sure I was not doing it right. I clearly need to go over Derek's material again. I thought about calling him in to me when he sliced, the way Robin Q. suggested after her positive experience doing this with her tight-and-slicy boy Hamish, but decided against it for now, since we just started driving again and I didn't want to mess up his nice form there—and also, Taz isn't hesitating anymore, and I really don't want to risk starting that again. (I so need a trainer who can help me sort through all this—sigh!)

Anyway, since I wasn't sure how exactly to proceed here, and Taz was starting to get anxious about the circles (and I was, too, when it became clear the exercise wasn't working very effectively), I decided to stop the outrun stuff there. Instead, I had him drive the lambs a bit. He gladly switched gears and I swear I saw the stress melt off him! I let him bring them wherever he wanted to at first (which was pretty much a straight line ahead), and then began asking for inside flanks here and there. He often did not need a "here" calling him in before taking an inside flank, and a couple of times I had to give him a big, singsongy "Come bye!" but he never refused to go :-) and can now stop at 9:00/3:00 and transition to a cross drive. Usually, though, I let him go all the way around. Next time, we'll work more on off-balance stops. We only worked at very tiny distances today, but I sent him around a little "course" and he did it! I think he really enjoys driving so much more than outwork, and he feels his sheep so much better. I also noticed that after working on driving for a bit, when I sent him on outruns he was much further off the sheep and didn't slice much. I think he was carrying his feel for the sheep over to the outwork. Maybe I should start with driving for a while next time and then do some outruns? I want to direct his natural feel for sheep to the outwork, so I think it can't hurt to try things that way and maybe it will carry over a little more. Something to think more about anyway...

Unfortunately, I have another freelance project deadline coming up, so I won't be able to practice much in the next week. This especially kind of stinks because next weekend Craig is entered in Dan Keeton's trial, but we'll just do our best and gain some more experience and have a good time continuing to learn. We were pretty good team today, so I think it'll be fine :-)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Field work—thank doG!

When I drove up to Bill's this morning, all of the sheep were out of their pens and way on the other side of the field. You know, the field full of foxtails. What to do...what to do...

You guessed it. I bagged the boring arena and worked the dogs in the field today! Woo hoo! I originally thought I'd just have Craig round them up into the arena, but once we were out in the field, I thought the foxtails didn't actually look all that bad anymore, and besides—we were already out there. We were going to deal with foxtails anyway, we may as well take advantage of the space. Craig is entered in a trial in two weeks, and we haven't done any driving at a distance in a long time. We do need the practice of working together as a team pretty desperately.

So I started with a couple of outruns, which Craig loves to do. The group was bigger than I liked working (Bill has maybe 25 sheep these days), but I didn't want to take the time to put some of them away. It was already pretty hot—it is supposed to get to 100 degrees today—and I wanted to work before it became unbearable for the dogs. So we got down to the real work of the day. I did some driving with Craig around the makeshift course set up on the west end of the field. I started with the whistles, but abandoned them along the way. We did have enough to deal with getting back into the swing of working together in the field. It started out fine—Craig did a nice drive away, and we transitioned to a decent cross drive. But when I asked Craig for a come bye to start bringing the sheep back to me, he wouldn't take it. He kept starting to go around, but then would stop short and just sort of follow them further down the field before swinging back behind them and pushing them down the field. I ended up running up to him and yelling at him to come bye and he finally did, once I was practically on top of them. What the heck was that about? We repeated the "course," and this time his drive away and cross drive were even better, but he did the same thing on the turn back toward me—he wouldn't really take a true come bye. I started up to him again, and this time he did go around before I reached him, but he clearly did not want to do this for some reason. I don't have any idea what that reason could be, since the sheep were headed back toward the barn, so I'd have thought he'd want to cover them and bring them back to me. He was pretty hot after this, so I decided to stop things there and check him out for foxtails and let him get a drink. He didn't look bad at all, as far as the foxtails went, and I decided to put him up. Craig had a seizure last week, and I didn't really want to push him too hard right now. Besides, since he didn't pick up too many foxtails, it seems like maybe we can work more regularly in the field again (YAY!), so no need to overdo it today.

I got Tazzy out, eager to see how he'd do driving in the field. We began with an outrun. I sent him on an away, his "good" side, and he took a few steps and paused. Oh no. "Shhh!" I said to egg him on. And on he went, straight toward the group! What the...? He ignored my commands to lie down as he split the group in two. Wow, was this not a good start! I ran up to him and asked him just what the heck he thought he was doing. Fortunately, that seemed to bring him back to Earth, and when we tried again, his outrun was better, though still a bit tighter and slicier than I'd like to see. The sheep didn't move until he reached them, but he overflanked as a result. He regained control quickly and brought them to my feet. I knew I could, and probably should, do a few Derek-style circles to remind him where he should be, but I was impatient to move on to driving. My bad. Next time we'll work more on mechanics.

I started by having him just drive the sheep forward wherever he wanted to take them. He loves this, and he moved them more or less straight ahead for about a hundred yards. I called him back to me and sent him on another outrun (this was better than the earlier ones; he was wide enough but a little slicy). He brought them back to me and around an imaginary post before driving them forward toward a set of panels. I asked for inside flanks and outside flanks, and he did really well again. He was lying down exactly where I asked him to and when I gave him a flank, he got up slowly and took calm, deliberate steps to move the sheep gently. His walk ups were not always quite as calm, but he moved them very smoothly. As the session went on, he did lose a little of this—he no longer stopped immediately if I told him to lie down after he reached the 9:00/3:00 point and he stopped taking his inside flanks immediately and often needed a "here" first. This happens with Taz a lot, I think—he starts out really well and then seems to get a little less responsive—so I think I need to do some shorter sessions with him before he starts overthinking things. So we called it a day. Once again, I thought he did really, really well, and I am excited to continue working on driving with him. He seems to do this much more naturally than he does his outruns, and it's a whole lot more fun to work on.

I am beyond ecstatic that we can work in the field again. I did pick about 30 foxtails off Taz (only a few off Craig) when we got home, but I will just be sure to be meticulous in checking the dogs after we get back from Bill's. Also, Anna Guthrie recommended a product called Show Sheen, which is a conditioner meant to make the fur a bit more glossy and slick, to help deter the foxtails. I'll pick some up today, so I can try it out next time :-)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

More fun with arena driving

Taz drives the sheep along the fence line.

I took the dogs to Bill's this afternoon for another quick arena session. To mix things up with Craig again, I put a bunch of twine on one end of the arena and another bunch on the other. Then I had him move the sheep in figure 8 patterns. He did not understand what we were doing at first, and I got a couple of double takes from him, as if he were asking "Are you sure you want me to come bye? You just asked me for an away!" I did abandon the whistle for this exercise, though—I had a hard enough time convincing him that I really meant something when I was saying it! But I was insistent, and (after a frustrated grip or two) he began to trust me and we worked together to bring them in neat little patterns. I let him do a few outruns after a bit to relieve the pressure, and we stopped after about 20 minutes.

For Taz, I wanted to pick up where we left off last week with his inside flanks. I started again with some outruns, and he did fine. Then I decided to let him just drive the sheep around the arena for a little while, not really caring where he went. I did the fenceline exercise, and actually he did really well. I didn't even have to say here first when I asked for an inside flank or two. He seemed to understand the purpose, which is a major key for Taz—if he understands the point of whatever we're doing, he really doesn't even seem to need that much input from me. Unfortunately, because I don't have my own sheep, nearly everything we do is manufactured with no real purpose other than imitating trial work—I'll have to try to make up some exercises that mimic real work a little more, I think.

One thing I did notice with Taz, though, is that his lie down is disappearing. I find myself repeating this command over and over to him. I didn't want to tense him up while we were working on driving and inside flanks, but I was getting a bit aggravated that he wasn't lying down very quickly. Even when I took a step toward him, he didn't seem to make the connection to lie down. It's almost like he was trying so hard to work out the nuances of driving the sheep (and, like I said, he was doing really well with that) that he didn't have any brain power left to process my commands to lie down. I mean, I know that's ridiculous, and many would say he's just blowing me off, but I don't know. He didn't seem to be willfully disobeying me because he had other ideas, as Craig sometimes does; instead it was like he didn't even hear me tell him to lie down. I guess as he gets more comfortable driving, I'll start to insist on him lying down more and more, but I didn't really want to shut him down much now, so I let him go a bit. I hope this was the right thing to do...!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

We're back, with new arena strategies

Okay, many apologies for being out of touch for the past couple of weeks. I've been busy at work and finishing up a ginormous freelance project, and, to be honest, I am not very excited to only be able to work my dogs in an arena. But until I can find something else, it's the only place I've really got and I'm lucky to have a place to work my dogs at all...

So on Friday morning, I took the boys to Bill's. It was HOT, ninety degrees at 8:30 am. On the drive over to Longmont, I had had thoughts of working the dogs in the field despite the foxtails—I thought maybe there'd be a safe patch somewhere, even if it was small. As soon as I parked and took a look toward the field, my heart sank. The entire field is simply covered in the dried-out weeds. I tied up Max, the guard dog, and walked the dogs on leash to the arena.

After we got the sheep, I thought about how I could make arena work exciting for Craig. He and I need practice driving at a distance, not close up with the artificial pressures of an arena and doing the same pattern along the fenceline over and over. To mix things up, I decided to use the inside of the arena, moving the sheep diagonally from one corner to the other and then halfway across the fenceline before turning on a right angle toward the opposite fence.

I put the whistle in my mouth and the first thing I discovered is that when I take two weeks off working the dogs, my timing is off like a prom dress. Actually I was okay with reading the situations and deciding what I wanted Craig to do, but communicating that information was not happening. I'd think "go toward that ewe's head" and spend like three looooooooooooooong seconds trying to decide if I should tweet a come bye or an away. I had to translate it in my head every time I made a decision. I sucked! I did get a bit better toward the end, but it was rough for poor Craig. He responded by eventually deciding that he didn't need to listen to the commands that took their time coming out of my whistle (and then my mouth). I kind of couldn't blame him, but I also knew I couldn't let him get away with that (especially as in all honesty I was getting it together by this point and my commands were getting more clear). He had just lost patience with me by then, though, I think. So when he obviously ignored my commands to go left, I made a big deal about running up to him and letting him know that he wasn't the one making the decisions on where the sheep should go. He turned his head away, but I pressed until he gave ground. That made an impression on him, and from then on he listened to every thing I asked him to do. Little turd. We were quite the little team, though, by the end, so all's well that ends well.

After 20 hot minutes for Craig, it was Taz's turn. I started with a few outruns on both sides, and he did fine. I didn't want to spend yet another session working on flanks or outruns when he seemed to be fine right now, so I decided to start reintroducing driving and inside flanks with him. Taz is a line dog, and he really used to have a nice, natural drive before we stopped doing any driving to concentrate on fixing his outrun. He used to take his inside flanks pretty much every time he was asked, and we were successfully weaning off saying "here" before giving the flank. He had trouble always stopping at three and nine o'clock—if he made it that far around, he had often committed himself to going to balance—but it seemed like he was figuring it out. Then we stopped working on learning to drive to focus on fixing his slicing, and at the same time he developed his hesitation issue. Because I feared his hesitation might be related to his learning to stop off balance while taking his inside flanks, I pretty much stopped working on any driving altogether until his hesitation was fixed.

He didn't seem to be hesitating much anymore (though, of course, I know it might come back once we get back to the field), so it seemed like a good time to reintroduce the inside flanks. Unfortunately, he really seems to have forgotten them completely, so we started at the beginning. I sent him on an outrun, lift, and fetch, and had him turn the sheep around an imaginary post and begin to drive them away. After he'd gone a few steps, I lied him down, and then (with a "here" to call him in a little first and make things a little easier for him) sent him on the opposite side to what he had lied down on. We did this on both sides, and he often took the flank, but not always—sometimes he just came back to me. But overall he did great! I tried really, really hard to keep everything very upbeat and easygoing, since I knew he would already be feeling a fair amount of pressure just by working on something new inside an arena. I let him go all the way around when he took the flanks. I didn't repeat flanks more than twice if he didn't take them—I just started everything over (from the outrun) when he didn't take the flank. I discussed it with Elaine afterward, and she recommended making it more obvious to Taz what I wanted by taking a step to the left or right (depending on which way I was asking him to go) toward balance if he was hesitant to take the inside flank. We'll try that next time and otherwise continue in the same strategy. I think he was maybe starting to remember what to do, but due to the heat we also only worked for about 20 minutes as well. We'll see how next time goes :-)