Saturday, August 30, 2008

Still working well—but not getting away with anything

I went out to B&I's place this morning, and we had another productive session. I worked Craig first in the big field first, and Craig seems to have adjusted a bit more to the behavior of the sheep. The sheep still wanted to run back to the barn at every opportunity, but Craig stayed far enough off them to not allow them to fake back and forth anymore. We were actually driving the sheep today, as opposed to just sort of preventing them from returning to the barn, which is what we mostly did on Tuesday. We drove the sheep straight back to the little pen, let them enter the little pen and then gathered them back out, and then drove perpendicular nearly to the road. I walked with Craig as he drove, staying maybe 50 to 100 yards away. We did fine, driving straight, lying down, and correcting where necessary, until we turned back toward the general direction of the barn. Then, the sheep did just want to run back, and I didn't want to totally exhaust Craig, so we let them go. I did have to endure Craig giving me the stink eye several times as we walked back up the field, but once we reached the general area of the sheep huddled next to the fence by the barn I let him gather them up to bring into the arena to make up for it.

Next up was Taz. He continued to do crazy wide outruns. Who is this dog, and what has he done with Taz? I'm so excited! We did some balance work (which is tough with these sheep, since the draw to the direction of the barn in the northeast corner is so strong for them) and some driving, including some inside flanks. He is still slicing, as I reported earlier, which causes him to overflank at the top, and his lie downs were less than snappy. As soon as I realized he was merely slowing down or simply taking several additional steps before hitting his belly, I sent him, told him to lie down at the top, and when he didn't do it immediately, I repeated the command and slapped the empty water bottle against my thigh at the same time. He was down like a shot. His downs were much better after that. It's nice when he actually responds to my training efforts so perceptably. I was really feeling pretty good about Taz's outruns—at least the way he was leaving my side up until he sliced his flanks at the top, which again I'm hoping to fix with Faansie—so I went the length of the arena and decided to send him to gather the sheep, who were smooshed in the corner closest to the barn. I think if we were in an open field, he would have been fine, but he ran nice and wide until he reached them and then crossed in front of them! Taz never crosses, so I was surprised, and then he ignored my commands to lie down. It was like he lost his mind completely. I told him to lie down again, and he took it, and I made my way over to him, stopping to walk slowly toward him once I reached his direct line of vision (as opposed to coming at him from behind him a little, which might encourage chasing). Then, I let him know that I was not happy with him. We set it up again much closer, and his outrun was perfect. I decided to end it there, not wanting to undo the good work we'd done earlier, and I decided to work Craig one more time in the arena.

We did some driving in this more controlled area. I mostly used whistles (at some point I suppose I should start to train Taz on whistles), and with some back and forth, we drove the sheep to the northwest corner of the arena. I began a cross drive to the southwest side, and this was much tougher, since the sheep wanted to bend back in the direction of the northeast corner. Even with the draw, we should have been to handle this cross drive easily, and I realized we were having problems because Craig was not taking the short flanks I was giving him. Instead he wanted to do bigger, more sweeping flanks. So I let him return the sheep to me and we backed up to the fenceline. Here, I flanked him to bring the sheep back and forth, stopping him after two steps, ten steps, thirty steps, and changing directions randomly. I thought this might help him more a bit more responsive to my commands to stop and reflank him. It was hot and the sheep were panting pretty heavily by then, so I decide to wait until next time to see what effect this remedial work had on Craig. I think it will help, though, as he got better the more we did it.

All in all, I feel pretty good about what we did today. Craig worked better in the field than he had the last time we were out, and we zeroed in on a problem and worked to correct it in the arena. Taz had a tough time on that one outrun, which was difficult to begin with, but we dealt with it. His stops improved. His flanks are consistently wide—I did not have to stop him to push him out at all. So far, so good, then :-)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Maintaining our path on the right track

I've worked Taz twice since the clinic, once in Bill's arena and once at B&I's place, and we have done really, really well. He is continuing to move off me when I send him, and I am able to lie him down and have him kick way out with just a look. Also, I carried an empty water bottle and slapped it against my thigh once each time to remind him to stay behind me as we walked toward the sheep, and he jumped back each time and then didn't need telling again. To be honest, I really wouldn't care so much about him jumping ahead of me, but I think in his case it really does serve as a reminder that he needs to keep me well in the picture while he works. As Scott Glen says, he needs to be a little worried about me, from time to time. I think he is now. Before last weekend, I don't think he was at all, and I kind of liked that, in a "I love my doggy and don't want him to fear me" kind of way. I still don't want him to fear me, of course (and I'm confident he never will truly fear me), but I do need for him to not want to be in trouble with me, so he will override what he wants to do when it conflicts with what I want him to do more consistently. I hope this time, we'll make lasting steps forward. Faansie comes back in a couple of weeks to give lessons, and I hope then we can work on Taz's slicing. He told me how to work on this—pretty much do the same thing I've been doing when he leaves my feet too tight, so lie him down and mean business to get him to give ground, but I'd like to do it a few times with Faansie to sort of set it correctly in my head first. In the meantime, I can work on sending him from my feet and making sure he at least begins his outrun correctly.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Faansie Basson clinic report

I went to a Faansie Basson clinic yesterday and today. It was really good! Faansie is pretty laid back, yet extremely present. He is intense when necessary, but he is able to adjust his techniques and the level of pressure he places on the dog for each dog he works with. He made sure everyone understood what was going on with each dog, and he worked hard to make sure each dog's owner was truly clear about what they were doing and how they were trying to achieve their goals. I think everyone learned a lot. It was truly an enjoyable and very productive clinic!

Faansie told me all of Taz's problems can be distilled into one issue: my lack of sufficient presence. As crushing as it is to hear, Taz simply does not respect me enough to move off me. Faansie could make him move out 30 feet with just a glance, but it's a lot harder for me to get Taz to give ground. (Thus, he's tight, he slices, he's too pushy, his pace is too fast, etc., etc., etc. All the same issue. All can be solved fairly easily if I can get him to move off me.) However, he doesn't want me to run at him or yell at him or do any of the other things I've tried to do to get him to listen to me in the past that have clearly not been very effective. Instead, I need to "get in his head." He had me walk very slowly toward him, facing him full on, looking him square in the eye, and basically mean business about not accepting anything less than what I ask for. It's pretty hard for me—I'm constantly afraid I'm doing something wrong or somehow screwing him up (especially since he began his hesitation business), and that lack of confidence is undermining my authority with Taz. So I worked at it a bit, and by the end of the clinic today, I was able to get Taz to give ground by taking just a step or two toward him, and he was bending off me very nicely when I sent him. He was still slicing a bit and coming in a bit fast on the fetch, but if I apply the same pressure, we should be able to get past that. I have to be careful working on this, though, because it does put a lot of pressure on him, so I have to take breaks and do fun stuff with him, like balancing in the field, driving, etc.

In addition, as a complete aside, we solved the issue of Taz jumping around in front of me as we walk out onto the field in about twenty seconds by making him stay behind him with a feed bag slapped against his thigh. He did this every time Taz jumped ahead and Taz stopped in his tracks and scrambled back. After a few steps, I used the feedbag with the same results. Then I just needed to say "get back" and he would get back. The last time we went out today, he never even tried to get ahead of me. Um, wow.

So I'm pretty happy. He told me lots of very nice things about Taz—that he was one of the most talented dogs at the clinic, I wasn't ruining him (as I feared I was), he really liked him, and he would win trials with Taz if he had him. He also told me to be very careful about doing any kind of circling exercise with him, because he has a tendency to orbit mindlessly (I knew that, but did it anyway!), and to be careful about "get back" exercises. He thinks I should encourage Taz to learn/understand how to feel for that sort of thing on his own. Also, he told me I should stop "trying on" every approach I hear about, and stick to the one that makes the most sense to me and has the most effect on Taz. And I know he's right about that.

I finally feel like I have a plan, which is what I've been missing for a long time. Happy happy!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Working our way back...

I met Larry at Steve and Lynn's place bright and early Monday morning. It's an hour and a half drive each way, and I knew I wouldn't have very much time to work, but I was looking forward to working somewhere relatively new. The sheep were very light and wanted to run. This is great practice, since the sheep we're most used to working with at Bill's are very heavy.

Larry set five sheep for me and Taz maybe 125 yards away. I sent him with absolutely no idea what he'd do. He ran super tight, so I lied him down and gave him a redirect. He was still tight and sliced heavily. Aargh. We tried again, with similar results, and I tried calling him back to me to start over. He didn't get much wider (a little, perhaps) but he did start hesitating again. Aaaaack. Larry suggested we move the sheep into a fenced corner of the field and send Taz to get them from about 100 yards away. I did, and he was tight again. This time, Larry suggested lining him up correctly (so Taz was facing out) and taking a few steps in front of him before sending him and then walking up toward the sheep. I did this, and Taz immediately kicked himself much, much further out. YAY! It seems to me that Taz understands that he should be further out, but sometimes something happens to push him back to his default tightness, and then he simply needs a little reminder that he should be further out. It's like he was saying, "Oh! Right, I'm supposed to be out here, sorry 'bout that." I tried this a few more times, on both sides, and he was wide as long as I set him up this way. We moved back toward the center of the field, with Larry and Raid holding the sheep again, and I set him up the same way as we'd done in the corner. He again ran nice and wide (though he still sliced at the top). I was too happy that he was at least running wide again to correct him for the slice (though Larry warned me not to let him get away with slicing either). I know I shouldn't let him slice, but I just feel like I can't do everything at once. He'd lost his outrun entirely over the weekend, and I just wanted to get back to some semblance of a proper outrun. Taz was getting tired, and I was running out of time, so I decided to let Craig work for the rest of my time out. Taz and I would tackle his slicing next time. Maybe at Faansie's clinic later this week.

I had told Larry about our disastrous runs over the weekend, and I asked him to watch Craig and I drive for a while. We ran through the panels on the course set up in the field, then worked closer in, doing square patterns and then randomly moving around. As poorly as we did at the trial is as good we did driving now. We really did pretty well. Craig was listening to me (well, he didn't always take the first lie down, but he always slowed down, which is usually what I actually wanted—I'm going to have to start enforcing my "time" command, so I can go back to having "lie down" actually mean lie down again). He gave me nice short flanks when I asked for them and was generally relaxed and responsive. Larry told me my timing was fine and I was really improving. WTF? How could we look so bad over the weekend and so good now? Well, Craig knows this field and these sheep very well, for one thing, as he spent a lot of time here working with Elaine. Both of us were obviously much more relaxed. The weather was a lot better. I guess all these things make a difference.

We also did a little shedding, which was way fun! The sheep were separating pretty easily, so it was a good opportunity for me to practice calling Craig in and having him walk up on the rear set of sheep. Heh, Larry joked that with the right sheep, Craig and I could run open. Someday we might. In the meantime, I regained a bunch of the confidence I'd lost over the weekend. I'm really glad we went out!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Humbling lessons learned at the CHP arena trial

I spent the weekend competing in at the Colorado Horse Park arena trial. What to say...what to say...well, I'll just blurt it out: it was a disaster. After running pretty well at the last two trials we competed in, I'd been feeling pretty confident about my improving handling and my dogs' performances. There's nothing like few miserable runs to humble you, I guess!

Saturday we had absolutely torrential rain, the likes of which I haven't seen in the entire time I've lived here in Colorado, with rumbling, cracking thunderstorms all day long. Conditions were rough, to say the least. I worried about how the awful weather would affect both of my thunderphobic dogs.

Neither dog left or was obviously shaken, but I thought both were just a little more frantic. Taz ran straight up the middle, and though I lied him down twice, he did not kick himself out (even with the magic never-ignored-previously "get out of that" correction). Obviously our lift was terrible as a result, and then we played ring-around-the-pen until we timed out. Yikes. Craig's run was not much better. His outrun was very tight, and his lines were not straight at all. He was either overflanking or underflanking throughout the run. We missed the fetch panels, made the drive panels, missed the cross-drive panels, and played ring-around-the-pen before timing out.

I was a little horrified at the performance of both of my dogs, and I decided then and there not to run in any more arena trials. Craig just doesn't run well in arenas, and Taz was just a hyped-up speed demon. After finally getting a halfway decent outrun in the field with Taz I didn't see the point of allowing him to practice running straight up the course in an arena. I'd run on Sunday, but that would be it for arenas for me after that.

On Sunday, we had much better weather. I was hopeful that we'd do better as a result, but I didn't really expect to. I started with Craig in pro-novice. His outrun was fine today, but our sheep were really, really broke. The sheep at this trial are from three different farm flocks. They weren't too bad on Saturday, but not very even on Sunday. They stuck pretty close to Victoria, who was setting, so that she kind of had to stand at the top and they clumped around her. Craig had to lift them off her, and he did a nice job. We did fine up until the sheep reached the post and I was just a bit slow to give Craig an away command, so they turned around the post the wrong way. And then I got all flumoxed, as the sheep split and some moved back around the post on one direction, while others moved in the other. I wasn't sure what to tell Craig, and I got all mixed up about what I was supposed to be doing. We eventually sorted it out, but by then I was rattled, and I had a hard time recovering for the rest of our run. I was very slow to give Craig commands, doubting and mentally double checking myself every time I gave him a command. He began making his own decisions, which were not very good ones, usually way overflanking. We struggled through the course, with the sheep bolting back to me at every opportunity, and when we reached the pen Craig was so frustrated he sort of "bopped" them. He rushed them and wanted to grip but didn't, but the sheep scattered. The judge didn't call us off, since he didn't grip, but at that point I retired. We just were not going to recover, and I really saw no point in playing ring-around-the-pen until we timed out again.

I took Craig to get a drink in the drainage creek and thought about what had just happened. I realized that it wasn't just the dogs who didn't run well in arenas. The arena really showed my handling weaknesses, and the dogs had no room to compensate for my errors. Because the course was so small, and the pressure was so strong, everything was sort of magnified in an arena. If I was slow to give commands, those timing errors would make a big difference. Craig may not do very well in arenas naturally, but our runs really highlighted the mistakes I was making in my handling of him. Ack. I began to rethink my decision to swear off arena trials. I think they may wind up being a good test of my own skills as a handler down the road...

Taz's final run was probably the best of the weekend, but, again, I blew it. His outrun was not straight up the middle, but it was very, very tight. He overflanked a little, but recovered, and I lied him down once he had them. The sheep marched through the fetch panels and I walked Taz up slowly, before lying him down again as I tried to remember which way we were supposed to turn the sheep around the post. And then I remembered that this was the novice class, which meant that we were supposed to bring the sheep directly to the pen. Rats! We weren't even supposed to bring the sheep through the fetch panels, as the line was supposed to be from the lift to the pen, which was on the right side of the arena. I ran over to the pen, and sent Taz on an away to get the sheep back. He was off like a rocket and brought them past me at a run. I lied him down, and sent him to get them back, and he was again off like a shot, causing the sheep to ring the pen. "Hey!" I yelled at him, like I meant it. "Knock it off! Lie down! Easy!" and we regrouped a bit. I must have gotten through to him, because he got up much slower and finally began to get a little thoughtful about his movements. And we penned the sheep.

Finally, we did something right! I spoke to Mindy after that run, and she asked me what my biggest handling problems were right now. With Craig, it was my timing, no doubt about it. I had to work on being quicker to see what the sheep were doing and communicate what I wanted Craig to do. With Taz, it was control. I needed to get more of a handle on him, period. She has gotten a much better handle on her pushy girl Wiz through the same exercises Cathy is now teaching me. In addition, Lynn, a green handler like me, had some very impressive runs with her (formerly) pushy boy Owen. I saw how Owen worked carefully, checked in, and took the commands Lynn gave him. I asked her how she had achieved such a big change in his attitude, and it turns out she worked hard with him on...dun dun dun...those same exercises. Wow. This is what Mindy had been talking about last January, when Pam and I came out to her place to work the dogs. I didn't really know enough to work on this on my own then, once we left Mindy's place (and I don't now either), but it made sense to me even then. I am now even more excited to see them through with Cathy's guidance. It's hard to argue with results like that!

As an aside, I also had the opportunity to spend some time with Faansie Basson during this trial. He gave me some tips (go slow, which I couldn't do), and ran his dogs well (of course), and I decided to take a clinic he is giving this week. I don't really want to inundate Taz with a bunch of different theories and styles (well, inundate him any more than I have been doing), but I like Faansie's handling style (quiet, calm), and this is a pretty rare opportunity to work with this world-class handler—I don't know if he'll be back this way again to give a clinic. I am enjoying being exposed to different top handlers' styles (so far I've been to clinics given by Scott Glen, Kathy Knox, Jack Knox, Derek Scrimgeour, and now Faansie—definitely some of the best handlers in the world right now). Faansie said he liked Taz (despite his rough run) and liked his breeding. Even joked that he'd like to take Taz back to South Africa with him. I am very excited to work with him!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Working through the new exercises

I had a couple of lessons with Cathy earlier this week. Taz has been responding really well to the exercises Cathy is showing me, so I want to see where it goes. We spent more time with the circles, making sure Taz stayed well off the sheep. He is very, very sensitive to Cathy's training stick with its little flag, so I tried to use it very judiciously. It did work to reinforce that he should be maintaining the same distance, rather than spiraling in as he often does with these kinds of circle exercises, but it came at a cost—he started looking at the sheep in the other pens and a couple of times he even went to the gates where the gates adjoining those pens were. He could always be called back very easily, with just a "shhh," but Taz is a little wiggy about that kind of pressure, so I really want to be careful here. Cathy encouraged me to add two commands to Taz's repertoire—"out," as in "come out," or move out while flanking on the come bye side, and "keep," or move out on the away side. Basically a command for a wide sweeping flank. Since I generally want all of Taz's flanks to be wider and more sweeping than they usually are, and I have always striven (strived? strove?) to communicate that to him, I don't know how successful I'll be teaching him these new commands. Then again, maybe if I reteach the flanks wider with new words, we'll get wider flanks overall anyway. Definitely worth a shot. We also spent a lot of time mixing things up with the circles: flank left for half a circle, stop, walk up, get back, flank right for five steps, stop, flank left for ten steps, walk up, etc. No real pattern, just aiming for more flexibility, more tuning in for instruction from me, less anticipating what he should do on his own, a snappier stop. He looked pretty good, though it was hard on him. He was fried after some time, and then done for the day (well, done for the lesson, I guess—I mean, even after he rested for fifteen or twenty minutes, when we went out again he was not as responsive as he had been earlier).

We also did more driving. He is very responsive when driving in general (at least compared to outwork), but he does get a little sticky if the sheep are moving ahead and he is feeling pressure from a draw. I admit to getting a little frustrated with Taz when he does this (after the resurfacing hesitation issue, I seem to have no patience for any stickiness, especially as this kind of stickiness is not the result of a lack of confidence, as his hesitation on his outrun is). Instead of repeating commands in an increasingly annoyed tone of voice, I am trying to interrupt his laser focus with a neutral sound. This worked pretty well. We also worked a little on increasing his speed on the drive (this is a first; if Taz needs to change his pace while driving, he usually needs slowing down, but again I'm game to try to put different speeds on his driving). I know these are all tools he should have at some point anyway; may as well teach them now. Generally, though, his pace was nice, and he frequently (correctly) stopped himself when he felt he was putting too much pressure on the sheep.

Things were a little different with Craig. On Monday, I asked Cathy to watch me drive a bit with Craig in her big arena. She thought the biggest problem we were having was not that he doesn't listen/respond to me, though that needed work, but that his flanks were often big sweeping movements, rather than occasional smaller ones. This happened especially when he wouldn't take a command at first; instead, he waits until the pressure builds and then explodes. She thought working with Craig the way we were working with Taz would really help me handle him better because he needed to become a little more flexible with regard to taking the commands I give him. She thought she could help by using a few techniques to help him understand that I should be more in the picture with him.

So, back in the tiny arena we went. We did the get back exercise, and he was able to give ground, though not nearly to the extent that Taz had. He also was able to flank without coming in, when we were working in the corner. This was not so easy when we went on to circles in the middle of the arena—he was tight and didn't want to get back. I accepted a widened flank, but Craig was still pretty tense. He responds to pressure very differently from Taz. Taz will get tentative; Craig gets more pushy and busty. When he was tight, he didn't respond to a simple pivot of the stick forward the way Taz did, so I often resorted to trying to get in his space a little. This goes against everything I learned with Derek, and it often turned into me chasing him. So naturally it wasn't very effective. Cathy suggested I work on stopping him and starting over when he gets too tight, and that was maybe a little more effective. Not very, though. Cathy thought it would be a process, but she feels it is necessary, or at least would be tremendously beneficial, to work through this, so Craig will be a bit more responsive to me. Again, I'm willing to try for now, as long as it doesn't become too much of a battle, and I'll see where it goes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Taz is fab with the "get back" exercises; Craig shines in other ways

Friday morning, I went out to Bill's to practice the exercises we learned at Cathy's earlier in the week. It's been a bit cooler this week, and it felt really nice not to be sweltering out there! I spent way too much time getting six of the lambs out where I wanted them without using either dog, just for the education of moving sheep myself. They really don't always move quite the way you'd expect them to...!

I eventually put the sheep in the arena and got Taz out to work first. Would he continue to be as responsive as he had been at Cathy's? Well, in a word, yes. We began with an outrun to pack the sheep tightly into a corner, and then I walked him up to hold them there.

When the sheep had settled down, I told him to get back with a quick wave of my stock stick. He backed out immediately, without flanking on either side, and then checked in to see where I wanted him to stop again.

We did this a few times. He seemed to be doing this correctly each time, with barely any pressure from me. That was great, of course; however, I have always heard that it's not such a good idea for a dog to turn tail on his stock, so I was kind of eager to move on to the next exercise. This next exercise was to have him flank around the stock in the corner without turning in at all. Taz did fine here, too. He moved in on the first attempt, but a gentle "get back" moved him right back off again. I suspect he understands this concept so well because of the earlier work we did with Derek—it's really the same idea. We did some circles around the stock, and he was again correct in his positioning.

Next time, I'll try to send him from my feet to see if he will continue to slice, or if this might really be a tool to help reshape his outrun. At the very least, I am hopeful that he will kick himself out if I tell him to "get back" (how different is this from "get out of it," though?).

Taz's tongue was starting to reach for the ground,
so I got Craig out. And I tried the same exercises with him, but frankly it wasn't happening. He would bring them to me fine, lie down,

walk up, and move off them when I asked him to get out, but he always wanted to flank one way or the other while moving off them. Even as Robin was typing out her advice to my last post, I realized it was counterproductive to try to argue with Craig about this. He wasn't going to do this easily, and I really don't want to fight with him. I want to try to work more in harmony with Craig, not less, and if that means not insisting on a technique that could prove helpful in the long run, so be it. I can better spend my time with Craig by focusing on improving my timing.

This means watching the sheep more! I spent the remainder of our time having him drive the sheep around the arena, but paying close attention to how the sheep reacted to his presence and where the sheep were looking when I placed him to change their direction or simply move forward.

When we were ready to go, he helped me put them away, which he loves to do. Craig is happy when he is doing a job he knows, and he knows he is doing it well.

Tomorrow morning we'll go out to Cathy's again to see what the next step is for Taz and perhaps see if she can give me some tips for improving my timing with Craig.

PS: One of Bill's dogs needed surgery for the removal of a foxtail a couple of weeks ago; after I heard this I decided we won't be training in the field at all anymore. I'm just too skeered to take the chance!

Friday, August 08, 2008

New techniques

At Dan's trial last weekend, I spoke to Cathy about some exercises for moving dogs out and increasing their flexibility and suppleness. She told me she thought Taz could really benefit from such techniques, and she'd be happy to show me if I wanted to come out to her place. So I went out to Cathy's on Wednesday morning to see what she was talking about.

We worked in her teeny arena, which was not much bigger than her round pen but it has corners. First she showed me what she'd been working on with her dog Dan. When she asked him to get back, he immediately backed up, before coming on again. He flanked without taking any steps in, and he walked in on the sheep slowly and methodically. He was clearly thinking the whole time; it was impressive. We tried it with Taz. Happily, she let me work Taz, advising me where necessary but not taking over. This is one of the reasons I had stopped lessons earlier; I just have too much of a tendency to let the more experienced instructor to take over if I'm not sure what to do, and it wasn't helping me to work through problems or gain experience handling the dogs. But today, I was able to listen to what Cathy was saying while trying these new techniques out with Taz myself. First I had Taz gather the sheep. He took a few steps straight up the middle, but I lied him down and told him to get out of that and he widened out around them. He brought them to us against the fence in a corner, and I told him to get back with a very slight wave of the stick I was holding. He backed out immediately and lied down. I shared an incredulous look with Cathy and told him to walk up and we repeated the exercise a few times. He was completely super responsive. I told Cathy that really there are three Tazes—Good Taz, who thinks and feels his sheep; Evil Zat, who thinks he needs to reach his sheep at warp speed and tries to run over everything; and also Clinic Taz, who knows he is learning something new and that someone who knows what they're doing is close by to keep him honest, so he works very calmly and deliberately. This is the Taz we seemed to have today. We progressed to flanking without taking any steps in at all (while we and the sheep were still in the corner), and he was wide and well paced. So we did a few circles in the middle of the pen—which were not like Derek-style circles because I was supposed to not move at all, just flank him verbally and then stop and start him off balance several times, making sure he was not ever coming in (and telling him to get back if he did come in). Taz got this exercise right away, so we graduated to him driving the sheep, with me moving with him along the side but between the dog and the sheep in order to be well positioned to correct if necessary. This wasn't easy, because there wasn't much room, but I think I was supposed to be enforcing a slower pace here. I am not exactly sure—I'll have to clarify this part. Anyway, Taz did very well, but I knew this wouldn't be the same Taz I worked with on my own, so we'd just have to see.

I did the first couple of exercises with Craig, too, but it was much more difficult with him. He wouldn't give ground so easily, and Cathy had to take over, since I was too slow and soft in my corrections. We were eventually able to progress to flanking in the corner, but not to anywhere near the same degree of success we had with Taz. Craig barely ever took his eyes off the sheep, and I think he was only peripherally listening to us. Cathy said he's be much more difficult to retrain (remember, Craig is ten and has been passed around a bit in his life, and he has been working with novice me for the past year, so he's used to taking the reins and not wanting to give them up so easily). We'd keep working on it, but I would probably see the most success using these techniques with Taz.

That is fine. I am hoping this might be another way to try to shape his outrun correctly and work on pace. Because Taz is pressure sensitive, he can really benefit from being more flexible, too. I told Cathy I'd like to come out for more lessons, so I learn these techniques under her guidance. We may as well try!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lessons learned at the Nicomodes Gulch SDT

Friday's session was good practice, since we competed in the open ranch class at the Nicomodes Gulch stockdog trial on Saturday. This trial is put on by Dan Keeton and held at the beautiful ranch of Terry and Tina LePlatt. The sheep were very even, super light, older lambs, and they really tested the dogs. I was very nervous before my first run, as the sheep were set some 375 yards away, which is pretty far for me. (Fortunately not for Craig ;-) The sheep were running all over the course in the runs before mine, and even though Craig is so seasoned and trial savvy, I worried about what I'd do in case of a wreck. Thank doG for the people who talked to me before my run, as I think they kept me just on this side of the edge!

Lesson 1: Know Your Dog!
I noticed most people sent their dogs to the right, but it seemed like the sheep often wanted to run in through the trees on the left of the field, so I decided to send Craig to the left to try to counteract that. His outrun was very nice, but he overflanked just a bit on his lift and the sheep began moving down the field to the left. This was exactly what I'd hoped to avoid when I sent him to the left, and this was my first lesson of the trial. My dog (uh, both my dogs actually, though Taz is much worse) naturally runs tight and can tend to overflank just a little at the top. I always think that a tight-running dog will cause the sheep to react too soon and begin running away from the direction the dog is going. This is probably because this is exactly what happened to Taz when he was first learning his outrun on very dogged sheep in a small area. But neither of my dogs run that tight, and they tend to be fine until they start to slice at the very top. This is why they overflank, and overflanking results in turning the sheep so that they usually run in the direction the dog has come from. Duh! So, yes, the sheep were moving down the course in the exact spot I had wanted to avoid.

Craig wouldn't listen to my verbal or whistled commands to either stop or flank away on the fetch until he was a couple hundred feet from me. He did this same exact thing at both Deb's and Lisa's trials, come to think of it. It's almost like he doesn't hear me, but he hears me just fine when we're just practicing at Bill's, so I know he's not deaf (though I wonder if this is why Elaine suspected his hearing might be going when she gave him to me). So his fetch was pretty bowed to the left and we obviously missed the fetch panels. Once he got in closer range, though, he began listening to me pretty well as we moved the sheep back toward the center of the field and then around the post.

Lesson 2: Timing Is Everything!
Our drive away started off pretty well. Craig had a fairly good line going, and we made steady progress forward, but I was often half a step behind him in giving him commands. That is, the sheep would start to move to the left, and I'd think "he needs to go left to get them back on line," and then I'd think "so that means a come bye," and then I'd say it. This didn't always happen—sometimes I was able to think and tell Craig what to do faster than that, but overall the drive was kind of choppy. Our line wasn't that terrible, but sure wasn't super straight. We were muddling our way through, and when we were about three quarters of the way to the first drive panels, Craig overflanked and turned the sheep toward the center of the field. I whistled (and then yelled) a come bye command, but he ignored me. I know Craig has panel anxiety, and he wasn't taking my command to flank, so I let him go. This, I know, was a mistake that would cost us dearly, but I wasn't sure if it would be better to move the sheep back toward the panels we missed or cut the course at that point. We were too low to make the cross-drive panels (which, for the OR class, were actually the fetch panels), so I had Craig just turn the sheep to the pen. I raced over, and the sheep moved to the open mouth.

Lesson 3: Your Dog Can't Cover the Sheep If You Keep Stopping Him Too Soon!
Well, I had a pretty tough time trying to pen the sheep (as did everyone at the trial, actually—there was only one successful pen during both OR class runs, and on Friday, there had been only two successful pens during all of the open and nursery runs). I couldn't seem to find that sweet spot where he was covering them but not pushing them away. He was too tight, but he was coming in mostly because I kept stopping him just a wee bit too short. He'd lie down when I asked him, but the sheep kept going—I was too tentative to wait until I saw their heads turn before lying him down. Then, to maybe save time, he'd move in to cover and succeed only in pushing them out further, which is what I'd been trying to avoid by stopping him too soon in the first place. It was just like that time I'd practiced penning at Linda's, and, after time was called, I resolved to let him cover the sheep before lying him down during our next run.

Joni Swanke was the judge, and she was generous in giving advice to those who asked for it. She said she had to hit me pretty hard for cutting the course, and she understood why I let Craig start the cross drive early, but that she'd have insisted that he take that inside flank. Damn! She also told me that Craig was a great dog for me to learn with, and that I just needed some more miles and more confidence, and I'd be fine :-) I thanked her and we exhausted the sheep for the next team.

This trial was set up unconventionally in that the open and nursery runs were scheduled for Friday and Sunday, while both open ranch runs were scheduled back to back on Saturday. I was able to enjoy the trial between my runs, talking with other handlers, watching the more experienced ones running their younger dogs and the less experienced handlers like me trying to figure everything out. Before I knew it, I was up again.

I was less nervous for my second run, and though I didn't figure out lesson #1 until after the day was over and I was thinking about everything, Craig knew and he clearly set himself up to run to the right. I though it best not to argue, so I sent him on an away. His outrun was very nice, and his lift and fetch were a bit better than the first run. The sheep were just off line enough (on the right this time) to miss the fetch panels again—at least I think we missed them; I don't actually remember, but I am pretty sure I would remember if I made the panels, so I'll assume we missed them ;-).

We again moved the sheep around the post okay and started our drive away without any problems. For this run, the sheep had been brought a bit closer to the post, and we were driving the sheep back through the fetch panels and then through the drive panels to the left. It was a shorter cross drive than the first run, but it was more challenging because these drive panels on the left were very close to the trees, where the only shade on the course was. Since it was in the upper 80s by the middle of the day, when I was running, I knew this could be a factor: if the sheep reached the shade of the trees, they'd be difficult to move away from these trees.

Lesson 4: Watch the Sheep!
I had all this business about the shade in my head even as we began the drive away. I was also determined to make the drive panels this time, or at least make an honest attempt to make them. So I was trying to be a little more exacting in how I set Craig up for the panels, but we ended up doing a bit of zigging and zagging. I know I was late with my timing again. I did actually have a much straighter line moving toward the panels, but at the last minute Craig veered the sheep off line. I did get him to bring them back on line, and I thought the sheep were moving completely through the panels, but a couple missed. Rats! Oh well; we started on our cross drive and it was pretty straight! I can't remember if we made those panels, because I spent the entire rest of our time trying to get Craig to move the sheep out of the shade of the trees. Dang! He didn't have trouble lifting them, but one or two kept squirting around him to run back to the shade. I tried to help him, but I was a bit hopeless here. We timed out there, and that was that.

Several people told me after my run that I need to watch my sheep more, rather than the dog. (Elaine tells me this all the time, actually.) I thought I was getting better at this, but apparently not ;-) Jim Swift ran after me, and Victoria and I analyzed his run together as it happened. She pointed out every time the sheep moved their heads, and sure enough that was the exact moment Jim placed his dog to cover. It was very cool to see, and I was able to really understand how I need to be quicker to convey information to my dogs based on what the sheep are doing. I mean, that seems really obvious, but it's a lot harder than it sounds. At least for me.

We ended up placing sixth in the first run and seventh in the second. I am pleased with how we did, especially the second run, since we did as well as we did without getting any drive points. I am also very satisfied that I learned so much at this trial. I wish I could have stayed to watch the open runs, but I got a little sick from the strong sun, not drinking enough fluids, and the altitude. I hope to have plenty of time to watch some great handlers in the coming months though. Next year, I'll stay and watch everything for sure, and we'll try to better our scores from this year :-)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Skittish lambs!

Okay, time to update. I've been slacking on updating the blog!

I went out with Taz and Craig on Friday and worked lambs that were very skittish. Taz was definitely not in complete control of them, but they were pretty tough. They would not flock at all and were super light—as in, Taz would look at them and they'd run in different directions. It was cool to watch him as he adjusted his style and tried out different things. He listened to me quite well, particularly on the squirrelly fetch, since he didn't know what to do on his own. It was hard, though, for both of us. But probably very good for us.

Craig also had a tough time, though obviously with his range of experience he was much more comfortable than Taz had been. I couldn't help him as much as I'd helped Taz, since my timing when driving at a distance is so crap. He had to work to cover them and push them forward without letting them squirt too far off line. He resisted listening to me very well at first, but we did better as the session went on and were able to make it around a mini course. We weren't able to work for very long, since it got so flippin' hot so quickly, but at least we were able to get some work in before the trial this weekend.