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!


Rebecca and Molly the Border Collie said...

Sounds to me like all of you need more practice in an arena--without the pressure of a trial but to work the bugs out.

Laura said...

Yeah, definitely. Unfortunately, the dogs habituate to whatever area they work in frequently because they learn to compensate for the particular pressure and draws, and they learn how the sheep are likely to behave for that particular arena. So they don't ever run at, say, Bill's arena the way they did at the trial. Taz does not run straight up the field at Bill's because he is not worried that he won't get there in time—he's done it hundreds of times successfully running nice and wide. Likewise, Craig is much more relaxed and responsive in Bill's arena. Part of it is trial nerves, of course, and the challenge of working the dogs in any unfamiliar area (though here, again, the smaller space of an arena magnifies these issues). I am hopeful that working on Joni and Haley's exercises with Cathy will make a difference, though (not simply going through the motions of outruns, lifts, fetches, and driving in an arena, as I had been doing when working on my own).

Rafe said...

Well, I know I'm not going near an arena. That fine Handler who worked with me many suns ago really dislikes arenas, even though he lives near the Big arena trial. Takes a while for his dogs to recover. But, guess you have less choice. Hmm. Let us know how the exercises go.


Laura said...

I go back and forth between thinking arena trials are counter-productive and thinking that if I can't handle them in an arena, they aren't very well trained and my handling skills suck. But I'm not going to be rushing to any arena trials any time soon. In the meantime, we'll do what we can to try to increase Taz's flexibility (or willingness to listen to me and calmly stop what he's doing in favor of what I ask him to do instead) as well as widen him out in response to pressure. Because he pretty much looked he had never had a day of training in his life out there (at least on Saturday). Bleck.

Samantha said...

I haven't seen an arena trial, actually i have only seen one trial in the real life. I can imagine that the arena is quite intense though with it being smaller and you all being so closely watched. I should think that awful thundery weather made it much more difficult for you all as well.

That clinic sounds good, i think it must be cool watching how these top handlers train. I presume they all train differently. said...

Why didn't I see you at Meeker last week?


Laura said...

I couldn't make two big trips two weeks in a row, Dale, so I opted to go to just the Finals. I had a great time there, but I'll be back at Meeker next year! Hope you had fun!