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 :-)


Rebecca and Molly the Border Collie said...

Sounds like it was a great experience, especially considering the lessons learned. I'd have loved to have seen it!

Samantha said...

Yep i agree, it sounds like you had a great day Laura.

I hope that you are feeling better now.
That must make it much more difficult when it is so warm, for the dogs, sheep and yourself.

I think it is cool how you get to chat with the judges etc afterwards.

Laura said...

Thanks guys! We really did learn a lot, and the trial was terrific!

Rockstar said...

I need to come watch a trial so I know some of the things you are talking about. I feel like such a dummy when I read you blog and go, what's that mean? So, next time you have one that's close, let me know! I would love to go!

Laura said...

Amy, there's a trial next weekend in Parker. It is an arena trial, so it'll be a bit different than the field trials like Nicomodes Gulch (so no 375-yard outruns to contend with ;-) but there will be other challenges for the dogs, like the increased pressure felt working in a more confined space. If you'd like to come, email me, and I'll spend some time with you and explain everything :-) You can even bring Kipp and Rockstar, if you like (though it will probably be HOT)!

Rockstar said...

Oh man what timing! Next weekend is the biggest disc dog tourny of the year and it's on both days so I can't go. :( Bummer! But I still want to try and make one soon. Summer is just always so busy!!

Anda said...

Was that this weekend? Hey, can you guys make it to Barker Days on the 6th of September?! Pleaaseeeeee!!!!

Laura said...

The Nicomodes trial was last weekend, Anda, and the arena trial in Parker is next weekend if you're interested. If I don't end up going to Meeker this year, I'd love to come to Barker Days! I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing yet, so let's keep in touch...