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!


Robin French said...

I have a thought for you, and you might find it helpful or you might not, regarding Craig. When i have people come out with older dogs, i try to help them stop thinking about training the dog. A dog Craig's age is set in his ways and you're not going to train him into changing, not really. What you have to do is change your mindset to one of *handling* the dog you have. What things can you change about yourself and your handling to help the trained dog do things the way you want? If he's a tight outrunner, stop trying to figure out how to change that, accept it, and start trying to figure out ways to set him up, etc that help you around that hole in his ability or past training. Identify his strengths and play to those, identify his weaknesses and work around them as much as you can, and you'll improve as a handler and he'll have taught you a ton. It's a different way of looking at it and approaching it. Just something that came to mind when i was reading your blog today that i thought i'd share.

Laura said...

You're right, of course. I have been trying to adjust my thinking about Craig as far as not training him but instead handling him. I was sort of wondering if I could train Taz one way and handle Craig another way, though--whether that is possible for me at this point in my handling career. Craig will try to get away with tighter flanks and refusing commands if he can, so I probably have my hands full making sure he does what I know he can do. I mean, Craig is a confident dog who tries to take over if he thinks I'm not stepping up fast enough or making correct decisions. This is where his biggest value to me lies--if I am making correct, timely decisions, then he will listen to me well, and I know I am improving. So, you're right--I guess I should worry about this stuff with Craig, rather than spend time and energy teaching him new techniques that will likely not be very productive anyway. Thanks Robin!