Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Negotiating with Craig

It's been an interesting week or so, trainingwise. I'll write about it in a few posts, since each session has been so different.

First, I had a great session on my own with Taz and Craig. I practiced ouruns with Taz, and he was pretty consistently wide and not hesitating. We did one outrun that was the length of Cathy's field, and he did hesitate just a bit on that one (he hasn't yet learned to keep casting out even if he can't see the sheep), but he took a "get out" and it ended up being a pretty decent outrun. He was slicing less often, so maybe he really is starting to understand that he should be deeper at the top? Too soon to tell.

With Craig, it's all about improving my timing. So we did some driving, and as usual lately, we were we a bit out of sync to start. But things got better the more we went along. Although the draw to the gate beyond the panels is strong in Cathy's field, we worked on actually hitting the panels. Craig has terrible panel anxiety, and if he does not have the sheep well lined up a long way before he reaches the panels, he overflanks terribly or simply ignores commands when directed to try to bring the sheep through the panels. That is, for example, why he cut the course a little at Dan Keeton's trial last August. It's something I haven't worked too much on, since Cathy's panels are set so close to the draw. But I decided that Craig is well equipped to handle that pressure, and I need to learn how to handle him despite that pressure. The first few times we tried, we didn't make the panels at all. We did the familiar underflanking/overflanking back-and-forth, so we didn't line up soon enough before we hit the panels. I knew I needed to stop stopping him too soon so he wouldn't have a chance to overcompensate. (If I stop him too short because I am afraid he will overflank, and the sheep do not change direction, then I must reflank him just a little to try to bump the sheep back on line; this is actually when Craig often overflanks, though. I am anticipating his oveflanking at the wrong time, and stopping him short actually makes him more likely to overflank. I need to stop doing that!) This is the most important thing Craig is teaching me: how much to trust him and let him decide what to do versus how much to guide him, to catch (even anticipate) the incorrect choices he makes in time to keep a flow going. It's really hard, but this is how my timing is improving, I think. By the end of our work session, he'd pushed the sheep through both the drive and cross drive panels successfully a few times.

I think Craig is negotiating the same working synchronicity with me—he is figuring out how much to trust me, how much to listen to me while still maintaining control of the sheep. We will get there eventually, but I wish I could work Craig more often. It's frustrating to always start out working through this stuff; I think if we could work every day or every couple of days, we could pick up right where we left off the last time, rather than working to rebuild trust and having to remember how we work together all over again first each time. I'm working on finding a way to get more access to sheep, and if I do find a way to work more often, I bet we improve much faster. It's not like with Taz, who is learning at his own rate—Craig and I mostly just need miles together to sort through this stuff enough that we can better anticipate and compensate for each other's strengths and weaknesses. Well, I don't know how much he'll be compensating for me—I'm not sure about whether all dogs have that perspective, though I believe at least some do—but I do think we will learn to better mesh our individual work styles if given a bit more time to work together.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Finally fixing Taz's slicing? Fingers crossed!

One of Taz's main issues is that he slices at the top. He has patterned this by now, and I believe he thinks it's the correct way to approach the sheep at the top. For a while I thought it was because he spent the early stages of his training working very broke sheep in a small arena, and these sheep would break back to me as soon as Taz reached the nine o'clock or three o'clock positions. Now, however, I think it may be that he is afraid the sheep will get away if he doesn't reach them as quickly as possible.

I've tried to fix this in the past by running toward him and/or the sheep to try to kick him out, too, but this has not been consistently successful—he either didn't really change his trajectory once he began to slice, instead racing toward the sheep faster, or he did kick out but I couldn't ever transition to not slicing when I wasn't running up the field. I also tried to work on this by lying him down before he reached the slicing point, and as my timing improved I could often get him to lie down, but this then often resulted in Taz hesitating at the beginning of his outrun. (This, in turn, made me more reluctant to correct him for slicing, which of course just made the slicing more ingrained.) Faansie Basson helped me to understand that part of the problem was that Taz was not moving off me enough to feel the need to change his instinctive/patterned behavior. So I had to work a bit on establishing a little more presence with him (which wasn't difficult to do, once I discovered how I could change his behavior without resorting to heavy-handed force).

I think I was also not seeing the bigger picture. With the help of Cathy, I recently realized that a big part of the problem is that he speeds up at the same time he begins to slice. Thus, instead of running at him (which often just makes him more frantic), I've been working to slow him down so he will begin thinking right at that point that he begins to slice and speed up.The past couple of times I've been out at Cathy's, I set him up to go the opposite direction of the draw (so he will be more likely to slice). I send him and walk (walk, not run) toward the sheep but just as he begins to speed up/alter his trajectory, I growl a "hey." He is starting to check himself now, which results in a very nice approach and lift. This strategy is not very different from what I've been told to do by top clinicians in the past, but I think the reason it is working now, apart from my improving timing, is that I've established a bit more presence with him—now he actually hears me when I'm not screeching at him.

Darci Gunter and Anna Guthrie have suggested that speeding up and slicing is often done out of fear and not liking the pressure of being close to the sheep. Taz is indeed a pressure-sensitive dog, but I'm not sure how this figures in to his behavior. In any case, I think the solution is the same, no matter what the cause is—some how, some way, I need to be able to slow Taz down at the top.

Of course, I don't know if this is truly going to be the fix I've been working toward. Time will tell. And even if it is, I think Taz may always have to be redirected on his outrun. But I don't mind that because as long as I can get him to slow down and think while he's moving, we can progress as a team. Such is the journey for a novice handler with a novice dog ;-)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Amazing weekend in the mountains!

Last weekend, I packed up all three of my dogs for a weekend of house, dog, and sheep sitting for a friend. She's got six sheep in her little pen, and she usually works them on the lower edge of her vertical property, which she's carefully cleared of sagebrush and scrub. I was very excited about working new sheep in an unfamiliar (to my dogs) area. I was also a little nervous about having no backup in case anything went wrong, since this cleared area abutted the road without any fences. Control would be very important, and this is something I sometimes don't have as much of as I'd like with Mr. Taz.

I worked Craig first, since I definitely had more control over him and he was more predictable in his actions. We let four sheep out of the pen, and they immediately took off in every direction. Yikes! I sent Craig and he gathered them immediately and all of them took off at run down the drive toward the clearing (and the road). I lied Craig down and held my breath. And the sheep stopped! I exhaled with relief, and Craig drove them nicely down to the clearing. Phew! These were good sheep :)

Craig and I did a bunch of driving and a few outruns. I continued working on making sure he was taking shorter flanks. We did pretty well, and I relaxed a bunch. Craig was enjoying working in a new place, I think, and he was pretty tuned in to me and responsive. The sheep went where he put them, and the draw was back up to their pen, not the road. We worked once a day all three days we were there, and, as usual with Craig, he worked better the more we worked.

I hoped I'd have as good an experience with Taz. The last (and only other) time I worked Taz here, we lost the sheep in the woods by the house and had a heck of a time getting them back. That was a while ago, though, and I knew Taz has come a long way since then. And I was right!

On Friday, the first time I worked him, Taz listened to me well as we brought the sheep back down the drive, but he was going pretty fast. I took the cap I was wearing and slapped it against my thigh as I told him to take his time. Taz's pace is usually fast, and I've never had much luck consistently slowing him down. This worked like a charm, though. He looked at me in surprise and checked himself. He slowed himself down a bunch, and for the rest of the weekend, any time I said "time," he slowed his pace! Amazing!

That was not the only amazing thing Taz did. He was like the best version of himself this weekend—he did everything well. His outruns were wide and relaxed, his slicing was greatly reduced, he was picking up sheep in the woods with no direction from me and bringing them back to my feet, his driving was straight and sure, he was taking inside flanks, and he was stopping on a dime. (Well, not on a dime, exactly, but fairly quickly.) He did not hesitate at all. I never got at all frustrated with him—he was working so well, the emotion I was feeling was closer to elation—and both of us were relaxed and having fun.

I kind of can't believe it. Maybe it's the sheep, maybe it's the unfamiliar setup (so no history of either of us working poorly here), maybe it's that he is finally starting to put everything together? I so hope it is that he is really putting things together, but I don't want to get my hopes up too much there. I know it is usually one step forward, two steps back. He is still not quite ready for a pro-novice course, as his outruns are still fairly short and he can't really cross drive yet. But this weekend definitely gave me a huge confidence boost, and reminded me why I like to spend so much time in the middle of remote fields with my dogs surrounded by sheep :)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Meh. A little discouraging. For now.

I've gone out a few times since my lessons with Faansie. Twice I went to Steve and Lynn's to work their Cheviots, with mixed results. The first time, the guard llama was in the pen with the ewes, and he wasn't so hot on the idea of a dog coming in to take a few away to work. This llama does not like dogs—actually it was a bad incident with Craig that caused him to dislike dogs in the first place—so we worked a few of the lambs and goats instead. Since lambs and goats are not ideal, we were able to sort off the goats and move them back into the arena so we could work just the lambs. Still, they were difficult for Taz to handle in a very controlled manner, and Craig and I struggled a bit as well, though we were able to move the sheep around the course. Craig hurt his foot when we were working, though, so the second time I went out I brought only Taz.

The sheep and the llama were in the big field, which we never work in because there are a lot of prairie dog holes. I almost always use Craig when sorting or getting sheep out to work, since he's so good at it and he loves it. But since he wasn't here now, it was up to Taz. I was a little nervous about relying on him, but I also thought it might be good for him to do some practical work for a change. The sheep moved closer to the llama when we arrived, and the entire group started moving further and further away from the gate. This wasn't getting us anywhere. So I called Taz and thought about sending him. They were getting pretty far away from us by now, though, and I wasn't sure I wanted to send Taz to pick sheep off a llama that might fight him when I was too far away to help. So I played it safe, and we made a long wide arc around the sheep and llama, and when we got around them, they turned back in the direction of the gate. So we drove them forward a bit, and they spread out enough for me to send Taz to pick up some of the sheep, yet leave enough with the llama that he didn't try to drive him off and get those sheep back. Taz was all business and brought the sheep through the gate without any problems at all. What a good boy!

We practiced the corner exercise in the arena with pretty good results and then brought the sheep over to the other field to work. It's often a pain to bring the sheep to this field because there is a big pile of dirt right in front of the gate, and the sheep have figured out that they can split up and catch the dog out as he races from one side of the pile to the other, trying to be in two places at once to push them forward. But Taz was smarter than the sheep, and he surprised them by going over the dirt pile. I swear I could see the surprise on the faces of the sheep as they marched to the gate, mumbling "yes, sir, we're moving right along, sir."

We started out with some walkabouts. He was a bit tight, but I had a rolled up newspaper and threw it between Taz and the sheep and he jumped back again. He then stayed well off the sheep, but he began hesitating a bit. He seemed a little unsure, but perhaps he was just working things out in his head. He moved to cover the sheep when I wooshed him along, and we moved on to outruns. His outruns were reasonably successful—he was usually wide enough to be respectable, but I did lie him down a few times when he left too straight. This resulted in his hesitation returning a bit—not all the time, but he hesitated on maybe three outruns. I tried not to let that frustrate me, and I was able to get him moving again easily enough by telling him to get out of it. We moved on to driving, with me walking parallel with him, and this he did just fine.

A couple of days later, I took a lesson with Cathy, and she worked with us on driving and inside flanks. We worked in her arena, driving sheep along the fenceline and then criss-crossing it while accounting for the strong draw. Taz seems to have forgotten his inside flanks altogether. Plus, I was so used to driving with Craig that I kept forgetting to say "here" before asking for an inside flank (since Craig doesn't need that helpful cue before taking an inside flank). Taz listened a bit better to Cathy than to me, but he still had a strong tendency to take the inside flank only so far before stopping and walking in on the sheep wherever he thought he should (not necessarily where the handler thought he should). And then it was difficult to get him to unlock from the sheep. Still, we made progress; by the end of the lesson, at least he was taking most of his inside flanks again, if not perfectly.

I worked him myself at her place last Tuesday, and things did not go so well here. I started with the corner exercise, but I worked him in the corner opposite the draw. This may not have been the best idea. First one sheep squirted away, and though Taz went to cover her initially, he gave up when she kept running. She ran the entire length of the field we were in all the way to the gate. I wasn't sure if I should focus Taz on getting this runaway sheep or just let her go. I sort of tried to get him to get her before giving up and continuing the exercise with the remaining sheep. When another sheep did the exact same thing, I gave up, but I admit I was frustrated. I forgot all of Faansie's advice about not showing my frustration to Taz, and though we moved on to other things the rest of our session was not fantastic. We did some outruns (Taz was moderately wide) and some driving (he took some inside flanks), and I was happy to tie him up and do some work with Craig. We did some driving, and we were definitely not as sharp as we've been in the past. Nothing terrible, and we worked better the more we worked, but I think my own state of mind was hampering Craig's work as well. Eventually my hour was up and I went home a bit discouraged.

I had another lesson with Cathy a couple of days later, and I told her more about my lesson with Faansie. She was happy to try to work with me on some of the things I did with Faansie, and we began with the corner exercise again. This time was much more successful, with Taz coming straight in and then mostly covering the sheep as they squirted out. He still did need some encouragement to cover them sometimes, but he did better the more he worked. We did some more driving practice and some outruns, and things went pretty well, but Cathy had to remind me that repeating commands three and four times when Taz wasn't taking them was not an effective way to show Taz what I wanted from him. Too often I stand and just repeat commands when I should be changing my position or moving forward to present different cues for him so he better understands what he should be doing. I've only been told this six hundred times...

Sometimes it seems as though I am learning this at an impossibly slow rate, and it will never come naturally to me. I was about to house/pet/sheep sit for a friend in the mountains, and I was nervous about working her unfamiliar sheep on her unfenced property. Things seemed to go well enough when I was working with someone more experienced, but I wasn't very confident in our progress when I worked the dogs on my own.

I was very pleasantly surprised, though. We didn't do so bad. Actually, we did really well :)
I'm exhausted right now, so I'll write about our amazing weekend in the mountains tomorrow...

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Lessons with Faansie Basson, Sept. 15 & 16, 2008

Once again, I have fallen behind on the blog updates. So I'll attempt to catch up yet again.

Let's see...first, the lessons with Faansie.

What presence Faansie has ;-)

I had two lessons with him, on consecutive days, about two weeks after his clinic. He told me straight away that he could see that I'd been working hard with Taz during those two weeks, but he thought I was now being too tough on him! It seems I have begun to get inside Taz's head after all and had to now take some of that pressure off him. No more confrontations. He said Taz and I sometimes do a bit of mental arguing, and I have to be careful to find ways to get in his head without adding fuel to the fire.

Okay, well enough, but what does that mean in a practical sense? Well, we started the lesson by doing the corner exercise, with me in the corner and Taz pushing five or six sheep into me. He gathered them and then I had him walk up slowly, lie down, and walk up some more, so he was pushing into them, making them squirm and start to fight. He was a little reluctant to push in right at first, which puzzled Faansie, as Taz is such a pushy line dog, until I told him about the "other" corner exercises I'd been doing with Cathy, where he was encouraged not to come in straight, but to flank to the sides and come around between the sheep and the fence. He told me to work on this instead, make sure he pushes in and willingly flanks on either side to cover all of his sheep as they squirt out. Slowly I made my way out of the corner to one side. Taz was then a little reluctant to flank around when I was outside of the corner, especially in the off balance direction. Faansie told me to watch my body language: If I am facing him with my shoulders square, that puts a lot of pressure on him and he won't want to walk into that pressure. If I move to the side or drop a shoulder, that will encourage him to go in the direction I'm facing. After a bit of practice, Taz took his flanks, both on and off balance. This is what Faansie was after with Taz. He said Taz is a confident, powerful dog, but he doesn't understand how to really use his power yet. Again, he reiterated that Taz's early ideas about covering sheep somehow got screwed up and so I need to remind him how important this is. So he told me to practice this with Taz from time to time to keep him tuned up.

Along the same lines, we also did some more walkabouts on the field, switching directions and moving back, so Taz was forced to cover his sheep and bring them to me. Woosh him if he's not covering, acht if he overflanks. Don't even give him flank commands. It's baby stuff, but he didn't get any of it when he was a baby, so he needs this remedial covering 101. I lamented how walkabouts were fun for Taz, but kind of stressful for me because Taz just got faster and closer to the sheep until we were barely moving. Faansie was surprised to hear this (since Taz worked so far off us when he was around). He told me Taz always needs to go at my pace, not the other way around. So he stepped aside and sure enough, Taz picked up his pace and got much tighter on the sheep. Faansie told me to throw the taped feedbag between Taz and the sheep when he got too close. So I did, and Taz immediately jumped back twenty feet. Faansie told me to do this right when we changed direction, too, since that was when Taz was tempted to slice in. I did and he again jumped back. And then he stayed well off the sheep, giving us both much more room to move. This is one way to show him that slicing on an outrun wasn't correct. Faansie said Taz is soft enough that I probably only will have to do this a couple of times for him to truly "get it," if I time it right, and to pair it with a "hey" or something, so I can eventually just say "hey" and he'll move off the sheep. He told me to be very careful with the feedbag and do not overuse it, since he does respect it so much. For one thing, I don't want him to lose that respect, but I also do not want to turn him off. I don't think I would ever turn Taz off, but he is soft enough that I don't want to completely overwhelm him. (He did once turn off completely when confronted with a lot of pressure from a Big Hat clinician, and I am now ever mindful of that potential with him.) Faansie told me he recognized that Taz didn't do anything to try to be "bad," or disobey me, or even challenge me really, but he does sometimes feel a lot of pressure from me and reacts accordingly. A lot of it is that I do not always know exactly and/or convey clearly what I want from him, and when I get frustrated, he senses that and gets upset. But if it ever becomes too much for him, stop what I'm doing, call him in, give him a pat, and let him know it's okay. So if he feels the pressure too much, let him know he's okay. And that should reset both of us. But used correctly, these tactics are how to get inside Taz's head without "arguing" with him. No yelling. No nagging. No running up at him. No need to be unduly physical. The more I can affect his behavior while remaining cool and in control of my emotions, the more my dog will respect me.

The other way to address his slicing is to send him, lie him down right before he slices, walk up in a straight line to the sheep just a few steps or even until I am the same distance from the sheep as he is if necessary and resend him demanding the same wide casting out that I now expect in any outrun. One thing that I'd been letting him do since the clinic is, when he starts tight and I lie him down in response, I let him kick himself out instead of lying down. Since I was only lying him down to ultimately resend him wider anyway, I thought this was okay. Faansie told me it was not okay. If I tell him to lie down, he needs to stop entirely and only move when I tell him to go. If I really just want him to recast farther out, I do not need to always tell him to lie down, I can woosh him or reflank him or tell him to get out of it or whatever—but if I do tell him to lie down, he needs to lie down every time. Okay, good to know.

We also did a bit of driving, and though Taz can drive reasonably well in a straight line, Faansie wanted me to walk parallel with him (never getting in front of him), so that he never has to look back at me for instruction or reassurance. And that's all we had time for. We had planned to work on inside flanks and then do some shedding, but unfortunately it got dark too soon. Faansie may come out next year, so we can pick up again then. (At least as far as shedding practice goes, there's no big hurry, I guess—it's not like we'll be running in open between now and then ;-)

My next posts will describe my attempts to follow all of this advice. Stay tuned...