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...

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