Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To send out or not to send out...

So I've been considering sending Taz out to sheep camp to finally fix his outrun. As I've moaned about for flippin' ever, Taz's main problem is that he slices his flanks terribly and then overflanks at the top. I just can't seem to consistently widen him out at the top. I honestly think he doesn't fully realize that he is supposed to be wider and squarer than he currently runs. One reason for this is his on-again-off-again habit of hesitating on his outrun, making me a bit reluctant to correct him once he does get going. I don't think he is hesitating because he has too much eye—I think it's a confidence thing. But not a lack of confidence with the sheep—a lack of confidence in what he thinks I want him to actually do. I am not very clear or consistent when correcting his outrun (plus my timing isn't so hot), and I've lied him down too often—now I think he just anticipates being lied down so he often doesn't want to commit to going.

Taz is 4 now and I'm afraid the window for his learning to do this is beginning to close. I mean, he still learns very well, but he has some ingrained habits now and I'd like to fix them before they become something I'll just have to live with. I know he's got a lot of talent, and though I understand he'll never really live up to his potential with me, I'd like to get him a bit further than I fear I would if I don't get past these outrun issues. I have been told that it would be really difficult for me to get him to progress very much because I just can't work him often enough without having my own sheep. Working once or twice a week just isn't enough, for either of us. For others more capable, I'm sure it's possible, but not for me. I am, clearly, not a natural (rats!).

It's not like Taz would come back as a trained dog, of course. I'd just hope for his outrun to consistently get a bit wider at the top. I want him to build some muscle memory of what it feels like to do a correct outrun—to flank wider and come in a bit slower at the top. I'd like to replace his habit of running tight and fast with one of staying off his sheep a bit and allowing himself to feel them a bit more there. He has such a nice feel for his sheep when he is relaxed, but I have such a hard time getting him to that state (see my previous post...). I know I need to be able to run him more relaxed in order to achieve this—I need more training, too—and I am going to work on relaxing with my handling, too. I do think correct outwork depends a little less on handler instruction, so, again, I would just like for Taz to begin to replace the poor habits he learned with me with better ones. I want to get past his outrun problems so we can concentrate on driving, penning, shedding, and all the other fun stuff we work on here and there but never for very long because I know he needs to learn a proper outrun before we can move on. And I know how much the outrun and lift affect the sheep for the rest of a run. Of course, if I had my own sheep, and we had actual chores to do, his outrun issues might be resolved on the job, or maybe they wouldn't matter as much. But the fact is that I don't have sheep right now, and so Taz is always going to be more of a trial dog than a more all-around dog as a result...

This would be a big transition for Taz (which is a big reason I haven't considered sending him out before). He's very much a house dog, and I'll go ahead and admit that he is kind of spoiled. But he adapts well, gets along with other dogs well, and he has a great work ethic, so I think he'd be okay. Actually, I think he might love some time in training—getting to work every day with someone who really knows what they're doing.

Perhaps the real question is, how would I do without my little buddy for a couple of months?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Helsley/Shannahan Sheep Camp—November 6-9, 2008

Okay, I'd better write a real post about the clinic because the teaser I wrote earlier is being received much worse than I meant! I had a good time and learned a lot. Some things went very well, some things did not go so well, and I came away with a much clearer understanding of how to get the best work out of my dogs.

The clinic attendees were divided into two groups, and my group began with Don Helsley at his ranch. He had a big group of barely dogged range ewes for us to work. The first thing we did was learn to cut off groups of five sheep at a time in the barn without our dogs. As a non-owner of sheep who doesn't have a ton of stock-handling experience, this was really fun and educational for me, and not too difficult. We were then to bring the sheep out to the field. Taz was wild—fast, tight, and slicy—when we brought them out, and Don helped me slow things down. His main points for me were to stop lying Taz down all the time and to just sort of talk to him and check him with an acht when he was too tight or slicing or just coming in too fast. It worked like a charm—Taz responded to this very well, and over the next couple of days I was able to move sheep anywhere in the field and hold them with Taz, checking his speed and proximity to the sheep just by talking to him and achting when necessary. I still had a tendency to lie him down too much, but I was getting better at that, too. It was great! Thursday afternoon, we worked on our own, and I worked on driving with Taz. He did fine, but wanted to turn the sheep back to me every time I transitioned to a cross drive at a particular point on the field (exactly opposite the draw). I got frustrated that he kept wanting to turn the sheep back to me, and I began barking commands at Taz, getting louder and terser with each passing minute. Don came out and rescued us, and he got Taz easily back on track, but he warned me not to panic so easily—to simply let the bad things go and just try doing what I know works again when things started to go to pot.

This is my big lesson for this clinic, but it was advice I couldn't seem to heed right away.

We worked on Taz's slicing the next morning, and on lengthening his outrun. He did very nicely, again responding well to not being lied down all the time and just cueing off warnings when he came in too close. I told Don about his tendency to hesitate and Don recommended trying a configuration where I'd lie him down, move a little toward the sheep in the opposite direction I was sending him, send him, then walk in the direction he was moving toward. It's a little difficult to explain, but he said he used this method often to move dogs off sheep when sending, and doing this made it clear to the dogs what they were supposed to be doing, which should help the hesitation (since Taz's hesitation is not due to too much eye). Taz never did hesitate at Don's, but we practiced this anyway, and I filed the information away for future use.

Don also spent some time demonstrating how volume and cadence of whistles can really convey information to the dogs about where they should be and how they should be coming in. Mostly, he showed us how quiet the whistles can be to still be effective, which can give handlers much more range to work with when communicating with the dogs. It's long been time for me to get Taz on whistles, and I am going to try to teach him both quieter and louder whistles.

Next we worked on penning. This was very hard for us! Because things happen so quickly at the pen, and my timing is still not so great, I did bark commands at Taz. Taz also has a tendency to take a few steps after I tell him to lie down before he stops, which obviously affected the range sheep. It took us a long time to pen, and the longer we were working, the more fried he was getting. Between the sheep themselves, my rapid-fire commands, Don telling me what to say at times when my timing wasn't there, and the general pressure of learning at the clinic for the past couple of days, Taz was starting to take everything as a correction—he was turning away when I tried to lie him down and jumping back when I waved the rope for the sheep to see. We did eventually get them penned, but it was tough for Taz.

I worried (and possibly convinced myself) that he'd be done for the rest of the clinic, and this is where things began going poorly for me. We spent the next day out in the desert with Patrick Shannahan. I overexplained everything to poor Pat, and he watched me do a couple of outruns with Taz. Taz was a little tight, and I decided it was because he was still fried, and started to panic. I started a cycle of handling him in the opposite way that I knew was effective. I lied him down a bunch and I yelled at him. The tenser I got, the tenser he got, and the more he sliced and came in pushy and fast. Patrick recommended working Taz quietly, telling him to "listen" when he didn't take a command and repeating it once. This worked for Patrick, but I never really gave it a chance to work for me—I'd screech at him "Heeeeeyyyyyy!" and Taz would either ignore me all together or jerk around in response and we'd lurch toward the next command. Not surprisingly, he began hesitating, and we spent the next couple of days working on that (I did not try Don's suggestion now, as I wanted to see how Patrick would handle it; for some reason, I thought it might be poor etiquette to tell him Don's recommendation—how dumb was that?). At first Patrick thought Taz was sort of being passive-aggressive, purposely waiting until I got frustrated and yelled at him to move, but I think he decided later that Taz was simply not sure what the heck I wanted from him, since I got tense and then he got tense and then neither of us were thinking calmly. Back at Patrick's place we were able to get him to consistently move again by sending him from a position where I was ahead of him, and Patrick told me not to be afraid to park Taz a few feet behind me at a trial and send him from there. He was still tight and slicy though, and my handling remained very tense.

We worked on shedding a little—taking a huge bunch of sheep and just picking a point and having the dog walk through. Not even really making a hole first—allowing the dog to make the hole. Taz did pretty well at this (he was not being yelled at for once), and I'll have to play around with this a bit more at Cathy's.

By the end of the last day, as people were leaving, Patrick told me I could work Craig a bit and he'd be happy to evaluate us to see if I could do anything to handle him better. I got Craig out and, as I was working him, I kind of had an epiphany. It seemed I was handling Craig in that same tense, terse, loud, growly way that I did with Taz, and so Craig was working just like Taz did—he was tight, pushy, not wanting to lie down...

And the light bulb finally went on for me. The problem wasn't that Taz was too fried to work well in the latter part of the clinic. The problem was that I was way too tense and handling him much too forcefully. I was completely overwhelming him—not doing any of the things that Don or Pat was recommending. I got Taz out again and began working him slowly, softly, quietly. And you know what? He began to relax. He did not hesitate. He slowed up. He still sliced and was still tight, but less so. Pat came out and remarked on how Taz was actually quite soft and this was much better. I guess he'd known I was running Taz much too harshly and knew he'd respond much better with softer, quieter handling (um, like he tried to show me the first time we went out). I realized that he'd been telling me this all weekend. I don't know why I wasn't receptive to his advice earlier—I was just nervously reacting to what I thought was going on without taking the advice of the expert standing right next to me. What an idiot! This is exactly the advice Don had given me earlier—let things go and relax—but I guess I couldn't see it then. At least I got it in the end.

And I learned a lot at the clinic, even though I wasn't handling my dog well. I am sorry I wasted all my time with Pat handling Taz so poorly, but I feel like I learned a very, very big lesson in the end, so it was maybe for the best. I am looking forward to working with Taz and keeping in mind all I learned over these past four days—and really making sure I do not let my own tension get in our way!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back from Idaho

We had a rough clinic. I lost my mind and completely forgot how to handle my dogs. Result was not pretty. Poor Taz.
More later...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

More progress!

On Saturday, I continued to learn how to compensate for Craig's reaction to pressure when driving. I used to get very frustrated driving with Craig because he seemed to always overflank, moving too far up the sides to the heads, resulting in a lot of back and forth and not a lot of forward motion. Yesterday, I concentrated on flanking him and then stopping him right at the point that the sheep turned their heads and then letting them drift back on line. It worked like a dream. But today we worked a few yearlings in the big alfalfa field, and the alfalfa was green and apparently delicious—making the sheep very, very heavy. My strategy to drive the sheep with Craig did not work at all, because the sheep did not drift very much once Craig stopped them. That meant he had to lift them over and over again, bringing them on and off line over and over again. He was guarding the pressure and unwinding when flanked, only to swing back to the pressure side as quickly as he could, overcompensating by overflanking in the process. Today, with the help of Elaine, I was able to keep him moving these heavy sheep forward on a line by flanking him to cover the pressure side, lying him down, which did usually result in the sheep turning back to the other side, then flanking him to the other side but then telling him "there," which caused him to stop and walk in on the sheep, pushing them forward several steps before they began to drift to the pressure side again, at which time I'd repeat the process. I know it probably sounds very elementary and simple, but it was a huge breakthrough for us! The key to this strategy is to always keep the sheep moving, but in a controlled manner. Another little tidbit from Elaine, which I'd never really thought about before: after lying Craig down, make sure I walk him up before the sheep start to graze. This is so obvious that is embarrassing that I didn't know to do this, but I had been keeping Craig down as long as possible in an effort to let the sheep drift as long as possible when they were moving in the correct direction. But of course this meant he had to keep relifting them. Moving him just before they put their heads down eliminates that and increases the flow. I did really well after I figured this all out :)))

Taz and I had a good day, too. I think I am finally beginning to see a pattern to his hesitating, and I need to move a little slower with him on driving, walking a little bit with him, far away, but moving just inside his field of vision when necessary. He was driving and cross driving nicely today, and I realized he does everything (inside flanks and outside flanks) very well when he's within, oh, 200 feet from me (maybe 100 feet—I am terrible at judging distances), but he hesitates on his flanks and he looks back at me when he's further than that. So I need to take things a little slower driving with him (by staying closer in for now and walking with him). Elaine also said that if he ever tries to come all the way back to me when I ask for an inside flank (he did this only once today), I should walk into him and lie him down immediately, and once he lies down release my pressure and ask him to walk up on the sheep. He did not hesitate on his outruns today, but we worked close in today. I really think his hesitation might just be distance related there, too (but the distance here is between dog and sheep). So I maybe just need to think about extending his outrun more gradually.

I'm going out again on Sunday. It's rare that I get to work my dogs so often—and, boy, does it make a difference!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Downs and ups and figuring things out...

I've been working my dogs a lot this week :)

First, a quick recap of a lesson I had last week, where Taz's refusal to "see" the goats Cathy has and bring them along with the rest of the sheep as we were sorting earned him an entire lesson working with a mixture of about 12 sheep and goats, most of whom did not want to flock together. He learned that covering his stock means covering all of his stock and not just the ones who move easily for him ;-) This was a good lesson for him, as he did broaden his scope to recognize and bring all of the stock. It was also a good lesson for me, as it was really apparent that standing around telling Taz to do something twelve different times ("look back," in this case) is not an effective training strategy. I don't know why it is so difficult for me to truly get this lesson, but I do think I went a long way toward learning it for real this time. I began the lesson trying to cajole Taz into looking back and finding the goats scattered around the field, and getting more and more frustrated (and screechy) as he looked back right at the goats but would not move to go get them. Cathy kept her cool, though, moving forward to change the picture for him so that it became easier for him to see what we wanted him to do. Eventually, we were able to move less and less ourselves, as Taz moved more and more himself to cover. By the end of the lesson, he was looking everywhere and picking up everything!

Then, I started this week off with a couple of rather discouraging lessons. We've been trying to lengthen Taz's outruns, but Taz began slicing at the top again and then he began hesitating to boot on the come bye side (curiously, he looks fantastic on his away side—no hesitating, nice wide square flanks, no slicing at the top). Even though it was only on his bye side, it was a little disheartening to see these problems resurface. He did better on both the hesitating and the slicing when I walked in toward the sheep and sent him, but it really was feeling like one step forward, two steps back. And we were in the two steps back part. In addition, his driving really seemed to be falling apart. He was now hesitating when he was driving, and he was not taking his inside flanks consistently at all. When I tried to help him by saying "here" first, he often came all the way back to me before turning back to the stock.

What the heck? He seemed to be a little confused and unsure of himself, but perhaps this is just because he is learning and putting things together in his head...

I went out to work on my own on Friday morning. And this is when things started turning around. Taz and I worked close in on outruns, and he didn't hesitate at all. I began our session walking toward the sheep, and I was able to move back to sending him at my feet without a return of the hesitation. I also brought back the dreaded feed bag, which Taz hates but moves so well off of, and used it when he started to slice. And he did change his trajectory and widen out at the top. So far, so good. I also had him circle the sheep a bit, stopping him off balance in both directions and letting him walk in on the sheep at random places, and this seemed to loosen him up again. We seemed to be getting back on track.

I had a good session with Craig as well. I resolved to really pay attention to the sheep's heads during our drive aways to get more of a flow going well before we reached the panels, which Craig worries about. And we were pretty successful. The first three times we tried, we sailed right through the panels. Then we missed, but the following two times, we were successful again. Woo hoo! We didn't have as much luck on the cross drive. Here, the pull is very, very strong to the adjoining arena (where Cathy was teaching a lesson to another student, and the sheep there further strengthened the draw). The sheep kept drifting up toward the arena, and I could get Craig to bring them back on line, but I had a heck of a time getting him to take the necessary away to me flank to then move them forward toward the cross drive panels. He just didn't want to take it at all (he was guarding the draw to the extreme). So I moved closer to him, made him take several flanks in that direction all the way around, and then we were finally successful, hitting those cross drive panels a couple of times before we stopped. Hooray!

So perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the steps forward :-)