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!


sheepkelpie said...

Go take a look at my blog post "we are taught, but do we learn". I think you will identify.

Anonymous said...

Larry here from Denmark! Great post Laura, see why I don't give lessons?! Sure wish I could have gone to that clinic, poor Mirk gets it from me all the time, maybe Don could have got me off him some! Sure miss the guys, but be home Saturday night. Mirk is at Angies for the the rest of the year, so only one left to work.

Darci said...

I recently had that same light bulb go off for me and my Chris. The more tense I was the worse she got, the louder and harder I got, the worse she got. We never seemed to improve. I kept telling myself, she knows this stuff, why is she acting this way?? Turns out, it wasnt really her. It was me.

Laura said...

Humbling, isn't it, Darci?! Oh well, at least we can recognize it and work to change the way we handle our dogs!

Hey Larry--what are you doing in Denmark???

Darci said...

Oh yes, very much so, humbling. Worst feeling of all about it though, was realizing how I was making my dog feel. :(