Sunday, December 13, 2009

Taz is still awesome!

Things are still going really, really well with Taz. I haven't been able to work him very often since I went to Scott's. Well, actually, that's not quite true—I worked him nearly every day the week I got back, which was great. I got a good chance to really practice what I'd learned while everything was fresh in my mind. But then I was away for a week visiting family over the Thanksgiving holiday and I managed to work Taz only once, on the day I got back to Colorado, before it got obscenely cold for the next week and a half. Temps were in the single digits, except when they were in the negative digits, and every couple of days it snowed a few inches. Not exactly optimal working weather, especially when you don't have your own sheep. The weather finally broke a couple of days ago, and I took Taz and Craig out to Cathy's with Elaine this morning. I was a bit afraid I'd forgotten a lot about how to get the best work out of him during our time off, and all the dogs were wild and not listening very well when we got situated onto the field. They'd been cooped up inside for way too long and were ready to go. Surprisingly, though, as soon as Craig brought the sheep over to the field we were using, he and the rest of the dogs settled right down.

I am just so impressed with how Taz is working. He is still working wide and relaxed and stopping when I ask him to. He does slice a bit at the top every now and again, but when I get on him for it, he immediately responds. And he doesn't need much of a correction—just a "hey you" will push him out or get him to check himself. (Finally! Always those who know how to handle dogs would tell me how responsive Taz is to corrections, but he never was with me. Now, I am finally seeing him respond to my body language and small corrections in a big way, too. Hooray!) It still takes me a few times to see when he is slicing. Like today, I saw he was slicing a little but wasn't quite sure it was very much and didn't say anything the first time, but then I saw he did it again, so I corrected him, but was a fraction of a second too late. The third time, my timing was better and Taz not only kicked himself way out, but he also didn't slice on his next several outruns. Also, I am trying to be much quicker to offer him some guidance when he starts to not do what he should. Like during the fetch, he was guarding the draw as much as he was bringing the sheep to me, and I tried to be a bit more proactive in giving him some direction on where he needed to be to bring the sheep to my feet (rather than five steps to the right because he was overcompensating in his zeal to guard against the sheep breaking back to the draw) than I maybe used to. And he is generally looking pretty darn terrific as a result. We are, I hope, finally starting to communicate as partners. It's still early days, of course, but it feels like maybe we're starting to understand each other and work together a bit more. It's a great feeling!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The difference a weekend with Scott Glen makes...

After my disaster runs at the Strang Ranch trial, I knew I needed to change the way I'd been working with Taz. He is a well-trained dog now, and yet we were working exactly as we had before I sent him to Scott last winter. I did try to quiet down my commands and help him when things started to fall apart, but I realized I lacked some of the tools necessary to achieve the work I knew Taz was capable of. After working dogs with Elaine two weeks ago, she observed that Taz looked confused. "When was he confused?" I asked. "Um...most of the time" was her sad reply. Clearly we needed help making this change!

So, the following weekend, I set out for Canada. I was hoping a remedial lesson or two would help both of us understand what was going wrong and how to fix it. After a long and somewhat sketchy drive—freezing fog and loads of ice on the interstate, eep!—I arrived in Alberta with just enough daylight left for a quick lesson with Scott. I explained how Taz seemed confused and he was slicing his flanks terribly again and not stopping for me and his take time command seemed to now mean "speed up" and a host of other complaints that tumbled out of my mouth willy nilly. Scott furrowed his brow, clearly not happy with the thought that Taz was no longer working very well. We went out into the field, and he watched Taz and I work for a little while.

And...Taz was nearly perfect. His flanks were nice and wide, he was listening to me, he was rating his sheep well—he was a model stockdog. "So," Scott turned to me, "what exactly is it he's confused about?"

The little brat dog was showing me up! Taz hadn't forgotten a bit of all he learned last winter, and he knew exactly what he should be doing. "He doesn't work like this when you're not around!" I sputtered. Taz wasn't suddenly listening to me because of anything I was doing differently—that dog was well aware that Scott was standing next to me and he knew party time was over! Scott and I decided that for the following morning, I'd work in the arena adjacent to Scott's house, and Scott would watch from the open window to see what exactly was going on.
Who, me? A con man?

And here Scott saw us in all our novice glory. Well, okay, my novice glory. I sent Taz, and he immediately sliced his flanks at the top (and, apparently, at the bottom, though I hadn't even understood that that was a problem at that point), so I screamed at him to lie down. He ran through the stop and pushed the sheep toward me. It was not pretty.

So Scott showed me first how to really recognize when Taz is slicing his flanks—even after all this time, I still often don't (or, didn't) see it—and then gave me strategies to get Taz to stop the moment I tell him to (not three steps after). Stay small at first. Send him and walk up toward the sheep, and then tell him to lie down the moment he sees me. Give him hell if he doesn't immediately drop to his belly. Insist he moves off me by getting in his face if he doesn't. Make him really not want to see me start to move toward him. Make sure he bends out on the first steps he takes when flanking and again when he's coming in at the top. How do I make sure he does this? Get on my feet! Move toward him and give him a hard time for being where he knows he shouldn't be. Use my stock stick to help get the point across. Hurt his feelings. Make sure he understands that when in doubt, his best option is to give the sheep more room. I know this is all very basic, and much of it I've heard before (actually, I remember hearing a lot of this at the very first clinic I ever attended with Scott) and thought I understood, but clearly I had somehow moved on to more advanced stuff with Taz before I really mastered this kind of basic training—and that's why things were falling apart now and I was screeching like a banshee. Scott didn't let me let Taz get away with anything, and I began to understand a zero-tolerance policy is necessary for Taz (and me) right now, until both of us understand exactly what I am requiring of him and he gradually earns the right to make some decisions for himself.

It's not like I haven't tried to enforce the rules with Taz in the past. But he began hesitating, causing me to lose confidence in my corrections (which were not very confident to begin with). I fear I was a bit inconsistent with both the timing of these corrections and their severity. Scott helped me to see things more concretely. For example, he told me to think of an outrun as a box with four corners. Taz needed to be bent out at each of the corners, and imagining this mental picture made it much easier for me to recognize when he was collapsing his flanks. Then, I could take clear action to prevent it. It has been a long time since Taz last hesitated, and demanding more of him at Scott's (in an effective way now) didn't threaten to bring any of that nonsense back.

We moved on to some of Taz's more advanced problems in the afternoon. Well, more like my more advanced handling challenges. For example, Taz likes to cover his sheep and is not a fan of walking them up when they are headed toward a draw. He will wait, on his belly, for the sheep to get far enough in front of him so that I inevitably get nervous that they'll get away and I flank him around to stop them. Instead of shouting "walk up!" forty-two times and getting increasingly frustrated when he isn't taking it, Scott told me to try to walk with him. Or change the situation to set things up another way. But don't keep repeating the same command, desperately hoping this time he'll take it. Or, when driving with him, Taz has a tendency to try to catch the lead ewe's eye, turning her and then zigzagging the sheep forward. Scott advised me to stay in much closer contact with Taz, flanking him back around the back of the sheep before Taz can get far enough forward to catch their eyes. Then have him walk into the sheep with a sharp "there," which Taz was now taking immediately. I had known that Taz's driving was not efficient because my timing wasn't quite there, but I hadn't realized how much easier it is to time things correctly when I stay in better contact with Taz. Another benefit of working on those snappy stops in the arena was that Taz suddenly remembered that "take time" actually means "slow down."
That's much better!

Amazing. His pace was much improved, and he was much more relaxed. I was, too! By the end of the day, Scott noted that I sounded like a completely different handler. A quiet handler! Who didn't have a sore throat after working Taz all day long! The difference was incredible.

My head was spinning with all these new lessons learned as I drove back home, but I wondered if I'd be able to keep it up without Scott helping me in real time. I went out with Taz on Wednesday morning, and after a fast, tight first outrun on wild lambs who were up against a fence, I took a deep breath and put into action what I learned. I moved my feet and let Taz know that we were going to do things the same way here as we did in Canada, and he listened! He worked wide, loose, and stopped on a dime. I went out again the following day, this time with Elaine, and she couldn't believe the difference :) We went out again this weekend, and Taz and I have continued to work well together. That's not to say he didn't want to collapse his flanks or not lie down right away every now and then, but each time I went back to basics with him and I repeated the things I did in Scott's arena, and each time Taz improved immediately. Elaine helped me recognize when Taz was slipping, but for the most part I was able to see it on my own. She let me know when I was starting to get screechy, and then I'd immediately take it down a notch. Taz is working with great precision and feeling his sheep very well with me for really the first time ever. I am so encouraged right now I want to work every day! It feels really good to be working so well together! I am going to do everything I can to keep this up. Maybe we've really turned a corner!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On hitting rock bottom and starting to climb back up

I know it's been forever since I last updated—sometimes, life just gets in the way. I've been doing a lot of freelance work to try to make ends meet, and the dogs have not been at all happy with this. I haven't either! I'm cutting back on it now (I got a new job), and hopefully we can get back to a more normal schedule. What this has meant is that I haven't worked my dogs very much over the past month. However, I was able to schedule a lesson with Faansie Basson in mid-September. Faansie had been in town to compete at Meeker and then flew west to judge the Finals, but he was flying home to South Africa from Denver. This meant he could squeeze in a lesson with Taz :) I'll write about that lesson next time (it was terrific!). Right now, I want to talk about the Strang Ranch Sheepdog Trial and what I learned from it...

I was a bit nervous before the trial, since I hadn't worked Taz much in the weeks leading up to it. When I don't work the dogs regularly, they tend to be a bit wild. More than that, though, is how my timing suffers. It's the first thing that goes out the window, and I have to think about really basic things consciously. I seem to lose all my mental muscle memory about what to do whenever things don't quite go according to plan. Because I am slower to react, Taz starts to make more decisions on his own and becomes a little less receptive to my (eventual) direction. My reaction to that is to lose patience and yell at him to do what I say. This, in turn, freaks him out so he stops thinking and feeling his sheep. It's not exactly a winning formula...

So, knowing this, I wasn't going to take things too seriously at this trial. I got Taz out to work a little at Cathy's before I drove up to Carbondale, and he was a little wild but then settled down nicely. I was excited about a rare weekend off, and I knew I'd have a lot of fun with Kristen, who had very generously offered me a place to stay over the weekend. I don't know Kristen very well, but she is a blast to hang out with and we have a lot of the same philosophies on dogs and life. I got up to the trial site on Saturday, just as the open runs were finishing. The trial site was absolutely breathtaking. Strang Ranch, with its stunning views of Mount Sopris and the West Elk Mountain Range in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado's Western Slope, is the site of the 2011 USBCHA National Finals. This trial was a sort of "dress rehearsal" of sorts, and it went really well. The field is big, with a few dips and rises, and the sheep were the typically challenging range ewes.

Kristen is new to the area, so I was introducing her around and we were generally having a great time watching the runs. Until out of nowhere, someone I had considered a, well, if not exactly a friend, at least a friendly acquaintance, accused me of spreading false rumors and generally acting unethically. Since this was so far from the truth it was ridiculous, I was shocked and tried to make light of it, but she was dead serious. It caught me completely off guard and quickly ruined my good mood. Much as I tried not to let her accusations bother me, I'm afraid I was pretty rattled all weekend. And it showed in my runs with Taz.

But I tried to shrug it off. Kristen and I decided to take advantage of the practice field being offered—practicing a bit with the challenging sheep we'd be trialing on seemed like a Very Good Idea with Wildman Taz. And wild he was—even more so than he'd been at Cathy's after not working so long. About now I was wondering about the wisdom of entering a dog in a trial I hadn't remotely prepared for. Eh, but I was in it to have fun, right? Wellllll, things did not go as well as they could have. The course was definitely well within both Taz's and my capabilities—the outrun wasn't terribly long, short drive away, really short cross drive and a pen. Taz did a beautiful outrun to start, but when he wouldn't lie down at the top, I, um, guess I lost my mind. I started screeching at him to lie down and continued to yell at him all around the course. Sean, setting the sheep at the top, later joked that I yelled at Taz to lie down so loud that his horse nearly dropped to the ground. That's pretty bad! We didn't do too poorly on the first run (we got third place), but I lost Taz during the second run. He wouldn't take a flank to transition to a cross drive at first, and by the time he finally did take it, the sheep had disappeared behind a rise in front and a little to the left of the panels. I couldn't see anything and there was no sign of the sheep, so I assumed he wasn't moving again. I gave him a few biiiiiiiiiiiiig, loouuuuuuuuud flank commands, and lo and behold, the sheep showed up by the panels, but Taz was nowhere to be found...wait, there he was...way high on the course. Turns out Taz hadn't stopped at all back there, and he was taking my big commands as big, wide flanks and was now waaaaayyyyy off contact, practically at the set out. I called him in, but his mind was completely scrambled by then (and I was hoarse from all that screaming). We retired, not very gracefully...

I was not pleased with our runs. Well, Taz was fine (he really did not do too badly at all)—I was the one who screwed us up. I know I was upset by the earlier confrontation and I've been pretty overwhelmed with the pressure of getting all the work I've had to do done lately, but I just kind of lost my patience and my cool. It wasn't a nice feeling to be yelling at my dog like that at the post. I don't want to be the kind of handler who yells all the time; the handlers I admire most are the quiet ones. I had a long drive home to think about everything, and I decided to put things in perspective. I like training and working my dog, so I need to stop fighting with him and start working with him. I won't yell at my dog like that anymore. I'll work closer in with him until he does what I ask in a normal tone of voice, using body english to show him what I want from him. I'll help him, rather than simply yelling at him when he doesn't do what I ask of him. I'll work mainly with whistles, until he is as fluent on them with me as he is with Scott. And I'll work a bit harder to remember to use the release part of the pressure-release equation. I think, I hope, with more frequent practice working like this, we won't repeat this experience. If we do, it may be time to take a little break until I can get my head together...but I think we're already on the road to recovery. I worked with him this past weekend, in an arena so I couldn't be tempted to do anything too big. I used my whistle most of the time, helped him when he didn't do what I asked for whatever reason, and backed off when he did. Didn't bark at him once. He responded pretty well—he was relaxed and thinking.

Now, the trick is to keep it up. I'm all about analyzing things and solving problems in my head, but often have a little trouble with the follow through. But I think I can do this. I just have to remember how much more fun it is to do things this way—together as a team.

I'm pretty sure Taz agrees wholeheartedly!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meeker Classic 2009

I went to the Meeker Classic sheepdog trial last week, and it was just amazing seeing such talented dogs and skilled handling. The sheep were, as always, difficult and challenging and just plain uncooperative. Amanda Milliken and her 10-year-old Ethel made it look easy, though. Their winning run was incredible. Here are a few photos of the trial...

Faansie Basson's Jill

Jill brings the second set of sheep through the panels to join the first set

Derek Fisher's Jen

Bev Lambert's Hemp

Bev penning with Hemp

Reserve Champs Tommy Wilson and Sly at the pen

Red Oliver and Blaze

Libby Nieder's Lyn working at the international shed

Handlers watching the action

2009 Meeker Champs Amanda Milliken and Ethel show us how it's done

For more photos of the 2009 Meeker Classic, take a look here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steamboat Stockdog Challenge 2009 report

The Steamboat Stockdog Challenge was a lot of fun. Some excellent dogs and handlers were there, and the range ewes were TOUGH! On the last day, the open course consisted of shedding off three of six sheep and then penning the remaining three, which proved to be quite a challenge! Only two teams completed the course, but most handlers enjoyed the challenge.

The open ranch class had a fairly long outrun (maybe 275-300 yards) and quite a long drive away. After our last run, I decided to retire Craig. He's 11, after all. He doesn't hear very well anymore and he has gotten to the same point on the course on his last four runs. He overheats easily (was wobbly again after his runs). And he just can't cover the sheep like he used to. He used to be lightning fast! I actually wish I'd ended his career on a stronger note and not waited until he really showed me he isn't up to it anymore, but I kept thinking he'd be okay until the end of the year. But he's ready now...seeing him unable to really cover the sheep this weekend (partly because I think he didn't hear my commands very well and partly because he is slowing down) is what cemented it for me. He knows when he isn't getting the job done and he deserves to not be put through that. He's taught me a lot over the past two years and will enjoy his time on the couch now...

Taz did a fantastic outrun on his first run. He ran nice and wide and did not need any redirects! Hooray! The judge, the inimitable Derek Fisher, actually scored his outrun better than Craig's—a first! His lift was decent and his fetch was a bit fast. As usual, we gained better control the closer we got to the post. Went around just fine and then had a bit of overflanking during the drive. When it went on too long for me to stand it, we retired. Derek said all Taz really needs is a better stop and we'd be fine. So that's my bad—I've known this for a little while, and I guess I really need to prioritize working on that a bit more.

That evening, I was walking my dogs with Cathy, Linda, and Lisbeth, and their dogs, and we heard gunshots being fired in the distance. Most of the dogs were fine, but Taz kept wanting to run away back to my truck. Every ten seconds or so, I had to tell him "that'll do" to keep him with me. But apparently that was too long a time frame, because I looked down after watching Linda's Fly playing with a toy to find Taz gone. No one had seen him take off. Unfortunately, none of us was wearing a whistle at the time either, so the four of us began calling him as loudly as we could. I raced back to my truck to see if he'd made it back there, and someone spotted him off to my right. Thank doG! I grabbed him and put all the dogs up. Yikes, that was scary!

So the next day, right before we were scheduled to run (we were the last team in the running order), what do we hear? Yup, gunshots. This was on top of the thunder that had been rumbling all day. Taz jumped on the end of his leash with every shot. I knew he'd lost his head completely , so why I didn't just scratch I'll never know. I guess I thought maybe once he saw the sheep he'd be okay.

He wasn't. I set him up and sent him to the right, and he took a couple of steps and stopped as though he'd been, well, shot. I gave him another command and he was off again, until he heard another shot and stopped short again. I went out with him to encourage him on to pick up the sheep, but he stopped several times, each time in response to a gunshot. I knew he was terrified, but I thought it was better to at least pick up the sheep before leaving the field. He did eventually get them, and he drove them back to the exhaust pen nicely, but OH MY GOD!!! After all that work on his outrun, I am so afraid it is ruined again now! What was I thinking running him under such conditions before his outrun was rock solid again? I am an idiot!

At least I am going to see Scott for a few lessons next week. Though I don't relish wasting any more lessons with him working on Taz's outrun, at least he can help me fix it again if need be. SIGH...With any luck, Taz will forget about that (or simply associate it with the shots and not generalize to all of his outruns) and be fine. We'll see.

I am bringing him to Meeker this afternoon and will try to exhaust with him over the weekend some to get him working again—hopefully that will help with damage control. I am excited to see some great dogs and handlers working at Meeker and will take pictures to post here next week :)

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a few photos from the Steamboat trial to whet your appetites...

Dan Keeton's York

Larry Adams and Mirk shedding

Cathy Balliu's Dan

Nancy Penley's Hobbs

Melinda Brenimer's Finn

Emil Luedecke shedding with Spot

Mike Hanley's Streak

For more photos of the Steamboat Stockdog Challenge, take a look here.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Getting there...

I worked Taz last Sunday at Fran's with Larry and his dogs. I don't bring Craig to Fran's usually, as her barbado crosses are just awful about running and know the game all too well, and they can beat Craig. Craig works them well under some circumstances, but other times he either rides on their hips without covering or he just gives up and ignores my commands in favor of just guarding the draw, since he knows that's where they will turn toward and he may not be able to cover otherwise.

We started out doing (what else?) some outruns perpendicular to the draw. We set it up so that I could work on Taz's come bye flank, which is by far his weaker side. He is tighter and much slicier on that side, and he's more likely to hesitate there as well. We did a couple at about 100 yards away, and he was not tight, but he was coming in flat. He kicked out a bit when I told him to get out, but not enough. So we shortened things up even further, and he was fine. Split the difference, and he was better, but still coming in a bit tight at the top. Since he was coming in tight, his fetches were also offline, and he wanted to wait and flank to keep the sheep away from the draw, rather than walk up to bring the sheep to me smoothly. All in all, not pretty. Then Larry suggested we switch our positions so that Larry was holding the sheep closest to the draw, and this made all the difference. Taz was still slicing in a tiny bit at the last minute, but he was much wider and much deeper than he had been. His lifts and fetches were much better as well. Larry said it was pretty clear Taz had been working the field (which he knows well), rather than the sheep. Once we switched things around, he worked less defensively and was much more responsive to me.

Buoyed by this, we then decided to try a longer (250-yard) outrun on the bye side. Well, he fell apart on this—not wanting to go, scalloping back, and then finally loping up to the sheep and not lifting them off Larry with much enthusiasm. Hmm. Too much, I suppose. I sent him on an away, just so he wouldn't spend all morning on one side, and he looked great once again—wide, deep, lifting his sheep correctly and generally feeling his sheep very well. No hesitation at all, even on the long outruns, and he looked like he was very comfortable. It is really strange how his outruns on the away side look so good and his come bye side do not. Larry wondered if something had happened to him to make him so nervous on that side, since there is such a big difference. I don't know though—Scott never mentioned that he was one-sided, so it must have been something that happened after Taz came home. But I have no idea what it could be...

We also worked a bit on driving around the course set up on Fran's field. Taz did really well at this, the best driving he's done with me yet! He wasn't taking my whistles consistently today, so I just talked to him. He read the sheep well and did not rush or overflank, as he had when we first brought out the sheep and had tried to drive them up the field to work on the outruns. Instead, he listened to me and did everything I asked :) It was fantastic! We were in control—the pace was nice, we made the panels, and we transitioned from drive to cross drive to fetch (third leg of drive) without overflanking. He was fabulous! I am very encouraged at this. Come bye flanks on a long outrun notwithstanding, I think Taz did pretty well today and we worked together nicely :)

I'll go out to Cathy's tomorrow for one last chance to practice a bit before the trial, and then we'll be on our way to beautiful Steamboat Springs. With any luck, Craig will hear everything I say and Taz will show everyone a bit more of what he can do!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Working the dogs – August 29, 2009

I went out to Cathy's to work a bit with Taz and Craig last weekend. (It's too hard to really write about everything as it all happened over the past month or two, so it looks like I'm going to skip ahead after all. C'est la vie!) In preparation for the trial this weekend, I'm trying to get Taz to take more of my whistles and Craig to take all of them. It was hot out, so we couldn't work for too long at a time. I did lots of close-in off balance flanks and stops with Craig, and by the end of our session, he did take them nearly all of the time when we were close in. He still wanted to blow off some commands when he was further away, but I think this is a hearing issue more than an obedience or comprehension issue. I have a hard time blowing my whistle loudly. I might look into getting one of those Master Blaster thingies...

With Taz I am trying to reintroduce the whistles Scott taught him slowly and without a ton of pressure. I asked for whistles when it made sense—when he was on balance, I'd blow a stop and then back it up with my voice. When he had to cover to the left, I blew a come bye. He responded pretty well, I'm happy to report. I worked on a few other things with Taz as well. First order of business was enforcing a stop. Elaine had worked with me on an exercise in a corner that would be good for working on this, but I didn't use it today. (I'll write about that another time. It's really something David Rogers showed a bunch of us at a clinic we attended a couple of weeks ago.) Instead, I just demanded a stop in a (hopefully) confident and certain tone. He always checked himself when I told him to lie down, but he usually didn't lie down until I growled it (which was the second or third time I asked for it). So I did a few circles, demanding a stop on balance until he took it the first time, and then asking for it when he was off balance. He did take it on the first time more often than when we started, but this is still a work in progress. Next time, I will do that exercise—it's much more effective.

We also worked on driving for a bit. Overall, he is feeling his sheep well, I think. These sheep were heavy and not wanting to stay together very much, and he did a nice job knowing when to push and when to use his eye to keep them moving together. His inside flanks looked better today, and he only wanted to come back to me a couple of times. Telling him to lie down got him to turn back on his sheep quickly. (We've been working on overcoming a new little hiccup, where he will sometimes come all the way back to me if I give him an inside flank to the come bye side. I wasn't sure how to stop it, as trying to put pressure on him was not getting him to stop. Turns out the simple suggestion of telling him to lie down and then immediately walk up on his sheep did the trick.) Not only is he immediately turning back to his sheep, he seems to be coming back toward me less often. Phew! Taz is still overflanking, but this is because he is not taking his stops right away. Of course, this means we did a lot of back and forth on the heavy ewes, but I do think once I get his stop snappier we'll be able to push forward easier.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nicomodes Gulch SDT (August 7-9, 2009)

I know it's been a long time since I last updated, but I've actually got several entries waiting to be posted now. Hooray! I'll post them sequentially, as they happened, over the next few days...

First up is a trial report from the wonderful Nicomodes Gulch Sheep Dog Trial in Monte Vista, Colorado.

I ran Craig and Taz in this beautiful mountain trial hosted by Dan Keeton and Terry and Tina LePlatt. This is a notoriously tricky trial—the field is not enormous (the open outrun was about 300 yards; open ranch was about 240 yards), but the drive away and cross drive are quite long. In addition, the grass is high in some spots, so the dogs can have a difficult time seeing the sheep during their outruns, and the field has a creek running across the bottom of it, not actually on the course but right below it. The sheep, range lambs, panic easily and often try to escape their canine directors into this creek. It's a tough course, to say the least!

Two back-to-back open ranch classes would be run on the Saturday of the trial. This trial site is at about 7,500 feet elevation, so it wasn't too awful hot, but I was afraid Craig wouldn't be able to handle running twice in the same day. I am happy to report that he did fine! I'd heard the dogs had a tough time during the open runs the day before, with the sheep being very heavy. Taz ran first of my dogs, third in the running order. The first two runs did not go smoothly, with the first dog having trouble at the top and the second one struggling to bring the sheep down the field (which turned out to have a lot to do with a lame lamb, resulting in a rerun for that handler). I decided my strategy (and I use that term loosely) would be to try to keep the sheep moving and just try to keep as much control as I could. But mostly with Taz I was hoping he would just keep going out until he could find the sheep...

I sent him on an away, and off he went. He did need a redirect, but he was fairly wide and lifted the sheep nicely. But Taz was being pretty pushy. The sheep moved down the field at a nice pace, but the fetch was a bit wild. I said nothing to him until he got inside the fetch panels and then slowed things down to line the sheep up to turn the post and begin the drive. Taz was no longer at mach 10 speed, but he was still pretty pushy on the drive. He was not taking my lie downs right away, which resulted in some overflanking. After a little back and forth, I asked for a stop a bit late and he started to turn the sheep back to me. I retired at that point, and when I got off the field everyone asked me why I retired so soon. But I knew it was going to be a long day for everyone, and I didn't want to waste everyone's time.

Next up was Craig. I sent him to the right as well, and he had a very nice outrun and lift. He was listening to me very well, and his fetch was much better than Taz's. However, we did have a bit of a wing-wang experience on the drive. Still, we were moving forward, until I messed up my flanks and gave him an away when I meant to say come bye. He took it and things went a little out of control, and I had a hard time recovering from my mistake. This is one of my biggest challenges right now—I need to learn to better keep my cool and move on after I make a mistake. I retired with Craig soon thereafter, and this time even the judge (the fabulous Don Helsley) asked me why on earth I was retiring. Um, because I'm an idiot?

I was sure I could do better with both dogs during my second runs. And I did, a little. During our second run, Taz was much more in control. His lift was better, and the fetch was nice and straight. Unfortunately, it was not straight down the middle of the field, but about ten yards to the right of the fetch panels. I had been told that I was smart not to try to direct Taz early on in the fetch during my first run, and I clung to these words while Taz sailed past the panels during this second run, only giving him a helpful "come bye" right after he passed the panels. He took it right away and his line was then straight toward me down the center of the field. D'oh! After my run, Don asked me why the heck I had waited to give him some direction, since he obviously would have made the fetch panels if I asked him to come bye above them. Answer: I'm an idiot once again. We struggled mightily around the post, with lambs going all directions and winding and unwinding, but eventually got them moving toward the drive panels. But remember how I said I have trouble moving past a mistake? Yeah, it happened here, too. We did a bit of driving toward the panels, but I was rattled and we soon retired.

Last up: Craigor MacGregor. I knew he could do it if I kept my head together. "Don't retire!" Don called out to me as I stepped up to the post. Yes, sir! I sent him again to the right and off he went. Beautiful outrun, lift, and fetch straight through the panels. Wonderful pace. He had these lambs' number! We bobbled a little around the post, but were set up nicely for the drive away. The drive was nice and straight, and the lambs went straight through the panels. Hooray! Just a quick flank to the left and we'd transition to the cross drive.

"Come bye."

Nothing. He stared at the sheep, who began to drift.

"Come bye, Craig!"

Nothing. The sheep stopped and began to graze.

[blows come bye whistle softly]

Nothing.

"Craig! Come bye! Lie down! Come bye!" [blows whistle desperately]

Nothing.

I looked at Don, but he couldn't help me now. I shrugged and walked toward my dog. "Come bye, Craig." He took it, but of course by then we'd retired once again. After talking with people who saw the run, some thought he just had locked onto the sheep, but many said it seemed like he couldn't hear me. Those who knew 11-year-old Craig best were sure of it. Rats! Don told me I could have tried a recall as well, but I do think it was actually that he was too far away from me to hear what I was telling him. Unfortunately I do blow a soft whistle, so that wasn't much help (though, to be honest, Craig often doesn't take my whistles). But he had been listening to me so well before that. Too bad, it was such a promising run before that happened. Don also told me Craig handled these sheep really nicely and that he was a good dog and that I handled him well. Craig has his moments. I sometimes let him get away with too much, but he really did handle the sheep well at this trial.

So although we got only letters at this trial, I am pleased with how my dogs did. We still need to work on lots of things of course (especially me, with the letting go of mistakes and not quitting too soon), but I definitely learned a lot.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Colorado High Country SDT report

Last weekend, we went to the CHC SDT up in Hot Sulphur Springs. This trial is always a lot of fun, and the setting is just beautiful.
Not a bad place to spend the weekend...

I ran Taz and Craig in the open ranch class. The course was a bit smaller than it has been in years past, and the sheep were fantastic—they were nice, even range ewes. That doesn't mean it was easy—the course was tricky, with deceptive rises and a narrow irrigation ditch crossing just before the post for the open class.

Craig ran pretty well, doing everything I asked of him. Unfortunately, my timing was a bit off, and I was late giving him direction. It wasn't one of our better trials, but we had fun :)

My main goal with Taz was really just for him to do a proper outrun. And he did it! I let him set himself up, and I sent him to the right (his "good" side). Off he went, nice and wide. He paused at the drive away panels, and looked back at me. So I gave him another "away!" and off he went. He came in very nice and did not slice, but he did overflank just a hair. The sheep lifted just a smidge to the right (my right) and Taz covered and brought them straight through the fetch panels. We struggled a little around the post, partly because he didn't take his stops right away and partly because one ewe was very stroppy and kept leaving the others and then turning to challenge him. But he handled her nicely, walking right into her and then giving her a chance to turn back to rejoin her buddies.
Taz steadily put one foot in front of the other to turn this ewe back
Photo by Larry Adams

First half of his drive was great. He took his inside flanks well. But he went all the way around when I asked for an outside flank and began bringing the sheep back to me. Since we haven't worked on driving at all for the past month or two, I retired. We lost 2 points on the outrun, one for the redirect and one for sending him from too far away from me. Jim Swift was the judge, and he said he thought Taz was borderline too far away from me when I sent him and decided to hit me so I'd learn how far was too far ;-) The following day, Taz didn't stop at all and didn't need a redirect on his outrun, but he overflanked a bit more at the top and the fetch was a bit wilder. Taz did the same thing on the drive as he had the previous day, and we retired during the same point.

Honestly, I couldn't be happier. I am optimistic that this whole hesitation thing is really starting to be behind us and hopeful that Taz is remembering his training from the winter. Our next trial is in a couple of weeks, and I am going to work on driving with him in the meantime (and stopping when I tell him to—that's just me getting lazy on enforcing his lie down and is easily remedied). I hope to get a little further in the course next time—I'd like to at least complete the drive away and transition to the cross drive, but we'll see how things go...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Progress at last!

I started a new job last week, and it's been completely knocking me out! But I don't want two more months to go by without a post, so I better get on it.

I had a great weekend working the dogs in the mountains. Elaine and I went up to the ranch of a couple of friends a couple of weekends ago, and it was wonderful to work in such a big area! I was able to set Taz up a bunch with me between him and the sheep. This kept him wide enough, without hesitating, though he still sliced at the top. Baby steps, though—I wanted to be sure his attitude was back and he wouldn't hesitate before starting to really correct him again. We also got to work newly acquired range ewes, and that was a blast. Taz moves them pretty easily. Despite his lack of confidence, he has plenty of power.

Handsome, too!

I worked with Craig a bunch on these sheep, too, and he really handles them well. I used my whistle a lot, and I realized that I've been getting very sloppy with it. My come bye whistle was fine, and Craig took it every time, but I had to be careful with my away and my stop whistles—they sound a lot alike when I blow them quickly. Consequently, Craig did a lot of stopping and staring at me when I blew them. I slowed both down, and he took them again, but this is something I'll have to be pretty conscious of for a little while, I think. The following day when I worked him (no longer with so many whistles, as I was advised by a very competitive open handler not to overdo the whistles when just working the dogs), he began blowing me off, this time not because he wasn't sure what I was telling him to do, but because he had other ideas. So I had to let him know my commands were not optional. And after I gave him the business, he was perfect. He listened to every command immediately and very willingly. It exasperates me that Craig and I sometimes have to battle like this before he wants to listen to me. Why does he have to be reminded that he must listen? Is it a respect issue? A willful older dog issue? I am going to institute a zero-tolerance policy with him from now on—the first time he doesn't take a command I give him, I'll tell him off and put him up. Then we'll try again. Perhaps I've just been letting him get away with too much before I start telling him off...

I was also impressed with the way the open handler working with us approached training dogs. He was much more relaxed than I ever am. He said he doesn't do any drilling, just sort of loosely asks the dogs to do different things while walking around his 30-acre field. He insists the dog does everything he asks, but he doesn't ask for straight lines or tight turns around panels or anything like that. Of course, he helps the dog when it's clear the dog doesn't understand how to do something or he's put the dog in an unfamiliar situation. Hence, the dog trusts him and really tries to do everything he's asked to do. I tried to mimic this approach with Taz, but I don't quite have the body English down to really help cue my dog to what I want from him and so it's a bit awkward. Still, I think I'd like to do a bit more practice work like this—it puts much less pressure on the dog and on myself, and it's a whole lot more fun.

Taz is all in favor of having more fun!

I've been out with Taz a few more times since then—unfortunately not as often as I'd like, with that new job I started last week. I still have a ton of freelance work to do as well, so I just haven't had much time to get out, which is a bummer, since I have a trial next weekend. But I'll get on a better training schedule soon. Anyway, last weekend, I went out to Fran's with Larry and did some more outruns with Taz, concentrating on the come bye side. With Taz still slicing at the top, even with me sending him when I was closer to the sheep, I began correcting him with a "Get out of that!" when he started to slice. But I did so reluctantly, as I really was afraid Taz would begin hesitating again, like he's done before when I corrected him at the top. Still, I had to do something, as he was slicing really hard at the top, and he knows better than that. He wasn't slicing at all when he was with Scott. I know I can't let him get away with it either. But the hesitation often followed the corrections, and I wouldn't really know if he was going to hesitate until the next time I worked him.

We went out again today, and I was relieved to see that Taz wasn't wanting to hesitate, even though I'd been correcting him for slicing. I was more confident in my corrections today, and Larry helped me with my timing, so the corrections were more effective. I also started sending him from my feet again. Taz kicked himself out every time I got on him, though he often didn't need it until the very end of his outrun. But that last bit would be a dramatic flattening of his arc. Larry suggested I give him a sort of preemptive correction, before he reached the point that he would typically start to slice, to remind him to keep wide. I tried that a bit, and it seemed to work. Hooray!

I also did a few longer outruns with him (maybe 200 yards), on both sides. His away side remains so much better than his come bye side—he is perhaps a little tight at the top, but he doesn't need any corrections on that away side. He just seems to feel his sheep much better on that side. I will definitely send him to the right at the trial next weekend. I'll likely retire after the OLF next weekend, since I haven't worked on any driving with him whatsoever lately. But if I can get a decent outrun, lift, and fetch, honestly I will be completely overjoyed! We can worry about everything else next time :)

Friday, June 26, 2009

OMG! An update!

Okay, so it's been a while. A veritable hiatus. But I had a lot going on—I was traveling a lot, and I lost my job last month, so I've been a bit stressed/panicked, and I also had a ton of freelance projects come due at about the same time. Excuses, excuses. Whine. But I finally have a spare moment this morning, so I thought I'd do some catching up.

It'll be impossible for me to remember (let alone recap) everything I've done with the dogs over the past couple of months, so I'll try to just hit the highlights. Looks like the last time I updated, things were just beginning to fall apart with Taz. He wasn't taking his whistles very well, he seemed unsure while driving and cross driving, stretching his outruns to 250 yards or so was resulting in hesitation . . . gee, wonder if I was throwing way too much at him all of a sudden?

We went to our first trial of the season (well, not including the Icebreaker SDT the day after I got Taz back from Scott), and things didn't go so well. It was a nice field, green and mostly flat, and a small outrun by Western trial standards. The range sheep were tough, though, and there was a lot going on at the set out. Both days, Taz didn't really want to do his outrun. He'd go out about 30 yards or so and then stop. I'd reflank him, and he'd go maybe 10 more yards before stopping and looking at me again. Both times, I walked up the field and that got him going, so at least he knew he needs to get his sheep, but I was a bit discouraged.

The following weekend, we ran in a ranch trial. The ranch class, in the west, is the class between novice-novice and open-ranch. This was a perfect course for us. It was a tiny version of a full course (minus a shed, of course). To be honest, the course in general was way too small for Taz, as he made a lot of wide, sweeping flanks that were not very appropriate for the teeny size of the "infield," but the outrun of maybe 125 yards was perfect for him right now. Taz hesistated here, too, but the sheep were set close enough that he could see them very well and only needed redirects to keep going. Each day he needed fewer redirects, and the last day he went without hesitating at all.

In between trials, I worked with him with the sheep set quite close, but he was starting to revert back to his old habits of running too tight. I knew I shouldn't let him get away with this, but I was too afraid that lying him down to correct him would exascerbate the hesitation. It felt like we were right back to where we started before I sent him to Scott.

One of my worst training faults is trying to rush things and, in the process, being kind of inconsistent in my expectations. Taz is a fairly soft dog, and I think I just plain put too much pressure on him at once. He is such an honest dog that he really, really wants to be right. When he's not sure he is right, he becomes insecure and cautious. My job, then, is to show him what I want him to do in a positive, concrete, even exhuberant, way (anyone who knows me knows that I don't do exhuberance naturally—I am more the low-key, cynical type—but if exhuberance will help Taz right now, well then super-excited, here I come! Wahoo!). Taz is hesitating because he is nervous about the top, so I need to keep Taz happy and enthusiastic about going to the top right now. I should stop worrying about making things exactly right—instead, look for attitude over perfection.

I didn't figure this out myself, of course. Earlier this month, I drove out to Michigan to visit friends and go to a Scott Glen clinic. It was an amazing trip—I met some great people and the clinic was fantastic (though I was a little nervous about showing Scott what was happening with Taz now that I'd had him for a couple of months—I needn't have worried at all, as Scott just wanted to help us get everything back).

Scott said that Taz only needs confidence right now, and if I can restore his confidence Taz will relax and begin to work correctly again. He gave me several tips to help get his confidence back, like sending him in the direction of the sheep's tails, and it's even better if they're moving a little, to help draw him in. (I'd always been told I should send to the heads—I thought this was a cardinal rule, conventional wisdom, and I never questioned it. Scott said there are no set-in-stone rules with stockdog work. Just use common sense and don't be afraid to get creative when something isn't working.) He also told me to get between Taz and the sheep and then send him as a strategy to widen him out without having to lie him down or even correct him at all. This is brilliant—it completely circumvents the risk of eliciting the correct-hesitate cycle. He told me not to worry about cross-driving with him right now, but continue to drive with him, and forget whistles for now.

By the end of the clinic, Taz was starting to show signs of his former self again. Scott said it is clear that Taz trusts me, so he doesn't think this will take too long to fix, if I stick with the plan. ;-) That, of course, is the hard part—to remember all of these little things and make little adjustments where necessary without Scott watching and reminding me. It is a little tough right now, as I don't have anywhere to do bigger outruns at the moment, but this weekend I am going to a friend's ranch and we will have all the room we need, along with nice sheep to work and good friends to work with :-)

I'll write about how things go this weekend next time, and I'll also update about Craig then, too.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Setbacks

This morning I'm off to work the dogs for what might be the last time before the Hotchkiss trial next weekend. I hope we have a better day than the last time I took the dogs out. We went to the smaller, narrow field again, and didn't have a great work session. Craig would not take my whistles at a distance no matter what I did (which eventually involved running up the field and screaming at him at the top of my lungs—not one of my better moments). He took everything I asked for when he was close to me, but not when he got a bit further away. I am not sure if this was a fluke or I have a problem on my hands—we'll see today, I guess. I didn't have much more success with Taz. He didn't really want to take my whistles either. He'd take them when they made a lot of sense to him, like when the sheep were breaking or when he was set up to run an obvious direction, but he seemed to have no idea what I was asking of him when I whistled him along on a cross drive. I will be the first to admit that my whistles are not always the most consistent, and they certainly are not the most pleasant sounds on the planet, so I think more practice for me without the dogs is in order here. And Taz's driving didn't look so hot last time out either. He wasn't wanting to take my direction while he was working, and he stopped to look back at me a bunch. I think he is just still unsure about what I want from him, but we don't have very much time to work it out if before next weekend. We'll see how he does today...wish us luck!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Getting back with Taz & working Craig, too (very long recap)

It's been absolutely fascinating working Taz again, and I am having a lot of fun with him. He is a neat dog to run because he is such a thinker and he is amazingly responsive when we're in sync. We've been having pretty interesting training sessions...


I went out to Fran's last Sunday with Elaine and Larry. The sheep were extra wild, and after even the Open dogs kept losing them back to the pens, we moved to the extreme far corner of the field and just practiced outruns. I wanted to keep everything as controlled as possible, so I sent Taz from about 100 to 125 yards or so out, still keeping it small with these wild sheep. He was maybe a little tight but not slicing. Very responsive. He lied down when I asked him to and he took the flanks I asked for cleanly on the fetch. He went around our imaginary post well, and would drive a little bit, but the drive was roughly the same direction as the draw, and he didn't much want to give up the pressure. So I walked with him a little, and that helped, but he wasn't super comfortable doing it. I decided to hold off on driving with him until we were working more cooperative sheep. Overall, I was happy with him, though, as he was listening to me really well.

Then I went out last Wednesday evening with Kristen, who just moved here from Arkansas. She now lives out on the Western Slope, and this was her first time working her dogs since she came to Colorado. We had a blast :) We held sheep for each other, though it probably wasn't necessary, as the set we worked were pretty happy to keep their heads down and eat the fresh grass. I worked Craig first, and tried a new strategy with him. I usually leave Craig alone at the top; he generally lifts his sheep nicely and always brings them to me. Elaine told me he has always been worked with minimal interference at the top, and generally things are okay. However, he sometimes pushes on his sheep pretty hard on the fetch and he often won't take direction at the beginning of the fetch. This was very true of his runs at the Icebreaker trial, and it caused us to miss the fetch panels on both of our runs. In fact, Craig often seems pretty much deaf until he reaches the fetch panels. Then he starts listening, and we're fine, but I don't like not being able to get him to listen to me at the top. So I thought if I started lying him down just after he lifts the sheep I might get a better response from him during the entire fetch, rather than just the second half. Well, Craig didn't think much of this idea. He pretty much ran through my stops at the top. I didn't come down on him as much as I should have, but I figured I'd work through this a bit more the next time I went out.


With Taz, I did a few tiny outruns, and Kristen watched us to see if he was slicing in at all. Again, he didn't slice in much, but he did run just a little tight at first. It got better as we worked. We can only do tiny outruns at this field, since it's so narrow that I'm afraid doing longer ones will cause him to run incorrectly—in essence, setting him up to fail. I don't mind running Craig like that because he has a very clear idea of what his outrun should be. Taz is still in a delicate place, so I want to give him the room he needs. The outruns we did were maybe 50 to 75 yards, so they were very small, but he was feeling his sheep very well and his fetch was nice and controlled. I drove with him a little, and he did fine here, too.

I went out to the same field on my own a couple of days later. With Craig, after some remedial whistle work, I again worked on stopping him right after he lifted the sheep. This time, I enforced my point that a stop was not going to be optional, and he began cooperating nicely. His fetches were looking much more controlled by the end of the day. I'll have to work on this with the more wild sheep as well, but it's a good start.

With Taz, I decided to work a bit more on driving and also start acclimating him to my whistles. The driving went pretty well. He bores straight into the sheep, but nicely, so they don't panic. He tucks in the sides on his own, and he takes his flanks well when I give them. He still turns in before I want him to sometimes, but a second flank command will brink him back out for another nice turn. His only real fault on the driving we did was that he was just a bit tentative. I think he was not always entirely sure of what I wanted him to do, and I am hoping that this will diminish as we get more comfortable working together.


I reintroduced whistles to him as well as we were working, mostly on little outruns. It was a little rough going—he is definitely not sure about what I am asking him when I use a whistle. I know my whistles must sound pretty different to him than Scott's whistles did. For one thing, Scott uses his fingers, and I use a stainless steel Montana lite, so that may be part of the reason I can't get them to sound exactly like his. In addition, Scott's come bye whistle is a little different than mine. His whistle is better (naturally), as sometimes the beginning of my come bye whistle can sound deceptively like the beginning of my away whistle if I'm not careful. But Taz was not really taking my attempts at this new whistle very well. For that matter, he wasn't taking my away whistle all that great either, though I was making some progress on the lie down and the walk up. (He did actually already have the walk up before he went to Scott's, though.) I know he'll get them eventually; I'm just taking it slow and being sure to back up the whistles with a voice command.

The following day, Saturday, I went out to Fran's again with Elaine. Fran had put a hot wire up separating her field in half, so the grass could grow without being disturbed. The power wasn't turned on yet, but this meant we couldn't use the further half of the field at all. There was still plenty of room to work, but we'd have to use the area closer to the pens, where the draw was a bit stronger. Rats!


We went down to the far end of the field, and did some round robin outruns, maybe 150-175 yards apart from one another. These were the biggest outruns I'd done with Taz to date. We were working diagonally to the draw and Taz and I were at the top and Ben and Elaine were at the bottom. This was the easier configuration, and Taz looked pretty good. He was running nice and wide and feeling the sheep well. He did come in a little short to my eye, but the sheep were lifting straight. The more outruns we did, the more he felt confident enough to go around a bit further and still be able to control them when they lifted. That part was terrific. His fetches were not very smooth, though. He really felt the pressure of the draw and overcompensated. He'd push them off line a bit and then bring them over to me in a series of stops, come byes, and walk ups. He never found the sweet spot on the side to keep the sheep moving on a line toward me. That may be my fault, as I was maybe not stopping him and getting him up quickly enough.

At first he wouldn't even take my stops—I don't think he even heard me. Elaine advised me to calmly walk up to him and lie him down sternly when I was practically on top of him. He'd be surprised to see me there, seemingly coming from out of the blue, and it might make an impression on him that I might appear in his face at any time and so he'd better listen to me no matter how far away from me he is. Of course, as soon as I made up my mind to do just that, he began listening. This is becoming a trend...


Still, he was bringing the sheep to my feet each time and then listening very well as we had to actively work together to hold the sheep for Elaine and Ben. Elaine and I then switched sides, and this presented another challenge for Taz. It was much harder to control the sheep from this position, and Taz was a bit less sure what to do. He hesitated for the first time since he's been back, and I just gave him a redirect and he went all the way around. Oops, too far, and the sheep broke. Ben had done the same thing the first time or two, so I wasn't worried—I just hoped Taz would learn from the experience the way Ben did. He caught the sheep and brought them to me, and after Ben picked them up for his turn, we tried again. This time he went all the way around, but he sliced in. Elaine admonished me to not let him get away with that, so the next time, when he sliced in, I lied him down and began walking up to him. He immediately turned his head away, and as I kept walking forward, growling at him and waving my stick, he jumped back a few feet.

"Stop!" Elaine yelled to me. "That's enough!"

"But I'm supposed to come all the way up to him, aren't I?"

"Well, yes, if he's not giving ground or showing you that he's not fazed by your actions—but he is turning off now. He's saying 'I'm sorry, you're right, I hear you.' Continuing to give him the business when he's giving ground like that is not beneficial. You don't want to shut him down. He's not challenging you anymore; in fact, I don't think he ever was really challenging you. I think he just needed a little help."

Well, that was a revelation! I hadn't thought about that, but I knew she was right. I'd have to be more careful about respecting that line between correcting him and helping him. But I also didn't think it would be very hard to tell what was needed—Taz is pretty transparent that way, and it's likely he isn't going to need too many corrections. He will, however, need a bit of help from time to time. I am so grateful that Elaine pointed this out to me when she did! I will be sure to use my head a bit more when working with him in the future!


I didn't get a chance to do too much in the way of outruns with Craig on Saturday, so I couldn't test the down-after-the-lift behavior, but we did do a fair amount of driving. I was very pleased that he pretty much took all of my whistles. We'll work more on stopping at the beginning of the fetch another time.

I went out one more time on Sunday, this time with Larry. We did all sorts of things I haven't done with Taz since he's been back, and I was really pretty pleased overall. I'd been trying to choreograph every interaction Taz had with the sheep during his "transition" back to me. But Sunday, we went a little off the plan...

We warmed up by doing the same round robin outruns I'd done with Elaine the day before, though we worked a little closer to each other. Taz's outruns and lifts were perfect, and his fetches continued to be a bit choppy. After a bit, Larry intentionally let the sheep break back to the pens so that he could send his dogs on longer outruns. He encouraged me to do the same thing with Taz. I wasn't so sure this was such a good idea—this was not working in the controlled circumstances I'd been so careful about—but Larry thought it might be good to stretch him a bit and see what he could do. So we walked down the field a bit and I sent him. The sheep were maybe 250 yards out from where we stood. They were bunched up against the pen, not really moving, and I could tell Taz was having trouble spotting them. So this would be kind of a blind outrun of sorts, but I knew these light sheep would move off him once he caught their eyes.

I set him up and sent him to the right. He took a few steps and stopped, looking back at me. "Away to me," I repeated, and he took off. Nice and wide. The sheep still weren't moving by the time he reached about 75 yards away from them, and he slowed and looked at me again. "Away!" I shouted, and off he went, neatly behind them, lifting them clean. Hooray for Taz! He did a bit of back and forth behind them getting them to me, but that was kind of the nature of these sheep, who've had a lot of practice pushing on dogs and often beating them. I was so proud of him! I did it again a bit later, and this time he needed no redirects. The sheep did shoot out to the left toward a big dirt pile before he got to them, and this is an area where the dogs often have a little difficulty getting them under control, so I started running up the field to help him. I needn't have expended the energy. Ten seconds later, up the field they began marching, with Taz in easy pursuit. What a good boy! He did terrific on these little tests! Another thing Larry suggested I do was to flank him around the sheep (at the top of the field) to release enough pressure that the sheep would start heading back to the pens and then stop him. Then, let him up and let him get them and bring them back. I wasn't quite sure about this exercise either—I feared Taz's form would suffer or he would hesitate again and then just watch them get away. But he did fine—he remained wide and he covered them nicely. My confidence in Taz went up exponentially with all of this work—he is capable of much more than I have been doing with him, and I couldn't be happier!


Of course, he still needs a lot of work. I drove the sheep up the entire field with him a few times (walking with him), and much like the way he was fetching them, he didn't give them quite enough room to keep a flow going. He pushed them forward and they'd go to one side or the other, and then I'd flank him to cover. But the second time I did it with him, I decided to be a little more stingy with my commands, and he actually did a whole lot better. He still needed a flank to recover every now and then, but mostly he was covering them on his own and thus learning it was more efficient to keep a little further off. Bolstered by that, I tried to do some cross driving with him at the far end of the field, but wasn't as successful here. He was nervous about giving up the pressure, and we did more stopping and flanking to cover than actual driving. But that's okay. These sheep really are quite difficult, always leaning hard on the dog, and Larry reminded me that I'd need to work lots of different kinds of sheep to keep Taz flexible, so he didn't think all sheep behaved like these sheep do.

We also worked with whistles a bit more, and Taz continues to take more of them, though he's far from being what I'd call fluent with my whistles. A funny thing did happen, though. With these wild sheep, I had less time to think about what I was blowing, so I a couple of times I blew my own come bye whistle, which no one has ever used with Taz. Lo and behold, he took it. He still had trouble taking my attempts at mimicking Scott's come bye, but he took my come bye whistle. I thought that was pretty odd but maybe is due to the whistle simply making sense to him in the situation that called for it (the sheep were breaking), whereas he is otherwise having to work out my "translations" of the whistles he first learned with Scott and isn't quite sure they are the same thing as what he learned. In any case, I am confident it will all come in time as long as I keep working on it with him.

So, all in all, I'm well pleased at where Taz is now. Our first trial is in two weeks. I am not sure we'll be ready, but we're a whole lot more ready than we were a week ago!

All photos taken by Larry Adams.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Working Taz!

Taz has been home for two weeks now, and I've worked him three times. Each time has been a bit different. It's been pretty interesting working him again . . .

I went out to work Taz for the first time on Saturday. The field we worked in was long and narrow, and I was afraid he wouldn't really have enough room to run as wide as he should. I didn't work him for very long—it was pretty hot and poor Taz has a monster coat after spending the winter up north. He wouldn't take my whistles at all, so I abandoned them for now and concentrated on trying to just get on the same page with him. We did a few outruns, and he seemed to be working okay. He was not dramatically wide or deep, but he wasn't slicing in either. Driving went all right, though his flanks were small—he would flank around just a little bit and then turn in to the sheep. I thought it was not terrible for our first session, but he definitely was not working anything like he worked at Scott's.

We went out again the following day and worked in a much bigger field with much wilder sheep (read: these sheep like to run!). This time, Elaine came with us, and we held the sheep for each other. Taz was really pushy this time, pretty much running over me. I mean, he stopped when I asked him to (I remembered that much from Scott's parting instruction), but sometimes he'd take another step or two after I asked before hitting the ground, he was pushing on the sheep and causing them to run, he was a bit tight on top when the sheep were set opposite the draw, and he was generally not feeling his sheep very well at all. Ack! I began to panic a little—I was taking out everything Scott put into him already! Or, I feared I was incapable of getting the beautiful work out of him that Scott could. I asked Elaine for help.

The first thing she advised was to shorten everything up. Duh! My mind began returning with that basic, sensible advice. We'd been doing short outruns anyway, but I left Taz about 100 yards out and walked up toward the sheep and sent him from about halfway between where he was lying down and where the sheep were set. When I sent him from this position, I could see where he was starting to come in flat much more clearly and I stopped him right there. Then I resent him and he came in a bit deeper. Elaine noticed that I was stopping him a little short on top (this is an old habit of mine, from back in the days when he would run through my stops). Taz usually turns in when he is ready to lift, so I need to be a little more patient and wait to see if he'll turn in before stopping him (and, on the other end of the spectrum, I need to be ready with a stop if he turns in before I planned to stop him). If he doesn't turn in, I just need to be ready to stop him exactly where I think he needs to be.

Another thing Elaine got on me for was my tone of voice. I guess my "lie down" is not strong enough. I developed this tone after a lesson last year with Tracy Derx, where she had admonished me to stop yelling a "lie down" every time (again, I probably started doing that because Taz used to run through my stops). Tracy had recommended that I just say "lie down" in a normal tone of voice (revolutionary!). I couldn't believe the difference in how this relaxed Taz. But somehow over time that normal-tone-of-voice lie down had morphed into a bit of a naggy, questioning one. I need to adopt a more confident, commanding tone. A happy medium between screaming and asking. No need to be over the top—I just need to be sure.

Taz's pace on his fetch was very pushy (again, not at all like it was at Scott's). His lifts were fine—he walked up very nicely after being downed at the top—but then he'd push into them too hard and the sheep would squirt forward and out. I'll need to lie him down again after his initial lift to prevent this. His flanks on the fetch were also too pushy—he was pushing forward with every flank I gave him. Same with the drive.

I called Scott afterward to see if he had any advice. He told me Taz knows better than to do all of this, so I need to make a bigger point of it when I am showing him he is wrong. For instance, if he's coming in flat, I need to lie him down, walk up toward the sheep, look hard at him, maybe whack my stick on the ground, and sharply ask him "what do you think you're doing?" or some such. He should turn off—he'll know he is not working correctly. The idea is not to try to fix that outrun or whatever, it's so that the next one is correct. Make the point now so that he has another chance to be correct later. I have been a bit hesitant to correct Taz, since in the past my bumbling corrections were unclear to him, causing him to hesitate in confusion. But it's different now, Scott explained, because now Taz knows what to do. I only have to let him know that he can't get away with anything with me, that the same rules apply. Scott said that Taz is such an honest dog that this testing probably won't go on for long. And Scott reminded me that the stop is the key to everything. If Taz is pushing on his flanks, I need to stop him and keep him working slower so he is thinking and feeling. And don't worry about driving with him until this is sorted. Work on the fetch first, then the cross drive, then the drive away. Scott reiterated that it shouldn't take very long. And then he reminded me that at this point, it's more about establishing a positive, constructive relationship than about getting perfect lines.

So, with all this in mind, I went out with Taz on Tuesday evening. I was excited to work on our relationship, and I was ready to let Taz know what he couldn't get away with anymore. And you know what? I didn't really even have to make an impression on him! Taz was amazing! He was nice and wide and feeling his sheep well. He did come in slightly flat on an outrun once, and I made a big deal about it and the next one was very nice. And I also made a big deal when he tried to creep through a lie down, and he jumped back and lied down quickly the next time I asked. But mostly I was making a bigger deal about things than I had to, since he was really looking pretty good. His pace was lovely, and he was listening well. I couldn't believe the difference! I think my demeanor was a little different and maybe that made the difference—instead of being a bit cautious about the whole thing, I had a plan and was pretty confident about what I was going to do. After I emailed Scott and Jenny about our successful day, Jenny wrote back that they agreed; Taz had probably been taking advantage of my uncertainty before, and he picked up on and reacted to my confidence this time.

I can't wait to work him again. Unfortunately, we've been having a giant spring snow/rain storm for the past few days, so I haven't been able to get out again with the dogs, but it's supposed to clear tomorrow, so we'll try again. I'll just stick with the plan and hopefully we'll have another successful day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Icebreaker SDT report + more!

This has been a crazy week for me, so I haven't had a chance to tell the rest of this story. Better late than never, though. After I picked up Taz from Scott's, we drove down through Montana and Idaho into Utah for the Icebreaker sheep dog trial. The weather was not so good for the drive, with rain and freezing rain and snow in the passes. It was a nervous drive, but a beautiful one.

I arrived in the town of Tremonton at about 7 and met Elaine and her sister (and about half the people competing in the trial) at the hotel. Taz and I had a proper happy little reunion in the hotel room. It would have been quite embarrassing if anyone had witnessed it. ;-) I think he was pretty happy to be back with me, and I was certainly ecstatic to have him back with me! When we drove to the trial field the following morning . . . the check engine light came back on in my truck. Ack! I couldn't do anything about it right then, but at least Elaine and I were following each other, so if it broke down completely I wouldn't be abandoned. Thankfully, it hadn't come on during my drive down to Utah—that would have been a really bad place to break down!

The trial was held on a huge field of turned earth. There was about two inches of snow covering it, and another inch of crusty ice on top of that. A strong icy wind was whipping, and the forecast was for a snowy rainy mixture (fortunately, it never did precipitate, though). The temps hovered around freezing, but with the arctic wind, it was much colder than that. This was, without a doubt, the coldest trial I have ever been to. That's not such a huge claim, as I haven't been to all that many trials. But Elaine agreed that this was the coldest trial she'd ever been to, and, well, she's been to a zillion! Most of us drove down to face the field and stayed warm watching the action in our vehicles. I really felt for the poor set-out crew. Brr!

I planned to trial Craig in pro-novice. I entered Taz, too, just for fun, to see what he'd do. I knew it was much too soon to be serious about competing with him yet, but I admit I was very curious about what he'd do. It turned out not to be such a good idea (and one Scott and Jenny were fairly horrified about when I told them about it after the fact). The sheep for the pro-novice course were set about 350 yards away. This was a BIG pro-novice course, with a full drive and cross drive that was the same for the open class. The wind was blowing back onto the handler's post, so the dogs couldn't hear much. I decided to send Taz to the left, as his come bye had looked slightly better than his away at Scott's (of course, this could just as likely have been due to the draws or any other factors specific to Scott's field). He cast out nicely, but stopped after about 100 yards to look back at me. Since Taz isn't taking my whistles yet, I yelled as loud as I could to come bye. He continued to look at me, and then turned to continue his flank for maybe another 30 yards. Then he stopped and looked at me again. I shouted another come bye, but he couldn't hear me. At this point I left the post to help him, but I was hampered by how difficult it was to walk/run in that crusty snow. I tried to talk to him, but he just couldn't hear me and eventually he just ran straight toward the sheep and moved them back to the set-out pen. By the time I finally hoofed my way up there, he was just hanging out, and the set-out crew reported that he just held the sheep at the pen once he reached it. I am glad he didn't try any funny business up there, but mostly I am mad at myself for trying to do way too much way too soon. It wasn't a good experience for him or for our partnership, and I felt awful knowing I'd had him for one day and already let him down.

I didn't have too much time to reflect about this, though, as I still had to run Craig in the class. I brought Tazzy back to the truck and got out Craig. Craig spotted the sheep up at the top immediately while we waited at the post. I sent him to the right, and his outrun and lift were very nice. He was maybe not quite as wide as he could have been, but that is Craig. His fetch was a bit to far to the left to make the panels, but his pace was good. We had a nice turn around the post and a dead straight, sure drive away through the panels. The cross drive was high, and we missed the cross drive panels, but the turn back was nice. Many dogs had trouble there, as the draw to the exhaust pens was very strong. Craig brought them nicely to the pen, where we timed out.

I scratched Taz the following day (obviously), and Craig and I ran first. This run was similar to the previous day's, but much more speeded up and with a bit less control. The sheep just wanted to run, and I had trouble getting Craig to slow down and take my flanks. We missed the drive away panels, but the cross drive was better on this day. And since we rocketed through the course, we had a bit more time at the end . . . and we penned the sheep! I was pretty happy about that—all the penning work we've done over the past few weeks seems to have paid off! This is the first time I've ever penned at a trial with either dog :)

Craig and I got second place on both days. Hooray! But the real winners at this trial were the sheep. They were among the toughest I've seen! They were older range ewes from three different flocks who had been together a few weeks. They didn't play well together; they challenged the dogs; sometimes they just lied down and gave up. Keeping them moving was the key, but maintaining control was difficult. Craig handled them very nicely, but all the scores were pretty low at this trial.

It was a great trial, well-organized and smoothly run and lots of fun. I like the folks in Utah; they're a friendly and welcoming bunch. Saturday afternoon, I had to miss the open runs and leave the trial early in order to have my poor truck looked at by the Toyota dealer so I wouldn't risk driving home over the mountains with the check engine light on.

It was not good news. Something about spark plugs and misfiring cylinders and ignition coils and packs. The dealer didn't have all the parts, so he fixed what he could and admonished me to get it taken care of as quickly as I could once I got home. Eep, that sounds ominous! So, hundreds of dollars later, we drove home the following day in mostly good weather with the exception of snow over the Vail pass and rain in the Denver area. At least we made it!

Unfortunately, my truck died at the end of my street the next time I drove it, and I had to have it towed to a mechanic in Boulder. He patched it up for a few more hundred dollars, but it was still running rough. The mechanic warned me that I should have some other procedure done (by this time, I just stopped paying attention to the details), which would likely reveal the need to replace some other spendy part. Good lord! What was going on here? My truck was falling apart overnight!

So I cleaned it out and cleaned it up and drove straight to the local Toyota dealer. And traded in my beloved 2000 Tacoma for a brand-spanking-new 2009 Tacoma. It is way more than I can afford, but it's so nice and won't threaten to break down on these long trips to trials and clinics and Canada! Hooray for that!

And hooray for Craig for doing so well at the Icebreaker trial and hooray for Taz being home!