Friday, February 27, 2009

Workin' dogs...

So with Taz away, I'm having a little trouble motivating to update the bloggo. I mean, it's not like I'm teaching Craig anything new, though we've been working a bit. Mainly we just work on improving my timing with driving, although for the past couple of weeks I've mainly been doing outruns. I've been going up to Fran's with Larry and her sheep are a bit wild. These sheep like to run, so we do round-robin outruns, with one person holding the sheep with a dog and the other person sending a dog on an outrun, lift, and fetch. Because Larry was working 2 dogs, both of whom are younger than Craig, we usually had each of his dogs do two outruns for every one Craig did. So after the first OLF, the dog would drive them back toward us and Craig would pick them up so Larry's dog could do the second outrun. I like working with Larry, especially because his Raid is Craig's half-sister. It is neat to watch her run and see the similarities between her working style and Craig's. Her outrun is much wider than Craig's is, but they both really have a tendency to want to overcompensate for any draws on the field. I like to watch Larry handle Raid, so I can get ideas about how to better handle Craig :)

I have been learning a bit more about holding and reading sheep during these sessions. Like that sheep can be intimidated into staying put while we're holding them if the dog is standing, but might try to break if I make the dog lie down. Also, they can be very sneaky, moving in one direction to lure the naive handler into sending the dog against the draw. Then, once the dog is committed, the sheep can do an about face and high tail it in the other direction. I've been experimenting with how close I can get myself and Craig to the sheep to keep them relaxed enough to stay put but not so relaxed that they attempt to run back to where they want to go. Often they'd stay put for a little while and then just start to drift in the direction of the side I was on opposite the draw, as Craig was guarding the side they were more likely to take off on. I'd lie Craig down and go to block them. If they kept moving, I got to be able to tell without looking whether I was coming in too hard or straight, or the problem was actually that Craig had sneakily gotten up and was actually driving them back so they'd stay further away from the draw. Because God forbid the sheep move a muscle in the direction of the gate...

Here are some photos from last weekend:

Some of the sheep

Craig lifts the sheep. He's coming in at around 2:00, but you can see he's right where he needs to be.

Mirk flanking.

Craig fetches the sheep to me.

Raid waits her turn.

Craig peeks through the opening as he fetches the sheep to me.

Mirk focuses on the action.

Mirk drives the sheep toward our general direction.

Raid begins an outrun.

Craig takes a break.

Come bye, Raid.

And, finally, isn't Craig handsome?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Back to life!

So sorry for not updating in so long—I went to the National Western Stock Show a couple of weeks ago to watch the brave/crazy souls run their dogs and got the famous "stock show crud" there. I've been down-and-out sick for a week and a half and finally started feeling better just a couple of days ago. The poor dogs have not exactly been sympathetic and were going stir crazy stuck inside the house for so long. But I've been making it up to them over the past few days. We went on a nice hike on Friday, topped off by a rousing game of fetch in the backyard. Well, Sophie got to play fetch, anyway. Craig tries to eat other dogs when they play fetch, so he spends quality time in his crate during these games.
Sophie had fun, though.

But don't worry, Craig was only inside for a little while. Both dogs enjoyed the nice weather we've been having lately after the ball was put away.
See, even now Craig's thinking about chasing Sophie if she moves a muscle. If he does, though, Sophie will kick his butt. Craig knows this, but he can barely help himself. Sigh.

Besides, Craig got to do something way better than chase Sophie on both days this weekend. Yes, Craig and I actually got to work sheep. Hooray! It feels like it's been so long, I'm surprised we both haven't forgotten what to do completely...

But we didn't. On Saturday, we went to Cathy's and got to work in the big alfalfa field with four of her best sheep. I was expecting Craig to be wild and my timing to be really off, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Craig calmly and quietly helped me sort off four good sheep and drove them up to the alfalfa field. We did a few outruns, just because he loves to do them so much. I made sure he bent out, but we didn't go crazy with any drills. Afterward, we did some driving in a box. I tried to locate some landscape features for Craig to bring the sheep over, and we finished the day by doing a makeshift course a few times (or, well, an outrun, lift, fetch, turn around an imaginary post, drive away to bring the sheep between a dirt clump and tumbleweed and then a cross drive somewhere over another dirt clump).

I forced myself to use my whistle almost exclusively. I know I need the practice, and I want to be more comfortable with it by the time Taz comes home. Scott gave me another report on Taz, and he is continuing to do very well up in Alberta, except that he hasn't picked up his whistles as easily as Scott expected him to. I am sure this is due to my half-assed attempts to put whistles on Taz in the past (and my inconsistent use of the whistles when we hike), so I want to be pretty solid giving whistles now. Once Taz gets it with Scott, I don't want to confuse him (more than necessary) when I take over. So I will try to force myself to use whistles with Craig. And the results were encouraging. Craig did really well—he pretty much took all of my whistles. I think he was so desperate to work, he was happy to generally do what I asked of him.

That's not to say our lines were perfect. Often when I flanked him, Craig had a frustrating tendency to pick his own place to turn in to the stock and walk up. This was usually not where I wanted him to turn in, and he often ended up sort of following them in an incorrect direction. I'd continue to whistle him around, and he'd take another couple of steps and turn in again. In an attempt to compensate for this, I tried to give him several flank commands in a row (so I'd whistle "come bye, come bye, come bye"). The result of this, predictably, was that he would then overflank and turn the sheep too sharply. So we did a bit of weaving back and forth for much of our work session. By the end, though, I was able to keep him more or less where I wanted him by flanking him and then reflanking him—not in rapid succession, but before he had a chance to turn in. It was hard, but we were successful when I timed it right. We did a perfect little mini course this way, and I quit while we were ahead. We'll continue to practice this, but I was mentally exhausted and wanted to end on a good note.

We went out again today. This time, we met Larry at Fran's and spent the morning doing round-robin outruns with Raid and Mirk. We had to actively hold the sheep for each other, or else they would run back to the gate. This was good practice for me; in the past, the sheep I've held have always been happy enough to stay in the general vicinity of wherever we stopped them. These guys wanted to bolt, so I had to use Craig to hold them reasonably still long enough for Larry's dog to reach the top. Sometimes, it was tough! Craig, at 10, looked pretty good. He was a bit tight on his outruns, of course. That's just the way he runs, though, and to be honest he doesn't really upset the sheep before he reaches the top. He lifted the sheep pretty well and most of the time they came right to my feet. Not always, though—once in a while Craig concentrated on guarding the draw a bit too much and so overcompensated on the fetch. He did get tired, but we were out there for a while. I think (crossing my fingers) he should be fine this year for any pro-novice or open ranch trials we run. Yay!

So it was a good weekend for Craig, and Sophie got out some. I do miss working with Taz, and I can't wait for him to come back. But a little more patience will go a long the meantime, I hope to get back into a routine of going out with Craig at least a couple of times a week.

Edited to add: Mary W. had some good insight into why Craig may have been underflanking on Saturday: perhaps it had something to do with the way I was whistling him on. It is true that he is usually more prone to overflanking than underflanking when driving sheep away from me, and it is also true that I usually talk to him on him drive away (as opposed to whistling). It stands to reason that at least part of the reason he was having trouble doing exactly what I wanted might have been because I was communicating a little more (or just differently) than I thought I was with each tone. For example, Craig may have been trained to take that rapid-fire succession of whistles as me asking for a big flank, not a keep-going flank. So I will definitely pay more attention to how I'm whistling in the future...