Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Taz fix

Jenny Glen sent me some amazing photos of Taz a few days ago. Working shots, no less! And they're terrific! She said, "He listens really well, but when I'm by myself it's hard to get pictures of the dog AND the sheep so most of these are just him walking up on the sheep who are behind me." I am impressed that she got such great working shots on her own!

Doesn't he look good?

All photos taken by Jennifer Glen.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Latest progress report on Taz

Just a week and a half now until I go pick up Taz from Scott. I can't wait! Scott reports that he is outrunning pretty well. Scott says at 300 yards, his outrun is "dynamite." I'm so happy to hear this! Taz's problems with his outrun have always been a bit of a mystery to those who know his lines, because he comes from natural outrunning dogs on both sides. I am so so glad that Scott has been able to develop this part of his potential. Scott said Taz really only has problems if he's running near a fence because he wants to be sure he is wide enough. So if he's afraid the fence will cause him to run too tight, he'll stop. Blow him on once, and he'll continue on perfectly.

He's still not taking his whistles 100 percent of the time—Scott says some days he'll take them really well, but other days he often needs a verbal backup. Scott stressed that Taz works really well with praise and he doesn't like to be in trouble, so I think I'll have to be careful to keep my tone of voice even when I need to give him that verbal backup. As I wrote about last time, I don't want to let frustration creep into my voice, at least until he's solid on his whistles. Scott said he is surprised it is taking Taz this long to get his whistles, but that Taz really tries to be a very honest dog and if he's going to err on something he'll err on trying to do it right. He's not as confident as he first appeared, when he was trying to run through everything (and I suspect at least part of this confidence thing may be my fault), but Scott said Taz would "suit a lot more people than he wouldn't." At the same time, Taz has to understand what you're asking him to do; he's not a dog you can just intimidate around a course. He's got to understand it or he's not going to do it, and he'll look bad as a result—but it's just that he's a thinking dog, and I have to be sure he understands what I want him to do. (My poor dog must have been struggling so hard to interpret my all-over-the-place instruction as I worked to figure it all out myself—I think sending him to Scott might have been the best thing I could have ever done for him!)

Scott said Taz takes his voice commands real well, he leans into his sheep nice, and his fetch is looking very good as well. He is not driving a very long way yet, but Scott can "stretch him out maybe 150 yards or so" (which seems pretty long to me). He's not super pushy on the drive, but Scott is intentionally holding Taz back a little here because he doesn't want Taz to run me over when I get him back. He wants Taz to rely on me on the drive. He said with heavy sheep, a dog like Taz probably has to be asked up a bit more and I'll have to make sure he doesn't slide around on a flank; with lighter sheep, he keeps a nice pace and would require just little flanks just to keep the sheep on line.

Scott thinks the bond Taz and I have because we "grew up together" means we should do well together when Taz comes back to me. He cautioned me not to try to push him onto his sheep too much—just let him do his job and help where I have to. Don't let him come on too fast, and if it's a little bit slow, then it's a little bit slow for now. I asked Scott how long I should work Taz, and he said to work him until he hits a rough spot, and then help him through that spot, then keep things a little bit nice, and then call it a day. That way, he gets to finish on a good note, but he has to struggle a bit, too, and he understands that he's not allowed to lose his mind because he's struggling. This makes him mentally tough, and he builds trust in me to help him get through pressure.

As we were wrapping up the conversation, Scott said that he tends to focus on the negative when talking about training, and he reiterated that "actually, he's pretty darn nice." Of course, I love hearing that! Scott really gave me a lot to think about this time. I hope I can remember all this when I am working Taz again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Letting go and other life lessons about training stockdogs

I had a fantastic working session with Craig and Elaine last Sunday (aside from the fact that Craig wanted to take all her commands and none of mine at first—he used to do that when I first got him, but he hasn't done it in a long time. I guess it's been a while since I worked dogs with Elaine!). It was fantastic in that it really got me thinking and I definitely saw things I haven't paid enough attention to in the past. Elaine is able to pinpoint some of my bad habits/mistakes very easily and communicate them to me effectively. She thinks (and this is something Don Helsley pointed out to me as well at a clinic last fall) that one of my biggest problems right now is that I am not letting mistakes go quickly enough, so I'm not always staying in the moment, which allows everything to go downhill quickly. I have always blamed this vaguely on my bad timing, but it is much more helpful to realize I should not dwell on mistakes either my dog or I make and go from there than to think about the vastness of needing to improve my timing. Not sure if this makes sense, but it's much more concrete to me than just "improve my timing" is. Though it will probably be tough to let things go, this is something I had to learn to do when I was a whitewater kayaker facing churning rapids, avoiding giant boat-sucking holes and violent river boils, and generally reading the river well enough to plan where to place my boat four moves in advance—so I know I can learn to do it here as well.

Also, related to this, I've been thinking about when/how much to make a point of enforcing commands, and I reread Scott Glen's chapter in the Top Trainers Talk About Starting a Sheepdog book. Scott said he is insistent about enforcing only a stop on a young dog, and even then he will let a dog run through a stop if he sees the dog is trying to fix a mess that the dog created. He was talking about starting a dog, of course, but I am going to try to keep this in mind as I sort through the challenge of keeping flow going while not letting the dog get away with bad habits/helping him work through pressure. I needn't make a big deal out of every perceived infraction; if the dog is right or things are going well, just move on. If things are not going well, let the dog know he isn't right but don't spend all day arguing about it with him—just help him make things right.

Another thing that I realized while watching Elaine work her dog is that she gets after her dogs in a much less emotional way than I do. I want to strive to get less emotional, particularly when Taz gets home, since I am 100% sure my emotions have a huge effect on his work (particularly when I am frustrated, even though I am mainly frustrated with myself). I think my emotion-on-display has taken some confidence out of Taz, and I am sure my emotional corrections/commands are the reason he was hesitating on his outrun in the first place and I was unable to fix it afterward. I will use whistles more with Taz, which should help, but mainly I will work to keep my emotions to myself, thankyouverymuch.

I am going to get Taz in exactly two weeks now (for real, this time), and I can't wait. I keep meaning to post the latest progress report I got from Scott, and I promise I will in the next few days.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Catching up again

I've been doing a bit of work with Craig lately, trying to concentrate on my worst handling weaknesses (timing is always my worst weakness, but it manifests in so many different ways!). I've been working on outruns out at Fran's, where the sheep are very light and the draw back to the pens is so strong, and this gives me an opportunity to gauge how much to trust Craig to set the fetch line and how much to help him. He sometimes doesn't take my commands on the fetch—he just doesn't want to give up the pressure and would rather bring the sheep ten feet to my left than risk losing them. Since it is easy to lose them here, I don't make a point of enforcing my commands, but I hope I am not letting him think that he can decide which commands to take. One thing Scott told me is to be careful about making a point of enforcing a command when doing so would have the result that both the dog and I are trying to avoid—letting the sheep get away. I mean, I am sure generally there is a time to make a point that the dog needs to listen to me, but I also know I risk the dog losing confidence in my direction every time I let the sheep get away, so I need to pick my battles. Really, I need to figure out what is the best way to teach a dog to come off pressure?

I've also been working a bit on driving, though not as much as I have in the past. Really, I can spend every minute of every work session practicing driving and still not perfect my timing here, but it's no fun doing any one thing all the time. Most of the time, we seem to be doing okay, with Craig taking the majority of my whistles, but sometimes all bets are off and he doesn't want to take my commands (again, usually for fear he will lose the sheep). He did this one day when we were working at Irene's, and I decided it was worth it to enforce my commands with him after I saw he was doing this over and over again, since I know that—unlike at Fran's—he could cover the sheep just fine if they started to break here. He just didn't want to do things that way. So I did give him the business for that, and though we continued fighting on the field that day, since then he's been great about listening to me. (That's apparently his MO—he pushes the envelope until he gets in trouble, and while he's no good the rest of that particular day, he is much more obedient in the days following. Somehow, I'd love to time this so that the last practice session before a trial he will need a good dressing down, so that he is better at listening when we run for real!)

Larry has been helping me figure out the fine art of penning the sheep, too. I suck at penning, mostly due to my crappy timing and second guessing myself, but partly also because both my dogs have a tendency to slice their flanks, particularly when working close in at the pen. Larry has given me a few pointers, and they've been pretty useful—it helps to have some sort of a plan when I see the sheep approaching (besides, you know, hoping that this will be the one time they'll just decide to march straight into the pen on their own). He gave me a few general rules:
  • The side of the pen with the rope is my responsibility, and the other side is the dog's. Of course, if the sheep are bolting, I won't be able to contain them on my side, but I can do things to affect the sheep's behavior (e.g., block, swing my stick, wave the rope).
  • Try to stand behind the gate when the dog is bringing the sheep over to the pen, and be prepared to move out when I flank my dog as the sheep approach the pen. Ideally, the dog will be flanking around the other side of the gate, so he can cover his side while I cover mine.
  • The leader is the sheep I need to pen; the others will follow her in. Of course, I've heard this before, but I have had trouble identifying the leader or else just remembering to pay attention to that. I paid attention while Larry penned with his dogs, and I was then able to see the leader, and try to have Craig work her, when it was my turn.
  • Walk the dog up in the direction I want the sheep to move; they will turn away from the dog. If it's not quite right, give another small flank. Again, this is not new, but I often cheat on this because I am afraid to flank the dog in case he slices. Moving slowly is the key here, to ease the dog into position to walk him up in the right direction.
  • When sheep and dog are moving, keep the dog flanking until the sheep turn, then stop him, then walk him up. Don't stop the dog as long as the sheep are continuing to move in the wrong direction. If the sheep are stopped, flank the dog to the position required to move the sheep in the desired direction, then walk him up.
I practiced a bunch, and was successful a few times—and I was able to repeat our success at Cathy's last week, too. I have always had a hard time penning Cathy's sheep (though I don't think they're particularly tough to pen; actually, I think other folks find them pretty easy to pen). The first time took a little while, but Craig and I worked as a team and were able to do it without him wanting to grip in frustration (this is a good indicator that I'm getting a little better ;-)

If it's not too windy tonight, I'll go back to Cathy's and work on all this some more :-)))