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.
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