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!