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!