Saturday, July 24, 2010

Adventures in Cross Driving

I am in the midst of an awful copyediting project, and my deadline is looming, with several other tasks being put on hold until I finish it—so what better time to update the blog I've been ignoring for the better part of a year? Eh, so it's not exactly a daily journal. I get to it when I can or when the mood hits...

I've been working Tazzy a bit lately, and after a rough patch this spring things have been going pretty well. He is finally truly on whistles. He is learning to trust me more, and I am trying to help him more with my handling. The past couple of days have gone especially well—we're making good progress with blind outruns and the shape of his outrun, something I will always have to stay on top of due to his poor start, is improving at greater distances.

Today was a bit rougher, though. (I always seem to write about the struggles we have, rather than brag on the successes. S'okay—this blog is one way for me to work out ways to overcome our challenges.) We worked mainly on driving and cross driving this morning. There is one area of the field at which we work where the dogs feel the pressure in a pretty intense way. If the draw is at about 10:30 on the imaginary clock, the biggest challenge for Taz is driving toward 9:00, so maybe a 30 degree angle from the draw. The sheep are rather heavy and always drift in the direction of the draw. And if a dog is not in just the right spot, they can wrap around the dog to try to beat it. On this line, Taz and I have a hard time finding that sweet spot to keep them moving toward 9:00 without turning them back to me. "Let him go far enough so that the sheep see him, but not so far that he catches their eye and turns them" is the advice I've been given. Oh, and don't lie him down so much (though when he gets very focused on what he is doing, I still need to lie him down before giving him a major change-of-direction flank).

We have not had a ton of success trying to follow this advice here—I tend to underflank Taz, stopping too soon, so the sheep continue to drift toward the draw. Then I have to reflank him and try again to stop him in an effective place. Finding the sweet spot to prevent movement toward the draw but not turned back toward me is tough. When I think I have found it, I stop him or give him a there and tell him to walk up. Sometimes this works and we're good for a little while. Other times, Taz will telegraph that I should be reflanking him, but I am often too slow to see it and think he is being hesitant or disobedient. I need to trust him more. By the time I realize my mistake and flank him, he is out of position and rushes to catch up, overcommitting to the flank in the process and turning them back toward me.

The sheep were extra heavy this morning, as it was cool out for a change (a big change!) and there was lots of grass to nibble on. Taz's reaction to the extra heaviness of the sheep this morning was to blow off many of my lie down commands, which served to exacerbate the problems we had cross driving this line. Alas, no matter how many times my evident frustration with Taz results in just freaking him out and making things worse, it is hard for me to stay matter-of-fact when he is continually blowing my commands off, no matter the reason. I am slowly getting a handle on this, but my frustration at my own failure to see the problems clearly enough and in enough time to effectively help him hampers my progress. It's one reason I find it so difficult to not let my dog practice poor work. I mean, what is so hard about stopping what we're doing and addressing a blown command right then? Nothing—it should be a no-brainer! Yet I do let him get away with blowing off commands because I still sometimes don't see things clearly enough until it is too late. After all, sometimes (as in his telegraphing that I should flank him) he is correct and I am the one who is asking for the wrong thing. But what ends up happening is that I allow him to blow off a few commands, then get frustrated that he is not listening and overreact. His mind wasn't blown or anything, but he wasn't thinking as much. We'll try it all over again tomorrow, perhaps setting things up a bit closer and being a bit more mindful that being consistent and keeping my cool will get us there faster in the long run.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Sun Card

My Facebook tarot card reading tells me that good things lie ahead. I took a simple multiple choice quiz, and I drew the Sun Card. "Many Good fortunes will soon come to pass in the form of Good Health, Material happiness, and Achievement. There is Joy and happiness in your future."

Say what you will about the accuracy and authenticity of Facebook quizzes, but I am choosing to believe every word. Because, you see, I am on a mission for change. No, not the change Obama promised (though I am looking forward to more of that as well), but a change of my own making. I proclaim that I will heretofore Whine Less and Work More.

What has brought about this resolve? Well, a couple of days ago, I competed in a fun trial. But I didn't have very much fun. Taz and I didn't do very well. There are lots of reasons, but I think the main one was that I have lately been working on loosening Taz up and letting him regain some of the natural ability I've taken out of him with my crappy timing and unique handling style involving nagging/letting him ignore me for a while/until I freak out and overcorrect him and then he freaks out. So I've been trying to let him make more decisions, work things out on his own, do things the way he wants unless he is making poor decisions. Commanding him only when he is making mistakes. This seems simple to do, but it has been surprisingly hard for me to carry out. I tend to either overcommand or let him get away with murder.

And this is what happened at the trial. I was in a stressed-out and pissy mood that morning anyway, and I told myself the one thing I'd do during our run was to keep my cool. No screeching. But I took that strategy too far and didn't really handle poor Taz much at all. His outrun was unexpectedly tight and flat. It hasn't been bad in practice lately (though I'll admit it hasn't been stellar either). I should have taken advantage of this being only a fun trial to "manually" widen him out and remind him that just because he is running in a trial did not mean he could get away with substandard work. But I gave him a mild "get out of that" correction, which he took, before he then sliced in hard at the top. And things went downhill from there. He didn't have a wild run, he just was off line the entire time, and I was uninspired in helping him get the sheep back on line. In an effort not to overhandle him, I might as well have run the course silently for all the direction I gave him.

Not on the same page...

After sulking about my crappy handling skills for a little while, I decided I need to either commit to doing this or accept that it will take me about 42 more years to hope to compete at the open level. I think at least part of the reason I struggle and seem to do so much moving up and down the ladder of understanding how to handle my dog is because I simply do not work my dog enough to effectively build on what we learn. It's true that I am at a disadvantage for not having my own sheep to practice with. It's true that I have a full-time job and must supplement my meager income with a lot of freelance work, so I don't have very much time. It's true that blah blah blah. Excuses I have. More time spent working my dog I need.

Fewer excuses. More time working the woolies!

So I have made a promise to myself that I will work my dog at least three times a week for the next seven weeks (basically until trial season starts here). In the grand scheme, it's not really a long time period, so this should be doable. It won't always be easy to schedule this time with the sheep—especially as I typically do a couple of hours of freelance work in the mornings before going to my day job, but I will change my work habits to complete this freelance work in the evenings before bed instead. I predict I will struggle keeping to this schedule at times. But I feel like three times a week is the minimum I can work Taz and expect to progress. And it's not forever. If I can do this, I can reassess how often I need to train once the trials begin based on how far (if anywhere) we've come.

It beats sitting around whining anyway!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

So many things still to learn...

I've been working Taz once or twice a week this winter, and I'm super excited about everything I've been learning lately. We are figuring out how to work together and still making lots of mistakes but not really fumbling blind as much anymore. I learned some really important lessons when I was at Scott's in November, but the biggest one was how to help Taz when he isn't quite sure what I am asking of him. I've been doing this stockdog stuff for a little while now, but I didn't truly understand how to help my dog before spending that weekend in Alberta. It boils down to using my body and pressure to make things clearer to the dog what I want him to do. Prior to this realization, I had mostly been yelling at him (sigh). It's so basic it's embarrassing, but it was a lesson I absolutely had to learn at some point, and better late than never. And it has made a humongous difference in how I approach working with Taz.

Scott had had me do the same thing over and over (send Taz for tiny outruns) when I was at his place, and for the longest time I was only able to really focus on one different component of it at a time (which I am sure caused Scott to roll his eyes around to the back of his head, though he never showed any impatience, bless him). I just had a real blind spot about Taz's outruns and was at first unable to really see where he was going wrong until it was too late. Scott gave me constant, real-time feedback and I was slowly able to put all the pieces together—to understand what Taz should be doing at every stage, recognize when he wasn't doing it, and then help him understand what he needed to do. (Of course, Scott had taught Taz what correct flanks and nice pace and straight lines were last winter, but I had to figure out how to clearly communicate with Taz what I wanted from him. He needs some guidance to maintain his good habits—he needs someone to work with him to get a job done.) I got it, and Taz was working wonderfully.

Taz's outruns mostly look pretty good these days. He is listening to me well, and we didn't do too badly in a recent arena trial (actually, I think it was the first time we truly worked together during a trial, so I consider it a big success!). But lately we've been working on driving, and it's a whole 'nother challenge. I mean, I thought I knew how to drive. I've been driving with Craig for two and a half years—it's kind of straightforward, right? Hmm. Not so much. Craig has been taking sweet care of me in ways I never even realized. Driving with Taz is very different. He needs more guidance than mega-experienced Craig does. I am back to trying to remember lots of different things at once, and Scott isn't here to keep me paying attention to all the important details. Fortunately, Elaine (another very patient person) has been helping me, though, and I am sure Taz is thanking her for that!

I know enough now to try to help him instead of just trying to correct him (though I lapse sometimes and become inexplicably rooted to the ground, engaging only my larynx—not so often anymore, though). But oh so many other things to keep in mind...
  •  We start with the classic: Watch the sheep, not the dog. I should get this tattooed on my brain. I try to watch the sheep, but I inevitably start to forget to do this as I make sure my dog is listening to me. Elaine keeps telling me how I will be able to tell if Taz is listening by the behavior of the sheep, and I know this intellectually, but I guess I still don't entirely trust it because I keep finding my eyes glued to my dog.
  • I have an awful habit of saying "there, lie down." Like I don't trust him to take the there or something, though he usually does—at least when I am asking for it appropriately. I am now apparently teaching him to ignore it, though, by consistently giving him a different command right afterward. This has been a surprisingly difficult habit to break, because I don't realize I'm doing it at the time. So I've been working to be very careful when I ask for a there, or just ask for a lie down if I can't control myself...
  • When the sheep speed up, Taz should check himself, and if he doesn't, he needs a "time," and if he doesn't take that, he needs to lie down.
  • But he must get up on his feet before the sheep stop, or I'll just end up taking his power away from him by lying him down so much. Get him up if he is taking too long to get to his feet himself.
  • Don't let him blow off flanks during a drive—get on him if he doesn't take what I ask him, especially when he just walks forward instead of flanking.
  • In contrast, if I ask for a walk up and he flanks a bit, he may be right in his efforts to keep the sheep on a line. But make sure he flanks a little and then locks on, rather than sidling up until he catches their eye and turns them.
Lots of other little stuff, too, but these are the main points I'm working on for now.  It's been tons of fun working and learning all this stuff, and I'm hoping to make some progress before the trial season starts. I'm also trying to get serious about getting Taz to take my whistles—he knows his whistles with Scott, though Scott said he had a rough time learning them. I am trying to work on them a little each time I go out, though I ran out of time today, and I hope to get him solid on them with me by May, too.

This is so much fun!