Saturday, March 09, 2013

Tough ToughHound Collars!

A few weeks ago, I was approached by the folks at ToughHound to test out their dog collars. They sent me a ToughHound All Sports dog collar to try—it's a $29.95 collar with polycoated nylon webbing band and an integrated personalized  stainless steel nameplate free for one of my dogs in exchange for an honest review of the collar. I am always looking for tough, well-designed, good-looking collars for my active border collies, and at first glance, these collars looked promising, so I gladly accepted the offer.

I was not disappointed. I really like this collar—which I did not exactly expect. My preference for all of my dogs, most of whom are working border collies, is leather. I like the feel of leather, and I like the way it ages. Leather collars are durable and just look natural on my dogs. But the problem I have found with leather collars is that the one thing they don't hold up very well to is repeated water saturation. The dogs' leather collars do fine with the occasional rainstorm, of course, but my dogs spend a lot of time in water. They swim in streams in the summer, and the working dogs immerse themselves in stock tanks filled with refreshing water after running hard to move sheep. Whether we are training or trialing, they work nearly every day, and they jump in the tanks at least once (usually two or three times) during our work sessions. Getting waterlogged this often cracks their leather collars and makes them brittle.

So I've been curious about alternatives. The Toughhound collar is very sturdy but the material is surprisingly soft. It doesn't feel like plastic or rubber, really. It is just slightly textured and ribbed, and it feels much more like leather than other collars I've seen. I chose a brown collar, and it looks pretty natural. The square metal buckle is silver, as is the large D-ring. I am much more of a fan of silver than brass, and the hardware looks nice while being easy to fumble with. I prefer collars that have a center ring, partly because it is easier to clip a leash to a ring in the back of the collar, but also because I think it hangs nicely on the dogs' necks. This collar does not have a center ring, but unlike collars with nameplates riveted to the collars, this nameplate attaches two straps together the same way a center ring does—so the collar hangs the same way as a collar with a center ring. It looks good on the dogs and the ID is easy to spot.

The nameplate itself is a stainless steel square with four lines of upper- and lowercase text (the brown text matches the color of the collar—not sure if this is coincidence or not, but it looks great!). I had a choice of thirteen fonts and, of course, I could have any text I chose. I went with my name, phone number, Loose = Lost (not sure if people will understand what that means but there are a lot of wandering dogs in my neighborhood who are not missing—their owners just let them out to roam—and if my dogs ever get loose I want any people who find them to understand that these dogs are lost and missed), and finally REWARD! Also, I ordered a collar that turned out to be way too big for my dog. So I trimmed it with a pair of scissors, and it hasn't frayed or come apart at all.

Next, I put it on one of my dogs for a few weeks to see how it performed. And it was great! It held up like new to repeated dunking in water and immersion in lots of heavy snow. I didn't take my dogs swimming, but based on its performance in the stock tank, I am fairly confident it will do fine. It also held up well to the everyday playing, fetching through brush, and tumbling my dog put it through. It's not even scuffed. I'm pretty pleased with the collar. All in all, I am happy with how the collar looks and and is designed, and after several weeks of tough wear, it is holding up very well.

You can order one of these good collars at

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!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Taz is still awesome!

Things are still going really, really well with Taz. I haven't been able to work him very often since I went to Scott's. Well, actually, that's not quite true—I worked him nearly every day the week I got back, which was great. I got a good chance to really practice what I'd learned while everything was fresh in my mind. But then I was away for a week visiting family over the Thanksgiving holiday and I managed to work Taz only once, on the day I got back to Colorado, before it got obscenely cold for the next week and a half. Temps were in the single digits, except when they were in the negative digits, and every couple of days it snowed a few inches. Not exactly optimal working weather, especially when you don't have your own sheep. The weather finally broke a couple of days ago, and I took Taz and Craig out to Cathy's with Elaine this morning. I was a bit afraid I'd forgotten a lot about how to get the best work out of him during our time off, and all the dogs were wild and not listening very well when we got situated onto the field. They'd been cooped up inside for way too long and were ready to go. Surprisingly, though, as soon as Craig brought the sheep over to the field we were using, he and the rest of the dogs settled right down.

I am just so impressed with how Taz is working. He is still working wide and relaxed and stopping when I ask him to. He does slice a bit at the top every now and again, but when I get on him for it, he immediately responds. And he doesn't need much of a correction—just a "hey you" will push him out or get him to check himself. (Finally! Always those who know how to handle dogs would tell me how responsive Taz is to corrections, but he never was with me. Now, I am finally seeing him respond to my body language and small corrections in a big way, too. Hooray!) It still takes me a few times to see when he is slicing. Like today, I saw he was slicing a little but wasn't quite sure it was very much and didn't say anything the first time, but then I saw he did it again, so I corrected him, but was a fraction of a second too late. The third time, my timing was better and Taz not only kicked himself way out, but he also didn't slice on his next several outruns. Also, I am trying to be much quicker to offer him some guidance when he starts to not do what he should. Like during the fetch, he was guarding the draw as much as he was bringing the sheep to me, and I tried to be a bit more proactive in giving him some direction on where he needed to be to bring the sheep to my feet (rather than five steps to the right because he was overcompensating in his zeal to guard against the sheep breaking back to the draw) than I maybe used to. And he is generally looking pretty darn terrific as a result. We are, I hope, finally starting to communicate as partners. It's still early days, of course, but it feels like maybe we're starting to understand each other and work together a bit more. It's a great feeling!

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!

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!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meeker Classic 2009

I went to the Meeker Classic sheepdog trial last week, and it was just amazing seeing such talented dogs and skilled handling. The sheep were, as always, difficult and challenging and just plain uncooperative. Amanda Milliken and her 10-year-old Ethel made it look easy, though. Their winning run was incredible. Here are a few photos of the trial...

Faansie Basson's Jill

Jill brings the second set of sheep through the panels to join the first set

Derek Fisher's Jen

Bev Lambert's Hemp

Bev penning with Hemp

Reserve Champs Tommy Wilson and Sly at the pen

Red Oliver and Blaze

Libby Nieder's Lyn working at the international shed

Handlers watching the action

2009 Meeker Champs Amanda Milliken and Ethel show us how it's done

For more photos of the 2009 Meeker Classic, take a look here.