I learned a few things about Hannah at the workshops. For one, she really needs to get back into agility. It’s been a couple of months since we stopped training and it took some work to get her to focus on me and follow my handling. She’s fine with obstacles, but the shadow handling was tough. All she wanted to do was sniff the ground. I’m not sure if that was a stress thing or if she was searching for treats, but I had a bit of a challenge putting a stop to it.
I have noticed a slide in Hannah’s willingness to listen of late, both on the herding field and around the house. The drop in her focus was really apparent in these workshops. She sort of zones out and I have to tap her on the head or call her name sharply to get her to focus back on me. It’s as if she’s bored and distracted. I think it mostly is the result of her being able to make a lot of choices on her own, and she’s starting to blow me off, preferring to self-reward. She has always lacked confidence a little, and will take the route of self-rewarding if given the option, which I have been allowing. This is in large part because she’s generally so obedient that I rarely give her any structure anymore. This needs to be fixed sooner rather than later! I should add that in most people’s eyes, Hannah is amazingly obedient. But I know that she is capable of faster, more focused responses.
I think herding is also contributing to this, which may seem contradictory. With herding, the dog is working off instinct and, especially when being handled by a novice like me, can zone in on the sheep to the exclusion of what her handler is asking. She is obsessed with working and only reluctantly leaves the sheep. And unless I am perfect, her ‘I know what I’m doing’ takes over and she tends to blow me off.
I see this ‘zoning out’ as chronic disease. It runs in her lines. It’s interesting to see which of her siblings have inherited it and which haven’t. Her sister, for example, did not. As 6 month old puppies at a trial, Hannah would stare, every muscle tense and quivering, while watching the sheep being worked on the field. Her sister would ignore them completely, and lie calmly chewing on her leash or Hannah’s tail.
The first dog I tried herding with – Jasmine – was a rescue who had this zoning to out an extreme. I think in her case it was a form of dog autism (could be so with Hannah too, just much milder). I am quite convinced that dogs develop autism, just like people do. In fact I think it is extremely common in dogs, and may of the rescues I’ve taken in I believe to have it to varying degrees. One explanation is that the distemper vaccine they are given is the same as the measles vaccine, which is (controversially) attributed to autism in humans. I am inclined to believe this to be true from what I have seen, especially as I’ve observed dogs become worse after receiving a distemper “booster”. There may also be a link to stress, which of course many rescues endure in spades.
Jas was horrible with sheep. All she wanted to do was chase and bite, and after four months of lessons, we had made little progress. Long lines and flippers (a floppy hand held devise that you flick towards the dog to get its attention) made no impression on her, and my trainer said the only way we were going to get her to put us in the picture was to use force and physical punishment. I didn’t want to herd badly enough to start hitting my dog, so I retired her from herding and did agility instead. There we made tremendous progress and she did quite well. We finally started bonding and having fun together. She eventually was placed in a cattle herding home and is doing very well now.
When Hannah was younger, she would zone out more, and then shut down if we tried to pressure her to pay attention. I put her up for four months last winter and just did agility with her. When we started again in the spring, she was a different dog. Mind you, she had also grown up more and had a second heat cycle, and more homeopathic treatment. Plus I had brought Mira into the house and Hannah had gone from being very puppish to being quite adult in just a few weeks. So I can’t attribute her change exclusively to agility, but I think working closely with me, and in a fun, low-pressure atmosphere where she could do not wrong, did wonders for her confidence levels.
Many agility people are convinced that border collies can do both herding and agility with no problem. Many herding people disagree, arguing that agility will ruin a dog’s working ability. Based on my experience to date, which I realize is very limited, I would argue the former. I only knew a very small number of people who have done both with the same dog, as time really limits putting this to the test, but those who do agree what what I have said here. One is even running her agility dog in open in herding now, so I have high hopes to do the same. I guess time will tell!