Well herding this weekend went much, much better than last time. Thank goodness! I spent much of the past week mulling over last week’s disastrous lesson, and spent a good hour on the phone hashing it out with my instructor.
I am very fortunate to have an instructor who is so determined to have us succeed! She had also been wondering why things had fallen apart so badly and had come up with a number of ideas to try and fix it. She knows my commitment to positive training, and while she does use some compulsion, is more or less on the same page herself. We discussed going back to basics and a few other options until we had a plan.
Until now, what we have been doing is having me work Hannah to the best of my ability, and if (generally when) things fall apart beyond what I can repair, she steps in and takes over to fix things and end on a good note. This usually plays out as follows: I start with a very high-energy dog who is super keen to work. Things start out ok, then I make a mistake. The dog then starts to worry that we’re going to lose the sheep and starts to make decisions on her own. I get stressed and start speeding things up, and make more mistakes. The cycle continues, and sometimes spirals out of control with the dog blowing me off completely and working on her own. Usually by then she’s started chasing and splitting the sheep, and I end up running down the field hollering “YOU GET OUT OF THAT!!!” at the top of my lungs. When I get close, she immediately starts to listen and we get things back under control. We then start over, yet often end up in the same place.
This week, we reversed the sequence. My instructor started out working Hannah for about 10-15 minutes. Because she (my instructor) knows exactly what she’s doing, Hannah had no need to doubt her instructions, or to get worried and stressed. My instructor worked on Hannah’s flanks and lie downs, and a little driving. Hannah did beautifully and by the end of that short session, had lost her edginess. I was then handed over a calm steady dog happy to work and listen.
Ideally, of course, Hannah would be worked exclusively by me. But I just don’t have the skill yet. An article in this month’s Dog Sport Magazine mentioned how in horse training, you would never put a green rider on a green horse. In dog sports, however, a green-handler-green-dog team is very common. Very few people in fact ever start agility with a trained dog. In herding this happens more often, but finding a trained dog is difficult and typically expensive. A dog who can run a novice-novice course, for example, will run at least $2000. I actually came across a 10-year-old retired open dog for $500, but didn’t realize just what a bargain that was.
So Hannah and I are learning together, although she was born with more understanding of herding than I’ll ever have. And even now she’s farther ahead than I. But it helps to have a dog who knows more, so I don’t mind my trainer working with her one bit, as long as I’m on the field when it happens and am still part of the picture.
Today I also discovered a major error in my understanding of herding. Anyone with any knowledge of the sport will probably think I’m and idiot, but at least I know now. On the fetch, you are supposed to bring the sheep on a straight line, the straighter the line, the higher the score. I understand straight lines, but what I didn’t get was that if the sheep move off this line, you need to get them back on the orginal line and then bring them to you. I had been just bringing them straight from wherever they ended up (typically well off the original centre line). My instructor kept hollering to bring them straight, which I thought I was doing!! Talk about miscommunication.
When we both finally realized the misunderstanding – which has been going on for months – my instructor got two pylons and set them up like fetch gates, such that they demarcated the center line I was to stick to. With that visual cue, I suddenly found it easy to push the sheep back to the center line and bring them straight down the field and through the pylons. Especially since Hannah was listening well after her introductory session.
All three of us were all very pleased with our progress and I’m hoping this breakthrough will help Hannah and I move off the plateau we’ve been on for the past couple of months and onward and upward.