I haven’t been writing much about my training of late, but I have been doing it, and doing it diligently I might add!  I’ve been going out to the farm three mornings a week, and also doing some agility work in the evenings.  

Here is a short video I took of Mira last week.  I am just getting her to keep the sheep pointed at me as she has a tendency to try and hold them to the pressure line.  You will notice that the sheep keep drifting left, which is the direction away from pressure.  She wants to push them up the pressure line and I’m trying to get her to bring them to me, regardless of where pressure is.  You can see that she also over flanks a bit, generally again to put them back on my left side.  By the end of the video she gets them nice and straight (please forgive the horrible audio commentary).  It’s hard to get the dog to really concentrate on you when you are focused on a camera!  Also, she’s a bit close to the sheep, but I don’t want to push her off at this point as she’s shown me to have a tendency to be wide in other situations, and I don’t want her to get wider than necessary:

Overall I’m happy with how both dogs are doing.  Hannah and I have been struggling with driving.  Yes, still.  I’ve been in discussion with a friend I made at the trials a couple of weeks ago and he’s given me some really good training advice, and also some excellent insight into my dog.  He pointed out that dogs, as they get tired or stressed, will revert back to what the know best.  Hannah is very good at gathering and bringing sheep to me, but is struggling with the idea of pushing them away from me.  She is what is called a very ‘natural’ dog.  When we start out with driving, she usually does well for a while, then things fall apart.  And the more they fall apart, the worse it gets.  I find I generally cannot get it back on track at all that day.

My friend suggested that what is happening is that as she starts to tire and make mistakes, I get after her.  The more I get after her the more she stresses and the more mistakes she makes.  It’s a vicious circle.  Really wanting to please me, but being tired and not really understanding the point of the current exercise, Hannah reverts to what she knows usually works: heading and gathering.

In further discussion, we came up with two ways I can try and fix this.  First, instead of doing the driving at the end of our training session, we need to do it at the beginning.  Second, I need to set her up for success, keep things light and positive, and keep training sessions short.  I definitely tend to get zoned out on what we are doing and can train for an hour or longer, which is way too long for Hannah’s brain to stay fresh!

Another problem we are having right now is that the sheep have been moved into a large field with waste high grass.  So before we can even get started, Hannah has to go and do a blind gather of the entire flock (about 40 ewes & lambs in that field), then we have to separate out a working group.  This is much, much easier said than done.  The ewes stick with their lambs, and some of the lambs are too tiny to work.  Trying to separate out a group of large enough sheep to work with a dog (and handler) who doesn’t know how to shed is no easy feat.  Hannah is getting really good at understanding which sheep I want, however, and which ones to leave.  She amazed me the other day when the group we had contained a really ornery sheep I wanted to leave behind.  Amazingly it split off from the other 4 so I asked her to “watch!” and hold that single sheep while I ran back to the gate to open it.  The sheep tried to return to the rest of the group, and she wouldn’t let it!  That really impressed me considering how badly she likes to keep them together.

Today she amazed me again when we were trying to get our working group out of the flock.  I had split the flock in two (something we repeat several times until we have small group to work with).  So we had about 20 sheep in one group, and around 20-30 wandering off back to the center of the field.  Our group then tried to rejoin the other.  I sent Hannah to stop them.  She of course did a wide flank and started to gather the entire flock.  I called her to “come in!” and she did, doing an outrun between the two groups of sheep and only gathering the ones I wanted.  

Part of me worries that she may learn to leave sheep behind with all this splitting of the flock and letting sheep go etc.  But I guess real farmwork involves this sort of selective work, and that’s what the dog needs to learn how to do.  Border collies are very intelligent and I suspect they can understand when you want all the sheep, or just some, once they get enough practice.  I can call to Hannah and point my body (or even just my arm) at the group I want and say “this!” and she will now focus on that group.

I think this is all good – I don’t really know because I haven’t had a lesson in a very long time.  During the last lesson I had our instructor lamented that we had not really made much progress since she last saw us and that she was surprised and dismayed by this.  That was hard to hear, but upon reflection I realized that she did not see us gather a whole flock and shed off sheep to work, then move them through gates and so on.  She only watched us drive, and yes, we have not really improved much on that front.  But we’ll get there eventually, I’m sure.