I have been chatting with my new friend from the trials quite regularly about how to fix some of my training problems. He is tremendously insightful and has not only identified a bunch of things I have been doing that hinder my dog, but also provided simple and effective solutions as to how to solve them. The problems in question were specifically:
1) When working on separating the sheep, I have let some get away. I did this because I was so determined to get my working group that I figured “oh well” as the extras ran away, and moved “forward” with my training, hoping the experience of letting sheep escape wouldn’t hurt my dog too much. As I’ll discuss below, this is BAD!
2) When trying to get some sheep separated off by pushing them through a gate and then closing the gate after a few go through (the ones I’d keep to work), I would stand at the gate, holding it ready to slam shut. This effectively blocked the sheep from going through the gate, pushing hard against my dog who is trying to get 70 sheep to go through a small space they don’t want to go through. Again, very BAD! (bad handler, BAD!)
On the way to the farm, I reminded myself that I was going to just focus on each step at a time and not worry about the bigger plan of getting Hannah driving. Right now we need to figure out how to separate out sheep, so if that’s as far as we get for the day, that’s just fine. Once there, I discovered that the field had been mowed, so the sheep were much easier to find! That certainly helped.
I took Hannah out into the middle of the field (instead of sending her from the gate) and sent her to pick up the flock and bring them back to me – in the center of the field, instead of into the high pressure barnyard where we had been working before. She did quite easily, and as they got close to me and started to string out, I had her separate them in half and then drive one half down the field (see, we did some driving after all!). We went back to the other group, split them, and drove that half to join the first group. We kept doing that until we had just a small group of 4 left. They were pretty ornery so I decided to call it a success (and not try and split them in half) and sent her to get the whole flock and bring them all back together again. Getting to put them all back together again was her reward for having done all those sheds.
At one point, when working with larger groups, she let some of them get away. Obviously she’d learned that this was ok because I’d allowed it before. This time I tried to get her to stop them, but she ignored them. So I laid her down, walked over to her and sent her to collect the whole flock and start over. She never let another sheep get away after that! She even ran down and brought back a single about 20 feet from the group it was trying to get to. :))
After finishing this exercise, I still needed some sheep to work with Mira, so I had her bring the whole flock over to the evil gate. This time, however, I opened it outward and walked around to the same side of the flock as Hannah. She pushed them through no problem. I then let her round them up and bring them back into the barnyard, closing the gate before the last 4 got through. Before I was closing the gate after the first four, which meant the whole rest of the flock pushed back against the dog. By closing it on the last four, and with the sheep moving in the direction they really wanted to go (i.e. back into the barnyard), there was almost no pressure at all for the dog. That left us a nice little group to work, and Hannah was completely successful in moving the sheep through the gate twice!!!
This exercise made me realize just how much my bad handling affects my dog’s confidence and ability to do her job! Thanks to the insight my friend provided, I realized a whole bunch of ways I could help her be successful instead of get in her way or work against her. What a difference. You could see it in her body language quite clearly. I called it a day for her and let her go for a swim. She smiled at me as much as to say “you did well today, mum, good girl.”
Mira, on the other hand, had a rough start to training. The sheep have not been worked by dogs in months and are really heavy and ornery. One – who had a lamb with her – kept turning on Mira and threatening to charge. Mira didn’t know how to handle it. Quite frankly, neither did I. I tried to get around on the same side and help when I could but that was tricky. But eventually the other three figured out that Mira wouldn’t do anything to stop them and they actually pushed right over her to get back to the barn. They literally left her in a heap in the grass. What a disaster!
I had to think hard, but then decided to put these ornery sheep into the square corral which is about 50×50, with short grass. That gave us a small space where I could really help my dog, and the sheep couldn’t get away. I put her on a line to make sure I could stop her when necessary, and worked at getting her to go around and around the sheep, in both directions, in a corner and up against the fence. At first I moved around with her so the added pressure would make sure the sheep moved. Once they got what was going on, she didn’t need my help anymore. We did this in many variations for about 10 minutes, until she was comfortably going around and lifting the sheep off the fence and out of the corners. Hopefully that helped build up some of her confidence again.
The other thing I worked on was getting her to stop crossing behind me to get to their heads if that is the shortest direction. She does that out in the field and even if I run at her to stop her, she just gets wider and runs past me. So when working in that tiny paddock, I put her on a line so I could step on it, stop her and send her the right way. It took a few times of me stopping her and then she started to flip and go the right way on her own, just with my body pressure.
So while Mira’s lesson got off to a rough start, I think we salvaged it quite nicely. I think I will continue to work her in the small fields for a bit, to do some close work. The big field was necessary to give her room when she was so wild, but now we need to fine tune some things.