Ok, my first frustration is trying to compose this via dial-up internet on a 100 year old computer.  Remember what it is like to type and have to wait a few seconds for your words to show up?  You get the picture… I was going to just wait until I got home to catch up on my blogging, but as it is I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to write about this past week.  So I’ll try and get a few things down for now…

It’s raining today, soft and steady.  It is supposed to rain a lot more over the next day and a half as hurricane Ike follows this low front from out west.  We’re actually under severe weather warnings and yesterday I went home to pull everything off my basement floor that might be damaged if it floods.

I have been farm sitting for the past week while my instructor is out west at the USBCHA national finals.  It’s been fun reading the details on their official website as well the World Sheepdog Trials – also going on this week – and following a few of the live blogs around each event.  These are serving as sources of inspiration, not so much in that I’ll ever be good enough to compete in these events (or even really want to – I’m not good with that kind of stress!) but rather in reading about people acheiving their goals with their dogs.

I have a few goals of my own with my dogs, and I have hit some stumbling blocks in trying to acheive them this week.  Namely, I want to train my dogs well and help them ‘be all that they can be.’  Of course these dogs are so smart that even with one there aren’t enough hours in the day to truly maximize their potential, but I hope to at least bring out their best and put their natural talent to proper use.

Today I was seriously wondering if I am ever going even come close to acheiving this. Hannah is driving much better these days, and is actually shedding well when we follow our usual routine.  She seems to get that we need a few sheep to work and when I split some off the whole flock, she scoops them up and moves them off, and there’s no way they’re getting past her.  So that is a big improvment.  But otherwise I don’t know that we’re making much headway, despite training 3-4 times a week.

Hannah is still an obsessive header and still seems to lose her head completely unless I am telling her exactly what to do.  Several times today I said nothing when I sent her to pick up sheep and she actually ended up circling them completely.  She did lift them, but crookedly.  She went to their heads, but when they turned again (towards me) she once again went to their heads.  I was completely out of the picture and she’d obviously lost all thought of actually bringing the sheep to me.

I first noticed this when sending her to pick up the whole flock in the tall grass. I would lose sight of her for a while, then discover her facing up the field, between me and the sheep, having gone completely around the flock.  I assumed she was just getting lost in the tall grass, but she’s still doing this when the grass is short, I am in plain sight, and I’m giving her commands to correct this.  Today I had to run almost all the way to the sheep to get back into the picture.  Today she also did this when picking up 5 sheep on an outrun.

I don’t know what I am doing wrong.  Have I pushed her too far to fast?  I have had no other way to get sheep to train on other than to send her for the whole flock, then split some off.  But she is closing in on 3 years of age and no longer a puppy, and should be able to figure this stuff out.  So what’s going on?  She’s also STILL refusing to take flanks on the fetch and often ignoring my flanks while driving, making me repeat them which of course means the sheep are way off course by the time she listens.

I’m sure this is all my fault, but today I absolutely lost my cool.  I hollered at her at the top of my lungs several times.  WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!!! as she circled the sheep she was supposed to be fetching.  I can’t tell if she’s confused, stressed or just goofing around.  She actually straightened out instantly after I yelled at her, so I’m wondering if it is the latter.

Last night I read an interesting article someone sent me written by Vergil Holland.  It is about how to get your dog to stop ‘flopping’ (published in Working Border Collie magazine).  Flopping is when they flank and flank and flank when they really should be holding a straight line.  He explains that the problem is the dog gets too close to the sheep so has to flank from side to side to see what’s going on.  This is a dog who doesn’t know where the natural comfort zone of the sheep is, and how to stay off them far enough to see the whole picture, yet close enough to still apply the correct pressure.  When the dog is in this perfect balance distance, the sheep should be quiet, standing still when the dog lies down (which it should do of it’s own accord) or circles them.  A dog who can’t do this unaided doesn’t understand what it is supposed to be doing.  This is a big hole in the dog’s foundation training that then needs to be patched.  Holland gives some exercises to fix this, which seems straight forward on paper.

They aren’t in practice.  The first thing he does is test the dog’s understanding by having her do a small outrun and bring the sheep to you without you saying anything.  If the dog brings the sheep to your feet and lies down on its own, without pushing the sheep past you, then it understands the comfort zone.  If not, you need to do his exercises (which you can find in his article).

I tried this out on Hannah.  I let her bring me the sheep and said nothing.  She blew them past me, circled (headed) to pick them up, blew them past me again, repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.  I stood there for several minutes, saying nothing, watching my dog chase the damn sheep all over the field.  In fact, the longer this went on, the wilder things got.  The sheep started getting really rattled and started blasting down the field, the dog got wider and wider.  It was a mess.

Clearly my dog has a huge hole in her training, something that Holland says must be fixed before you start doing outruns of even 20 yards, let alone 200-300 like we have been doing. What a mess.

I tried doign his exercises but I really had no idea how to implement them.  I think we made some progress, but I’m not sure.  Perhaps she was just getting tired.  But by the end of the session (I drilled my poor dog for well over an hour in the pouring rain) she was holding a better distance and also not flopping.  Or at least as much.

I think I need to do a lot of close work with her for a while.  I realyl wish I could afford to go to a trainer (been unemployed for going on 4 months now so it’s just not an option) to have other holes assessed, and to help me fill them.  I’m gaterhing from what I’m reading that there’s so much I don’t even know exists when it comes to training a dog, even at the very novice level, that my poor dogs probably don’t have a chance of ever realizing their potential.  They say it takes a year per limb to make a dog (4 years) and 2-3 years per limb to make a handler (10 years).  So perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  And many of these top handlers are self-taught.  Still, I clearly need help and am feeling very frustrated that I can’t afford to go take clinics and the like.  I’m reading as much as I can, but theory will only get you so far.