Dog training, for me, is all about problem solving. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much – there’s always something new to learn, always something different to deal with. Every dog is different and so is every situation. I’ve been training dogs for just shy of 20 years now, and I still find I learn something new almost every training session, be it doing herding, agility, obedience, tracking or whatnot.
Today I learned a number of things. First, I think I figured out what Hannah’s ‘problem’ has been this past week: the cows. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my new herding friend gave me some really good insight based on his struggles with one of his dogs who is very much like Hannah. He said that his dog reverts to what she knows best when she gets stressed, rattled or tired. And what she knows best is to head the sheep. After he told me that, I noticed the same in Hannah (as I have also already discussed): she starts off doing quite well and then things get worse as our training session goes on and she get tired or frustrated. That meant with driving she would start to ignore my flanks and head the sheep if I left driving until too long into our training. Of course at a trial the drive comes after the outrun and fetch so she’s going to have to drive when a bit tired there. But that’s only a couple of minutes into a run. When I train, I had been getting to the driving after about 30 minute of work or more.
So I switched things up and started with driving, and discovered that she was doing it really well for a while. Then things fell apart last week. Today it hit me why – to get sheep to work I have to send her out into the big pasture field to gather the flock, then split some off for training. Well now that the cows are in there, this has become a much more difficult task. Tonight the cows and sheep were all together and it took us nearly half an hour to get our training group. And Hannah wasn’t able to get the sheep at all. She went out several times and started bringing them back (I had to redirect her outrun about 5-6 times as she kept stopping way short and lying down), but then the cows got in the way and the sheep stopped and she just couldn’t push against that kind of pressure.
Then one of the calves decided to charge her. He started running at her, and she did get out of his way, but then she lay down and started to grovel like she would to another dog. I was afraid she’d get trampled so I called her back. Dang calf chased her half way across the field. She kept stopping, turning and groveling, and I kept having to recall her. She might have been able to take care of herself out there but I didn’t want to chance her getting hurt. She not only came back to me but ran out the gate and back to the car. Definitely not a cow dog that one! I put her up and brought out the big guns: Mira.
I put Mira on a leash and walked out towards the cows and sheep. The cows ran away. It’s amazing how stock senses a dog who is not 100% in control! I let Mira off-leash and sent her, from my feet, to pick up the sheep. She put in a beautiful outrun, kicking out right from my feet, and picked up all the sheep. My jaw almost landed in a cow pie! Who’d’a thought Mira could do the job, and do it well!
Lesson learned: have more faith in your dog! I really never considered using Mira to get the flock before, but she did a lovely job and wasn’t at all phased by the cows.
I then had to bring Hannah back out to separate out our working group and get down to work. She did that fine, but was a mess in training. That’s when it hit me how much being stress affects her. Getting those sheep out from the cows was really tough on her, and she eventually had to give up after trying to do something I had asked her to do. No wonder she started blowing me off on the drive. It probably didn’t help that I decided to train in the tiny paddock to mix things up a bit. Lots and lots of pressure in there, and the sheep were quite flighty because they didn’t get a work-out first. I usually train in a big field so they get run around a bit and that tires them out. Tonight was tough: tough sheep, tough pressure. Good training for both handler and dog. Next time I will start with some really basic stuff to calm her head before we go to driving. Or perhaps I’ll train in an easier field if we have a really tough time getting the sheep.
Mira and I had a really tough time in that little paddock as she just wouldn’t give up pressure. If I turned around to wear back down the field, she would stay put and refused to get behind the sheep. I pushed and pushed and finally got her doing it but turns out she was right! If she was behind the sheep – no matter how far back – they bolted past me and down the field. I finally let her stay put and she managed the sheep from almost behind me for a bit. Once I let her do that, she freed up and moved around them more easily. And as she got the sheep more under control (her way) and thus settled, she gradually moved further off pressure. Good handler training that was, let me tell you. Nothing is more humiliating than having your dog show you just how badly you’ve read a situation! But often that’s the best way to learn. I need to work in that little paddock more often as it sure changes things up!