I can’t believe it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve had time to write!  I have just been so busy lately that I haven’t had the energy to write during the few moments of spare time that I have had.  I thought things would wind down with the end of the school year, but no luck with that!  Between an intensive teaching training course I’ve been taking, moving back and forth to the sheep farm, and starting to get ready for my big move in June, plus getting my garden going and of course taking care of the dogs and doing all my food projects, I simply have not had time to write.  

I wish I could say that things are going to slow down now, but they really aren’t.  My course winds up this week, but next week I leave for a 7 day “vacation,” which includes attending the Kevin Evans clinic I registered for and visiting a few friends along the way there and back.  Should be fun, but it means doing a lot of work this week in order to be able to get away for that long.  

As for the dogs, they are doing well.  I have been getting them out pretty much every day for a good run, and we’ve even gotten in some training on sheep.  As I mentioned, I took care of the sheep farm for 10 days, which was great.  I only wish I hadn’t had to drive back and forth to the city each day, packing up dogs and cats every time.  That ate up about 2 hours of my day, just with the commute.  So training ended up taking place at the end of the day when I was exhausted and cranky.  

Hannah went back to work like she had never stopped.  She’s just so amazing that way.  The same was true when we took an agility workshop after not doing agility for 5 months.  Hannah is simply an extremely level headed, consistent dog.  What a treat!  Mira, on the other hand, went back to square one and was quite a challenge.  More on that in a moment.

Hannah really enjoyed training but I found that she got bored after about 3 times out.  Funny, so did I.  I was getting bored with training her when we stopped last fall.  Hannah is really a fully trained dog for the level of work available on this small farm, so while she has plenty of room for improvement and still lots she (and I) could learn, repeating the training patterns we’ve done in the past is simply not a challenge any more.  

Mira kept me on my toes, but I got frustrated because she really had gone back to almost square one.  She did at least go get the sheep and bring them back to me, but I couldn’t get her to balance to me.  Instead all she wanted to do was hold the sheep on pressure, which means she would position herself to block the sheep where ever they wanted to go (typically back to the barn) instead of positioning herself so that she held the sheep to me.  This became extremely frustrating and I didn’t know how to fix it.  On our last day at the farm, I walked off the field with her wondering if I should just give up with this dog.  

It’s very hard for me to know if the problem is with the trainer (i.e. me), or with the dog.  I have to say that probably 99% of problems in training lie with the trainer, so I suspected that Mira’s issues were due to my novice ability to teach her.  At the same time, Mira’s line is a tough one to train.  Mira has a couple of close relatives (her sire & a half sister) who have won major championships.  At the same time, I know of over half a dozen other dogs closely related to her who’s handlers were never able to get them working.  Would these dogs work with a different trainer?  Quite possibly, but this still suggests a line that takes a skilled and experienced handler to get up and running.  Skilled & experienced handler I am not.  

Very fortunately, I had the opportunity to have this question answered this weekend.  I have been in touch with Kestrel’s “grand” breeder – i.e. the breeder of her dam.  This woman is a very experienced shepherdess and sheepdog trainer who moved to North America from the UK.  She very kindly invited me to her farm so that she could meet Kess and evaluate her potential for me.  She suggested I bring the other dogs as well, and offered to give me an evaluation of them too.  What a great opportunity!

First we took Kess out.  While the trainer basically said that Kess shows good potential but is still very pupp-ish and only time will tell, I was extremely impressed with what I saw.  I have only watched a small number of dogs get up and started (a dozen or so) but Kess was probably the best I have seen to date.  She was miles better than Mira was at this age or stage.  Kess was very quick to balance to me and extremely responsive to my body language.  To say she is keen is an understatement, yet she still called off nicely when I asked.  I was warned that she is likely going to turn into a heat seeking missle when she really gets started, but everything she displayed was very promising.  

And to think this dog nearly was put to sleep.

Hannah worked very nicely and was assessed as being “a good bitch.”  With Hannah, the trainer focused mostly on me because that’s where the improvement needs to be made.  This has always been the case with Hannah.  The trainer suggested that I set tasks for us to do instead of training for a trial course.  For example, split off several of the sheep, move them to another part of the farm, then have Hannah help me catch one single one to check its feet.  Anything practical.  Hannah is too smart to find doing trial patterns interesting.

The other thing she said about Hannah is that what she really needs is good solid daily work to “loosen” her up.  Hannah does have a lot of eye, but she is not sticky.  Hannah could become sticky, however, if I’m not careful.  She showed me some exercises to do in a small area to work on getting Hannah to move more loosely around the stock.  

She also constructively pointed out things I was doing wrong (in a very polite and constructive manner): I talk too much (no surprise there!); I don’t use my voice intonation enough; I need to be more clear in what I expect, and then make the dog do what I ask.  

Finally we took out Mira.  I told her the trouble I was having with Mira, and asked if she would work Mira and give me her honest opinion of this dog.  I said I needed to know if she has potential and that I am simply screwing her up, or if the dog really is not going to work (as so many have told me).  

She spent a lot of time with Mira.  First she gave me a tour of the farm and had me bring Mira along.  She watched Mira as we went through the buildings and around the other animals.  Mira was reactive, startling at noises and movement.  She commented that at least Mira recovers quickly and gets over it.  This is true, and a change from how she used to be.  She also commented that Mira “has another agenda.”  Also true!  Mira has always had another agenda, that’s for sure!

On stock, Mira actually did quite well.  The trainer took her into a small corral with half a dozen sheep.  Mira was on a long line so that everything could be kept under control.  She had Mira go around the stock, lifting the sheep out of corners.  At first Mira dove in, scattered the sheep, tail flying and even barking.  But soon she settled down and worked more calmly and seriously.  

Overall, she said that Mira definitely had potential and that I should keep working with her.  She said Mira is not consistent, but when she’s “on,” she’s not too bad.  Hopefully Mira will become more consistent as she gains confidence (which she lacks) and experience.

I left feeling very positive about the whole experience.  I was particularly pleased to learn that Mira’s issues were predominantly my bad handling.  I will get better, so that means there’s hope for us yet.  It was really good to take a lesson after so long, and I probably should have done so earlier.  I now have some concrete skills to practice and goals to focus on.  Too bad I still don’t have any sheep!!!  This weekend I’m going to a herding demo at the local pioneer village being put on by a couple who are open to dogs training on their stock.  Fingers crossed, I hope to work something out!

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