I have been visiting my parents for the past week, about two hours away from where I live. There are great hiking trails across the street from their house, but more and more people have been discovering them, and on a long weekend such places are becoming increasingly busy. I took the dogs there to run on Thursday afternoon and couldn’t believe the number of people already there. Other than a brief leg stretch in a patch of open grass, I had to keep them on-leash the whole time.
Very fortunately I had been in touch with a friend I made at the sheepdog trials last summer. I have been in touch with him on and off over the year, and have run into him at the place I train near my house. He had invited me to train at his farm, and this weekend I took him up on the offer. I thought he lived down the highway, but turns out he is about 40 minutes away through pleasant back country roads.
His farm is an excellent place to train and I really wish I was closer so that I could go more often. He has about 100 acres of cleared land, most of which is in waist high wildflowers. Absolutely gorgeous for hiking. I took the dogs for a good long run through those fields before going to sheep, to let them shake out their beans and clear their minds.
For sheep, he has several small pastures and a 10-acre fully fence field that has many dips and valleys and even a small swamp. So plenty of topographical challenges for dog and handler. His sheep are separated into two groups: ewes and rams. I worked mostly the rams, mostly lambs. These little ram lambs are not used to being worked by dogs, but they flock well. They are slow but not too heavy, so they move off a dog but don’t scatter or run wild. They were absolutely perfect for training Mira and Kess, and even for Hannah.
Because these sheep won’t run, I was able to have them stand still and work on putting sides on Mira. By that I mean that I would send her “come-by” and “away” (clockwise and counter-clockwise, respectively) around the sheep, over and over. The sheep would stand still, so I could just send the dog one way and another, getting her to listen to what I say and gradually take my body language out of the picture. Dogs will move very quickly on your body language, but you need them to understand the commands so that they can work when they are not looking at you. Mira is getting quite good at her sides and will even take inside flanks now quite reliably. An inside flanks is when the dog turns in against the natural flow of things, against balance and your body pressure. When they do this, it means they really understand what you are asking for.
Mira worked really, really, really well. The first day out the owner of the farm and another woman I met through trialing came to train with me. Both were very impressed by Mira, which surprised me. I guess I still see her as my “problem” dog, but on these calm sheep she actually works extremely well. I know many of her problems stem from insecurity, and much of that was caused by me at the start, not knowing how to build her confidence. And not helping by doing a lot of yelling, and telling her to do things incorrectly. Mira is showing me that dogs are very, very forgiving. I have completely changed my training style and starter her over from scratch this summer, and in just two months I have a new dog. I could probably run her in the October trials, but I won’t. I don’t want to push her too fast and have her regress to our old habits. Next spring will be soon enough.
Kess also did very well on these sheep. Again, because the sheep weren’t bolting, I was able to get her to wear very nicely. Gosh she’s a nice dog. Her balance is amazing, she counts her sheep, and has incredible natural ability to tuck in strays while keeping the main flock moving. She’s fearless yet gentle, has some eye but not too much. The other handlers were impressed by her as well. Giving her a good run before training really helps settle her and I hope to be able to do that where we regularly train from now on. There’s a big field behind the barn that has just been hayed, and I’m going to ask permission to hike the dogs there when we come out.
Hannah worked very well the first day we were out, and not as well the second. She’s such a good dog but doing the farm chores on yet another farm revealed some new holes in her training that we will have to work on. That’s just fine – in fact it’s great. I love working my dogs in different settings and seeing where they do well, and where we need work. Hannah clearly needs work moving around stock in tight places. She is very good at holding them in place, in corners and against fences, but ask her to go between stock and a fence and you start to have trouble. She’ll start to go in, but as soon as they start moving she dashes out and tries to head them. We spent a solid half hour trying to get her to lift stock out of one tricky spot yesterday. I ended up taking her by the collar and moving her around, over and over, between the stock and the fence. I am going to do some packed pen work with her for a while and see if that helps. I have been doing it with the other two (with the pen not too packed) and it is really helping them. I’m sure it will be good for Hannah too.
We also got Hannah started working on cows. This farm also has a few yearling steer in with the sheep, and Hannah was balking at working the sheep when they crowded around the cows. The owner came out and gave me some tips and soon we had Hannah moving the cows around a small paddock. Good girl!! She clearly wasn’t thrilled, but at one point one of them challenged her and she dove in at him and he moved off. That really boosted her confidence and suddenly she started wanting to work them. I really think most of any reluctance she has in working stems from a lack of confidence, not a lack of obedience or willingness.
Hannah’s getting a lot better at shedding, which is fun. She and I both enjoy doing it and we have to do a lot of it these days in order to set groups up for the other dogs to train with. We also had to split out old sheep and a young ram that will charge a dog. He charged Hannah several times and I was pleased to see her side-step him and keep working.
Hannah also now has a very good understanding about keeping groups of sheep separate. I can have two groups in a field and actually direct her to which one I want without her picking up the second group. The other day one group was running hard to join the second. I sent Hannah on an outrun, then as she drew parallel to the rapidly closing gap between the two groups, I called “come in!!!” and she came in between them, stopped the group closer to me and brought them back. For a dog to do that, and not simply collect all the sheep, shows a tremendous understanding of what is asked of her. Even though we’re only working twice a week, she’s really coming along quickly.
Watching Hannah work this weekend made me really want to see how she’d do at the October trials. This year there are two, one week apart, up near where my grandparents live. I was going to go and spend the whole week and attend both trials and visit in between. However it looks like I might have a job. This is really exciting, but will mean no trials for me until next spring. That would probably be for the best, as I might be tempted to enter Mira, or even Kess, in novice-novice, and waiting until Spring is probably better for both of them. We’ll see. First I have to hear back on that job. I will know by tomorrow.