Yesterday I participated in a herding demonstration at the big annual agricultural fair that runs in my area. It was a lot of fun and I met some new herding people, all of whom were super nice. The demo was put on by the people who own the farm where I now train, and they invited me and several other people to participate. The demo ran for 8 hours so they needed quite a few dogs to rotate through all day long. We had roughly 8 different handlers and about a dozen dogs: Aussies, border collies, a cattle dog, a kelpie and a Belgian shepherd.
It was really fun to watch the different breeds work the sheep. I have to admit that, as I come from the border collie world which can be rather snobby about other breeds working ability, I was surprised by how nicely these dogs worked. In fact they all worked better than my dogs! At least more calmly and quietly, which is what is needed in such a tight space. Working in an arena short circuited Hannah’s brain and she was a mess after she’d done a couple of runs. Mira also reverted to some of her former bad habits. Kestrel alone did well, better than she’s ever done before in fact.
The arena was about the size of a hockey rink, but with a dirt floor. The ewes were shipped in from an hour or so away and were new to my dogs (from a different farm than where we train). They were a mix of different breeds, some white, some black. The black ones ended up being quite a pain after they’d been run a few times. Hannah was the first to encounter that. One of the ewes turned and stomped at her. She does this silly little play bow type movement when sheep stand up to her. She dives in at them but won’t make contact. Not even close. As soon as that ewe realized that Hannah had nothing to back up her threats, it was game over. She wasn’t moving anywhere. I couldn’t move her either.
I wasn’t sure what to do but I didn’t want to walk away and leave Hannah thinking she couldn’t move the sheep. So I pulled her back and sent he on a small outrun to pick them up. That worked, but then we tried to keep them moving around and that proved to be all but impossible. The biggest problem is that Hannah was now totally wound up, and all she wanted to do was head the sheep. ARGH! I would have to get right in there with her to turn them and start them moving, and then she’d whip around and head and stop them again. Once stopped, they were almost impossible to get going.
This was the same problem we had a couple of weeks ago when training at the new farm near my parents. It took us half an hour to get sheep out of a corner because Hannah would pull them out, then whip around and push them back in again. I ended up having to hold on to her collar. At the demo, at one point I actually had to pick her up and carry her off the field because I couldn’t even call her off the stock. At her age and level of training, this sort of thing should not be happening.
She has a tremendous amount of tension, and still a lack of confidence. I wonder how I can help her with this. Her littermate sister is winning champion ships at trials at the open level, and my dog is falling apart trying to push sheep out of a corner. What am I doing wrong?
I am taking her for a lesson with her breeder today to see if I can get some tips on working through this.
Mira also regressed in her training somewhat, but she didn’t fall apart like Hannah did. She did have a ewe challenge her, and she also wouldn’t go in and grip, but somehow we didn’t get hung up on it. She didn’t get all rattled and just kept working when I flanked her around behind them and got them going again. When Hannah got charged, she seemed to lose all confidence. Mira did not. Again, I wonder what’s up with that, and what I can do to help.
Kestrel was my superstar. While the other dogs all struggled and regressed (working in an arena with the tight spaces, bright lights, loud speakers, crowds and tired sheep is not easy) Kess was amazing. She was better than she’s ever been in fact. I had expected to have a rodeo when I took her out, but instead she did an incredible job of wearing the sheep to me. She showed tremendous self-control, setting a nice pace. Very pushy, but as long as I moved quickly, she did not push the sheep past me. She laid down on her own, flanked as necessary but not much, and had absolutely no trouble moving the sheep around. Of course I didn’t have her do more complicated things than wearing, but I expected her to go back to chasing sheep around and running me over with them. She did not, and she’s in my good books today, let me tell you!
Despite the poor performance of some of my dogs, I had a really good time. The people were really nice, everyone was relaxed, and it was extremely interesting to watch the different types of dogs work the sheep. The people putting on the demo had two older, fully trained dogs who made everything look easy! One was their border collie chore dog, and he really impressed me with his calm and matter of fact approach to working sheep. When the ewes challenged him, he calmly but firmly bit them on the nose, turned them, and marched them around. He was all business, and none of this tension and silliness that Hannah displayed. I know some of this is breeding, and some is just getting to work every day. I wish I had sheep for Hannah to work daily as she really needs that to loosen her up. As I keep saying, someday… hopefully soon!