Yesterday I took a lesson with Hannah for the first time in ages. I stopped taking lessons in the Spring of 2008, when I finally gained access to stock to train on my own with. At that point I really needed to work on my own and put into practice everything I had learned. Having someone guide you is very helpful, but there’s a lot about stock and dog handling that you just need to figure out on your own.
When the stock we were using were sold last fall, we took a 6 month break from training. In June of this year I went to a clinic and that provided me with plenty to think about and try during training all summer at the new farm. We made very good progress but lately had reached a plateau and with Hannah I thought I was sliding backwards a bit. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a lesson and get some pointers on where to go next.
I decided to go back to my original trainer as she is the most experienced handler within a couple of hours drive of me. She is a very talented stock hand and I always learn a lot from her. However she can be very blunt in her delivery of information, and her feedback often quite critical in ways that are hard to hear. I’m pretty hard on myself at the best of times, and at one point during the lesson yesterday I started wondering if I should just plain give up this herding business as clearly I am completely useless at it.
One of the problems, I think, is that Hannah was still rattled from working in that arena demo the night before. That was tough on her and she was still tense and rattled I could tell. Then I was tense and rattled about having to train in front of her breeder. The combination meant we weren’t working well together, and from the stress I started handling badly and sounding angry and frustrated. I haven’t felt stress like that while handling stock in a long time. It’s an awful feeling. I spent the rest of the day trying to convince myself that I am not a horrible person, because that’s how I felt: I ruined my dog and I have no business going anywhere near sheep.
I am very sensitive to being wrong and worry about breaking rules or upsetting people far beyond what is healthy. I need to toughen up a little, but I also need to find positive environments in which to train and practice. Otherwise I’m left feeling ill, like I feel today. This is also why I really need to get my own property as soon as possible. The stress I feel for breaking “off-leash dog” rules, every day when I run my dogs in public spaces, is horrible. I am constantly waiting to get in trouble, although it rarely happens because I am so careful, and my dogs very well behaved in public.
Speaking of which, yesterday I watched a woman chase her dog around my old neighbourhood for 30 minutes. I had known that dog as a pup and had tried to convince them to train her off-leash while she was tiny and they could outrun her if necessary. Now an athletic 2-year old, they had no hope of catching her. She raced around, upsetting the neighbours and scaring children. A gentle dog but big and scary looking (a Doberman), they could have ended up in a lot of trouble had someone called animal control. Fortunately nobody did. I was particularly relived since I had my crew parked in my car while I was visiting, and didn’t want animal control anywhere near them.
Back to training, I have some new ideas to work on with Hannah, and did learn how to fix what I was struggling with. I think, anyway. The advice I received was a little confusing: 1) I need to let Hannah do what feels natural to her and stop managing her so much; and 2) I need to stop letting her work on her own so much. I think what she meant was that in some circumstances I am managing too much, in others too little. She was also upset that Hannah would flank around the stock and not stop at the balance point, the exact thing I had been working on since the lesson with Kevin Evans. He had told me to train her to do just that, i.e. not stop until I told her, getting Hannah to listen to me more and work less on her own. I’ve done that, successfully, and am now told that I’ve ruined her. I can’t win!
I do think it’s important to let a dog be natural and trust her. Hannah has way more ability on stock in her little toe than I’ll ever have. At the same time, she really does blow me off when it comes to flanks. So how to find the balance between letting her decide and when I need to take charge? I think the answer lies in watching the stock. If they are going where they should be, then the dog is right. If they are not, I need to be able to correct it. I was having trouble with this – Hannah would not listen at a distance. The flanking exercises Kevin made me do have helped tremendously with this, but at the expense of Hannah working more on her own. So maybe I’ve overdone it.
I don’t know. Maybe I never will. Maybe I’ll never figure this out. But I am going to keep trying. I love spending time on the farm and working the stock more than anything else I do these days. So we’ll keep struggling along…