Yesterday we finally had a half decent day, weather-wise, so I took the dogs training last night. I now have to leave pretty early to get in a decent amount of training before dark. I arrived around 5:30, chatted with the owners for a bit, then got down to work. They knew I was coming and had kindly put some sheep in the small training field, and a few others in the round pen. I actually prefer training in the big field behind the barn where the dogs have space to move and the draws are much less intense, but since they sheep were already waiting for us, I decided to change my training plan and use the set-ups that were there.
I started with Kestrel as she has been worked the least of late. Last weekend I worked Hannah a lot, and the other two just a little. Last night I reversed this. I started with Kess in the round pen. I did this mostly to burn off her excess energy as we didn’t have time to do much of a hike and she hadn’t been run yet that day. So I let her go around and around in the pen for a few minutes until I saw that she had shaken out her excess beans and was ready to listen. Once she was taking her downs nicely, I called her off and took her to the other field to train. This is actually a nice little trick for reinforcing calling her off sheep. I called her too me, we went out the gate, and straight to other sheep. I have a little trouble calling her off sheep and rewarding her with more sheep should help sort that out quickly.
Kess was really hot to trot last night and I had trouble getting her wearing in that small field. By the time I get any semblance of pace on her, we’ve hit one side of the field and need to turn. The draws are so strong in there that the sheep will bolt back to the south end of the field the second the dog is not there to stop them, so getting her to flank around the north side of the sheep was quite a challenge. In her fear of losing the sheep she would come in close and tight, which of course caused the sheep to bolt down the field and right over top of me. I quickly gave up trying to do any square wearing (i.e. where I go in straight lines around the field, making a box). Instead I did figure 8’s, making sure the motion never stopped and the dog was always in control of the sheep. It worked, more or less, but wasn’t pretty.
Last night, for the first time, Kess started splitting up her sheep and letting some go. I’ve never seen her do that before so I made sure to send her back to pick up the ones she dropped. I’m not sure why she’s starting to do this as she has always done a really good job of counting her sheep and not losing any. I wonder if I’m doing something to cause this.
My other challenge with Kestrel is that she doesn’t seem to want to gather the sheep. She does a wonderful job of holding them to me when I am close, but if I send her to get sheep from even 30 feet away, she will just walk straight up on them and push them away until they reach a fence and stop. There she will lie down and hold them, and that’s it. Mira used to do that as well. I think this is the sign of a dog who is a natural at driving (pushing the sheep away from me) and less natural at gathering (bringing them to me). I taught Mira to go around the sheep by doing sling-shot outruns. By this I mean I could call the dog back to me while I am moving away from the sheep. When the dog catches up to me, I turn around with the dog swinging to the outside of me and then release her – like a slingshot – back towards the sheep. This sends the dog out on an arc, instead of in a straight line. Some people are very against doing this, but it worked very well for getting Mira to go around the sheep and bring them back to me. It also helped get her to come off sheep when I call. She expects to be sent back to them, and enjoys the process.
As I said, some people are very negative about sling-shot outruns. I definitely think you need to eventually phase them out and have a dog you can send from your feet without having to wind them up first, but I’m not sure exactly how to convey the idea of going out around the sheep otherwise. I will do some research and see if anything else become obvious, otherwise I will try this same technique with Kess. So far I don’t think it’d done Mira any harm (hopefully I’m not wrong about this!)
Speaking of Mira, I took her out next and always worked her in the round pen and then in the small field. I did the same with Hannah. Both dogs should really be working in the bigger field so I just spent a little time with each working on their whistles. I think I am making progress but I’m not sure. I’ve heard about dogs that supposedly pick up their whistles in two days. Not mine. I’m probably doing something wrong, but when you have no-one to show you stuff, you muddle along as best you can. Basically I blow the whistles I want them to associate with various commands just before they are going to actually do that action. In other words, if I position things such that the dog wants to go ‘come-by’, I whistle that command and step further out of the way to encourage the dog to move. Eventually I stop moving and just blow the whistle and the dog should move in the correct direction. I did the same thing to initially teach the words, so this should work. Mind you, it took months for Hannah to get her flanks straight. Hopefully her whistles won’t take nearly as long!