I’m exhausted and cold, but will try and write a quick entry before bed.  It’s supposed to go down to several degrees below freezing tonight and we don’t have any heat going in the house.  Our heat comes from a wood stove and my roommate and I each got home late tonight, and decided that a heavy sweater, hot shower and early to bed was easier than firing up the woodstove just for an hour’s worth of heat.  That of course will change as the temperature steadily drops over winter.  I am going to have to learn how to light this thing and keep it going strong during the days I sit at home and write.  I actually think it will be quite pleasant as the dining room table is next to the stove and a lovely place to work.  But I digress…

On the way home from my parents’ house yesterday, I stopped once again to train the dogs at my friend’s farm.  The three of us who trained together on Friday got together again yesterday and worked our dogs.  The weather was much more cooperative, and while cold, was at least dry.  The leaves are all turning and quite frankly, it was a beautiful day despite the chill.  I do love fall weather, as long as I’m dressed for it.

One friend had an idea of how I can work with Hannah to get better pace. She explained a technique to me that was taught to her by the big-hat handler who trained one of her dogs.  The idea is simple: when the dog doesn’t behave, she loses her sheep.  To make this happen, you call the dog off as soon as it starts to go wrong.  I wasn’t really sure about this method, but I tried with Hannah with surprisingly good results.

To start, it was important to set things up correctly so that everything would stay in control, and also so it was really easy to read what is going on.  We had to set the sheep somewhere that Hannah could fetch them from without strange draws pulling them sideways, or a swamp to push them through.  Such obstacles would cause the sheep to move crookedly and then it would be a guessing game as to whether or not what Hannah was doing was correct.  As I’ve written before, Hannah starts to flank back and forth a lot when fetching sheep to me.  This might actually be ok if the sheep are zig zagging on their own, or if she needs to push them through a swampy area and they are refusing, but if they are coming nice and straight, she should be calmly walking behind them.

So we found a couple of spots where the sheep would walk nice and straight.  I kept the distance relatively short, and sent Hannah.  She did a beautiful outrun, a nice, quiet lift, and started bring the sheep.  She obviously knew something was up because she was being very calm and quiet at first.  But then she couldn’t resist and bumped the sheep.  They zigged, and she went to zag, but I was faster and hollered sternly “That’ll do!!”  Shocked, she came to me with an expression of amazement and wonder on her face. “What did I do wrong?” she clearly was asking!  Getting her to figure that out is exactly the point.  I can correct her and mechanically control her with hollering and jumping up and down and whatnot, but what I really want is a dog who knows what she’s supposed to do and who does it right without me having to say a word.

I sent her a second time.  Again a nice outrun, and gentle lift.  Then the fetch.  It was slow.  Painfully slow.  Obviously she knew what she had done wrong and was swinging the other way.  I could almost sense her sticking her tongue out at me, as if to say “so you want them slow, do you? I’ll show you slow!”  She would gently nudge the sheep until they moved, then lie down and wait until they drifted to a stop.  Then she’d get up and nudge them again.  Repeat.  It was like watching pain dry.  But it was better than the rodeo she usually makes happen.  And clearly she was thinking.

I told her she was a good girl, we reset the sheep, and I sent her again.  This time she was a little faster, but very controlled and gentle.  The sheep came straight and stopped about 5 feet in front of me, with Hannah lying down quietly about 30 feet behind them. And all the time I said nothing.  Is this my dog?  Who knew she was capable of this!

I made a big fuss over her, told her how fabulous she was, and then put her back in the car and pulled out Mira.

I started to work Mira and she was just full of beans.  She raced about and dove in at sheep.  I worked at trying to send her around without her busting them up, then doing a little wearing in figure eights and so on.  At one point I turned and she went around to the away or right side (her weak side) and she dove in and gripped one of the lambs.  It was totally uncalled for, or so I thought.  But just as I was about to yell at my dog (I hate yelling at my dogs), one of my friends laughed loudly and said “that was YOUR fault!”

It was?  Hurray!!  Because if it’s my fault, then I can easily fix it and we can start to move forward with our training. Someone finally actually saw what I’ve been struggling with all these months, and knew how to fix it.  Oh happy day.

I discussed earlier about how I need to project my pressure off in a different direction with Mira in order to get her to widen out.  In other words, pushing towards her actually pulls her in, even though intuitively you’d think that should push her out.  So when I send her ‘away’ (counter-clockwise, or to the right) around the sheep, instead of running towards her, I need to then walk straight off to my left, or perhaps at a bit of an angle to my left, aiming towards 9 o’clock.  In other words, I need to move almost in the opposite direction to my dog, and instead of her pulling in close and tight, she will actually kick out nice and wide.  I did this over and over, and every time Mira was nice and wide.  It was amazing.  She is a very stylish little dog, with very square flanks and a bit of eye.  I was very pleased with her.

Next we worked a little on getting her to stop. This is a big problem with her.  Recently I read in Vergil Holland’s book Progressive Training about dogs that are extremely pressure sensitive.  These dogs, he writes, are so sensitive to any movement or any pressure that they simply MUST react.  So if the dog is in a down and a ewe twitches an ear, the dog feels compelled to get up.  Such dogs are apparently the hardest kind of dogs to train (no kidding).  He offers some good training exercises that I am going to review and try with her.  I know I followed some the first time I read the book and they definitely helped.  Now that we are more advanced, I am re-reading and learning new things to do.  Every time I look at this book I learn something new; as I learn more myself, things he said that previously meant little to me, or seemed of no interest, suddenly take on new meaning and importance.

Back to Mira and her stopping problem.  My friends encouraged me to really get after her when she won’t lie down.  I told them that if I do that, she will lie down and not get up.  Mira has actually been getting better about this with time, lying down more readily, and also getting up more readily as well.  I have not been too hard on her or pushed her too much with the lie down, and tried to get her to stop on her feet.  That would be fine, but she really doesn’t like to stop.  At least I think I now understand why.

First one friend, and then the other, tried to work Mira for me to demonstrate putting a stop on her.  I let them, hoping they’d have better success than I did.  The first friend got her working, and then when she didn’t take his lie-down, he stepped at her and waved his stock stick.  She dodged around him so he stepped at her a bit more sternly.  That was too much for her and she ran back to me and hid behind my legs.  I tried stepping away so he could get her back, but she was having none of it.  My other friend stepped in, thinking perhaps that Mira would work for her, being female.  She tried to call Mira to sheep, but my dog was firmly attached to the back of my knees.  My friend came over and took Mira by the collar and started to lead her to sheep.  Pull her, actually, then drag her.  Mira had all four feet out in front of her, digging into the ground and looking very pathetic about the whole thing.  I was very glad to see she made no effort to bite, snap or otherwise ward off my friend with any aggression.  She just sank her butt on the ground and dug in like a mule.

This was obviously too much pressure for Mira so we let things go at that point and I started working her again myself.  She seemed so relieved to be working with me again, that she took every lie-down I gave, and nicely popped out of them too.  She kept her flanks wide, and her gathers honest.  I was very pleased with her and called it a day.

Kess was Kess – keen, pushy and talented.  And totally not keeping me in the picture unless I was within 20 feet of the sheep.  At one point I stepped back to see if she’d bring the sheep to me, and she just pushed them past and drove them (beautifully) about 100 yards in an arrow straight line to the back fence.  I’m sure I’ll be really happy about this when it’s time to get her driving, but for the moment I’d like her to hold the sheep to me!  I really must get her going in agility to work on our relationship.

Finally I brought Hannah out again and did a couple of more short outruns and fetches to make sure she had learned her lesson.  She had and I was mighty pleased.  I am going to keep working on this, gradually stretching out her outruns until she can bring sheep to me at a nice pace from a distance.  As I mentioned before, she can easily do an open length outrun, but then blasts the sheep all the way down the field until she’s within 50 or so feet of me.  Clearly she’s learned that she only has to listen within a certain distance of me, and that’s what I need to change.  I’m going to push that distance out 10 feet at a time if necessary, and gradually we’ll get there.  Given how quickly she changed her behaviour yesterday, I don’t expect it will take too long.