I took the dogs to the farm last night to work sheep for the first time in two weeks. It was a beautiful, sunny day and it felt great to be out in the fields again. I really love being outside, and so do the dogs.
I started with Hannah, who I needed to sort out some sheep from the main flock and bring them out to the big pasture to train where there are fewer draws. I have been watching Alasdair McCrae’s shedding video, which I borrowed from a friend. I have to say it is very helpful! I had a lot of new ideas and wanted to practice them with Hannah. The basics involve getting the sheep to string out and then calling your dog through a gap between some sheep, and having the dog come around behind you while you step through the gap. Kevin Evans had shown me how to do this when I took his clinic last spring, but I have not been successful with this method. Watching the video gave me new ideas on how to do it. Specifically, I need to work with more sheep, and ideally ones who would happily separate.
Alasdair talks a lot about the importance of using the right kind of sheep for introductory training. For example, in this case you want sheep who will split easily, ideally using two different breeds of sheep from different flocks, so they won’t stick together. That is unfortunately not an option in my case. The sheep I use are really dog broke, which means they run to the person and stick to your knees. Even when you get them strung out in a line, when the dog comes in, the group behind you. Alasdair warns that you should simply not try to teach shedding with such sheep (I watched that part of his video last night, after trying and trying with Hannah earlier in the day). If the dog continually fails to shed, then it will lose confidence, and stop trying.
I did see this happening with Hannah, even before watching that part of the video, and stopped trying to shed during that training session. I had an idea, which I will get to in a minute. Instead, I worked on other things with Hannah, specifically testing her pace to see how much she remembered from our last session. I was delighted to see Hannah work with beautiful pace; she obviously remembered everything, even though we just spent one day working on it. What a good girl! Now I think it will be safe to gradually stretch out her outruns again. That will be our next project.
Next I worked with Kess, who was brilliant and lovely as usual. She was doing a better job of keeping the sheep to me even when I stepped out of the way, so I started doing little tiny outruns with her. She actually got it, instead of just walking in on the sheep and pushing them away from me. She’s going to be a great driving dog, but I do need her to gather first.
Kess also continues to be way too pushy. I don’t want to take that out of her, but I am also sick of being run over by sheep. Time to get some pace on that dog. I first moved around a lot, to let her get a bit tired, then I started asking for pace. She has a quick but steady pace, and I was happy with what she did. I will slow her down more later, but as long as she’s not running me over, for now I am happy.
Mira, unfortunately, didn’t work consistently last night. I never know what to expect when I take her out. Some days she’s fantastic, others she is not. Last night I didn’t set things up well, so things started off tense. I brought her out with Hannah, wanting to use Mira to help me with shedding when we were done training. I should have brought her out on a leash, but I didn’t. The two dogs didn’t work very well together – they havn’t done much of that. Mira won’t lie down well, so she kept bumping the sheep, then Hannah would head and stop them. This led to a sheep sandwhich, making the sheep nervous and edgy. Then I worked Mira, who is tense at the best of times, and a tense dog with tense sheep is not an ideal situation. Mira did do a few really nice moves, such as an impressive outrun to catch them when they got away. She stayed deep and wide and then came in slowly at the top for a lovely lift. I’ve never seen her do that before and was very impressed. But then she started being goofy after that. She was either way too tight, bumping the sheep and running me over with them, or going so wide that she was off contact and they’d just stop and graze. It took her a good 20 seconds to walk in to the point that they moved at one point. She shouldn’t be going that far off contact!
I find that I have to be quite mechanical with Mira, often telling her what to do when she should really be doing it instinctively. She’s always been like this, and while she steadily improves, days like yesterday leave me questioning (once again) just how far I’ll be able to get her. I think she has enough talent to make a decent working dog, but the question remains – do I have enough knowledge and skill to bring that talent out? I am not sure. But we will keep trying.
Once I finished working with Mira (who’s really getting solid on her flanks, which makes me very happy), I tried my little shedding experiment. I tied Mira to a post on the fence line and then had Hannah bring the sheep to that general area. I stood about 10 feet in front of Mira, and Hannah brought the sheep to my feet. My idea is that if Mira was behind me, the sheep wouldn’t want to go there. So instead of hiding behind me, they’d run to either side, allowing Hannah to split them.
I think this would have worked if I had done it right at the start, and if I had brought Mira out on a leash and kept everything quiet. But the sheep were too rattle, and this was causing them to stick together (and to my knees) like glue. It was getting dark, we were failing, so I called it quits. Next time I will be more careful to keep the sheep calm. I will also select sheep from different parts of the herd in hopes of getting some who are not “friends” and thus more likely to split.