I just got back from training the dogs.  It only took 4.5 hours!  Yeesh, no wonder everything in my life is moving ahead so slowly.  I have to dedicate half a day every time I want to train the dogs, so their progress is slow, and my work progress is slow because I spent so much time training the dogs!  I sure can’t wait until I can just walk out the door and work my dogs.  I think it is much better for them to learn in short training sessions than long marathons like I end up doing after driving 40 minutes to get to sheep.  I have a friend who takes his young dogs out for 5 minutes at a time, several times a day.  Their progress is amazing.

In agility last week, we (re)learned the concept of a latency period.  Essentially that is the time lapse between teaching a dog something and letting it sink in.  In my lesson, the instructor has me introduce the dog to something new.  We do it for 2 minutes and then the dog goes and sits in a crate and thinks about it while we talk about theory etc.  Then we bring the dog back out (after a few minutes) and try again.  Every time, the dog is much better at what we had just been doing.  It’s as if she thought it through, figured it out, and understood.  Well, I expect that’s exactly what’s going on.

Ever notice that you teach your dog something and then go back to it days or weeks later, and the dog does it better than the day you last worked on it, even though you haven’t practiced or taught them anything new in between?  I’ve often assumed my dog has been thinking about our training and understanding things in between training sessions.

The day I got into my car accident, we had been working Hannah on whistles. I have been having a really hard time getting Hannah to switch to whistles.  If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I had a hard time getting her on voice commands too.  The friend I was training with worked Hannah for a bit, walking quietly with her and only using whistles.  When Hannah didn’t take the whistle command correctly, she did not revert to voice commands – which is what I had been doing.  The theory I was following is that the dog will backchain the commands, so if you add a new command (in this case, a whistle), in front of the one you are already using, the dog will eventually take the new command as a cue and start responding to that instead.  Works for many dogs, but not for Hannah.

I think what’s going on with Hannah is that she is so intently focused on her sheep that she really tunes everything else out except what she’s listening for.  Or perhaps her brain is too full to add anything else, or is too focused to start taking on what she sees as unnecessary tasks.  I don’t think she’s being stubborn – I really don’t think dogs behave like that.  I think they just get overwhelmed with information and tune stuff out.

My friend worked Hannah for a bit, using only whistles and correcting her with a “hey!” instead of going back to what Hannah already knew.  I didn’t get it at the time, but now I understand that what this does is force Hannah to start paying attention to the whistles.  She had no voice commands coming, so after a few “hey!”s to let her know she was wrong, she must have started listening to the whistles.  And she must have started understanding them too.  She must have spent a lot of time thinking about those whistles afterwards, because when we went to the herding clinic last weekend, Hannah correctly took every one of the whistles I gave her.  It was really astonishing.  One training session followed by a two weeks latency period (after the accident, when we did no training at all), and she had it figured out.

Today I did more whistle-only work with Hannah and she is really coming along well.  She sometimes refused and once ended up losing her sheep as a result.  She was not happy about that!  She took the wrong flank – twice – and so I called her off and let her watch the sheep run back to the barn.  I wouldn’t do that with a young dog, but at her stage there has to be consequences for not listening.  She took every command beautifully after that.

The sheep were really ornery to start with today.  I suspect they haven’t been worked for a while (trial season is over and the owners are taking a well-earned break!), and the rams have been mixed in with the main flock.  The dynamics of the flock seems to be different.  When I sent Hannah to gather them, they split in several different directions.  I really needed at least two dogs to get this flock up.  That’s never happened before.  I don’t know if a single dog should be able to handle 100 sheep going in several different directions, but it was too much for poor Hannah, even though she worked her little heart out.  I ran over as quickly as I could and we shed off a group of about 20 and and drove them away and worked those.  They were still quite obnoxious, splitting and running in multiple directions at once.  This is no doubt why Hannah was blowing off my flanks – she was getting stressed and wanted things under control!

To do so, I made her stay well back off the sheep and let them calm down.  We drove them around the field for a bit, and that got them to start behaving as a group and flocking better.  We worked on our whistles and some shedding and a few gathers, and by then we’d been going for probably and hour (using several different groups of sheep).  I put Hannah up with a big pail of water and took Mira out next.

The last group of sheep kindly stayed out in the field, so I decided to keep working them.  Hannah had them moving nicely and we had only been driving them fairly slowly so they were ok to keep going.  I had run the dogs prior to taking them to sheep, so I knew Mira would be relatively calm.  To make sure she shook out her beans, I started with a few outruns.  I’d send Mira on a decent size outrun and walk towards the sheep while she was casting out.  By the time she was at the lift, I was about two thirds of the way to the sheep.  That way I could control the lift and get her to lie down once they were moving, and the sheep didn’t have to run far or fast.  Then I’d wear up the field, leave the sheep and walk Mira down to the other end.  Repeat.

It worked well.  I have to say Mira is putting in such gigantic outruns now that I can hardly believe this is the same dog who used to run straight up the field at stock.  I’m sending her from my feet with just a quiet “shhhh” and she’s casting out beautifully and going big and going deep.  Too big and deep, in fact, for the field we’re working on, and for the group of sheep we had.  She’s coming in off-contact now, but at least is walking up fairly quickly and lifting them straight.

Mira worked very hard and I didn’t keep her out there too long.  I really wish I could take her out two or three times a day for just a few minutes. I think it would make a huge difference in her.  She burns out and then gets lazy.  Today she let three ewes go over the course of our training session.  The first one she turned back, the second one she stopped but when it ran off, she didn’t go after it.  I sent her after it and she ran half heartedly in that direction, then let it go.  I’m not sure if she thinks it doesn’t matter, or if she’s just too tired.  I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not, but she seemed to be wobbling a bit as she trotted around after our last outrun (which is why it was our last outrun – I immediately called it quits). It’s not hot, but I do worry that there’s something going on with her hips.  Walked her back to the car and gave her water, and walked her around the property a bit, watching very carefully.  I saw nothing wrong.  Hopefully the wobble was just my imagination.  Certainly she was ready to run hard in the hay field half an hour later when we went for a hike.

Next I took Kestrel out.  In the clinic we attended last week I discovered that she is asymmetric in her running, meaning that she doesn’t run properly when she circles left.  I was advised to work her left, a lot.  So that is what we did.  I had her go around and around and around and around the sheep to the left.  I also made sure to step into her and push her out as she’ s quite flat going left too.  After a few minutes of that, I did some flank drills (telling her to go “come-bye” and applying body pressure to send her that way, then doing the same on the away side).  She is starting to respond to verbal commands before I do the physical ones, so I’m pretty happy about that.  Next I did some short outruns with her.  she is starting to actually go around and gather from 50 or so feet away.  That’s a big improvement.  Not long ago she’d just go straight at the sheep and drive them off unless I was standing between her and the stock to push her around.

I need to call Kestrel’s breeder to ask what I can expect in terms of her outruns. With Hannah, I was taught to push her out but now she’s too wide.  I did nothing with Mira, knowing that her genetics would predispose her to big outruns.  Sure enough, they are coming out now. If I had pushed her out, she’d be going to the next county to pick up sheep.  So I’m very glad I let that develop naturally, even though it took two years to come out.  I bet Mira’s outruns would have come out sooner if I had know how to train her properly earlier on.  Kestrel’s breeder will be able to tell me what to expect from Kess, and if I’ll need to help her outruns or not.  From what I’m seeing, I’m guessing it will come naturally.  Regardless, I won’t do any work on them for some time.

I could be making a big mistake, but I’ve decided that it’s more important to get flanks and stops and other such commands down solid while close up, before trying to work the dog far away.  I think we didn’t do Hannah any favours by starting work on outruns first.  I suspect that made for a dog who really didn’t understand her flanks, or trust my commands, working at such a distance that she felt she had to take things into her own hands.  The result is a lot of anxiety when she’s working at a distance, and I’ve had to do a lot of our training over close up to build trust.  I still struggle with getting her to listen at a distance.  Maybe that would have happened regardless, but for Mira and Kestrel, the focus is on getting the close work down solid before worrying about outruns.

I now have three very tired dogs, snoring away at various points around the house.  Ross is barking in frustration as I locked him up to give Kestrel a break from his constant flirting.  I’m going to get the woodstove fired up, and settle in for an evening of work since I spent the afternoon training my dogs!