Well this isn’t a good start to the new year!  In terms of writing regularly, I mean!  Things got very busy starting New Year’s day, when my family came home from their travels.  The ensuing week has been quite chaotic.  I still had a lot of work to finish before the semester started up again in earnest (on January 04th), and I wanted to spend a little time with my family before heading home.  So no time for writing, or for training the dogs.  Fortunately I got out on New Year’s Eve & New Year’s Day, which made for 6 training days out of my 10 day break.  I’m pretty happy with that.  Winter is now setting in in earnest, so we may not get much training in again until spring.  Time will tell.

Our last two days out were really good. The dogs were well oiled and each was working well.  I met with two friends on New Year’s eve to train, and we held sheep for each other.  I worked each of the dogs and was quite happy with how they all did.

First, I worked Mira.  I decided it was time to start moving her forward and wanted to see if she might be able to run a novice-novice course.  I started by spending about 10 minutes doing some basic wearing with her.  Frustrated by her lack of stop over the past week, I brought out the whip.  She really worries about that thing, so it’s not something I like to use frequently.  But it certainly gets her attention.  As I sent her to collect her sheep, she came in tight, busted them up, barked and was in general goofy.  Annoyed, I cracked the whip.  Mira hit the deck, and looked at me as much to say “HOLY CRAP! you should have warned me you had that thing!!”  I then coiled the whip around my wrist and just used the handle like a regular stock stick.

Mira was a different dog.  She took every stop I asked for.  She stayed off her sheep.  She had pace.  She stayed deep and wide. It was beautiful.  I never cracked the whip again, one snap was all it took.  Clearly Mira knows what is expected of her, which leads me to believe that her misbehaviour over the last few sessions was exactly that – willful disobedience.  Or rather, willful over-exuberance.  Given a good reason to pay attention, she does.  Lesson learned!

I next too her out to the bigger field where the others were working.  The farm has a 10 acre fenced in field, but also has about 90 acres unfenced.  Much of this is used for grazing cows (there is a hot wire that keeps the cows in but is too high for sheep), and they are up for the winter.  So we trained in the cattle pasture.  I really like this farm as it has no busy roads anywhere nearby.  The house is half a kilometer back from a very quiet country road, and then the barn is as far back again.  The property is surrounded by other farms so training without fencing is really quite safe.  Working out in the big pasture area gave us many new places to train, really enabling us to mix things up.  There was also much less draw back to the barn out there, make it easier to practice outruns with the young dogs.

I decided to send Mira on a 150 yard outrun to pick up some sheep being held by my friend and her dog.  Mira had never met either before and I was really curious to see how she’d do.  She was a bit tight and came in flat at the top, but she didn’t bat an eyelash at the sheep being held by another team.  She lifted the sheep and brought them to me.  Good girl!  She took her lie down very nicely once the sheep were at my feet.  Can you see the huge grin on her face? She was so darn proud of herself!

Mira and I then held sheep for our training partner.  When holding sheep it’s very important for the set-out dog to not move when the other dog comes in to get the sheep.  I knew this would be too much for Mira, and I couldn’t exactly crack the whip as the other dog came in (I had actually put the whip away after we warmed up).  So I just put Mira in position to hold the sheep against running back to the barn, and then knelt and held her steady.  The sheep were not familiar with that field and didn’t know where else to go, so they stayed quietly in place until the other dog came to get them.  These are nice little sheep – ram lambs which are kind of dopey – they don’t run and bolt from dogs, but they do move nicely, without panicking, and are not dog broke or fetchy (by this I mean they don’t just turn and run to the person because a dog is coming and they know that’s what’s expected of them, kind of like trail broke horses).  They’re very good for training green dogs.

Mira and I did about half a dozen outruns.  By the last two, she was going big and deep.  At first she was very flat when being sent away from pressure (i.e. the direction away from the barn – the dogs know the sheep want to run back to the barn so naturally try to stay closer in case the sheep bolt), but by the last outrun she went just as wide on each side, and she also went in deep behind the sheep.  She came up slowly and lifted them gently and brought them to me very straight.  If I had to correct her line, she actually took her flanks from a distance.  I was over the moon happy with her performance.  On New Year’s day I met Janet and we did some more outruns in that big field.  Mira was again very, very good.  Too bad it looks like we may be taking a good long break now.  But hopefully she has lots to think about during her winter vacation.

I am really delighted with the progress Mira and I are making.  It’s so exciting to get a dog up and running, and doubly so with a dog like Mira who so many told me to give up on.  Watching her do those deep outruns with a careful lift and straight fetch tells me that this dog indeed has a fair bit of natural talent.  I did not teach her these things.  Most people train by teaching their dogs to stop at the top and lie down and wait to be called on to the sheep.  I have never taught that to Mira, yet she lifts beautifully without any training.  I wonder if Mira is just finally becoming mature enough to work well – she seems to get that this is a job and actually enjoy the responsibility.  I have noticed a big change in her over the last 6 months.

One thing I have learned from Mira is the idea of releasing pressure to get the dog to go wide.  I had originally been taught to push into a dog to get it to move away.  My original trainer in fact teaches (or used to teach) that it is important to hit your dog at home so that it “respects” you and moves away from you when you step towards it. That way, when working sheep, if the dog comes in too tight, you step towards it and the dog will move away (most likely worrying about being hit).  I refused to do this and we ended up having a number of battles over this until we finally agreed to disagree.

Mira taught me a completely different approach to training, which apparently is called “the natural way.”  There is a book of that title (Julie Simpson’s The Natural Way), which I think explains this concept in detail.  I know very little about it, but from what I’ve seen from Mira, my guess is as follows: when hunting as a pack, you would all dive in together to take down the animal of choice.  So when you (the handler) step in to the sheep, that is a signal for your dog to do the same.  If you want the dog to move away from the sheep, then you need to also move away.  It seems counter intuitive to everything I’ve been taught, but it sure does work with Mira.

Earlier this fall, I learned (thanks to knowledge and keen eye of my friend Janet) that if I want Mira to go wide when I send her around sheep, I need to walk in the direction opposite that I want to send her.  On New Year’s eve, I discovered that merely by turning my shoulder away from the direction I want to send her on an outrun, she will go almost to the next county!  I’ll see if I can describe this more clearly.  When I initially tried to teach her an outrun, I would send her (say to the left) and then run towards her with the idea of pushing her further left.  Now I have discovered that what I need to do is, at the moment that I send her left, I turn my body slightly to the right.  The farther I turn my shoulder to the right, the wider she goes.  Amazing!  And so much less work than running up the field at your dog, hollering and waving your stock stick or throwing your hat or whatnot.  In fact, the time I turn my shoulder hard right as I sent her, she actually went off to the left at a 90 degree angle from from the sheep.

That she is so responsive to my body language makes me wonder just how many incorrect signals I have been giving her over the months we have been struggling along with this.  Here I thought she was not keeping me in the picture, not being a team player, when in fact all along she was being an intensely cooperative partner.  I was just telling her to do the wrong things!  Ah, so much to learn, so much to learn…

I have tried this ‘natural way’ with the other two dogs and they do not respond the same way.  I wonder if it works with all dogs.  Kestrel’s breeder recommended Julie Simpsons book and I wonder if that’s how she trains as well.  I think I will buy it if I can track down a copy on this side of the pond (surely someone in North America must sell it so I don’t have to pay shipping from the UK) and see if she explains this further.  I am quite fascinated now and want to learn more.