I decided to take the day off and spend it with the dogs. We went to the farm where we train near my parents’ house, and started with a nice little hike around a couple of the pastures. I figured it would have been completely unfair to take the dogs to sheep without at least letting them stretch their legs first. They had no exercise yesterday and had been cooped up in crates for several hours prior to arriving. I wanted to maximize our training time, and spending it trying to get my dogs’ brains on-line was not my idea of fun. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day (for January, that is) and I was in a good mood. I wanted to stay that way.
After our hike, I decided to start working with Mira. My friend Janet had arrived before us and separated out three young lambs to start training with. I have been working my dogs on larger groups than that, but I figured we’d give them a try. To ensure that things stayed under control, I brought out the whip. Mira is very sensitive to this instrument and all I need to do is have it in my hand to have her full attention. Today I had too much of her attention, however, and won’t be bringing the whip out again for a while, if ever. Mira was very obedient, but I noticed that she kept looking at me instead of the sheep. She also started getting so wide she was off contract. That’s not what I was looking for when I wanted attention. I tossed the whip aside and worked without it.
Mira was back to being a bit quirky today. I never know what to expect of her when I take her out. Some days she’s amazing, others she’s, well, she leaves me wondering what on earth I am doing wrong to make her behave in such strange ways. Today it was going almost into orbit when being sent on an outrun. I sent her to pick up sheep about 50 feet away, and she almost went to the next county. When she finally got to 12 o’clock, instead of turning in towards the sheep, she just kept going on a tangent off across the field. It’s like she forgot what she was out there doing and just started running for the sake of running. I had to give her a stop whistle and then call her back in to me. Even then, she would often turn back on her tangent as if that were the correct thing to do. To get her to come back to the sheep, I had to actually tell her ‘that’ll do’ and call her back to me.
I mentioned this to Janet when we came off the field, wondering if it’s possible that my dog has zero feel for sheep. Certainly it appears that way some times, while other times she’s perfect. Janet said she’s seen other dogs do the same thing in that field and that perhaps it is the pressure. It is pulling in several directions and perhaps the dog gets confused. Or at least a green dog like Mira does. Who knows? All I know is that Mira kept running off contact and doing other weird things, even after I ditched the whip.
I do think I put too much pressure on her and that probably started it. She can take very little pressure from me and I need to remember that. I did my best to lighten things up, having her do some wearing and little outruns, and practice a few flanks, all with plenty of encouragement and happy tones from me. She did do well and worked her little heart out. She tries so very hard that I still felt good working her. Still, I need to figure out what it is that I’m doing that sends her to the next county.
I worked Kess next, who couldn’t possibly be any more different from Mira. I can flip and snap the whip all I want and Kestrel barely even notices it. It does help get her to move out when she’s tight, but otherwise it’s not overly useful with her. Today I worked on getting her to fetch sheep to me. She has a strong propensity to walk on to sheep to drive them away, instead of going around and gathering. Janet showed me a little exercise to build the dog’s outrun. I kept it short, perhaps 50 yards at most. I would put Kess in a down, walk part way to the sheep, then stepping away from the direction I was sending her (i.e. if I sent her left, I’d walk to the right), I’d release her. If she came in tight or straight on the sheep, I’d flick the whip in her direction, slightly behind her. This would encourage her to go wider, and to keep going around. The few times she just walked straight into the sheep, I simply called her off. When she didn’t do it right, she didn’t get her sheep. I only had to do that a couple of times. Kess did quite well with this and was soon consistently going around the sheep and bringing them back to me. Still, we have a long way to go before she has anything I’d call an outrun. I really must get in touch with her breeder and ask if her lines have natural outruns or if they tend to need some assisted construction.
Finally I worked Hannah. My original trainer used to have me start with outruns as a way of burning off excess energy. I used to do this every time I practiced. We’d get out some sheep, then walk a good distance and she’d outrun and fetch them to me. The fetches were always messy, with crooked lines and galloping sheep. Upon rethinking things, I have decided to start with doing close and controlled work, and moving to outruns later. No matter how tired, my dog always seems happy to do an outrun. But if she’s full of beans, she can’t seem to control herself when she’s 250 yards away from me. Spending the first part of our session doing more careful brain work seems to remedy this. Today I took Hannah into the pasture where some of the sheep are housed and had her shed off a small group to work with. We then had to drive them out through two gates and past some cows. Next we went into another field and picked up three more. Now with seven, she had to drive them across some tall grass and a frozen swamp to the area we were going to train in. For good measure, I had her drive them around the field and then to the farthest point from the barn.
By then Hannah’s brain was fully engaged and I felt it would be safe to do some outwork with her. Janet brought one of her dogs out and held the sheep while I sent Hannah to pick them up. Hannah did a very good job and brought them to me through tall grass and across ice. It’s tricky business working sheep in the winter and often you just have to stop training all together for safety’s sake. But today wasn’t bad except for the patches of unexpected ice. To navigate these required a calm, steady pace. Hannah pushed a bit harder than I liked, but she did heed my “take time!” commands and generally did a very nice job.
It’s really interesting working three such incredibly different dogs. Learning how to run each one is teaching me a tremendous amount, and having to switch back and forth, changing gears between them, is teaching me even more. Most of all, it is making it clear to me how much more I need to learn! This is particularly Mira’s task. I always leave the field shaking my head at my lack of skill and knowledge.
I have so much work to do it isn’t funny, but I’m still hoping to sneak out tomorrow and train again. I saw tremendous improvement in my dogs over Christmas when I was able to train 6 times in 9 days. That kind of consistency really makes a big difference. No wonder we progress so slowly. It’s not just my lack of experience, it’s also our lack of quality sheep time. I continue to ponder ways to improve both.