Wow! I didn’t meant to take a whole month break! Life just got so busy that I really have no idea where the month of May went. When I wasn’t working, I was either training the dogs or preparing for my trip. It seriously took me a month of planning to be away for five weeks! What a lot of work, and I didn’t get a bunch of things done. Like my garden, or mowing the lawn. I don’t really care about the lawn, but I had hoped to get some planting done before leaving. I had the seeds, but just couldn’t squeeze in even a couple of hours of garden work. Oh well, it will all be there waiting when I get back in early June.
I am writing this entry from the Laurentians in Québec, about an hour north of Montreal. Such a beautiful part of the world! This morning the friend I’m staying with took me and the dogs for a 3 hour hike right from her front door. We were quickly into deep, quiet woods and spent most of our time wandering along a rushing river. When it got too hot, we all went for a swim. We hiked in bare feet, an experience I have never done before. It was exquisite.
I arrived here late last night after spending 5 wonderful days training with Kevin Evans. What an incredible treat to be able to work, one-on-one, morning and afternoon, with a handler of his caliber. And not only is Kevin a tremendous hand with the dogs, he’s an excellent teacher and a very enjoyable person to work with. When we weren’t working, the dogs and I sat and watched the others attending the clinic train their dogs. While two weeks before this event there were freezing cold temperatures and several inches of snow on the ground, the weather did a 180 and the last five days were like full summer. Highly unusual for Québec in May, let me tell you! But I wasn’t going to complain, even with it got too hot to train intensely. I prefer sun and heat to cold, driving rain and sleet. Especially since I was sleeping in a tent and spent 5 consecutive days almost 100% outside.
My initial plan had been to work Hannah every morning, and then divide the afternoon slots between the other two dogs, but that quickly changed. The first morning I decided instead to start with Kess. That afternoon, I brought out Mira. I explained to Kevin that my problem with Mira is that I can’t put any pressure on her. She has some decent talent, but when she’s getting too tight or not listening and I get after her, she starts to shut down on me. So I am constantly struggling to find the balance between pushing her and encouraging her. It’s a very, very fine line with that dog. He asked me to demonstrate.
I took Mira out and started to work her. She was great. In fact, she was quite delightful. “She’s a nice little bitch” was the initial comment. But then she started getting a bit tight on the sheep. I decided it was time to put a little pressure on her. I flicked the lunge whip I was carrying once (from about 50 feet away from the dog I should add, just to make the snapping sound), and that was it. She was done. She went wide and deep and refused to come back to the sheep. No amount of coaxing or encouraging could get her working again. Even after I tossed down the whip.
I’ve used the whip very sparingly with Mira in the past, and while she shies away, she will come back when I get rid of it. It has been handy to make her listen and the improvement it effects usually lasts for weeks, if not permanently. But this time she was not recovering. I assume it was the strange setting with all the dogs and the man on the field (she’s always been a bit worried about men). And she had been rather stressed even before we arrived due to the construction going on at the house next door. There had been work men with hardhats on the roof of the house beside my parents (Martians as far as she was concerned), and she had refused to go outside – front or back – for two days. Poor, freaky Mira. I had given her a dose of Stramonium (good for fearful delusions of monsters, which she was clearly seeing) and that had settled her, but the pressure of training that day brought forward the cracks again.
What I wanted with my training session was to show how this happened and find ways to fix it. You can’t have a dog who gets tight and even sometimes grippy on sheep and not be able to get after her. Unfortunately her response was way more extreme than I expected. The conclusion was that likely I’ll never be able to fix this issue, that she’s simply too soft and sensitive for intensive training. I’ll simply have to train gently with her and not have any expectations of where she’ll end up (this is the point where most people would sell her, which in hindsight is exactly why her mother was sold, several times. And her father is quite soft too). I’m ok with this – it’s not like I didn’t already know this about Mira. We talked at length about what I can do in theory to train her (since we couldn’t do it in practice) and I will keep working with her at home.
At this point I pulled Mira from the clinic – no point wasting my turns talking theoretically about training; we could do that at lunch or over beer at the end of the day. Instead I focused on Kess and Hannah.
Kess got the lion’s share of time as she’s the dog I really want to move along. Hannah is almost fully trained, and what she needs is miles. Kevin helped me with Hannah’s whistles; he suggested a new set that is much clearer for the dog – and easier to blow – than the ones I was using. And then we worked on shedding. He has a great method for teaching the shed (i.e. splitting off sheep from the group – the last and most difficult part of training a dog to Open level). Over three sessions we worked through each step until we were focusing on the nuances of moving sheep and creating the gap. That last part is really an art and will require a ton of practice at home. But we now have the mechanics in place to get there, and I have a much clearer picture of what I need to do.
The rest of my energy when into Kess. Gosh she’s a nice dog! It became clear this week that she’s likely going to be my strongest competition dog, once her training is complete. She’s got “more dog in her” than Hannah and will likely take me farther on tougher sheep. Hannah’s forté is being quiet on sheep and she’s very good at close work in the barnyard, or with shedding etc. But she stalls out if the sheep get really heavy. She just doesn’t quite have enough power in those circumstances. At one point the sheep got so heavy from the afternoon sun that the dogs were having trouble moving them. Not Kess. She just walked straight at them and the moved.
Kess is also a very, very quick learner. I had only just started putting flanks on her before arriving at the clinic. In four days she went from wearing with not really knowing her flanks, to driving. Kevin showed me how to square her flanks and shape her movements beautifully, and she went from tight and pushy to stylish and giving the right amount of room. Her pace is lovely and she’s quite natural. Now I have to go home and back up and move through this much more slowly and really develop the muscle memory to make this all permanent. But she came a very long way in a very short time. Again, quite exciting.