There are two sheepdog trials coming up in July that I plan to attend and compete in, and am deciding which dogs to sign up. Hannah will for sure be in Pro-Novice, but what about Mira and Kess? I’ve been toying with the idea (well, more than toying) of signing them both up for Novice-Novice. Both trials are open for receiving entries now, and I need to send them off as soon as possible.
I took the dogs out to train last night in hopes of making up my mind. The owner of the farm had offered to hold sheep for me so I could do some outruns in the big pasture field. We’ve never trained there (and I don’t think the owners have either) as it was used for growing cash crops for the last few years. This year it is to be fenced for the sheep. Now that he has 400 of them, he needs more space. And he’s planning on growing the flock further. I’m excited about this as it will give me and the dogs great experience. I think he’s hoping to get up to 7-800 head once the fencing is done.
I first did some work with Mira in the small fenced field. The problem I have with her is that she doesn’t always take her flanks, and when she does, she often slices them and bumps the sheep. By this I mean that when I send her to the left or the right, she is supposed to turn almost 90 degrees, then go around them on an arc, keeping the same distance that she started at. Instead, she comes in at about 45 degrees (called slicing) and closes the distance between herself and the sheep. As a result, the sheep move forward to get away from her. Because of this, while we can get around a course, penning is all but impossible. As I try to maneuver her to the right point to drive the sheep into the pen, she keeps pushing them forward. Once past the opening, they whip around the back and then there’s no catching them.
To fix this, I’ve been working on squaring off Mira’s flanks (i.e. making them as close to a 90 degree turn as I can) and on getting her to listen more reliably for the last few weeks. This is the sort of thing a trial is good for – it pushes me to work on these things that I could otherwise let slide. For farm work I could just not use Mira, for example, or only use her for the things I know she can do. To trial her, I need to polish the rough spots, of which she has many (as do I).
Last night Mira was really showing a lot of apprehension while working. She is now afraid of my stock stick, and is constantly looking up at me for reassurance. If she’s facing away from me, she’ll turn to look at me if I raise my voice. For example I sent her to the left but she went right. I laid her down and tried to send her left again. She went right. I laid her down and started to walk to a position where I could put some pressure on her to go left. She turned and watched me, then ran over to me. She turns off stock so easily right now that it is really almost impossible to get her to work. All because I’m trying to fix some of her rough edges. Despite being as encouraging as possible, she still gets totally stressed out from the pressure of being told she’s wrong. At 3.5 years of age, she should be able to take it by now. But Mira is Mira, and there’s not much I can do about it.
I came away wondering if I should trial her at all. Is it going to be too much stress on her? Do I need to do this? This is my goal, not hers, so is putting all this pressure on her fair? But if I don’t keep pushing her forward with her training, then there’s no point going on. She doesn’t really know enough to even be a useful chore dog, so if I don’t keep going forward, I might as well quit working her altogether. And she does love to work. Or she at least seems keen to do so every time I take her to stock.
I think I will sign her up for the trial and see how it goes. If she hates it, I won’t do it again. In the meantime, I am going to back off the precision training for a few sessions and see if I can build up her confidence again. She was working better before. When she is doing what she knows how to do, she can be quite good. She just crumbles if she’s unsure of what’s expected of her. And I simply can’t figure out a gentler way of teaching her than I am already doing. Going to others for help doesn’t work because I have yet to meet an open handler who would bother with such a dog. Most rely on a dog being able to take pressure, and if they can’t, the dog goes to a pet or agility home. But Mira is already in a pet home (really, that’s what I am), so we’ll muddle along with fingers crossed.
Next I worked Kess. At this point the owner of the farm was free and so he took his dog and three sheep into the big pasture field. There is a very fast road at one end of the field and I wanted to see what the sheep would do with him there to manage it, before I tried this myself. I don’t think I have much to worry about. The barn is half way up the field, and the sheep are intensely keen to get back to it. I highly doubt they’d run several hundred feet in a direction they’ve never gone in before, in a field they’ve never been in, and end up in the road. But it was good to see that this was in fact the case with the owner there to back up any potential escapees.
He held the sheep and I sent Kess on a small outrun, about a third the distance she would need to go in a trial. She went straight at the sheep. Darn it. I laid her down and walked towards her. She immediately kicked out and started again, this time in an arc. The training I have been doing is definitely helping – Kevin had shown me how to get an outrun started and work on squaring off her flanks and getting a nice shape to her sides. She’s definitely doing this well, but when I tried to put it into an outrun from my feet, it feel apart again. I am not surprised, and I know that with more gradual work we’ll get there. But the question remains – will she have an outrun in three weeks?
After yesterday, I am leaning towards thinking not.
The other problem is that she simply was not listening at a distance. With me about 50 feet away, she went back to working on instinct and not on my commands. This is also not surprising. We made a big jump last night, and now I know quite clearly that it was too much, too fast. I’m not concerned about this at all. We’ll go back to where we had been and keep working at gradually increasing the distance. I think we’re done working in that small field, and now that I am confident that the sheep will be safe if I work in the unfenced field, we’ll have plenty of room to stretch out. But I don’t know that I’ll get her stretched out to working at 150 feet from me in three weeks. If I could train every day, maybe. But we can’t. Three to four times a week is our maximum.
As such, I think I am going to sign Hannah up for PN, and Mira up for NN, and leave Kess for now. While she’s definitely going to be my stronger dog, there’s no point putting her in over her head. If, come trial time, I think she might be able to do it, I’ll ask if they can squeeze her in at the last minute. NN is usually a very small class and when I trialed two years ago, they seemed happy to have additional dogs. I don’t expect much has changed. Otherwise there’s the fall trials. And Kess is exciting enough to train that I don’t need to dangle a trial date in front of me to keep working with her.
As for Hannah, she only got to do one outrun before we lost the sheep back to the barn. The owner’s dog had been holding sheep for me for some time and was getting tired. The sheep managed to get past him, bolted, and went over the fence. By then it was getting dark and we figured there was no point continuing to train. The sheep would be a bit worried at the best of times about being in small groups in a new field, let along at dusk when coyotes would be coming out. I’ll go back on Monday and try again.