Ups and Downs

Well the last few days have had their ups an downs.  Actually it was mostly ups until today, so I’ll start with the downs.  The first one happened after our morning hike.  I had taken the dogs to the conservation area and was delighted to find it abandoned.  I shouldn’t be surprised given the swarms of insatiable deer fly clouding around you the entire time you hike!  I really need to buy more bug spray the next time I’m at an outdoor store.

We went for a great, 1.5 hour hike.  I had kept the dogs home all weekend because of how busy everything was (Canada Day +  July 4th weekend), so they were more than keen to burn off some steam.  They ran their hearts out and jumped in and out of every available puddle, swamp, stream and river.  By the time we got back to the car they were exhausted.  And very smelly.

Once home, I spent a few minutes and hosed off each dog.  Ross even got a soap bath on his stomach and under arms.  He’s allergic to the water around here so I need to make sure he’s clean, otherwise he gets very itchy.  I think he reacts to the high algae in the ground water, which is the result of all the nitrogen run-off from the farms.  The conservation area is in a river valley surrounded by corn fields, so the water is likely very toxic.  I hate it, but what can I do?  There’s no where else to let them run.

Once they were all clean, I popped them into the large electro-netted fenced area beside my house and went inside.  As I was opening the front door, I found a note.  Curious, I opened it.  It was the note I have been waiting for for the past year: from Animal Control.  Lovely.  This happened to me at my last house as well, except it only took them a few weeks to find me.  This time I managed to stay under the radar for a whole year, but now I have to register my dogs.  The cost? $183.  You can imagine how happy this made me!  Especially when I knew that the only reason this happened was that one of my neighbours must have ratted on me.  And they likely did this because the landlord hasn’t cut the grass on the back side of the property (a steep hill and not my responsibility to cut), and they are trying to get revenge.  I wonder if they know that they are hurting me, the person who has cleaned up the other half of the property, planted flowers and otherwise made the place look a whole heck of a lot better than when I moved in.  I wish I knew who it was so I could point out to them what their petty little scheme is doing.  Passive aggressive jerks!

But I knew I was taking a risk when I fenced the side of the house off as people could see that I had dogs.  In the back yard, off the kitchen, no one can see them.  Damn it.  Well, I’ll know better next time.  Hopefully there won’t be a next time though…

To make matters worse, about an hour later I received an email from the manager of the sheepdog trial I was planning on competing in in two weeks.  She said that there had been too many entries so they had to do a draw to see who got in.  And I didn’t get in.

This is just as well as I have a lot of work to do, and the trial entry fee will go towards paying my stupid dog license fee.  Plus it means not having to travel next weekend, which is not bad.  I’m still getting over all the traveling I did over the last two months!

This may sound silly, but since I’m missing this trial it means I don’t have a shot at winning the provincial championship.  As a result, I no longer feel compelled to try and make every trial.  Not that there are very many trials at the novice level.  In fact so far there are only four listed so far.  The one I am not in, one more over the August long weekend, and a couple in the fall.  Considering how much I’ll be working this fall, I may not make any trial this year now.  I was going to go to the August one but they only have one run for the novice classes.  This means driving 6 hours for one run.  There are another 5 days of Open level trials that I would like to watch, but they start two days later.  This would mean being away for a whole week, and I simply can’t do that.  I might just drive up to watch the final tow days of the open trial.  Then again, maybe I’ll skip it all together and just go to watch the Nationals at the end of August and call it a trial season.  Next year I may need to just move Hannah to open so that I can have a chance to compete.  There’s very little going on for novices within 5-6 hours of where I live.  *sigh*

Now that I’ve wallowed in self-pity, time for the ups of the week: training has been going much better!  The dogs have been working very, very well (another reason I’m disappointed about the trial) and I’ve made good progress with each.  This is true for agility as well as herding.  In agility, I have been training any evening I didn’t work stock (except tonight), which means my dogs are actually moving forward.  Who’d of thought?!  Kess is coming along really nicely, and Mira is making progress as well.  On stock, all three dogs are moving ahead quickly.  This week Kess even did some very nice driving without my assistance, taking flanks both ways and driving the sheep in a big rectangle with me staying in one place.  Pretty good for a dog not yet two and handled by a novice handler!  She is definitely talented!

Mira has made some progress as well, although I still have to check any expectations at the gate when we walk out on the field.  I think I may start using her for some of the farm chores, like rounding up the flock and putting them away so we can use the back field to train in.  Perhaps doing some real work will help build her confidence.  We’ll see.

Hannah is doing much better as well.  She did some spectacular driving the other day, and is even taking her new whistles pretty well.  Although still not consistently, and not quickly enough.  Again maybe it’s just as well we aren’t competing.  I’d have to holler her around the course, which would no doubt elicit snickers and frowns.  Not that I should care, but I’m afraid part of me does.

I’m not sure why the dogs are suddenly doing better, but I expect it has something to do with my attitude shift.  I’ve been in a better head space this week (other than today, thanks to the animal control incident) and feeling more calm about things.

Oh, one more downer from the past week: fireworks!  A few just exploded reminding me of the last four days and nights of cowering dogs.  With the exception of Mira, my dogs don’t react in thunderstorms.  But they were all getting pretty jumpy after four days of explosions, running either to me or to their crates.  Kess is the worst, which is worrisome in such a young dog.  I gave her a dose of Phosphorus last night (a homeopathic remedy that is indicated for thunderphobia) but I’m not sure it helped much.  She might need a stronger potency.  It’s a remedy that might be a good fit for her in general so I need to research it a little and see if it matches her other general symptoms and personality.

The fireworks will now continue, at least on weekends, for the rest of the summer.  This is one big drawback to where I live: in a cottage beach resort where rich city people have their weekend homes, and less-rich city people have their tralers.  I live where everyone wants to be in the summer, which means I want to leave!  I really hope that by next year I have lined up a permanent job and am able to move to a house with property – and no uppity neighbours – and be away from fireworks and partying city-dwellers.  The exceptionally early summer weather has started all of this in June this year, when it didn’t get going in earnest last summer until august.  The noise all night long has been getting to me, with people yelling and singing and letting their dogs bark and even fight, even at 4am.  It’s too hot to close windows so I’m sleeping with ear plugs.  That does the trick, but I’ll be glad for Labour Day, at least on that front!


On Learning Theory

I am feeling a lot better today.  I got up this morning, despite a rather short sleep, feeling more or less rested.  The sun was out, and it was cool.  It still is cool.  In fact it’s supposed to go down to just 8C tonight.  The cool, clear air definitely perked me up.  For some reason it appears that I am feeling the heat this summer.  The humidity isn’t helping either.

But the real reason I think I was feeling so low yesterday is that I haven’t had any interaction with another person in days!  I didn’t realize this until my agility lesson this morning.  Social interaction really perked me up.  I live quite an isolate life right now, seeing as I am an hour from town and not working.  The only people I talk with are those I buy food from.  That makes for good discussion, but it rarely lasts more than a few minutes.  Then I’m back on my own again.

Because I am so busy with work, I have not been feeling lonely.  But apparently at some level I still am.  Spending an hour with my agility instructor this morning made it clear that I need to factor in some social time!  This will be tough because I could easily work 12-14 hours a day at my computer right now, but that is quickly becoming counterproductive.  Tomorrow I am driving into town to have lunch with a good friend.

I started my lesson by telling my instructor that I’ve been in a training funk, and a funk in general, for the last several days.  She spent the next 45 minutes problems solving with me.  We didn’t even get Hannah out of her crate until I only had 10 minutes left of the lesson!  But it was a very good session.  I discussed my frustrations with Hannah, and she theorized ways I could fix them.  We talked about learning theory, and how to reduce latency (the time gap between when you ask a dog to do something, and when the dog actually does it – my biggest challenge with Hannah).

In part I need to get on top of Hannah in areas other than training.  As I mentioned yesterday, she’s likely to blow me off for several seconds – or longer – when I call her to me.  She often acts like she thinks rules don’t apply to her.  While this may not be a big deal around the house, it sure is a problem when working stock.  To fix this, I need to let her know this is not acceptable.  This means withholding reward if she isn’t fast enough: you pick a time line, say 3 seconds, count to three and if the dog hasn’t listened then it doesn’t get rewarded, even if it does what you asked on the 4th second.  When what she is doing is self-rewarding – for example, sniffing about the garden – you take that away from her.  I’m to walk over, slip a leash around her neck, and march her into the house.  Better yet, put her straight into a crate.  Positive, my instructor reminded me, is not permissive.

On sheep this is going to be trickier, but it should work.  This winter I put pace back on Hannah by simply calling her off sheep when she wouldn’t listen when I asked her to slow down.  I will need to go back to that.  It only took a couple of times for her to smarten up and pay attention.  The difference was so dramatic that it was clear to me that she really was blowing me off.  Brat.

Regarding whistles, my instructor insisted that I need to keep pairing voice and whistle commands (whistle first, followed by voice) to really solidify her cues.  I find that Hannah just tunes out the new cue, but my instructor suggested trying to do this away from sheep.  Like on a basket ball.  Sounds ridiculous, I know, but Hannah will actually flank around a basket ball.  Perhaps I can get her to listen to my whistles this way.  Certainly I can’t see how it could hurt.  I’ll likely give this a try this evening.

I was also given a list of recommended books on learning theory, which I am going to start reading.  I also need to watch the new Derek Scrimgeour DVD that a good friend sent me a few weeks ago.  The more new ideas I have, the better able I will be to fix the problems we are facing in training right now.  The biggest right now, however, is my morale!

I am interested in learning more about learning theory, but I have to say I have some trepidation around the extreme worship of Behaviourism that I see in the dog training world.  While training methods based on behaviourist beliefs work on both dogs and humans, this school has been largely rejected as a comprehensive way of explaining, understanding and predicting human behaviour.  I would argue the same is true for dogs.  I am currently reading The Culture Clash, wherein author Jean Donaldson offers two understandings of dogs: 1) that they are like little humans, and think and behave like we do; and 2) they are a black box that respond to stimulus with behaviour.  Donaldson tells us to face up to reality: the black box model is the correct one.

In my opinion dogs lie somewhere in between, likely a lot closer to the human end of the spectrum than most people would like to accept.  They are smart, and they don’t necessarily have to be taught like machines.  The step by step methods presented in most dog training books are not necessarily needed because that’s the only way dogs learn, but rather because that’s the most straight forward way for us to communicate what we want.  But a dog like Hannah can extrapolate very, very quickly.  In part some of her issues I am sure come from being bored as she waits for me to figure things out and learn the next step to teach her.  We discussed this as well, and ways I can liven things up.  Apparently even doing something simple like throwing toys around that she must ignore will heighten focus and thus attention and response.

We didn’t get around to working with Kess as the next student was already waiting by the end of our lesson.  I’m going to do some work with her this evening here at home. And with the others.  The little bit of brain work I did with them the other night made them so happy I couldn’t believe it.  I need to do this kind of training more often.  Oh how I wish there were more hours in the day!  Or less work to be done during them.  I am going to try really, really hard to take one day off this week – Sunday – because I am definitely burning out.  And I’ve only just begun the crazy year I have ahead of me.

Oh dear – I should have been in bed well over an hour ago now!  I am going to be tired in the morning. I have to get up early to go to my agility lesson.  This morning I could barely get out of bed by 8:30.  I have slipped into a late to bed, late to rise routine, which I am not particularly happy about.  This happened because I’ve had somewhat of a return of my chronic fatigue symptoms, which means I become really low energy later in the afternoon – usually from 4pm until around 7 or so.  Then I perk up and have lots of energy until around 1am.  When I’m feeling low, I get nothing done.  Then I get frustrated and down.  As my energy picks up, I scurry about trying to make up for all the stuff I didn’t get done earlier.  The next thing I know, it is 1am and I’m still up.

Tonight is no exception.

After dragging myself out of bed this morning, and letting the fog clear from my brain, I took the dogs for a nice hike in the conservation area.  I was feeling pretty low energy, and surprisingly so were the dogs.  I expected them to be quite wild after their weekend of doing nothing, but no, they were pretty calm.  They have been getting a lot of regular exercise these days, and even Kess is almost two now.  So perhaps they are all mellowing nicely.  Also it was overcast with storms rolling in. I find these low pressure days make us all rather low key.

Speaking of Kess mellowing, she’s been becoming more interactive with me lately.  The last two nights in a row she’s asked to come up on the bed, and once there has slept all night in the spot I allocate to her.  This is very unusual, as she typically sleeps in a crate (her choice).  She’s also been coming over to me for cuddles and otherwise showing more affection and attention.  I am, of course, encouraging this as much as possible.

I also mentioned a while back that I saw some tension between Kess & the other girls.  That seems to have just been a hormonal thing while they were in heat.  I am seeing none of that anymore.  Fingers crossed it stays that way.

I worked all afternoon and then took the dogs to the farm this evening to train.  I probably shouldn’t have gone as I was still feeling rather low energy.  And by the end of training I was feeling emotionally low too.  Tonight was one of those nights were I wondered what the heck I am doing.  Am I ever going to get good at this endeavour?   They say it takes 10 years to be a really good handler, but is that with, or without owning your own sheep?  For tonight I felt like it’s going to take me a hundred years, not ten.  Despite all my effort, my dogs simply are not running very well.

The problem, of course, is that I am starting to prepare for this trial in mid-July.  For a trial I need precision and dogs who listen to me.  I, unfortunately, seem to have neither.  And tonight I was getting pretty tired of it.

I started with Hannah as she got short changed when we worked on Friday and ran out of sheep and light.  I decided not to train in the big field as the pasture is almost up to my knees and makes working already reluctant sheep even more difficult.  Instead I took a small group into the back pasture where the main flock is kept.  That grass is already shorter, and part of it had been cut over the weekend.  So I used Hannah to round up the main flock and put it in the barnyard, and then (after coaxing the llama to also go into the barnyard) brought out a small working group to train with.

We pushed the sheep into the back field and then I started doing a few outruns.  I can’t even remember what my focus was with Hannah tonight.  I try to have one thing in particular that I am working on with each dog, which I decide before I go to the field.  I think I just wanted to see if Hannah would listen to me.

She didn’t.

I mean, she works just fine, but there’s always a few second delay between when I ask her to do something, and when she does it.  This is Hannah though and through.  She does this at home when out in the yard.  I call her to come in, and she continues to sniff about and take her sweet time before she comes.  The other dogs are all in the house and then she looks up and wanders over to me.  I have to get after her to get any kind of quick response.  I am sick of this.  Tonight, in particular, I was fed up with that behaviour.  Being tired and cranky didn’t help.

To fix this I find myself putting her through drills, which she finds immensely boring and useless.  It doesn’t help that the sheep are very, very dog broke and extremely pokey.  No excitement here at all. So my bored dog does her job half asleep, eating a little grass along the way, or sniffing some sheep manure.  She’s bored, I’m bored.  Not a good combination.

I put her away and brought out Mira.

Mira was working fairly well tonight, but it has become very clear that she won’t take her flanks at any distance from me.  So I worked on getting her to flank with me just a little farther away than usual, but still close enough to insist.  I also worked on having her come around off-balance and stopping in places she doesn’t expect.  She, like Hannah, anticipates too much and then ignores what I ask in favour of doing what she’s used to doing.

I think with Hannah, and to a lesser extent with Mira, I have created a lot of the problems I am dealing with because I stayed too long at one stage – specifically wearing – and entrenched that behaviour to the point that the dogs default to it unless I practically stand on them.  I knew this was a problem at the time, but I didn’t know how do go to the next level.  I now know a bit more and am able to move Kess along more quickly.  Hopefully I can avoid some of these problems.  Of course I will create (and have already created) others.

With Kess I worked on getting an outrun.   I kept them very short – about 30-50 feet – and sent her from each side several times.  Some were looking not too bad, others were pretty terrible.  Half the time she goes out slowly and comes almost to a stop when she draws even with the sheep.  Then she walks straight at them, pushing them sideways.  So not what I want!  Perhaps I need to bring the whip out to put a little pressure from a greater distance.

I came away very frustrated in general and wondering if I should indeed sign up for this trial.  Will it just be a waste of money?  Is trying to compete spoiling my enjoyment of training?  But without the goal of a trial, what will get me to work through these issues?  I don’t know.  It hasn’t been a great day on the morale front.  I had best just go to bed and try again tomorrow.  Agility in the morning should cheer me up.  As long as I’m not late…

Quiet Sunday

Not a whole lot going on today.  It’s slightly overcast, very humid and warm but not hot.  A lazy Sunday.  I woke up early today (6am) to the sound of a cat hollering.  I had left my cats out overnight, which I never usually do but they simply wouldn’t come in.  Must have been something to do with the full moon.  Anyway, when I heard the cat meowing (although I knew it wasn’t one of mine), I got up to let them in.  Then I curled up in a living room chair and dozed for a bit with both cats curled up with me.  I wonder if they would spend more time with me if I wasn’t constantly surrounded by a pack of border collies!

When I finally fully woke up, I took the dogs out back and ate my breakfast and did some reading.  I love that the landlord still hasn’t cut the grass on most of the property because that gives me a nearly four foot privacy barrier around the area that I have kept short.  This means I can wander out in my pj’s and enjoy my breakfast or doing a little yoga, without the neighbours being able to see me.  The landlord will eventually cut the grass, but I’m quite enjoying for the moment.  And I’m hoping he’ll put what energy and time he has for this house into fixing the leaking roof first.

I didn’t do anything with the dogs yesterday, and you can really tell the difference today.  When they are well exercised and mentally tired, I can get up and walk about the house without them stirring.  Today they leap to their feet and follow me where ever I go.  Cute, but annoying.  Nothing’s going on guys!  I keep telling them, but they are eternally hopeful.

I may take them for a hike this evening as I expect the conservation area to be pretty quiet by then, but we’re into full summer here now and there are just too many people about for me to go to our favourite hiking area on the weekends.  The chances of quite a few people being there are high enough that I don’t want to waste my time driving there only to turn around.  Or to have to walk them on-leash.  It won’t kill them to have Saturdays as down-time days.  We don’t usually train on the weekends either because that’s when the farm holds their lessons, and I don’t want to get in the way or tire the sheep they use for their classes.

I will likely do some agility training with them in the yard today, however, as we have a lesson again on Tuesday.  I’m determined to get Hannah trialing by fall, and my instructor is helping us accomplish this.  That means pushing us forward a bit faster, which in turn requires us to take lessons a little more frequently.  Twice a month isn’t quite cutting it.  So we’re going every week for a few weeks to see if we can make more progress.

In agility I am now working with Hannah to get her doing full contact equipment at last.  We’re still putting the final polish on her contacts, but we’ve also started her on the teeter and the A-frame.  She’s doing 12 poles very consistently and with increasing speed, so I expect she’ll be ready to compete in a starters class by early September.

I’ve made some progress with Kess in agility as well.  She gets very excited when we go to class because she is still quite stimulated around other people, but she does seem to be finally settling a bit.  I stopped using the clicker, and I think that helps. The click seemed to rev her up too much.  For stationary behaviour (we’re having to do all the same things that I’ve been doing with Hannah around contact equipment, which entails a lot of standing still and doing nose touches) I need to keep things pretty quiet with her.  Even with jumping I’ll need to stay low key as she gets pretty wound up and will send bars a-flyin’.

I can’t say that I am very motivated to do agility these days.  I’m not sure why not, other than my heart really is in herding.  But I do like doing the agility training.  I think it’s because I’m feeling rather low energy – still – after all my travels.  Plus my days are so very full.  In addition to writing and preparing my courses for fall, and cooking and putting food by for winter, and training & exercising the dogs, I’m still finishing off setting up my house and rearranging things since my roommate moved out.  I thought that would be a small job, but it’s taking several weeks!  I have friends and family coming to stay for most of the month of July, so things need to be tidy and the extra bedrooms need to be functional.

This morning I spent two hours sorting out my closets.  I think that’s pretty much set now, at last.  There are still several piles in my bedroom and living room to finish organizing.  Plus a bunch of the landlord’s stuff to box up and put into the one room he has kept for his storage.  I try to do these types of jobs while talking on the phone as otherwise they’re just too boring for me to get through them.  I have a couple of ‘phone dates’ with long-distance friends this week, and will hopefully finish up these remaining tasks.

Tomorrow I need to mail out my trial entries as one of them closes this week.  I feel like it just opened for entries, but that was nearly three weeks ago.  My goodness how time flies.  In a few days it will be July and my summer will be half over.  Yet I have barely scratched the surface of all the things I need to do.  I’m trying not to panic and just take every day as it comes, working on what I can do in small, daily pieces.  Speaking of which, I’d best either go train the dogs, or get back to some work.

What to do, what to do…

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.

Border Collies at the Beach

I’ve been meaning to share this beautiful pastel image that Beth Lowell did of my girls – Mira and Hannah – from a photo of them at the beach near my house.  I was so excited to learn which photo Beth selected, and to see how it turned out in pastel.  It’s just stunning and when I receive the original, it will be framed and displayed proudly in my living room!  Thank you Beth!  Thank you, thank you!  I’ve always wanted original artwork of my own dogs.  I hope you will be open to doing more!

Real Work

Yesterday the dogs and I got to do some real work.  We helped shear the sheep at the farm where we train.  Let me tell you, it was work!  There are roughly 400 ewes and lambs on the farm now, so a pretty big flock.  160 of them needed to be shorn, and we did about 130 of them yesterday (the rest were done the evening before).  There were two shearers, the owner of the farm, myself, and the dogs.  The owner has his own dog, and I used Hannah and Kess.

Our job (that is mine and my dogs’) was to get the sheep through the shoot up to the shearer.  This involved rounding them up out of the barnyard, and getting them into the barn.  From there we had to push them into one end of the barn into a small corral, and then feed groups of them into an alley way that led to the shoot.

This was not an easy job.

To begin, we had to gather the sheep out out of the barnyard.  This is a very large space with many, many hiding spots for sheep.  The area is L-shaped, with a lot of equipment and old farm stuff lying around (giant hills of composting manure, piles of concrete etc), as well as a second barn at the other end that cannot be closed off.  Gathering the entire flock at once is completely impossible.

So we did it in groups.  I started with Hannah who did a stellar job getting the sheep into the barn.  We gathered them in about 4 groups, pushing each one in turn through the small gate into the working area.  It was very hot, and Hannah was pretty tired by the time we pushed the last of them in.  I should mention that these are sheep that are not used to being worked with dogs, and also that have new lambs.  To say they were not cooperative is quite an understatement.  Still, Hannah did a very good job getting them all to where they needed to be.

Unfortunately one of the back gates gave way and nearly half of them got out again.

Hannah was pretty tuckered, so I decided to see what Kess was able to do.  I had worked her very intensely on some pen work two nights before, and had been amazed not only by how quickly she picked up what I wanted her to do, but also by how incredibly sensible she was being in tight spaces.  She used lovely pace, going slowly but confidently around the sheep, moving them with authority and taking my flanks and downs like a pro.  In fact this week Kess has blown past Mira in her level and ability to work.

I had complete confidence taking Kess into the barnyard and having her be my next helper.  This is really saying something considering that just a couple of weeks ago I was frustrated constantly by my lack of control over her.  What we learned at the clinic in May was enough to turn her into a different dog (and me into a different handler).

While she didn’t always listen to me, Kess did a fantastic job getting the escaped 100 or so sheep back into the tight little corral off the barn.  From there she worked beautifully inside the small fenced space to push them into an even smaller area.  I marveled at her immediate understanding to do a sweep around the edge of the fence, squeezing between sheep and wood and rounding them all up.  I know Kess was bred to be a farm dog, but this is the first time she’d been used as one.  She did a fantastic job.

This, however, was about the limit of what I could do with this young dog.  The sheep were now packed into a very tight space, with the only exit being the 180 degree turn into a poorly lit alley way.  Sheep don’t like going into dark spaces, and most of these sheep had been bought over the winter and had never been through this barn’s shoots and alleys.  Many had lost their babies and were getting stressed.  The last thing they wanted to do was go through that last gate.

We pushed and pushed, but the sheep pushed back.  Kess was tired and starting to stress.  I decided to put her away and give her a break, and brought Hannah back out.  I didn’t have much better luck with Hannah.  Later I brought out Kess and Hannah together, and the owner brought out his dog (who’s a tough little dog with plenty of grip), and the three dogs together couldn’t get the sheep to budge.  Instead the sheep started turning and charging the dogs, which was just too much for Kess.  I keep forgetting she’s not even two yet.  Time to put the baby dog away.   Time to put all the dogs away, in fact, and let the sheep settle down.  We went for lunch.

When we came back to work, I left the dogs behind.  Some jobs are easier without a dog, and this one was presenting that way.  The sheep were all in their small corral, and it was tight enough that I was able to work a few at a time into the alley and off to the shoot.  Without the dogs around, the sheep were more relaxed and I had an easier time moving them.  So move them I did.

Eventually there were few enough left that they were able to just dodge past me and avoid the shoot.  This got frustrating, so I went out and brought Hannah back.  Despite having been stressed by the time I put her up before lunch, and having been rammed a number of times by angry ewes, rested and refreshed Hannah was ready to go.  She did not hesitate to enter the pen and get to work.  Good girl!  In a flash we had the last of them rounded up and into the shoot, and the dogs’ job was done.  With two shearers working away, we got through the flock in about 9 hours.

I have recently realized that when I see a big improvement in my dog, it’s almost always because I suddenly figure something out about my handling and training.  In other words, I see a mistake I am making, fix it, and suddenly my dog is working noticeably better.  I am such a handicap to my partners!

One of the things I learned yesterday – literally through the school of hard knocks – is that I need to get better at reading and understanding sheep.  While waiting in the tightly packed pen by the shoot, I noticed that Hannah was staring intensely at the sheep in very close proximity to them.  Since we were not trying to move stock at that point (we were waiting for some space to open up in which to drive them), I figured I’d pull Hannah back a bit and easy the pressure she was putting on the sheep.  I stepped back a few feet into some empty space and called Hannah back with me.  She obediently – albeit quite reluctantly – followed.  The second she eased off, however, two huge ewes charged and rammed us.  They were going for Hannah, but one of them got me.  All I can say is thank goodness they didn’t have horns.  Did I mention these were very big sheep?  Some of them are probably close to 200lbs.

Clearly Hannah had been holding these ewes at bay, but when she backed off (at my insistence) they perceived that she was giving ground and went after her.  We had stepped into a corner and had nowhere to go.  I had to do a lot of apologizing to my dog after that one!  I sure can be an idiot some times, which I’m suspect was exactly what Hannah was thinking.  She actually got charged a bunch of times, and rammed on at least one other occasion when more than one sheep went for her at the same time.  But she stood her ground and stayed keen to keep working.

We will be doing this all over again next week as the sheep still need to be wormed and have their feet trimmed.  This time we’ll be doing the entire flock (all 400) and it will likely just be myself and the owner doing it.  Fortunately the girls and I now know the system, which should make doing this a second time a bit easier and smoother.  I also know when to put the dogs away and just work on my own, which will help keep them fresh for the parts they can help me with.

And what about Mira, you ask?  Where was she in all of this?

Mira was in her crate in the car, along with Ross.  On Monday evening I did a bit of the same kind of pen work with Mira that I did with Kess, and she didn’t do particularly well.  In fact she started to shut down on me and display some avoidance behaviour.  Mira simply cannot take stress, and I knew the kind of pressure that would have been put on her yesterday would have shut her down in about 5 seconds.

I think I will use her next week however, now that I know the jobs that need to be done.  Mira would be able to help do the initial gather out of the large yard, at least of the main part of the flock.  I will likely use her for this in order to give her some work, and to help keep the other dogs fresh for the tougher stuff.  It’s great having work enough to actually use – to the point of exhaustion – three to four dogs.  Of course if my dogs were working every day they wouldn’t get tired as quickly.  But this is still a big enough job that two or even three dogs make it a lot easier on everyone.  It worked well to be able to rotate them off and keep them fresh and eager, and also to keep them listening well.  I am looking forward to next week!

Life in a Box

Not a whole lot to report on the training front as the dogs have been leading a very boring existence this last couple of days.  I am home for the weekend and we’re hosting a very large party here to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday.  There are guests coming from all over, and there’s been much prep work and organization to do this week (and for some weeks prior!).  I drove here on Thursday (yesterday) to help out where I could.  This involved doing things like cutting the grass and other last minute things to make the house and garden look their best.  It’s calling for 40% chance of thunderstorms tomorrow, so we’re not sure whether to set things up outside or not.  The weather has, of course, been perfect for the last three days in a row.  Hopefully it can hold out just one more!

Throughout all of this the poor dogs have been largely neglected.  Normally they would be able to hang out with us around the house or out in the yard.  And usually I sneak off to get some training and exercise in.  Not this time!  There has simply been too much to do this last two days.  And since the house has been thoroughly cleaned, and garden carefully tended, the dogs are not allowed anywhere without the strictest supervision.  That means they’ve been spending a lot of time in their crates.

Yesterday we did have them out in the yard with us for a while.  Well, we had Hannah and Kess, who are both generally good with young children.  There were several and both dogs and kids enjoyed playing ball for ever, and ever, as only kids and border collies are able to do.  I sat back and watched carefully while we adults (I finally lump myself into that category, although I still don’t really feel like one) drank wine and chatted.

All was going very well until one of the kids decided that Hannah was hogging the ball.  She was, in fact, doing just that.  Hannah always hogs the ball.  She takes her retrieving extremely seriously and gets annoyed at Kess’s inept attempts at playing the game Hannah so dearly loves.  If Kess gets the ball, she runs around willy nilly, tossing it about and refusing to bring it back.  The funny thing is, Kess will retrieve beautifully if it’s just me and her.  She clearly knows what she’s supposed to do.  But apparently Kess gets more pleasure out of teasing the other dogs than out of retrieving, so that’s exactly what she does.  And to avoid all that unnecessary silliness, Hannah just shoulder checks Kess out of the way and retrieves the ball as often as she can.

My mistake – and it actually crossed my mind a few minutes before thing went wrong – is that I left collars on my dogs.  Hannah is very good with kids, but in part this is because she is very good at evading their attempts to grab her, and just keeps them busy by dropping the ball on their feet.  I’ve never, ever had a problem with her around kids before.  Ever.  But this just goes to show that you can never trust kids and dogs, no matter how well you think you know your dog.  It was a very good thing that quite a few people were watching so there was no question as to what happened.

As I said, one of the kids decided that Hannah was hogging the ball.  To give Kess a chance to get it, he caught Hannah by her collar.  She squirmed to let go and so he pulled her off her feet by the collar.  I was in the process of jumping up to tell him to let her go when Hannah defended herself.  She, thank goodness, nose butted him.

No teeth, no damage.  Just a good, strong nose poke in the face.  Ross did the same thing a couple of years ago when another kid grabbed him before I could intervene.  On both occasions, the child was startled but uninjured.  In my opinion, the dogs showed tremendous control.  They so easily could have done worse.  So much worse.  A nose butt is really nothing.  But it is still a defensive action and that means I did not adequately protect my dogs.  Yesterday I failed Hannah.

It is so difficult to have my dogs around kids.  I really want to let them play ball with them as everyone has so much fun.  But it’s also so easy for things to get out of hand.  I find most kids are either afraid of dogs (my preferred kind of kid to have near my crew) or have a dog they are used to mauling and hauling around.  The latter kind are the ones that I find most problematic. They have no fear, but they also have little or no understanding as to what is appropriate.  And of course kids love, love, love to hug animals.  I know. I used to be one of those kids.  And after reading The Other End of the Leash (a must read for anyone who has a dog), I understand why.  Hugging and holding is simply a natural primate instinctive behaviour.  But it is not for canines.

Very few kids live with dogs who will bite them if they pull their collars or tails or whatnot.  Very few parents will keep a dog around that will do such things to their kids.  So most kids who are used to playing with dogs, are used to dogs they can be pretty rough with.  And my guys are simply not used to that.

My dogs, therefore, are spending the rest of the weekend in their crates, with leash walks when I can sneak away for a few minutes.  I’ll make it up to them when we get home in a couple of days.

Moving Too Fast

Gosh it’s late!  It’s almost midnight and I should be in bed.  I have been trying to get myself onto an earlier schedule, with little success.  There is just so much I need to be doing these days, still, and never enough hours.  Hopefully once I get my house unpacked and set up, that will change.  But how many times I have I written that ‘as soon as xyz is done, I’ll have more free time’?  I don’t want to know.  That said, it is summer and things should slow down at some point soon!

Things actually have slowed down to an extent.  I never have to set an alarm anymore, and I have been spending time cooking and setting up my house instead of working constantly.  Basically I have months of backlog to catch up on in my personal life, and that is what is taking up the time freed from work (the paid job kind of work, that is).

I have also been getting back to training with the dogs.  Yeah me!  Yesterday I spent some time doing basic agility training, and then took the dogs to stock in the evening.  Today I had to pick up my CSA share, and then stay to pick strawberries for my freezer, so I didn’t have time to do any agility work.  But I did go to the farm again this evening and trained all three dogs, followed by a good hike around the property.

Yesterday’s training was a bit of a bust, but I expected this as the dogs haven’t seen sheep since the clinic, nearly 4 weeks ago now.  My poor dogs and their on-again, off-again training.  I hope to get out 3-4 times a week for the rest of the summer, now, so we should make steady progress.

Tonight’s training went quite well for the most part.  All three dogs progressed, and so did I.  The biggest improvement was that I realized some major mistakes I was making.  Well, one in particular: I keep pushing ahead too quickly.  Take Hannah.  I am working on shedding with her, and learned a new methods of doing so that works really well.  The first step involves teaching the dog to come into you properly.  She must come straight through the sheep, right to me, and actually go behind me before moving forward to take the stock.  This forces the dog to make a 90 degree turn at the stock, rather than do a sweep that  might end up pushing them back together.  It’s hard to describe without pictures, but it works quite well in getting the dog where she needs to be to keep the sheep apart.

To start this, you need sheep that separate very easily.  Unfortunately I only have access to a group of 30 or so sheep that have been work together quite excessively (the rest of the flock is busy with lambs right now).  To solve the problem, I put all the sheep but 3 into the pen in the middle of the field.  I then had three sheep who liked to stick to the pen, but would split off pretty easily with a little pressure from the dog.  This set-up was perfect to practice the movement we need to master.

After doing this successfully three or four times, I then decided to try it with the small group of sheep away from the pen.  They were actually splitting on their own, so I called Hannah to my heels through the gap.  She went right back to her old habit of bolting in front of me and pushing the sheep back together again.  I was furious with her and gave her a good scolding.

Then I thought to myself, ok, so she’s done it the new way maybe 10 times now, and the old way at least 100, probably way more.  Why am I surprised when she goes back to her old habit as soon as I up the anti?  Really it’s only natural.

So I went back to just pulling sheep off the pen, and we had several more successes.  I am going to leave it at that until the end of the month.  From now until July 01, Hannah and I are only going to shed sheep off the pen.  I’ll only do a small number of repetitions every time we train, and of course we will also do other things so we don’t get bored out of our skulls, but I want to make sure that she really gets this step down pat before moving on.  And since I have a lot to undo, we need to stay at this stage for at least the next two weeks.  After that I’ll test her understanding out in the open.

I feel like I have a lot to undo in Hannah, and it’s hard for me to really know whether the problems we’re facing are inherently in her, or if I created them.  The biggest one is that she still doesn’t listen very well.  I have to call her off stock three or four times, and she’ll often slip back to them if I don’t keep my eye on her.  She’ll ignore my flanks if they call her off balance.  She is really slow to get on whistles.  In fact I can blow a lie-down whistle while we’re out hiking, and Kess & Mira hit the deck instantly while Hannah often carries on like she didn’t hear me.  The other two have barely been introduced to the whistle!

I think a lot of the problem with Hannah is that we stayed for so long at the basic stages.  She has a fair amount of eye, and really good balance, and by keeping her doing little else but wearing for over two years, it’s really hard to get her to give up the idea of just bringing the sheep back to me.  Not to mention that she’s really darn good at it.  That’s her comfort zone.  I have done relatively little wearing with the other two, and find both are driving very easily.  But they are also natural driving dogs, whereas Hannah is not.

With both Kestrel and Mira I did a lot of off-balance flanking today (and yesterday).  Kess continues to impress and excite me.  She moves almost completely freely around stock, and I can stop her in any position and have her walk in on them.  Training her is so darn easy.  I still fight with Hannah over this.  I will stop her, then tell her to walk up and she’ll flank to their heads.  Drives me nuts.  Kess, on the other hand, doesn’t much care where the sheep are pointed.  If I say walk on, she walks on.   If I flank her, she flanks.  She  moves easily and freely, and has no problem moving even heavy, ornery sheep.  It’s a real treat to work with her.

Mira’s somewhere in between the other two.  She’s very pressure sensitive but has less eye.  She’s also really lacking in confidence.  I have to be careful with that.  Tonight, for example, I sent her to pick up three sheep.  She was tired, and they could sense it.  They didn’t want to come up the field, away from their friends and food.  At one point they just split around her and ran back to the fence.  I walked closer and encouraged Mira and she was able to move them the second time.  I think I gave her the confidence she needed by coming closer.

I also did a fairly good job tonight of finding that balance between too much pressure, and not enough, when working Mira.  This is what I was trying to figure out at the clinic when she shut down completely.  Tonight I made it work.  I managed to pressure her enough to square off her flanks, but not send her into orbit.  She worked very nicely and I was really happy with her.  She was pretty happy with herself.  I don’t know why it matters to me so much to get this dog up and running, but I feel that I somehow owe it to her.  I also think I am learning a whole lot trying to figure her out, and that I’ll be a much better handler for it.

I have decided to enter all three girls in an upcoming trial.  I am pretty sure both Hannah and Mira are ready – Hannah in Pro-Novice, and Mira in Novice-Novice.  Mira’s not quite driving yet, although we may be there soon and have to move up.  But I think NN is the place for us to start at this point.  I’m a bit less certain about Kestrel.  I think she’ll do just fine once she has the sheep, but she still doesn’t have an outrun.  I am not sure I can build one in a month, even just for a Novice course.  It may not be in her interest for me to try and move her along that fast either.  I suppose I can pull her if need be.  I have a couple of weeks to think about it.

Tomorrow I head back to my parents’ for the weekend.  I’m hoping to get some training in at the other farm while I’m there as I don’t want to backslide again.  Every time we stop I have to spend 2-3 training sessions getting back up to speed.  After I get home I won’t be traveling anywhere for a whole month.  Imagine that!  I can’t wait.

A Very Sheepy Saturday

Yesterday I took a day to myself and just had fun.  What a difference that can make in one’s attitude towards life!  I feel much  more relaxed today.  My new plan is to take one day off a week for pure fun and relaxation, at least for the summer.  If I take two days off from work, one to do chores, and one to relax, then I think I will be more effective on work days.  Right now I am trying to do too many things at once, and as a result I feel like I am running constantly on a treadmill.  Or a giant hamster wheel. Always running, never getting anywhere.

I started the day yesterday with sheep shearing.  I had stopped by a neighbouring farm (the one I buy my lamb from) a few days ago and they mentioned that they were shearing their sheep this weekend.  I asked if I could help, but they said they had plenty of hands thank you.  I insisted that I would love to help, and they said I was welcome to come if I wanted to.  So of course I did.

I arrived around 8:30, but the shearer had gone to another farm first that just had a handful of sheep.  He arrived around 10:30.   An older man, big and burly, he got right to work.  The sheep had been put in the barn the night before to ensure that they would be dry, and as such were ready to go as soon as he arrived.

When I have helped shear sheep at the farm where I used to train (a couple of years ago), they had a shoot system that fed the sheep out, one at a time, in a single file.  This made getting the sheep to the shearer quite easy.  At this farm they have no such set-up.  Their flock is small (about 30) and I expect buying all that equipment is not economically worth it.  Instead, we caught each ewe, one at a time, and brought her out.  I got to be one of the sheep catchers.

Oh, how I enjoyed catching those sheep!  I practiced very carefully moving up on them – as if I was shedding – moving in ever so slowly, then suddenly lunging and catching a horn.  From there you had to hold on tight and get them under control.  My back is making it clear today that I was not as effective as I had hoped in using the right muscles for this.  Not surprising considering it’s not something I’ve done before.  My whole body hurts today, but other than the ache in my lower back, it’s a good hurt.  A muscles well used hurt.

As the hours wore on, the sheep catching became more difficult.  The ones that were easy to catch were, of course, the ones that were first to be caught.  The wilder ones were left to later, when of course were were all tired.  The last couple were really difficult, but that’s where a crook came in handy.  Oh my goodness, now I get the use of a crook!  How silly of me not to have thought of that before.  There’s a reason shepherds carry crooks – they are handy devices with which to catch sheep!  This is particularly true of sheep with no horns.  I knew this in abstraction, but not in a practical sense.  Now I sure do!  Most of the ones I caught yesterday had horns – which make excellent handles – but they had a few without.  And a few that you simply couldn’t get close enough to to grab.  This is where the crook worked like a charm.  A quick scoop and hook, and you have yourself a sheep.

Once the ewe was caught, we had to pull her out of the pen and out to the shearer.  He taught me how to hold them by the nose and gently twist them down to the ground, then roll them onto their bums.  Once in a sitting position, they turn into big lumps of lard.  They literally become completely passive.  Amazing.  And very handy when you’re dealing with a 200+lb ram (I left catching those to the men).

After each ewe was shorn, she was wormed and then put back into the pen with the other ewes and lambs.  It was explained to me that in the past they would separate them all out, but that caused a lot of stress to all involved.  Keeping the flock together – specifically the ewes with their lambs – made the entire process much less stressful.  It was interesting to see the sheep sniff each newly shorn flock-mate as she returned.  It was as if they didn’t recognize her and could be sure of who she was only by smell.  The lambs seem to have trouble recognizing their own mothers until they got a good sniff of her udder.  But I suppose that’s not too unexpected.  They do look dramatically different – and much smaller – after being shorn.

Once the flock was done, the hosting family put on a bar-b-q, complete with mutton sausages, watermelon and chocolate zucchini cake.   I was very hungry, and everything was delicious.

After eating, I headed home to let the dogs out, shower and change. Then I hopped back into  my car and drove to the farm where I train to watch the tail end of a stock-dog trial they are hosting.  Unfortunately I arrived as the last run was finishing so I didn’t get to see much.  But I did get a chance to socialize with a few people I know, and also to chat with the owners about when I can start training again: Monday evening.  Yippee!

As yesterday was my fun day, today will be dedicated to chores.  I’m not even going to go to the conservation area.  I am going to cook, do laundry, clean and finish unpacking and setting up my stuff.  Later I’ll do some agility training with the dogs in the yard.  As it’s overcast and rainy, I may even take them to the beach which will likely be fairly abandoned.  The water is cold but it’s not too bad.  I took Kess with me to the trial yesterday for socialization, then stopped at the beach on the way home for her to have a swim.  I waded in as well and it was not too bad.  We’ve had an usually hot spring and the water is much warmer than it usually is this time of year.  I am definitely not complaining!  Well, time to get down to work.  Now…where to start?