Friday, December 17, 2010

movie: Sheep vs. Dog

The conversation we handlers don't hear...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Outrun Shenanigans

This week’s lesson focused on outwork. We’ve been working nearly exclusively on driving, and he’s improving nicely, but neglecting outruns has led to some problems – one in particular, which showed up on Sunday, was his tendency to go to nearby sheep in a pen rather than going out into the field.

“This could be a real problem with him at trials. He has a tendency towards it,” Brian said. It’s a common problem. Dogs that watch previous runs will see where the sheep go at the end of the run (the exhaust), and will naturally tend to go where they think they’ll find sheep.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fido's Farm Fun Trial

Sunday morning, I awoke at the painful hour of 6 am in order to drive 2 ½ hours to Fido’s Farm, in Olympia. We arrived to simultaneous sunshine and rain that is quintessential Pacific Northwest, and the weather managed to remain comparatively fair throughout the day.

We were there for a ‘fun trial,’ which had drive panels, a shedding ring, and a pen set up to simulate courses including Open, Pro Novice, Ranch, and Novice. I had entered Rodeo twice, and we were up 14th and 20th. The runs started at 9 and we rolled in a little after 10.

This was my first trip to Fido’s Farm. In addition to raising sheep and other livestock, they do boarding and every kind of dog training imaginable, from herding, to agility, to flyball and tracking.

They also have a sweeping vista of fields with a variety of sheep, and an info station where the various pens are labeled as holding ‘medium’ or ‘heavy’ sheep, or lambs, and handlers can freely move about between different pens, working different types of sheep, which is critical because it’s easy for a dog (and handler) to fall into lazy habits that get exposed when working unfamiliar sheep. For example, sheep vary dramatically in how readily they’ll move in response to a dog. Sheep that see dogs frequently – ie, the sheep you’re likely to be training on – may be forgiving of a dog that flashes in too tightly at the top of an outrun. The same path taken on flighty sheep will send them running for the hills, starting a race that the dog is almost certain to lose.

The fun trial was set up like any other trial, with a handler’s post and drive panels, and a handler’s shelter with plastic chairs set up, and a coordinator who ensured that handlers stuck to the ten minute time limit.

On our first run, I chose to run Ranch, which basically meant that we walked out past the handler’s post and about halfway down the field, in order to reduce the outrun to the appropriate length of about 150 yards. I sent him on the come by side (left), which put him between the sheep and the set out pen – that is, into the ‘pressure,’ because the sheep will tend to want to run back in the direction they came. Sending the dog into the pressure prevents them from doing that and gives him a better chance of exerting control.

But the strategy can backfire, because an inexperienced dog can get confused by the presence of the sheep in the setout pen and the sheep in the open field in close proximity, not to mention the setout crew and dog hovering nearby. That’s exactly what happened to Rodeo, and he stopped at about 10 o’clock, unsure of what to do next. Since this was a non-competitive trial, I could leave the ‘post’ to help him, so I walked forward and repeated commands until he completed the outrun and brought them to me.

I had him turn them around the post and begin a drive, which went fairly well, even if the sheep never came close to the drive panel. I retreated to the pen and we succeeded pretty quickly.

About an hour later, we had our second run, and this time I requested a Pro Novice course, which meant that we stayed at the original handler’s post, for an outrun of about 300 yards. We immediately had a problem in the sheep were being exhausted about 50 yards to our left, and Rodeo had fixated on them when they left the field after the previous run. He doesn’t understand yet that when I’m facing a direction and I send him, that there’ll be sheep there for him to find. Instead, he turned and ran towards the exhaust gate.

So I walked with him down the field until he saw the sheep in the field, and then I sent him. He ran into some trouble at the top, circling around the sheep some, but he brought them back without too much fuss after that.

He really improved in the drive the second time around. He took control of them and moved them with little hesitation, and was very responsive when I gave him flanking commands, both inside and outside. He easily drove them to the fetch panel, but I micro-managed him with flank commands and the sheep missed the panel. Still, it was clear that with a better job on my part, he could easily have made the panel. I was very pleased.

Rather than go for the cross-drive, I decided to move on to the pen to make sure that we could complete that and the second outrun before our allotted time was up. The pen again went off with little trouble, except that the sheep weren’t perfectly settled and they circled the pen once before we got them in, which would have been a deduction.

We did the final outrun, again walking down the field until he spotted the sheep, and then exhausted the sheep and retired. I ate some chili, chatted with some of the other handlers, and then headed to the dog washing station in one of the barns before loading him up in the car and heading for home.

It’s clear that Rodeo is making strides with driving, and equally clear that there is a lot of work to do on his outrun. Not surprising, really, because we’d been focusing so much effort on driving lately that he was bound to slip a little on the gather.

We really enjoyed our first trip to Fido’s Farm and will definitely be back. It’s a great facility for training – you can train all day for a modest fee – and it’s close to Mima Mounds, which is a great botanizing destination. So this Spring I foresee some weekend trips combining the two. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


This week was all about driving, as Rodeo continues to struggle with this.

It seemed for awhile that he understood driving, in that he would push the sheep in a more or less straight line. But he was always hesitant, stopping and looking back at me for encouragement. In the past couple of months that got worse, to the point that he would actually run back towards me.

Last week I made a conscious effort to become more firm with him, including correcting him sternly when he made a move to come to me. Then I would encourage him with a forceful ‘get up’ command.

That would get him going again, the sheep always ended up drifting off a straight line, often to the right.

Monday, November 8, 2010

RIP Lilah

Lilah putting Rodeo in his place

Our household had some sad news this week. Our venerable cat, 20-year old Lilah, passed away. She died in the comfort of home, on our bed, where she has spent many a night. 

She was a tortoise shell pound cat that I adopted her just after I graduated from college, in 1990, in Indianapolis, Indiana, when I was working for a pharmaceutical company. She traveled with me to graduate school at Indiana University in 1992, then to New York City in 1995, then El Paso and Bellingham, Washington, both in 1996. In 2001 she traveled with me to Washington, DC, and then back to Bellingham in 2005. 

She spent most of her time indoors, but would venture outside when I let her, but always came back inside in an hour or so. In 2001, our long-haired tabby cat Scottie joined the household. She took about six months to accept him, but never got much past that. 

Lilah was the dominant force in our household, demanding attention when she wanted it and generally acting haughty when she didn't. When Rodeo came to live with us, she made it very clear that he was not to mess with her, so any herding he wanted to do would have to focus on Scottie. 

Despite her domineering ways, she was also a very sweet cat who provide much comfort during some difficult times. We'll miss her. 

Rodeo's uncertain ancestry

This weekend I went to the Island Crossing trial at Joe and Heather Haynes' place in Arlington. I only made it down Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, but I managed to see runs by Diane Pagel, Ruedi Birenheide, and several others.

Due to cold weather and rain, there weren't many handlers watching the runs, but I chatted with a few. Rodeo came with me and spent most of the time staring intently at the runs.

Ron Green asked me where he was from, and I told him I didn't know because we got him from a rancher, who in turn got him from the Everett Humane Society. Ron suggested he might be out of Basin Border Collies in Oregon, because he looks a lot like some of their dogs. I was intrigued because Rodeo is quite unique looking: his deep red color is distinctive as are his light blue eyes.

I emailed the breeder and she emailed back right away, saying that she only sold one puppy with light blue eyes, and it didn't have a split face like Rodeo. She is also in touch with everyone she's sold puppies to and accept puppies back that don't work out, so it's unlikely that one of hers would end up in the shelter.

Oh, well. It would be fun to know where he's from, but it's not particularly important. She did say that she's in touch with other breeders who specialize in red border collies, and offered to assist if we come up with any leads.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Communications Breakdown

Sheepherding looks so simple. Under the guidance of a good dog/handler team, sheep move smoothly from one place to another, seemingly without fuss. The dog looks so natural as it runs in a graceful arc and then coaxes the sheep to the handler. It looks so confident walking into them and driving them down the field, so in control when it backs them into a pen.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you could pick this up quickly. Perhaps I can even be forgiven for thinking it, not so long ago.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lost Border Collie

This tri-colored female border collie has been at the Salt Lake County Animal Services since September 5. She has a 2005 Cattle dog finals collar. If anyone recognizes her or knows her owner, please help her out.

You can call Salt Lake County Animal Services at 801-559-1100, ID # A345878

EDIT: good news. The community of border collie handlers mobilized and the original breeder has been found, and the owner will be contacted. .

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shedding and Penning, and Fun

Rodeo seems to have regained his verve, and I think I may be regaining some of mine, too.

On Tuesday, we did some outrun work, and Rodeo took off like a shot each from the outset, bounding along and giving every indication that he was having a great time. There was no need to jazz him up or get him excited.

Brian continues to insist that I need to be more firm with him, and a couple of times I was: He was so intent on the sheep that he didn’t come to me when I called. I got fed up with it and walked over to him, grabbed him by the collar, and literally dragged him to where I had been standing.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

a Rocky Week

We went to the Rocky Ewe trial in Yelm, Washington, this past weekend, and let’s just say we had a disappointing performance. The trial was put on by Judy Norris, on a beautiful property not far from downtown Yelm. It’s primarily an equine facility, with lovely, manicured pastures.

The field was relatively small, with a tree line on the left and a patchwork of trees, open space, and buildings on the right. Spectators were also set up on this side. That made for a prime escape route for the sheep, and the exhaust pen had been placed well behind the spectators, so the sheep wanted to go that direction anyway.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Alasdair MacRae and Nap

Here's a great video of Alasdair MacRae and his dog Nap, and their winning run at the recent Lacamas trial. 163 points out of 170 and a brilliant display:

Monday, August 30, 2010

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Again and again I’ve watched as Rodeo picks up a new skill, looks good at it, and then seems to slip for a little while. Then he suddenly surges forward again.

He sure did that today.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Many sports are an abstraction: American football resembles ground warfare; Scottish Caber may have grown from laying down poles to cross moats during sieges; and baseball… well, okay, I don’t know where baseball came from.

Sheepdog trialing is a sport that remains very close to its origin.

Help save a Russian seed bank

Related not to sheepherding, but to another passion of mine: plants and biodiversity.

A Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station, repository of thousands of berries of agricultural importance, is threatened with destruction due to development. Apparently a new law calls for the privatization of public lands that are not being used 'profitably,' and a recent court order upheld the privatization and development of the seed bank's land.

It is potentially a catastrophic loss of an institution that Russian scientists gave their lives to defend during World War II. They defended not with guns, but by their refusal to eat the potatoes and grains in their charge, and starved.

More information here:

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has decided to look into the matter, which is good, but it's important that we continue to push until the situation is resolved and the station is preserved. We also need to get the word out everywhere so that people understand the importance of biodiversity, both to the natural landscape and our human souls, and to agriculturalists who depend on seed banks like these to breed new varieties that are resistant to disease and changing climate patterns. 

If you're moved to action, here are some options:

* Sign this petition:
* Write a letter to the President and Prime Minister (with a copy to the Russian ambassador in your country):
* Tweet President Dmitry Medvedev:
* Forward this article to others, post it on your websites and blogs and encourage friends and contacts to take action.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pressuring sheep

Fresh off our experience last week, I decided to return to K’s place for another session this evening. This time K separated the ewe and her lambs before I got there, so there was no initial drama. I was actually a little disappointed because I wanted to apply what I’d learned last week and see if I could sort them myself.

K warned me that there might be some traffic in the large field, through the gate that leads on to the country lane. She said it was okay to work the sheep in that field, that I should just keep an eye on things when someone was coming in, but I decided to stay in the smaller fields since I still wasn’t entirely confident in my ability to control these very light sheep.

We walked through the big field to a gate that leads into a small pasture with two other outlets. To the immediate right was a gate that leads into the narrow pasture that I described in my last entry, where I had tried in vain to sort out the ewe and lambs. I looked and could see them in that field, and the gate was closed. The rest of the sheep were in front of us. To our left, the field stretched about 70 or 80 yards and an open gate leads into a narrow chute. It’s about 20 yards long, bordered by shrubs and tall grass on either side, and it opened out into one end of another long, narrow field.

We did most of our work in this narrow field, and it presented an interesting challenge. Once the sheep were in the open field, the pressure was directly behind us – the chute was the only way in or out of the field, and their food and water were in that direction. The narrow nature of the field also acted as a funnel that heightened the pressure even more.

We began by driving the sheep down the length of the field. Rodeo did really well, going well in front of me, maybe 25-30 yards, before stopping and looking back at me. Even then, I only had to take one or two steps forward and he would swivel around and start walking on to the sheep again. That was really encouraging as it showed quite a lot more confidence in driving.

Once the sheep had been driven all the way to the opposite end of the field, we had a problem. The pressure was behind us, and when I sent Rodeo to fetch them to me, it would be a simple matter for them to charge right past me and bolt down the length of the field and into the chute and the adjoining field.

I knew I had to help Rodeo by putting pressure on the sheep to prevent them from passing me. I sent him on a come by flank, and he cautiously moved along the fence line towards them. He hadn’t yet reached them when they reacted to his pressure and turned towards me. I gave him a lie down and waited for them to approach me. Then I stretched out my arms (including my flag in my right hand). The sheep stopped and looked at me.

We had accomplished equilibrium, but if I moved backwards, they would be likely to bolt past me at the first opportunity. So instead I held my position and gave Rodeo an ‘away’ command, asking him to retrace his steps. This was an off-balance flank. He was to the left of the sheep, and the natural direction for him to go would be to his left, so that he could put the sheep between him and me. But I was asking him to move to his right, towards me, and towards the sheep, so that we could prevent them from escaping behind me to the chute.

He took the command easily, and soon we were both between the sheep and the chute. They turned their heads back towards the far end of the field, and I had Rodeo drive them back into the far corner.

We repeated the exercise, bringing them back out of the corner, but this time I was lax in my lie down command and he put too much pressure on them. I waved my arms and the flag, but the sheep moved past me and ran to the chute, and Rodeo wasn’t able to cut them off.

So we walked after them, through the chute and back into the smaller field, and I called a break to give Rodeo some water. He walked to the nearby gate and made it clear from his body language that he wanted to go through the gate, and presumably back to the car. He seemed to want nothing more to do with these sheep, which was a bit disconcerting.

I had to conclude that he doesn’t really like working these sheep. They’re so light, and he is forced to be so slow and cautious when working them, that there just isn’t the excitement that he gets from working other sheep. Still, our lesson wasn’t done, so we gathered up the sheep and moved them through the chute and back into the narrow field.

We repeated the earlier exercise of driving them to the far end, then bringing them back, and I noticed that his body language was much different on the drive: he seemed to enjoy it much more and he gained confidence as the session went on.

This session was probably more about me than it was about Rodeo. It reinforced how much I need to be an active partner in applying pressure on the sheep. When I train with Brian, the sheep are dog broke and tend to just come to the handler. They’re very easy to work and require little effort on my part, so it’s easy to forget my own role. K’s sheep are so light, and so apt to run past me if I’m not careful – it’s a great reminder and training opportunity for me.

It’s important in trialing, especially at the pen. At that stage, I’m standing at the gate of the pen, holding the gate open, and directing Rodeo to push the sheep into the small, square pen so that I can close the gate behind them. But at the Whidbey Island Classic, I made the mistake of being too passive. I positioned Rodeo on the opposite side of the sheep, but when he tried to push them forward and into the pen, they squirted around one side or the other. I know now that I was too passive and had failed to cover my side, so that they would be convinced that there was no way for them to go but into the pen.

I’m looking forward to applying the experience to our next trial. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hard Lessons

On Thursday we did some work on some sheep near Bellingham, owned by K, who runs a boarding and training facility and has been kind enough to let me work her sheep for a modest stock fee.

We trained out there in the spring, but due to a couple of factors I had stopped going until recently. The most glaring issue was that we weren’t quite advanced enough in our training, and I would tend to work Rodeo for a few minutes and then be at a loss as to what to do next.

Now, Rodeo is more advanced so there’s more to work on, such as driving. As I discovered on Thursday, I’ve become more adept at finding ways to use the field and the sheep to work on technique. This is a direct result of doing this with Brian on our main training field – I’ve finally absorbed it enough to be able to do it on my own.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


After the lesson today, Brian asked: “Are you doubting him?”

I quickly denied it. I know he’s a good dog, but maybe there was something to it. Brian had noticed it, and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I was.

Is this to do with Peg, perhaps? In some ways she’s more advanced than Rodeo, but of course she’s a little older, too. I’ve felt some guilt over working with her, taking time away from my training with Rodeo. A part of me worries that she’ll wind up the better herding dog, or that she and I will make a better team that Rodeo and me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Surprise Patrick Shannahan lesson

This was an unusual week because my family is visiting from Iowa, so our normal Tuesday lesson was out because we were all visiting San Juan Island off the Washington coast. But just because I had family in town didn’t mean I was going to skip training. “You gotta have your priorities straight!” Brian said when I mentioned that my family was coming.

Fortunately, they were all interested to watch Rodeo do his thing, so I made an appointment to train on Friday, and we all piled into a couple of cars to make the drive.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Island Crossing trial

On Friday, I drove down to Arlington to the farm of Joe and Heather Haynes, who are hosting the Island Crossing trial. I met Joe in passing, and I spoke to a friend of his who told me that Joe went to high school in Bellingham before going off to college and moving to Arlington.

I didn’t enter Rodeo because the trial only had Pro-Novice and Open categories, and while we’re knocking on the door of Pro-Novice, we weren’t there in time to sign up for this one. Instead, we came as spectators.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Today, we started with a blind outrun of about 150-200 yards. I was to send Rodeo on an ‘away’ flank (counterclockwise), and this would take him directly past the round pen, which meant he had to ignore them and continue on to find the sheep that I intended him to fetch.

Not surprisingly, he stopped at the pen and stared at the sheep. This has been a problem before – it’s the whole reason for doing this particular exercise – so I walked up the field with him until he saw the sheep. Then we retraced our steps and I sent him, and again he locked into the sheep in the pen. No amount of correction or redirecting would tear him away.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Different Dog, Different Personality

Like last week, I brought Peg to train along with Rodeo. This time I drove out to Caroline’s house north of town, which is on a nice piece of property. She has chickens and a couple of pastures that are just crying out for sheep, but are empty for the time being.

As we drove southward on I5, the outside temperature, according to the readout on the car’s dash, rose from 70 degrees to over 80. I found Brian relaxing in the shade with Doc, Miggy, and Raven, along with a new arrival named Bell. “Meet the princess!” Brian announced. Bell is a two-year old, very dainty and with pricked ears, with tons of cuteness and charisma. Brian bought her some time ago but she lives with a friend of his, and Brian suspects she’s there to stay. It works out because his friend only lives 5 minutes away from him so he can train her easily.  

Same as last week, I split training between Rodeo and Peg, taking turns tying them to the fence in the shade. We began with some outrun work with Rodeo.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Training with Peg

Today was the first day training with Caroline’s dog Peg. I met Caroline and Peg a couple of weeks ago when Brian was working with Peg in advance of entering her in the Highland Games trial. She’s a 5-year old, mostly black border collie with light brown eyes.

After a quick lunch at Rudy’s Pizza, I met Caroline in Bellingham and picked up Peg for the drive to Smoky Point. Happily, she and Rodeo got on well in the back seat of the car – she sat quietly while he lunged from one side of the car to the other at passing cars and signposts.

I split time at the lesson with both dogs, switching from one to the other. I started with a short sting with Peg in the round pen just to make sure that she’d work with me. She was a little tight at the top, but not bad, and we quickly went into the open field.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Roy and Rodeo, a Study in Opposites

Today we had a menagerie. My friend Mike wanted to come along and watch, so we carpooled from Bellingham. Sonya met us in Burlington with her dog Roy, and we drove the rest of the way to Smoky Point with Sonya in the backseat between the two dogs. She and I had decided to do a double lesson.

We had a two-hour lesson, splitting time between Sonya working with Roy and me working with Rodeo.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A birthday

Happy Birthday to Diane Pagel's Tess, a grand old sheepdog. She looked good this weekend at the Highland Games. She turned 12 today.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Highland Games trial

On Saturday, Ivy and I loaded Rodeo into the car and drove to Mount Vernon for this year’s Highland Games. There’s always great food, music, culture, and sporting events (and beer!), but I was really there for the arena-style sheepherding trial that they hold every year.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

a Holy S#@%! Moment

I went on a Friday this week both to get a second lesson in, and to watch Andy and his dog Sookie, who were having an 11 am lesson. They were working in the upper portion of the split field. Brian and Andy were standing with dogs at the southern end of the field, in the shade provided some second-growth trees.

It was a very hot day, in the mid to upper 80s, and the sun was directly overhead, beating down on handlers, dogs, and sheep. To keep everyone safe, we worked in short segments, retreated to the shade, dunked dogs in the nearby water trough, and rotated the sheep.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Questions... and an answer

At this week's lesson, we started talking about how Rodeo was progressing and I asked Brian how long it might take to be able to run in open. He hemmed and hawed a bit, and I said, “In a year?” He hemmed and hawed some more and made it clear he didn’t think so. 

“He’s got some question marks about him,” he said.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Doubling Down

Back in March, we attended a handler’s clinic with Jack Knox in Arlington. Jack is a stocky, straight-talking Scotsman with short hair and a good sense of humor. He says things like “The dog no wants to do that,” and “You nae goin’ get it done tha’ way.”

He’s also one of the great handlers in the sport, and Brian and Dirk are sort of philosophical disciples of him. Jack focuses on getting the dog to think for himself.

He made it clear that he believes in tough love. “I don’t believe in praise,” he said several times. “Praise never made anyone better. It’s criticism.” He also looks for what’s wrong in a dog, not what’s right. When he sees what’s wrong, he works to correct it. He also believes in giving the dog freedom after a correction. Give him the correction (which could be a down), and then let him go. Don’t walk towards him or put pressure on him. Back away and give him the sheep and the freedom to make the next move.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Donald McCaig quote

Read this recently on the BC Boards:

"There is no more off-leash reliable, calm, sophisticated, go-with-you-anywhere dog than a trained sheepdog."  -- Donald McCaig

This more or less perfectly describes Rodeo.

I've always referred to Rodeo as half border collie, half lab, because when there's no work to be done or no place to go, he lies down quietly and is as calm as you could ask for. And as Donald McCaig put it, he's a go-with-you-anywhere dog if ever there was one. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Andy and Suki

Last week I received a call from a local sheepdog enthusiast named Andy. He has land and some sheep in nearby Custer and wanted to connect to other local sheepherding enthusiasts.

Yesterday I drove out to meet him and see his place. He has a very sweet, 1 ½ year old, smooth-coated border collie named Suki that he bought 6 months ago from a breeder in Portland. Her line traces to dogs from Patrick Shannahan, who is a very well-known handler and trainer.

Andy has a beautiful set-up. The back porch of his rambler looks out over the sheep pens. Beyond the pens, a river traces its way along the edge of the property, marked by cattails, willows, and thick shrubs. Beyond it are more pastures and farm buildings.

We sat for awhile on the porch, with Suki splitting time between us, seeking attention wherever she could, while Rodeo spent most of the time lying at my feet. Andy moved to the area a year ago from Arizona, where he had a 1,400 acre ranch and the nearest town was 30 miles away.

Andy’s very relaxed and friendly, and obviously extremely knowledgeable. He’s also begun working with Brian, so it will be fun to compare notes and do some training together. His sheep are katahdins and they’re extremely light, meaning that they turn and move away from a dog pretty much as soon as they see it. In time, with more training, they’ll become ‘dog broke’ and less flighty. 

a poem

Away to Me
-by Jim Kling


The dog, hitherto poised at my side
Sprints away against the clock.
The tall grass confounds,
A low spot blocks his view,
But somewhere out there he knows
The sheep are waiting.

He spots them, lined up in a row,
Heads bowed forward,

Away, once more, he arcs out gracefully,
Head aligned with body in one seemless form,
Legs pumping, ears pricked, his eyes glued to the sheep.

They watch him, too, warily,
He’s behind them
And grudgingly they turn towards me.

They trot.
He follows, head low, intent
Ready to push a straggler
Or turn a wandering ewe.

“Steady,” I call, as the sheep come near.
They settle at my feet, browsing,
Content as the dog who watches them now.
The dog who brought them here,
To me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ruminations on the Outrun

At this week’s lesson, I expressed concern to Brian about Rodeo’s outrun. In each of the three competitive runs we’ve done, the sheep had drifted off line and we couldn’t complete a straight fetch. In at least one case, I know they drifted because Rodeo had come in too tight on his outrun.

But Brian wasn’t concerned. He noted that Rodeo is very thoughtful on his outruns, and he’s right. When he takes off in an arc, Rodeo will frequently adjust and kick out wider on his own, without any command from me. He watches the sheep and understands of his own volition that he needs to kick out wider to avoid upsetting them. He still doesn’t always go out wide enough, but the fact that he’s doing it at all suggests that he’ll improve on his own over time, learning to go wider and wider as necessary.

Seattle Times article

The Seattle Times recently published an interesting article about pay and living conditions among sheepherders, most of whom are guest workers.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Balancing Acts

It was lesson day on Tuesday. Brian, who is English, reported that he was “disconsolate” over England’s loss to Germany, 4-1, on Sunday. “The English and the Germans hate each other. It’s like bloody World War Three!” Nevertheless, Brian apparently recovered because he seemed to be in his typical fine spirits.

Today was quiz day. When I arrived, he was working with a new student and her one-year old, smooth-coated border collie. Before entering the round pen to work with the dog, he said: “I want you to define an off-balance flank and an in-balance flank. And tell me why it’s harder for Rodeo to take an off-balance flank.”

I pondered that while I watched the young dog circle the sheep, keeping them between her and Brian. He walked backwards, letting the sheep follow him, and then swerved one way or another to allow the dog to cover them and keep pushing the sheep towards him. When Brian shifted direction and she was a little distance behind them, she cast out nicely to turn the sheep towards him. But when he sent her from his side, she went around tightly, flashed in, and tried to grip. It was very reminiscent of Rodeo when he was first beginning.

Afterwards he asked me for answers. I should describe the set-up. Picture a clock face. The sheep are in the center. I am standing at 6 o’clock, and the dog is poised at 2 o’clock. If I send him on a come by flank (clockwise), the dog will arc towards me. If I send him on an away flank (counter-clockwise), he will arc towards the top, behind the sheep and past if I ask him to continue. The balance point is 12 o’clock – if the dog is there, the sheep are pinned between us and we have maximum control. This is the position the dog will instinctively take. Most young border collies will run to this position with no training at all.

Brian looked at me expectantly, so I answered: “An off balance flank moves the dog away from the direction of control. An in balance flank moves him towards it. It’s harder to go off-balance because he wants to stay in control,” I said. In my example above, the off-balance flank is clockwise, taking the dog towards me. The sheep could potentially wander directly away from us, and that can make a dog anxious. On the other hand, an in balance flank would send him counter-clockwise, towards the balance point. It’s the direction the dog naturally wants to go.

Brian nodded. “Very good. Now you can add those definitions to your blog.” The keen-eyed reader will notice that I have done just that.

Brian asked what I wanted to work on and I said I’d like to do some driving. He responded with a mini-lecture on the importance of Rodeo accepting flanking commands. “He’s still blowing you off,” Brian said, and I had to admit it was true. Rodeo knows the meaning of the come by (clockwise) and away (counterclockwise) commands. But he sometimes refuses to take them, usually when I’m asking him to take an off-balance command that would force him to give up control.

Why would I take control away from him? To ‘free him up,’ as Brian puts it, so that I can get him to move in any direction on the sheep and force them to change direction. His instinct is to run to that balance point and bring the sheep to me. This is related to driving. If I want him to drive the sheep away from me, he must come between me and the sheep. If I want him to a cross drive, that is, to drive them across my field of vision, he has to go to one side of the sheep and then push them forward. All the while his instinct is shouting at him to run to the balance point and exert maximum control. Experience and training must overcome that, and it is no easy thing.

When he’s ‘blowing me off,’ he’s really just listening to his instinct. He needs to trust me enough to know that even if I send him away from the balance point, the sheep won’t get away.

Brian had me do an exercise in the round pen to encourage that. I stood against the fence with the sheep next to me, and gave him a flanking command. The goal was to get Rodeo to come around the sheep and come to my feet, then continue around, coming between me and the sheep, and then circling around the far side of them to complete a circle. But Rodeo wouldn’t do it. He’d come a little ways, then stop and reverse direction. Why? Because he knew if he came to me, the sheep would start to drift away, and he’d be losing control. So I encouraged him by calling him to me, and eventually he did come all the way to me and circle back around, but it’s evident that we need to do a lot more work on it.

By contrast, Brian's dog Doc circled the sheep on command with Brian standing outside the pen giving commands.

Afterwards, we went out into the open field and did some gathers (outrun followed by a fetch). Some of the sheep were left in the round pen, and we positioned him so that when I sent him on the outrun, he would have to run past the sheep in the pen. Most dogs have a tendency to get distracted by other sheep, and Rodeo is no exception. He often pauses or even goes to the fence of the pen. This is a serious issue because in trials, there is an exhaust pen not far from the handlers’ post, and the dog will see that the sheep go to that pen after previous runs, so he knows there are sheep there. If he goes to the exhaust, the judge will deduct points.

This is exactly what Rodeo did at the Whidbey Island trial a couple of weeks ago. Some handlers go to the extreme of shielding the dog from the exhaust pen so that they don’t know there are any sheep there, but our solution is to train him to understand which sheep we’re after.

So Brian instructed me to walk him into the field until he saw the sheep, telling him ‘these, these.’ Then we walked back in the direction of the round pen where we would start the outrun, and if he looked at the sheep in the pen I said, ‘no.’ That would get him to look away from those sheep, but his attention kept drifting back to them. With enough repetition he should learn to differentiate. In time we hope he'll make the connection that the sheep I want him to work are always in the direction I'm facing.

During the fetch, when Rodeo was marching the sheep to me after the outrun, I gave him a flank command to see if he would take it. I gave him an ‘away’ and he arced in a counterclockwise direction until I gave him the ‘walk up’ command to start coming into the sheep again. That was an off-balance command because during the fetch he had perfect control as he was already at the balance point, walking the sheep towards me. Any flanking command moved him away from that point, so we were encouraged that he took it.

"Have him drive them towards Judy," Brian shouted. Judy was watching the proceedings from her fold-up chair next to the round pen. I gave Rodeo a flanking command to get him in position. This required an off-balance flank because I was standing on the opposite side of the sheep from Judy. I had to flank him until he was close to me -- way off the balance point. But he was very good and moved to the right spot, and then walked up to drive them towards her.

I called him off and we went to the pen. Here the object was to work on how he deals with running sheep. I sent Rodeo into the pen, and he at first refused, again for fear of losing control. In the pen, with me standing at the gate, his instinctive reaction would be to run behind the sheep and bring them to me. But he knew that if I was standing at the gate, the sheep would run past me and into the field. So, being a little too smart for his own good, he refused to go in at all.

Eventually I coaxed him with some encouragement (‘hyah! ‘hyah!’), and he ran into the pen, got behind them, and then tore after them like a bat out of hell when they escaped. He flashed in and gripped a couple of times – nipping them as he flashed past them. This is a no-no because in a trial a grip disqualifies you. Gripping is appropriate in the right situation, like when the dog is imposing its will on a recalcitrant ram, but not just because the sheep are on the run. Instead, the dog needs to cast out nice and wide to gather them back up again.

We repeated the exercise by re-penning the sheep and sending him in again, but both times he lost his head and flashed in on them as they ran out to the open field. Then Brian told me to lie him down as soon as he came out of the pen, and then send him again. By lying him down and giving him a moment to think, we hoped he would make a different choice. Sure enough, he took the lie down and when I sent him again a moment later, he cast out widely and calmly brought them back to the pen. It would be best if we didn’t have to lie him down, if he would make that choice to begin with, but that’s probably a matter of experience. It was a good sign that he did so well when given a moment to think.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Back to the Ranch

(pictures courtesy of Sonya Schaller)

When we started sheepherding, Rodeo and I trained with Dirk in nearby Van Zandt. Dirk and his wife Sonya lived there in a small farm house, with low-lying fields and a hundred or so sheep. Dirk ran a grazing business and competed in sheepdog trials, even hosting a couple of trials on nearby land.

This past February, Dirk returned to his native Belgium, where he's working as a shepherd and competing in sheepdog trials. Dirk introduced me to Brian, who has been our trainer since.

Things have gone really well with Brian, but I missed working with Dirk and coming out to see the place. So it was fun to go back and see Sonya, who still lives there and still has sheep, along with dogs Roy, Lily, and Skip.

In the past when we pulled into the driveway, we were greeted with a chorus of barks and usually one or two dogs bounding up to us, but this time it was strangely silent. There are fewer dogs now, and when I knocked on the door of the farmhouse, the chorus began and I realized the dogs were in the house. Sonya answered a little bleary eyed and told me that she often keeps the dogs in the house now.

From the driveway, the farmhouse is on the right and the big barn is on the left, with another barn straight ahead and the large fields beyond it. Sonya put some temporary fencing in place across the driveway entrance and then we went out into the field and brought about a dozen sheep out of a small fenced in pasture and returned with them to the driveway. Sonya stood in the gap that led to the open field while Rodeo and I attempted to drive the sheep around the farmhouse and back towards the driveway.

The sheep tried to make a break for the big fields, but Sonya stood in the way with a stick and menaced them as best she could to convince them to stay. But Rodeo was pushing behind them and they were seemingly intent on trampling her. Fortunately Sonya is sharper than I am and told me to send Rodeo to the right flank of the sheep to turn them back towards the driveway and the house, and that did the trick.

We circled the house a few times and Rodeo did pretty well with me walking beside him. But when I tried standing still and letting him drive them on his own, it didn't work so well. For some reason the sheep refused to be driven at all. They turned back towards me rather than move around the house.

We did a little bit of work in the field after that, but had to stay close to the farmhouse and barn because most of the grass was too tall. Sonya worked Roy a little bit. He's a long-haired tricolor border with a great personality and talent, but he sometimes pushes the sheep too hard. I suggested she lie him down when he got too pushy and then let him walk up, and lying him down again if he was still pushy. Dirk did that with Rodeo and eventually he learned to let up. Sonya did it a couple of times and he seemed to relent a little bit.


After training, we split a beer and chatted for awhile. I suggested that Sonya take a Tuesday afternoon and come out to train with Brian. Mine is his last lesson so I expect he'd be willing to stay a little longer and do a double lesson.

That will also give us some ideas on what to work on the next time Rodeo and I come back to the ranch.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Botanizing and the border collie

We're off to the North Cascades Hannegan Pass trail to see the wildflowers. Rodeo loves to hike but isn't too excited about botanizing. This picture sums up his general attitude:

But occasionally a plant attracts his interest, like this ladyslipper orchid:

Ah, now he's seen it. The herding instinct has kicked in. Walk up! Walk up!

Uh oh. I think it's going to make a break for it. Cut it off! Cut it off!

Whew. That was close. Time to find some more wildflowers. A border collie's work is never done.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Trialling vs. Training

Fresh off our experience at the Whidbey Island Classic, I find myself eager to spend a lot of time training rather than competing. Not because I had a bad experience at the trial – just the opposite, in fact, as I was much more calm at the post than I was at the Key Peninsula Trial in May, and more able to absorb and enjoy the experience.

But now that I know Rodeo knows how to drive, I’m eager to get to work on it. We had a great lesson on Tuesday and I’m excited to put him through some paces on sheep. The main obstacle right now, I think, is to build his confidence so that he can drive the sheep to greater and greater distances.

Now, at about 25-30 yards, he slows down and stops, and looks back to me for instructions. I’m tempted to give him another ‘walk up’ command, but that could make him reliant on me for multiple commands. It’s better if he understands that ‘walk up’ means to drive the sheep until I give him further instructions.

His confusion is actually perfectly understandable. If someone told me to walk down a field, driving sheep in front of me, but then remained silent behind me, I’d certainly look back at him and ask what the heck was going on. He could tell me, ‘Jim, just keep driving them until I tell you otherwise,’ but in the absence of language, how would I know? So I communicate the need to keep going by walking up with Rodeo, then dropping back again when he retakes command of the sheep. After enough repetitions, he’ll understand that I want him to just keep going.

I’ll intersperse that training with some flanks and cross drives: that is, I’ll send him to the right or left and stop him half-way around, and then give him a ‘walk up’ command to start pushing the sheep across my field of vision. We’ll work on turns with a down command, followed by another quarter-turn flank and a ‘walk up.’

From what Brian has said and what I’ve read, it’s also really important to keep practicing outruns and fetches with him, so that he continues to understand the difference between a fetch and a drive.

This was a really hard lesson for him to learn when we first began to drive, because everything he’d been taught to that point involved bringing the sheep to me. That’s also his natural instinct. So driving was extremely confusing, and it took several sessions for him to begin to understand.

So, there’s a lot to work on, and I’m eager to get to it. Tomorrow we’ll go to Sonya’s place to work sheep, and I may meet up with a local guy who has some sheep and is interested in training his young border collie bitch.

Within a few weeks, I’m hopeful that we’ll have driving down well enough that we can complete the ranch course at the next trial we enter. The novice course is limited to a fetch and a pen, while the ranch starts with a fetch and then requires a short cross drive before going to the pen.

So for now, I’m all about the training. In a few weeks, I expect we’ll have made some progress and I’ll be eager again for the next trial.

And that will likely be Metchosin, July 30-Aug 1, on Vancouver Island.

new (to me) blogs

I've added a couple of blogs to the list. The Spirit Dance Dog Tracking and Sheep Herding blog comes from Donna in Alberta.

and Narita Farms Aussies.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

lessons from the Whidbey Island Classic

I arrived about half an hour early in order to talk with Jennie, whose lesson is right before mine. We went over the judges’ comments on our novice runs and talked about what we could learn from them.

When it was time for our lesson, we focused on driving and penning. I wanted to demonstrate to Brian the driving ability Rodeo had shown at the trial, and Brian was impressed and agreed that Rodeo understood it. He agrees that we can soon be ready to run a full ranch course.

He had me walk up with Rodeo to initiate a drive, and then fall back a bit and let him take over. When Rodeo slowed or stopped, I walked back up to join him and start the drive again. After going 30 yards or so, I’d call him off and then do a short outrun to reward him. We repeated the exercise several times and Rodeo only once looked like he was starting a fetch, but I called him off before he got very far.

We then did a short exercise in which I sent him on a short flank (like 15 degrees), then gave him a down, and a walk up command, which he took very well. I walked with him towards the sheep to give him encouragement, and started giving him a ‘right there’ command so that he’ll learn that it means to walk directly into the sheep after a flank command. Another exercise will be to send him on a half outrun, lie him down at 3 o’clock or 9 o'clock, and then give him a walk up command to initiate a cross drive. Then I can follow it with another flank command followed by a lie down and a walk up to turn the sheep at right angles.

After the driving work, we headed to the pen. Brian heightened the challenge by standing inside the pen with both Doc and Miggy on leash. Rodeo refused to take an away command, which would have brought him behind the sheep and potentially opened up an escape route if they didn't go into the pen. He also wanted to cheat and go behind the pen in the come by direction. Brian thinks it’s because he doesn’t really understand penning, in that he doesn’t realize that the sheep can’t escape from it.

After failing with both dogs in the pen, Brian came out and we did some more work. Eventually I coaxed him to take an away command but only after calling him up closer to me. We finally succeeded at the pen when Brian told me to stop giving commands and let Rodeo do it himself. When he’d gotten up close enough, something seemed to click and he did put them in, covering them when they tried to escape past him.

To emphasize the lesson, we let the sheep out of the pen and re-penned them a couple of times, closing the gate each time to signal to him that the job was done.

Throughout the penning, I borrowed Brian’s training stick, and used it to more actively guide the sheep into the pen, stretching my arms out wide and using the stick as an extension to put pressure on them.

Just as Rodeo needed to understand penning, I need to understand that I have to play an active role in the process. It's more fun waving the stick and stamping my feet than standing by passively as I had been.

Whidbey Island Classic

We arrived at the trial on Sunday and watched some of the open runs, and then retired to the nearby South Whidbey Island State Park to camp. We set up the tent in the late afternoon, and then went for a short walk to see a 500-year old cedar tree. Afterwards I did a little botanizing before returning to the campsite, where we built a fire and relaxed around the campfire a bit.

A couple of hours later, I took Rodeo for a walk around the campground and immediately noticed a problem. He was stumbling over his back legs, staggering a bit almost like he was drunk. It looked bad, like he was half paralyzed. He would take a few steps and then stumble or skip over his left hind leg. He hadn’t been done any strenuous exercise, so there was no possibility of heat stroke.

A quick examination of his left hind foot revealed no stones or wounds that might cause him discomfort. I thought for sure we’d have to cancel our competition the next day and take him straight to the vet. I walked him back to the campsite and he gradually improved, though his gait was still off.

I mentioned it to Ivy and she said, ‘maybe his foot fell asleep.’ I decided to risk a ticket for having him off-leash in the campground, just so I could get a better view of his gait, and sure enough it had returned normal. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that his behavior was exactly what you’d expect if his leg had fallen asleep. He’s been fine since. Whew!

With all of the health problems that he has had, I’m sort of conditioned to expect the worst every time something doesn’t seem right with him. I’m glad it turned out to be nothing.

The next morning we woke up at 5:45 am and broke camp. Happily a nearby espresso stand was open, so I could get a hot Americano to go with the cinnamon raisin bagels we had packed. It was particularly welcome because it was a chilly morning with an intermittent, light drizzle. We arrived a few minutes before the handler’s meeting, which started at 7 am.

Sue MacDonald, who organized the trial, called on the handlers to follow her onto the field. Not knowing any better, I followed her with Rodeo in tow, but when we arrived at the field gate she noticed him and told me he couldn’t go out there since he was competing. So I jogged back to the car and put him in the backseat, then returned for the handler’s meeting. Ivy, who was biding time in the car, later reported that he sulked after that and hardly responded to her at all. That’s quite a switch because normally he loves being in the car above just about anything else. Did he think he was being punished? Hard to say.

There was some confusion about the run order in novice, so it was eventually abandoned and the handlers just lined up in whatever order we chose. We were about the middle of the pack. When I walked up to the judges’ truck to give our names, Fiona McMillan, the judge from Scotland, told me that they were out of sheep and I would have to wait for a few minutes.

We walked back and spoke with Julie Carter, a pro-novice handler who was there with her student France, and Julie gave me a few pointers on the pen, suggesting that I lay him down on the opposite side of the sheep from where I would stand at the pen gate, allowing us to cover both sides of them.

A fellow student of Brian’s, Jennie McInnis, volunteered to videotape my run. She stood near Julie and wound up capturing some commentary from Julie. Jennie posted the video to youtube. I had to use headphones to hear Julie’s comments.

When we returned and walked to the post, I saw that the setout team was having some trouble getting the sheep settled. I wasn’t surprised, given that it was a new group of sheep. It seemed likely that there might be more trouble than usual. That's the luck of the draw.

I thought the sheep had settled, so I sent Rodeo on a come by, but when he reached about 10 o’clock, I saw the sheep begin to move, so I gave him a lie down and re-direct. I realized later that the sheep had actually moved toward Rodeo, not away, so the problem had to be with the setout crew, not Rodeo’s outrun.

Soon after the redirect, they were going the opposite direction, away from him, and so I gave him another lay down and redirect. I think that the movement away from Rodeo was probably also due to the setout dog, or maybe because they were already unsettled, because Rodeo had faithfully cast out wider on the redirect. In any event, he completed the fetch pretty well, though we missed the fetch gates. We lost 6 points on the outrun, probably for the two redirect commands I had given.

We didn’t have much luck on the pen. The sheep settled pretty well, but they just wouldn’t come close to the pen. If I had Rodeo put much pressure on them, they would turn to the side rather than go to the pen. After some attempts at it, we timed out.

At Tuesday’s lesson (the following day), Brian had some comments about this run. He suggested I should not have laid Rodeo down on the outrun, because if there was a problem with the setout, the judge could not have taken any points off for the outrun no matter what happened, or I’d have gotten a re-run. Good advice, but I was satisfied just to learn that he would take a down command and a redirect during competition. He does it reliably during training, but I wanted to find out if he would do it during competition. After all, my tension level is a lot different and my voice might have been much different, but apparently it was close enough for him. I saw that as a good sign.

With regards to the pen, I was probably not being aggressive enough in covering my side of the sheep. When I was asking Rodeo to push up on them and they were deflecting to one side, it was probably because I wasn’t applying enough pressure to direct them towards the pen opening.

Later in the morning, we ran in the ranch category. I expected that we would retire during the driving portion, because I didn’t think he had a good enough handle on driving yet. We would get some more experience on the outrun and I would get some more experience in competition to learn how to calm my nerves and handle myself, and that would be plenty.

As it turned out, we exceeded my expectations. I sent him on a come by, into the pressure, and Rodeo ran into some trouble when he unexpectedly headed to the exhaust. He hadn’t had any problems during the novice run, but perhaps he had trouble seeing the sheep. A couple of corrections got him going in the right direction and he completed a nice outrun. But the sheep were off line and we missed the fetch panels, in part because he isn’t very strong with flank commands on the fetch. That’s something to work on. Afterwards, Sue MacDonald said it was the best outrun she had seen up to that point, which meant something because we were running number 24.

We lost quite a few points on the fetch. 8 for missing the panel and another 5 besides, but I’m not sure what they were for. Rodeo brought them to the post and I decided to take a shot at driving. I gave him an away command to move him into position to drive them towards the first panel, and then told him to walk up. To my surprise, he walked right into them and started driving them past me. He lost confidence though and slowed. I gave him some encouragement (“hyah! Hyah!”) and he moved more forcefully, but still petered out. The sheep drifted a bit, so I gave him some flanking commands and he took them well, and then we tried the walk up command again. Again he took the command but was hesitant, and the sheep moved a bit and then settled again. This repeated a couple of times, until finally the sheep drifted out past the first drive gates, and I decided to retire.

In retrospect I might have sent him on an away flank and then stopped him and given him a walk up command to attempt a cross drive to the second set of drive panels, but I guess I felt that we’d done enough. I was really pleased that he took the walk up command and never tried to turn it into a fetch. It was clear to me that he understands driving now, and that’s a big step. I think by the time we enter our next trial, we’ll have a chance at completing the ranch course.

"He likes this game"

June 15, 2010

Yesterday’s training session consisted of a lot of situational work. Brian split the sheep up, putting one group down the field, and the other into the round pen or a nearby rectangular pen. Then he would let the sheep out of one pen or the other and instruct us to prevent the sheep from joining the others. It’s a challenge because the sheep instinctively want to flock together.

The sheep are remarkably athletic, considering they look like wool-covered rectangular blocks supported by sticks. They’re nearly as fast and agile as the dog, and if they’re riled up enough, they’ll get past him no matter how hard he tries to cut them off. So to succeed in heading them off, he must cast out wide to keep them calm and under control. In training we accomplish this partially through correction – telling him to go wider – and partially through a redirect command if he starts to come in too tight. I give him a down, and then give him the directional command again. With a moment to stop and think, he starts out again more thoughtfully and casts out again.

He is gradually learning that casting out is the best way to maintain control of the sheep. You can tell because with each passing session, he cuts in less and less often, but he still loses his head once in awhile – not unlike a human being. We learn the best way to handle certain situations, but when we’re stressed or uncertain, we tend to revert to old patterns. Dogs seem to be no different.

After gathering the sheep to me, we headed back to the pen to put them back. As usual, he was very good at the pen, taking my down and flanking commands with relatively little hesitation. He did blow me off a little bit, though, so I need to be more firm in my corrections.

After penning them into the rectangular pen, Brian had me bring them back out again and send Rodeo to prevent them from joining the other sheep in the field. This was particularly tricky because the pen is in a cul-de-sac: the sheep had to make a sharp right turn to head out into the field because another fence funneled them in that direction. It was complicated by the fact that the rectangular pen was covered, and there was no view towards the field, so as soon as the sheep turned to the right, they were out of my sight.

I entered the pen and called Rodeo to me, then sent him around the sheep to push them out. They disappeared around the corner at a fast trot, and all I could do was send Rodeo after them. So he took off like a rocket around the corner, and I ran after him to see what was happening. I had to go even further to see the open field because there is another covered pen adjacent to the rectangular pen we were using, so I had to pass that before I could get a clear view.

Both times we did the exercise, it was over by the time I arrived to see anything. Rodeo had successfully cut them off and was pacing behind them slightly to keep them from trying to make another break.

“He likes this game,” Brian announced after the second round.

Post Key Peninsula, lessons learned

June 1, 2010

I considered not going to this week's lesson because I was going to leave the next day for a weeklong business trip to San Antonio, and because there was some residual frustration from the previous day’s trial. I was also a little concerned that Rodeo hadn’t eaten much over the weekend and perhaps he was having some IBD issues again. But in the end I decided to go because I needed to do it, to learn something from the trial, and exercise my demons a little bit.

At the beginning of the lesson I showed Brian the videotape of the run, and he quickly got on my case for not giving Rodeo down commands. He felt I should have given him a down as soon as he hitched in his outrun. That way the sheep could settle a bit and I could give him a redirect command – another away flank – and he could have a chance to recover. He was particularly critical of the pen attempt, when Rodeo was attempting to regain control. Rather than a correction, Brian felt I should have given him a down and then a redirect.

Then we began to talk about commands and corrections, and Brian reiterated something he had talked about previously – that I need to give a soft command, followed by a sharp correction, followed by a soft repeat of the command to remind him of why he was corrected. I have fallen into the trap of correcting Rodeo with no command first. That is, during an outrun, if he slices in, I just yell ‘hey!’ Brian pointed out that he doesn’t know what the correction is for because I haven’t communicated with him first. Instead I need to give him a ‘get out’ command and correct him if he ignores it, or I should lay him down and give him a redirect.

We did a number of exercises designed to simulate what was happening at the trial. Some of the sheep were in the field, about 50 yards out, and the rest were in the rectangular pen. Brian told me to go into the pen, release the sheep, and then send Rodeo to gather them before they could rejoin the rest of the flock. I was to give him ‘get’ commands and corrections. After he completed the gather, we put them back in the pen and then repeated the exercise.

It worked very well. I quickly learned to control my voice even under some stressful situations, and he improved greatly in taking commands. A gentle command was enough to get him to obey. However, if I was late on giving him a down command and he started buzzing the sheep, he wouldn’t lie down no matter how much I yelled. But Brian pointed out that it wasn’t that he wasn’t listening (although it was true) – the real problem was that I was too late with the down command the situation had gotten out of control.

Key Peninsula, Memorial Day Weekend 2010. Our first competition

May 31, 2010

For weeks I was building this up in my mind, putting pressure on myself to do really well. Brian kept telling me that we could win the novice class, and I believed it. By the time the trial rolled around, I was telling myself that it was okay if we didn’t do well, that I would take it as a learning experience and that would be the important thing. I did believe it, but nevertheless I expected to win and knew I’d be disappointed if we didn’t.

The trial itself was fun. We arrived at the Key Peninsula trial, in Longbranch, Washington, not far from Tacoma, at around noon on Saturday, just in time to see the latter half of Brian’s open run with Miggy.

Several handlers I knew were there, including Brian, Diane Pagel, and Dick Wilson. I also had conversations with a number of people I hadn’t met before, including Ruediger (Rudy) Birenheide and Bill Orr. Bill won the open class on Sunday.

In advance of our run, I spent a lot of time thinking about strategy. I worried that Rodeo would have trouble lifting the sheep off of the setout person -- a problem he has had in the past, so I was set to lie him down at the top and walk him up. I was so focused on this that I forgot to handle him and I wasn’t thinking about correcting him, much less about doing it properly (with a mild command and a sharp correction).

I sent him on the away side, and Rodeo took off on a very nice outrun. I stood watching the sheep and when he reached about 2 o’clock, they started to drift to the left. I didn’t see it at the time, but Rodeo hitched in towards the sheep, though he didn’t speed up at all. I was looking at the sheep, so when I looked back at him, I didn’t notice the change.

But now Rodeo was slicing in, even if he was doing it slowly, and that got the sheep moving faster, and soon enough he sped up after them. After they’d traveled 20 or 30 yards, he buzzed them, crossing in front of them on a clockwise flank and then temporarily splitting them before turning them back in my direction. They were turned around then and he had to work hard to complete the gather, but he did bring them to me. At the time I was really disappointed, knowing that I had no chance to win any more, but I wanted to complete the run and learn as much from it as I could.

Once the sheep settled at my feet, I walked to the pen and grabbed the rope. The sheep moved to the opposite side of the pen and I sent Rodeo on an away flank. When they came back around, he was slicing in on them because the pressure was now towards the exhaust pen. At this point I was too flustered to give any commands at all. Finally he did manage to control them and head them back in my direction. Two of the sheep settled at the mouth of the pen, but the third, a black sheep, wandered off on his own. I sent Rodeo after the black sheep but the other two decided they'd had enough and trotted off towards the exhaust, so I retired.

I walked off the field, shaking my head in frustration, and I forgot to take my place at the exhaust pen, where I was supposed to help take the sheep off the field for the next competitor. I just hope nobody thought I was being surly. It was just my first competitive run and I was flustered.

Ivy videotaped the run, which is what allowed me to make the analysis that I did.

We spent another half hour or so watching some runs in the ranch class, but I just kept replaying my run in my head, so didn’t pay much attention.

I was really upset after it, I think more so because I missed my opportunity for a pen. I felt like that was one of our strong points and I never even got a chance to try it. Driving home, I really started to question whether I wanted to continue trialing and sheepherding at all. I had become so focused on winning that I’d lost track of why I was doing this in the first place.

I managed to console myself somewhat with the knowledge that I was bound to have a difficult run sometime, and that in a way it was good to get it over with sooner rather than later. My ego was bound to take a hit, and I could learn a lot from the experience.