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.