Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"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.

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