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.

We were in the second of two adjacent fields, separated by a common fence line with a gate in the middle. The sheep were on the opposite side of the field from the gate. Brian had me walk through the gate into the other half of the field, to the far, opposite corner from the sheep. “See! When you get better, you have to walk farther!” Brian called from the safety of the shade, as I trudged through the heat.

At this distance, Rodeo could not see the sheep, so he would have to take it on faith when I sent him that there were sheep to be found. I gave him a come by (clockwise) flank, and he took off to the left in the general direction of the opposite field, twisting his head as he ran in search of sheep. The gate was more or less in the line between me and the sheep, so when he realized there were no sheep in our half of the field, he had to go to the gate to pass into the far end. Once through the gate, it was important that he continue in the same direction (clockwise) that I had sent him.

It’s an issue because in a trial, if he ‘crosses over’ – that is, crosses the center line between me and the sheep to change the direction of his outrun – it’s a huge point penalty. When he passed through the gate, Rodeo looked a little uncertain about which direction to take, so I gave him another ‘come by’ command, and he took it, arcing out wide and continuing to look about him until he finally spotted them. Then he brought them back to me in his signature gentle fashion.

After a couple of exercises, we did the same with Peg, and she also did quite well. As with Rodeo, I had to give her a re-direct when she got to the gate, but she took it well and performed a very nice outrun and fetch.

After that, we did some driving work with both dogs. Rodeo seems to be gaining confidence, willing to push the sheep farther and farther in front of me. Brian commented that he thinks Rodeo has stepped it up recently because he’s gaining more confidence. On the outrun work, he wasn’t too hesitant even when he couldn’t find the sheep at first –Brian felt that overall he did better than he had been.

Working with Peg, I struggled with getting the right tone of command to get her to listen to me. This has also been a struggle with Rodeo, but now I communicate well with him, at least most of the time. He needs soft commands followed by a strong correction if he doesn’t take them. This strategy didn’t work with Peg, and although she was more than willing to work with me, she regularly blew me off. Part of the problem was that I was hesitant because I haven’t worked with her much, and I think she sensed that.

Brian asked me to flank her to the right side of the sheep, and then have her drive them across the field. She listened to me when I sent her and when I asked her to walk on to the sheep, but she wouldn’t take a lie down and she was iffy on flank commands. Brian started shouting commands in a much firmer tone, and lo and behold, she took them. So at this point, I need to use more firm commands with her than I use with Rodeo. That may change over time as we get used to working with each other. Different dog, different personality.

That was a big reason that Brian wants me to work with other dogs, because each has its strengths and weaknesses and can teach me something as a handler. I’ve already learned that Peg will charge in and work, no questions asked, while Rodeo is more thoughtful. Brian thinks it’s because he’s more eager to please, and can be fearful of making a mistake. Peg, not so much. She just wants to go.

After driving, we tried shedding. This is something we’ve only practiced a couple of times. The object is to split one group of sheep into two, then getting the dog to drive one group away from the other. The key is to have the dog directly opposite the sheep from you, and at the right distance. The dog also has to have nice, easy flanks so that it doesn’t disturb the sheep.

The best strategy seems to be to get the sheep to thin out into a line that is perpendicular to the line between handler and the dog. Then it’s easy to step up into the sheep, create a gap, and call the dog to you. How do you get the sheep to form a line? I don’t know, but I did manage to do it. I moved from side to side, giving the dog flanking commands, until the back and forth motion of the sheep led them into the right formation.

We practiced with me along the fence line, which simplifies the task because the sheep can’t bolt around and behind me. I managed to come close to a successful shed with both Rodeo and Peg. Rodeo, as he has in the past, was unwilling to come to the gap when I called him. Instead he looked frantically from one side to the other, unsure of which budding group of sheep to try to cover. After enough cajoling, he finally did come to me, but not before the two groups of sheep had begun to merge again. Brian says it’s just a matter of him understanding it. “When he gets it, I think he’ll like it.”

On the other hand, Peg was more willing to come to me in the gap, but then instead of taking a lie down command, she kept going in a mad dash around the sheep that I was trying to shed off, bringing them back to the other group. 

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