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.

Jack cautioned repeatedly against trying to envision what you wanted the dog to be and trying to ‘make’ the dog fit that vision. You don’t want to impose that kind of will. You want to correct mistakes and let the dog think it’s way to what’s right.

The format of the clinic was that each of the ten or so handlers that were there would go out and work sheep in front of Jack, once in the morning and once in the afternoon each day. Jack was miked up so that everyone could hear his instructions and comments. I asked him if I could record it and spent some time listening to it later.

I was nervous when I stepped up to do my first session. It was my first time doing this in front of other people, let alone Jack Knox. He asked me what Rodeo’s issues were and I had a time naming anything because I really couldn’t think of any. I finally told him that Rodeo can get sucked in too much with his eye.

My nervousness disappeared immediately once we started working with the sheep, and although I noticed Jack and the audience, I found it had no effect on me. All my concentration was on Rodeo and the sheep.

In fact I was too much in the zone. I was working with Rodeo, walking backwards as the sheep and Rodeo followed, and I forgot about the 2-3 feet wide ditch that ran down the center of the field before ending 30 yards or so from the edge of the field where Jack and the other handlers stood. I backed into it and landed flat on my ass, but fortunately wasn’t hurt. I popped up and continued after assuring everyone that I was alright. A short time later, we approached the ditch from the opposite direction. The sheep were drifting towards the gap between the edge of the field and the ditch while Rodeo and I followed behind. I sent him around in the direction of the ditch. All the other dogs had jumped over the ditch, but Rodeo shied away and went around the ditch instead. “See? Your dog’s smarter than you are,” Jack said. We all got a good laugh out of it and I could hardly argue the point.

I managed not to fall down during the afternoon session. About half way through it, Jack had some interesting praise. It went like this:

Jack Knox: What does he say this dog was?

Brian (standing next to Jack, after explaining how we worked with Dirk and then started working with him): He's a perfect dog for him to be starting with.

Jack: Yeah, it’s a good dog. A lot of possibilities, this dog.

Brian: Pardon?

Jack: This dog has a lot of possibilities.

After the session, Jack asked about his breeding. I had to admit that we have no idea what his breeding is, because the rancher we got him from originally adopted him from the Everett Animal Shelter, but Jack offered his own ideas: “He’s got a lot of things about him, he has to have some decent back-breeding somewhere because I like what you’re seeing, you know? He’s no overloaded with eye but he kin come on to stock and he can just make it look easy, you know?”

After having dinner with Jack and some of the other handlers, I drove to Seattle. Describing the day to my friend Jack Bell, I asked, “At what point do I decide to double down?” I was referring to a good blackjack hand, where you double your bet because you’re confident in the cards that you have. I felt that it might be time to double down with Rodeo – to increase the time that we were training and really get serious about this.

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