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.

Andy and Sookie

Sookie looked good overall. She has a strong tendency to flash in on the sheep, and Brian mostly just let her work with a minimum of corrections. Andy did a nice job “giving her the sheep,” by moving backwards as the sheep followed him, allowing Sookie to push forward on to them.

Near the end of Andy’s lesson, he sent her to gather the sheep from one corner of the field. This is a difficult task, because the dog must move between the sheep and the fence line, and young dogs are often reluctant to do it because as long as they’re against the fence, the dog can easily keep them there and maintain control. Dogs with strong “eye” are particularly susceptible to this because they want to control the sheep by staring at them rather than moving around them. With the sheep on the fence line, the dog can just stand and stare at them.

Brian giving instructions

On the other hand, once the dog gets between them and the fence, the sheep turn away into the open field, and dogs often panic and flash in and around them in an effort to regain control.

So it was impressive to see Sookie run along the fence line that led to the corner, run into the corner and lift the sheep off the fence line and bring them back pretty effortlessly and no sign of panic. She was learning. Brian looked at me with a big grin on his face as he watched. It’s evident that Sookie is a good dog.

After the lesson, Brian and Andy got into a little bullshitting match. It was quite entertaining. Brian is a big practical joker and is quite good at making stuff up with a straight face. I’m not sure how it came up, but Andy mentioned that his wife was a 250 pound ex-professional wrestler. Brian got all wide-eyed. “Really?” Andy grinned and I said, “Oh, you two are perfect for each other.”

At that moment, Brian’s noon lesson arrived and he started back to his car to put his dogs away. “It’s hard to bullshit a bullshitter,” Andy said to me as Brian walked away.

Brian had to put his dogs away because they get jealous and bark frenetically whenever he goes out into the field and works with another dog. The new arrival was Caroline and her dog Peg. Caroline isn’t able to work with Peg as much as she would like, and Brian is going to run her in this weekend’s Highland Games trial, so Brian wanted to do some drills with her in advance of the competition.

Peg is a striking, long-haired, predominantly black border collie. Caroline lives in Ferndale and Brian suggested the possibility that I might work with Peg and possibly run her in trials. It’s certainly worth exploring as she seems like a very nice dog, and it would be good for me to learn to work with a dog with a different personality and style than Rodeo. As an experiment, I joined her briefly and she seemed willing to work with me.

With Rodeo, we did more work on off-balance flanks and driving, which he is slowly improving on. He’s still reluctant to take off-balance flanks, but I think we’ll get there. Brian felt that the best way to train him, for now at least, is to send him an outrun and fetch, and then give him off-balance flanks as he’s bringing the sheep to me. That will turn the sheep away from me and I can then start him doing a cross-drive rather than completing the fetch.

Rodeo had a couple of really good moments. At one point the sheep were settled with Brian and Doc in the shade. I walked out into the sunlight and sent Rodeo to bring them to me. This was a challenge because in the past he’d had trouble moving sheep off of a person. He seemed to get confused and circle around the person and the sheep rather than bringing them to me. This time he went to the back of them and deliberately walked into them and drove them right to me. “That was a perfect lift,” Brian said.

The other moment came when I sent him to pick the sheep off the fence line about 30 or 40 yards away. The fence ran straight ahead of us and the sheep were near a gate in the fence. I sent Rodeo on a come by (clockwise) and he walked carefully along the fence line until the sheep felt his presence and started to move away from the fence. He continued to walk deliberately until he had passed between the sheep and the fence, and then he casually loped to the far side of the sheep and brought them back. I think this was what Jack Knox meant when he said Rodeo makes it look easy. It seemed almost effortless on his part.

“Holy shit!” Brian exclaimed, then added: “You can write on your blog that he had a Holy Shit moment.” 

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