Thursday, July 8, 2010

Questions... and an answer

At this week's lesson, we started talking about how Rodeo was progressing and I asked Brian how long it might take to be able to run in open. He hemmed and hawed a bit, and I said, “In a year?” He hemmed and hawed some more and made it clear he didn’t think so. 

“He’s got some question marks about him,” he said.

 “What question marks?”

“He’s still blowing you off on those off-balance flanks, for one thing.”

“But isn’t that normal for a young dog?”

“Not really.”

At this point I was confused, because he had been talking a lot about how off-balance flanks are hard for the dog. To me, that implies that all dogs must suffer from the problem to one degree or another. Otherwise, it must not be hard. I didn’t press him further on it, though.

I felt a bit crestfallen, and I said that we had hoped to enter the Skagit Valley Highland Games trial next year, which I had thought was considered to be all ‘open’ category.

“Oh, you’re probably ready for that now.”

Gah! I was simultaneously happy and sad because it’s a trial I’ve been really looking forward to participating in, largely because so many of our friends would be there to watch it. So it’s great to know that we can do it next year, but disappointing to realize we could have done it this year had I gotten us registered. It’s happening this weekend in Mt. Vernon and we’ll be there to watch, but it’s full now and too late to enter.

The reason we could do it now is that it’s an arena trial, which means that the course is much smaller than the typical open fields. Rodeo can take driving and flanking commands when he’s pretty close to me, but wouldn’t be able to handle the larger distances of the trials we typically go to.

After talking about Rodeo’s question marks, Brian said, “Okay, here’s a test. You're in the Pro-Novice National Finals.” Pro-Novice is one step below open, and typically means that either the dog or the handler is a “pro,” having run in the open category before. If they’ve both run in open, they’re ineligible for PN. 

We were in a large rectangular field separated into two halves by a fence with a gate in the center. We stood a few yards from the gate. The sheep were in the other half of the field, in front of us, about 30 yards away. Brian pointed to a plastic trough on the other side of the fence and about ten yards to our left. “Send Rodeo in and get the sheep to settle in front of that.”

So I sent Rodeo on an away (counterclockwise) flank. He went through the open gate and flanked the sheep. I gave him a down command when he reached the opposite side of the sheep from the trough, rather than allowing him to complete the outrun. “Walk up!” He moved directly into the sheep and pushed them calmly towards the trough. After they had covered most of the distance, I downed him again and allowed them to drift the rest of the way. They settled just where I wanted them to.

Brian nodded. “Okay, now move them to that piece of wool.” He pointed to a piece of detritus not far from where Rodeo stood, close to where the sheep had started. I needed to reverse their direction but prevent them from heading back towards us and the open gate that led to the other half of the field.

I surveyed the situation for a moment and then decided to send Rodeo on a come by (clockwise) flank. This was an off-balance flank because the sheep were to our left and he had to come towards us. The balance point would have been in the counterclockwise direction, because it was the shortest route to the far side of the sheep. Predictably, he “blew me off,” as Brian puts it, and started off counterclockwise, taking the easy route to the balance point. If he had continued this path, the sheep would have turned towards us and the open gate into the other field. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” I shouted, and it stopped him in his tracks.

“Come by!” This time Rodeo took it, and he arced in our direction, coming between the sheep and the open gate, and he calmly followed the fence line. I watched the sheep carefully. Their heads had been pointed at the trough, in the opposite direction we wanted them to go. Rodeo moved along the fence line until he was behind the plastic trough. The sheep felt the pressure and turned their heads away from him. I gave him a down command at that moment and let them turn and begin to drift. Rodeo was more or less in the right spot to drive them towards the bit of sheep’s wool that served as the target, so I gave him a walk up command and he moved them calmly right towards it. I gave him a couple of small flanking commands to adjust their trajectory, and again I gave him a down command when they came close, allowing them to drift the rest of the way.

Brian nodded again and said, “Okay, now drive them straight through the gate.” We failed this time. I sent him on a come by (clockwise) flank to get behind them, but the sheep drifted back in the direction of the trough, which was to the left of the gate. I gave him an away flank to put him in line to drive them to the gate, and he calmly pushed them forward.

Brian didn’t say much, but I couldn’t help but think we’d passed his test. Rodeo does fight me some on off-balance flanks, but he’s improved a lot in the past few weeks. I’m pretty confident that he’ll continue to improve until it’s a non-issue. The good thing is that even when he blows me off, he stops on a dime when I correct him and he usually takes the correct flank the second time around. Hopefully we can reach a point where he’ll take an off-balance flank 90% or more of the time. 

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