Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ruminations on the Outrun

At this week’s lesson, I expressed concern to Brian about Rodeo’s outrun. In each of the three competitive runs we’ve done, the sheep had drifted off line and we couldn’t complete a straight fetch. In at least one case, I know they drifted because Rodeo had come in too tight on his outrun.

But Brian wasn’t concerned. He noted that Rodeo is very thoughtful on his outruns, and he’s right. When he takes off in an arc, Rodeo will frequently adjust and kick out wider on his own, without any command from me. He watches the sheep and understands of his own volition that he needs to kick out wider to avoid upsetting them. He still doesn’t always go out wide enough, but the fact that he’s doing it at all suggests that he’ll improve on his own over time, learning to go wider and wider as necessary.

Some trainers will force the dog to go out wide. Last November, Rodeo and I had a private lesson with Derek Fisher, who is a very well known handler and remarkably successful at just 29 years old. At that time, Rodeo had no outrun at all. He’d run up into the sheep and then careen around them at the last moment. Derek’s solution was to have me stand between him and the sheep before sending him, and then run at Rodeo to physically force him into a wide arc. It worked, and he continued in the arc and brought the sheep in a much more settled fashion.

But this kind of training is mechanical. The dog isn’t learning to kick out on his own – instead, he’s being forced out by the trainer. He may figure out on his own that a wide outrun makes his job easier, but the impetus for the change is the handler. Our first trainer Dirk and Brian both subscribe to a different philosophy, of getting the dog to think more for itself. It can take longer, but if the dog comes to understand the outrun on his own, he’ll be much more able to make adjustments himself without commands and handle adverse situations on his own.

Most of Rodeo’s outrun education came in the round pen or in close up work. The sheep would only be a few feet from the trainer. He would walk backwards and occasionally turn to the left or the right. Rodeo would instinctively swing around the sheep to get back to the balance point. We wanted him to arc around broadly to get into position, but most of the time he would cut in close to the sheep. Brian would correct him with a ‘hey! hey!’ and sometimes a flapped coat or a snapped flag on the end of a training stick, and Rodeo gave out.

Brian would also stop and walk towards Rodeo, through the sheep, and then send him around on a miniature outrun, again correcting him if he came in too tight. Eventually Rodeo got the message. It didn’t translate perfectly into the larger field, though. He’d do pretty well at short distances, but as soon as the outrun lengthened a little bit, he’d go back to his old habit of running up to the sheep and then flashing around them at the last minute. We improved matters by only very gradually increasing the distance of the outrun, but even then, he wouldn’t run in a wide arc. He’d still tend to run towards the sheep and only begin to arc out after closing the distance.

Then one day, a light bulb turned on. I sent him on an outrun of maybe 30 yards, and instead of taking a first step toward the sheep, he took off to the left on a nice, wide arc. I looked at Brian in shock. “What happened?” He shrugged. I’ll never know what finally clicked in his head, but ever since then Rodeo has taken had good outruns. In the end, I have to assume that he realized that a wide outrun is the best way to control the sheep. Flashing in on them gets them unsettled, and as a result they’re more likely to try to break away and challenge him with their surprising speed and agility. By giving them distance, he realized he was giving himself the best chance to succeed.

So will Rodeo continue to improve his outruns on his own? It is to be hoped. Greater distances still pose a challenge. If the sheep are far away, or the grass is tall, or there is a short rise between me and the sheep, then Rodeo may not even see them. He has to trust when I send him that there are sheep to be found. Then when he sees them he must make his own correction by kicking out wide enough to avoid disturbing them. I could give him commands to accomplish the same task, but it’s ideal if the dog can do this on his own, and Rodeo does. When he sees the sheep, he changes his direction to arc around them. It’s really quite a stirring sight, to see his calm intelligence as he reasons out the best way to accomplish his task, which is to bring the sheep back to me.

In fact, it’s probably the single greatest draw that this sport has for me. I connect to my dog in a way that is otherwise impossible. Rodeo is a pet and a companion, and a fabulous one, as any of our friends who interact with him can attest. But there’s something about watching do what he was bred to do. He’s out there asserting his true nature and it’s a joy to watch.

I have little interest in agility or flyball or other such dog sports, other than playing some catch with a Frisbee. These are great pursuits and I enjoy watching the border collie’s incredible agility and athleticism, but our focus will always be on sheepherding. As our friend Mike put it, the other sports “were invented to distract him from his true purpose.” Not strictly true, of course, since the handlers derive a great deal of enjoyment as well, but it gets at the heart of why I’m so drawn to sheepherding. It’s the truest expression of the personality and drive of this dog that I love.

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