Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Alasdair MacRae and Nap

Here's a great video of Alasdair MacRae and his dog Nap, and their winning run at the recent Lacamas trial. 163 points out of 170 and a brilliant display: http://vimeo.com/14382090

Monday, August 30, 2010

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Again and again I’ve watched as Rodeo picks up a new skill, looks good at it, and then seems to slip for a little while. Then he suddenly surges forward again.

He sure did that today.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Many sports are an abstraction: American football resembles ground warfare; Scottish Caber may have grown from laying down poles to cross moats during sieges; and baseball… well, okay, I don’t know where baseball came from.

Sheepdog trialing is a sport that remains very close to its origin.

Help save a Russian seed bank

Related not to sheepherding, but to another passion of mine: plants and biodiversity.

A Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station, repository of thousands of berries of agricultural importance, is threatened with destruction due to development. Apparently a new law calls for the privatization of public lands that are not being used 'profitably,' and a recent court order upheld the privatization and development of the seed bank's land.

It is potentially a catastrophic loss of an institution that Russian scientists gave their lives to defend during World War II. They defended not with guns, but by their refusal to eat the potatoes and grains in their charge, and starved.

More information here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cary-fowler/the-second-siege-saving-s_b_685867.html

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has decided to look into the matter, which is good, but it's important that we continue to push until the situation is resolved and the station is preserved. We also need to get the word out everywhere so that people understand the importance of biodiversity, both to the natural landscape and our human souls, and to agriculturalists who depend on seed banks like these to breed new varieties that are resistant to disease and changing climate patterns. 

If you're moved to action, here are some options:

* Sign this petition: http://bit.ly/PavlovskPetition
* Write a letter to the President and Prime Minister (with a copy to the Russian ambassador in your country): http://eng.letters.kremlin.ru/
* Tweet President Dmitry Medvedev: http://bit.ly/Pavlovsk
* Forward this article to others, post it on your websites and blogs and encourage friends and contacts to take action.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pressuring sheep

Fresh off our experience last week, I decided to return to K’s place for another session this evening. This time K separated the ewe and her lambs before I got there, so there was no initial drama. I was actually a little disappointed because I wanted to apply what I’d learned last week and see if I could sort them myself.

K warned me that there might be some traffic in the large field, through the gate that leads on to the country lane. She said it was okay to work the sheep in that field, that I should just keep an eye on things when someone was coming in, but I decided to stay in the smaller fields since I still wasn’t entirely confident in my ability to control these very light sheep.

We walked through the big field to a gate that leads into a small pasture with two other outlets. To the immediate right was a gate that leads into the narrow pasture that I described in my last entry, where I had tried in vain to sort out the ewe and lambs. I looked and could see them in that field, and the gate was closed. The rest of the sheep were in front of us. To our left, the field stretched about 70 or 80 yards and an open gate leads into a narrow chute. It’s about 20 yards long, bordered by shrubs and tall grass on either side, and it opened out into one end of another long, narrow field.

We did most of our work in this narrow field, and it presented an interesting challenge. Once the sheep were in the open field, the pressure was directly behind us – the chute was the only way in or out of the field, and their food and water were in that direction. The narrow nature of the field also acted as a funnel that heightened the pressure even more.

We began by driving the sheep down the length of the field. Rodeo did really well, going well in front of me, maybe 25-30 yards, before stopping and looking back at me. Even then, I only had to take one or two steps forward and he would swivel around and start walking on to the sheep again. That was really encouraging as it showed quite a lot more confidence in driving.

Once the sheep had been driven all the way to the opposite end of the field, we had a problem. The pressure was behind us, and when I sent Rodeo to fetch them to me, it would be a simple matter for them to charge right past me and bolt down the length of the field and into the chute and the adjoining field.

I knew I had to help Rodeo by putting pressure on the sheep to prevent them from passing me. I sent him on a come by flank, and he cautiously moved along the fence line towards them. He hadn’t yet reached them when they reacted to his pressure and turned towards me. I gave him a lie down and waited for them to approach me. Then I stretched out my arms (including my flag in my right hand). The sheep stopped and looked at me.

We had accomplished equilibrium, but if I moved backwards, they would be likely to bolt past me at the first opportunity. So instead I held my position and gave Rodeo an ‘away’ command, asking him to retrace his steps. This was an off-balance flank. He was to the left of the sheep, and the natural direction for him to go would be to his left, so that he could put the sheep between him and me. But I was asking him to move to his right, towards me, and towards the sheep, so that we could prevent them from escaping behind me to the chute.

He took the command easily, and soon we were both between the sheep and the chute. They turned their heads back towards the far end of the field, and I had Rodeo drive them back into the far corner.

We repeated the exercise, bringing them back out of the corner, but this time I was lax in my lie down command and he put too much pressure on them. I waved my arms and the flag, but the sheep moved past me and ran to the chute, and Rodeo wasn’t able to cut them off.

So we walked after them, through the chute and back into the smaller field, and I called a break to give Rodeo some water. He walked to the nearby gate and made it clear from his body language that he wanted to go through the gate, and presumably back to the car. He seemed to want nothing more to do with these sheep, which was a bit disconcerting.

I had to conclude that he doesn’t really like working these sheep. They’re so light, and he is forced to be so slow and cautious when working them, that there just isn’t the excitement that he gets from working other sheep. Still, our lesson wasn’t done, so we gathered up the sheep and moved them through the chute and back into the narrow field.

We repeated the earlier exercise of driving them to the far end, then bringing them back, and I noticed that his body language was much different on the drive: he seemed to enjoy it much more and he gained confidence as the session went on.

This session was probably more about me than it was about Rodeo. It reinforced how much I need to be an active partner in applying pressure on the sheep. When I train with Brian, the sheep are dog broke and tend to just come to the handler. They’re very easy to work and require little effort on my part, so it’s easy to forget my own role. K’s sheep are so light, and so apt to run past me if I’m not careful – it’s a great reminder and training opportunity for me.

It’s important in trialing, especially at the pen. At that stage, I’m standing at the gate of the pen, holding the gate open, and directing Rodeo to push the sheep into the small, square pen so that I can close the gate behind them. But at the Whidbey Island Classic, I made the mistake of being too passive. I positioned Rodeo on the opposite side of the sheep, but when he tried to push them forward and into the pen, they squirted around one side or the other. I know now that I was too passive and had failed to cover my side, so that they would be convinced that there was no way for them to go but into the pen.

I’m looking forward to applying the experience to our next trial. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hard Lessons

On Thursday we did some work on some sheep near Bellingham, owned by K, who runs a boarding and training facility and has been kind enough to let me work her sheep for a modest stock fee.

We trained out there in the spring, but due to a couple of factors I had stopped going until recently. The most glaring issue was that we weren’t quite advanced enough in our training, and I would tend to work Rodeo for a few minutes and then be at a loss as to what to do next.

Now, Rodeo is more advanced so there’s more to work on, such as driving. As I discovered on Thursday, I’ve become more adept at finding ways to use the field and the sheep to work on technique. This is a direct result of doing this with Brian on our main training field – I’ve finally absorbed it enough to be able to do it on my own.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


After the lesson today, Brian asked: “Are you doubting him?”

I quickly denied it. I know he’s a good dog, but maybe there was something to it. Brian had noticed it, and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I was.

Is this to do with Peg, perhaps? In some ways she’s more advanced than Rodeo, but of course she’s a little older, too. I’ve felt some guilt over working with her, taking time away from my training with Rodeo. A part of me worries that she’ll wind up the better herding dog, or that she and I will make a better team that Rodeo and me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Surprise Patrick Shannahan lesson

This was an unusual week because my family is visiting from Iowa, so our normal Tuesday lesson was out because we were all visiting San Juan Island off the Washington coast. But just because I had family in town didn’t mean I was going to skip training. “You gotta have your priorities straight!” Brian said when I mentioned that my family was coming.

Fortunately, they were all interested to watch Rodeo do his thing, so I made an appointment to train on Friday, and we all piled into a couple of cars to make the drive.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Island Crossing trial

On Friday, I drove down to Arlington to the farm of Joe and Heather Haynes, who are hosting the Island Crossing trial. I met Joe in passing, and I spoke to a friend of his who told me that Joe went to high school in Bellingham before going off to college and moving to Arlington.

I didn’t enter Rodeo because the trial only had Pro-Novice and Open categories, and while we’re knocking on the door of Pro-Novice, we weren’t there in time to sign up for this one. Instead, we came as spectators.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Today, we started with a blind outrun of about 150-200 yards. I was to send Rodeo on an ‘away’ flank (counterclockwise), and this would take him directly past the round pen, which meant he had to ignore them and continue on to find the sheep that I intended him to fetch.

Not surprisingly, he stopped at the pen and stared at the sheep. This has been a problem before – it’s the whole reason for doing this particular exercise – so I walked up the field with him until he saw the sheep. Then we retraced our steps and I sent him, and again he locked into the sheep in the pen. No amount of correction or redirecting would tear him away.