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.

He’s been such a great companion, not to mention talented sheepdog, that it feels like a small betrayal to work with another dog. Do other handlers feel this way when they begin to work with other dogs? I don’t know. I do know that I have a choice. Either I get over this feeling, so that I can work with other dogs without a guilty conscience, or I limit myself to working with Rodeo and limit my potential development as a handler.

There’s really no reason to feel guilty, of course. Rodeo will be top dog in my heart and will always get a lion’s share of training time – he’s too talented not to devote that time to him.

Today, he got all of the training time because I hadn’t brought Peg this week. We focused on implementing Patrick Shannahan’s advice, making sure that his outruns were good and he wasn’t falling in at the top.

As a test, I sent him on a short outrun without any commands or corrections, and it was ugly. Rodeo didn’t flare out enough at the start. Then he cut in too sharply, and finally he fell in at the top. I tried some verbal corrections, but he wasn’t listening. He responds to a flag, so I borrowed Brian’s, and we set about correcting his outrun. As usual, he improved quickly, and by the end of the day, after Brian had left and we did some work on our own, his outruns perfect and he wasn’t falling in at all.

I think what happens is that we start working on some other skill, such as driving or shedding, and I start paying less attention to the outrun. As a result, he gradually slips, getting away with more and more and getting sloppier over time. The really good thing is that he snaps out of it quickly with a little correction, so he’s not developing any bad habits.

The onus is on me now to develop a little scope. Brian uses the term to refer to the dog’s ability to ignore nearby sheep, such as those in an exhaust pen, and to continue in the direction I send him, knowing that there must be more sheep out there. In my case, I need to keep a similar eye on the big picture. Even if we’re focusing attention on shedding, or penning, I need to keep up with training on the outrun and other aspects. If I can consistently do that, it will represent a big step in my development as a handler.

After the outrun work, we switched to driving. Part of what we’ve been struggling with, and what led to Brian’s question about whether I was doubting him, is that Rodeo has become a bit more tentative on the drive. He understands it, and will head straight towards the sheep when given a ‘walk up’ command, but he’ll only go a few yards before stopping and looking back at me. At Brian’s suggestion, I’ve walked up with him, and that gets him going again. In time, he should be able to walk the sheep confidently for hundreds of yards, but for the past few sessions he doesn’t seem to have progressed.

I worried that this was another manifestation of the hesitation we were seeing in the spring. When it came to working on his outrun, I was a little reluctant to start giving him a lot of corrections again.

In the spring he had become a bit hesitant on his outruns. At the time I had begun to hit my stride as a handler, feeling more confident in giving him corrections, and I suspect that I had over done it and perhaps caused him to become confused or nervous about making a mistake. We solved that problem by backing off the corrections a little bit. We also got him more excited by doing some fast, close-up work and giving him encouragement.

But Brian felt he was over whatever was causing the problem in the spring. “In all the time you’ve been coming out here, he’s never quit on you. That’s important,” he said.

And it’s true. When we trained with Dirk, he would occasionally come off the field and run to me, but he’s never done it when I’m working with him. Brian also pointed out that at our lesson last week, Patrick Shannahan had put a lot of pressure on Rodeo, shouting at him and running at him waving his hat in order to get Rodeo to give out more to the sheep. We trained that way for half an hour and Rodeo never gave any sign of quitting.

So we probably don’t need to worry about correcting him, but it made sense to try to jazz him up. To do that on the drive, Brian suggested that I walk faster with Rodeo on to the sheep. “You want to get him thinking less,” Brian said. “When he thinks too much, he gets hesitant.”

In fact, I wound up jogging along side him, and it did seem to help him to increase his distance from me. He moved faster as well, and seemed to have a more confident attitude as time went by.

I still worry a bit that he isn’t progressing in the drive, largely because I can’t see how he’ll progress. If he’s uncertain now, how will he suddenly become more confident? From what I’ve read, and from what Brian has said, he just will, but I worry because I don’t see any cause and effect.

This is a repeating pattern, though, because I had the same worry about flanking commands. I could get him to go in the right direction using hand signals, but it seemed to take forever for him to pick up the verbal commands. But then he did, and he’s fine now. Today, Brian preached patience, and that’s another thing I need to work on.

Brian had to leave a little earlier than usual, but I stayed for awhile to do some work on our own. As he was walking off, and after I tried to explain some of this to him, Brian said: “You analyze everything to death. You can write three pages on your blog about a one hour lesson!”

“You mean I think too much,” I said. Like Rodeo.

“Exactly. You two are a perfect match.”

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