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.

The session bogged down before it began. One of the ewes has two young lambs, and K doesn’t want me to work them, so they had to be separated from the rest before I began. During our email exchange, she asked: “Should I do it or do you want to?” I assured her I could.

Let’s just say, it was a good thing she was there, or our training session would have consisted entirely of trying, probably unsuccessfully, to accomplish this one task.

I’ve done lots of sheep sorting, but never to separate out specific sheep. I really shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s a lot harder. The sheep were in a long, narrow pasture, and we entered a gate at one end. K also has a covered pen set up within the pasture at that end, and as a result we were walking in a little passage that went straight into the pasture for about ten yards and then turned abruptly left, before opening out into a T junction. To the left, it was open field for ten yards until reach the same fence line we’d entered. Also in that direction was the entrance to the narrow chute that led to the pen. To our right at the junction was the entry way into the long end of the field.

The sheep were at the far end. As soon as they caught wind of us, they’d moved at a fast trot to the far end. I was reminded of how light K’s sheep are, since they don’t get worked by anyone but me and as a result are not inclined to stay near the handler as dog broke sheep are.

I sent Rodeo to retrieve them, and he did a pretty good job bringing them back to me. There were about ten of them, and I quickly spotted the ewe and two lambs, but also quickly realized the problem: how would I get them to the front or back of the line? That’s what I’d need to do if I wanted to gate sort them.

I decided the best strategy was to move them all out of this field into the adjoining one, from which we had entered, and then back into this pasture, in hopes that the ewe and her lambs would be the first ones in line and I could slam the gate shut behind them. I have no idea why I thought was a good idea. Why would the ewe and her lambs go to the front? Why not in back, or worse, in the middle? But this was the best my muddled brain could come up with.

I intended to exit the pasture the same way I had come in, leading the sheep through the T junction. But instead of following me, they bolted past me to the fence, then turned into the covered pen, where they huddled into the tightly confined space. I gave Rodeo a lie down, walked in after them, and drove them back out. Of course they ran right back into the open field, so I sent Rodeo to retrieve them again.

This time I positioned myself near the fence and the entrance to the pen, to force them to turn into the entry passage. As Rodeo trotted up behind the sheep, maintaining a nice pace and distance, I saw that K had entered the pasture and was walking behind him, apparently intent on rescuing me from my own hubris.

I was a little chagrined, but also relieved. “Need some help?” she asked.


“Okay. The first thing is, you’re standing right in the way of the sheep. There’s no way for them to go the direction you want them to go.”

“They went into the pen last time, so I wanted to block them off.”

“That’s where you want them to go.”


So K took over and had Rodeo guide them into the pen, which had three stalls that could be manually sealed off using a free fence panel. She grabbed one of the lambs by the leg and hauled it into an empty stall, and lo and behold, the ewe followed it into the stall, with the other lamb close behind. Another sheep decided this was the place to be and also followed. K set a fence panel in place and presto, the sheep were sorted.

I shook my head in wonder at K’s efficiency and my naïveté.

We drove the remaining sheep out of the pen and they once more headed into the pasture, where Rodeo brought them back to me one more time. We managed to get them to go down the entrance, but I had neglected to open the gate first, so they milled around until I did.

Even then, we encountered problems. I continued to stand near the gate. “You’re blocking them,” K reminded me, and I finally got out of the way. But the sheep weren’t eager to exit this pasture, and when I tried to get Rodeo to walk up and drive them out, he balked.

He kept retreating back to the T junction and turning left, where he would stop and stare at the sheep from the other side of the fence that separated this entrance chute from the rest of the pasture. It was evident that he didn’t want to release them by pushing them out into the larger field. I couldn’t blame him, really. These sheep are about as light as any sheep we’ve worked with.

I finally coaxed him into pushing them out, and we headed out into the larger pasture.

Yes, I’ve just written a thousand words about getting the sheep out of one pasture into another, just to begin training. But that’s sheepherding. So much of the drama comes at unexpected times. And we may have learned more during this seemingly simple task than the rest of the session combined.

In the larger field, the sheep proved to be difficult. They were as light there as they had been in the narrow pasture. Rodeo, showing his characteristic feel, cast out widely and cautiously, but we still had trouble controlling them. This was my fault, though. I had forgotten the importance of using my body to control them. K had taught me to stretch out my arms wide when they approached me, so that they would feel that pressure and stop. Otherwise, they would feel the pressure from Rodeo and walk right on past me, forcing Rodeo to cast around again to put them between us. Then they’d walk past me again, and the cycle would repeat ad nauseum – literally, since the circling started to make me a little dizzy.

The key was for Rodeo to stay off them while I put pressure on them from my end. Once I remembered that, we were able to get better control of them.

We did some outrun work, and Rodeo did quite well after some initial corrections for cutting in. Characteristically, he improved a lot with just a few corrections. But over the course of the session, he started to blow me off a bit, not taking some flanking commands or even the occasional lie down.

I got frustrated and my voice raised incrementally until I was doing quite a lot of shouting. The field was right next to the boarding and training facility, and one or two people had stopped to watch, and I became self-conscious about it. But at the time I couldn’t see any other solution, so I continued. Sheepherding frequently involves a raised voice and shouting, but something told me I was on a wrong tack.

Specifically, I later realized that he wasn’t responding to my voice corrections at all. This shouldn’t be news to me, but I continued fruitlessly trying to give them. What works is snapping the flag, and I think I have to make a concerted effort to use it and drop my voice corrections. There are a few exceptions: a sharp ‘hey’ if he ignores a lie down command is effective, as is an ‘ah ah!’ if he goes in the wrong direction on a flank command. But when it’s outrun work, I need to use only the flag.

After some more outruns, it was time to go, so I sent Rodeo to gather the sheep and follow me to the gate that would lead back to the narrow pasture. Again, I made the mistake of not opening the gate first, and when I realized it I gave Rodeo a lie down and walked to the gate to open it. In the meantime, the sheep had wandered a few yards up the fence line.

The gate open, I gave Rodeo a flank command to bring them back, but he just sat there, seemingly ignoring me. “Come by,” I repeated.


“Come bye!”

He looked at me bit remained still.


My blood pressure rose, and I thought, ‘he’s quitting on me, the bugger!’ Finally I reigned in my irritation, walked up to him and gave him a pat on the head and some encouraging words. Then I sent him and he loped around to bring them to me. We walked through the gate and the day’s training was done.

But I was upset. He’d quit on me. Just what Brian had said he doesn’t do. Later in the evening we were at a gathering at a friend’s house, but I was distracted, thinking about the session and worried that Rodeo might be souring. I wondered, am I putting too much pressure on him? Are my expectations too high? Has he become overly sensitive to my corrections?

Later, on our evening walk, I thought about it some more. He’d been slow on his outruns. That seemed like a sign that he was quitting on me. But then I realized that didn’t make any sense. Dogs aren’t passive aggressive. If a dog quits, it will run away, or not move at all. I was reading his behavior as if he was a sullen teenager, reluctantly taking my instructions but sabotaging it. Maybe dogs do that, but I doubt it. He was going, just slowly. There had to be a reason.

And I immediately realized what it was. The sheep were extremely light, and he knew it from our experience in trying to get them out of the narrow pasture. He wasn’t quitting, he was moving slowly because he knew the sheep were easily spooked, and I hadn’t been very helpful in controlling them. This wasn’t him being rebellious, this was him showing just how good he can be.

Then I thought about him not responding to me at the gate. I recalled the situation, and again quickly realized what was happening. The sheep were along the fence line and he had them pinned there. He didn’t want to release them. Not what I wanted, but perfectly understandable.

All in all, it was an eventful session.