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.

We worked at K’s place in Bellingham, and as soon as we drove up I realized he was more enthusiastic. The past couple of times we’d gone, he hadn’t done his usual whining when we turned into the driveway. Today he did.

We’re getting ready for the Rocky Ewe trial held over Labor Day weekend in Yelm, Washington, and we’re entered into the Pro-Novice class. This is a big step for us, involving a significant drive portion, so I decided to dedicate the session to prepare for the trial.

Specifically, since I knew Rodeo wasn’t yet confident on the drive, I needed to see if I could encourage him while standing still. Until now, I would encourage him by walking along side him and then letting him drift ahead with the sheep. When he stopped and looked back at me, I would walk forward and he would turn and start driving again.

But during a trial, you have to stay at the handler’s post. Brian occasionally used ‘get up’ (spoken more like ‘giddup!’) to encourage him, and I decided to see how far I could push it.

We started in the big field and I had Rodeo do a long outrun and fetch to bring the sheep to me. Then I positioned him on my side of the sheep and gave him a ‘walk up’ command to begin driving them away from me. Instead of walking forward when he turned and looked back, I said ‘giddup! Giddup!’ And it worked, he very quickly drove the sheep about 150 yards down the field.

I called him off and then sent him on an outrun – a blind outrun due to the presence of a low rise between him in the sheep. The first time I sent him he got confused, so I stopped him and then walked with him until he saw the sheep. Then I walked back and sent him again and he did fine.

We repeated the exercise several times, and he had no more problems on the outrun, so that was a sign of improvement in that area.

After a bit we took a break and walked to the fence, where I had stashed his water. We were standing in about the middle of the fence line that makes up one of the long sides of the rectangular field. While he drank, the sheep drifted to the opposite fence, to our right.

I sent him to the right, thinking that I would try a cross-drive – to have him push the sheep across my field of vision. When he got into position to the right flank of the sheep, they began to drift to my left. I laid him down and then gave him a walk up command. He took it nicely, walking confidently right into them. After 20 yards or so he stopped and looked at me. “Giddup, giddup!” And off he went again.

After 3 or 4 cycles of stopping and starting, he had successfully driven them to the opposite corner, some 150 yards or so. As I watched this, it dawned on me that this cross-drive was a good hundred yards in front of me. He was confidently driving the sheep at a distance that looked to me to equivalent to an Open run. It was along a fence line, and that simplifies the task since it limits where the sheep can go. But still.

I confess a little shiver went up my spine. It was one of those moments when you think, ‘holy #@$! Look at what my dog’s doing!” All of the frustration, all the miles of driving, all the standing around and shouting at your dog in the rain – all of it is worth it in those moments.

The ‘giddup’ command clearly worked wonders for him, because not only was he driving, I could see him driving more confidently as the session wore on. His body language was better, and he seemed to go farther before stopping and looking to me.

I had originally intended to use it just to get him ready for the trial, because Brian had insisted that I shouldn’t use commands on him while driving for fear that he would come to rely on the command. ‘Get up’ seemed like a command.

But then something happened that made me doubt that. At one point, I made a mistake. Instead of giving him a ‘walk up’ to get him started, I said ‘get up.’ And he just looked at me. Then I said ‘walk up’ and he went on to the sheep.

It dawned on me that he doesn’t think of ‘giddup’ as a command, but rather as encouragement – exactly the same as walking along with him. But ‘giddup’ seems to be better, because I can encourage him at any time, even before he stops to look back at me, and I can put excitement in my voice. I can’t do either by walking.

No comments:

Post a Comment