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.

Instead of our usual place, Brian asked us to meet him at the farm of Joe and Heather Haynes, who hosted the Island Crossing trial that I wrote about last weekend. I found Brian standing in a little parking area on the side of the field where the sheep were being set out during the trial. He was standing next to another gentleman who I didn’t recognize, but Brian soon introduced him to us as Patrick Shannahan, who I knew by reputation as one of the best handlers and trainers around. He’s in town for a weekend clinic and Brian suggested that I take a half hour lesson from him, so that’s what we did.

Patrick and I walked into the field for the lesson while Brian talked to my family, including my dad Ken, my brother John, my sister Cathy and brother-in-law Terry, and my niece Maggie.

“Just work him as you normally would,” Patrick instructed, so I just had Rodeo bring the sheep to me and moved around a bit, letting him move them around after me. Immediately I noticed a problem: he was pushing way too hard on the sheep, bringing them up to and past me. My solution was to lie him down when he got too close, but Patrick pointed out that if I used a lie down to correct the problem, Rodeo would just rely on me instead of keeping the correct pace on his own. I was surprised because he hasn’t had that problem much, and when I mentioned it, Patrick asked if we had worked at this location before. I said no. “That’s why he’s doing it,” he said.

So Patrick spent some time walking with me, giving Rodeo corrections to get him to kick out more and slow down when bringing the sheep along behind us. As usual with such corrections, Rodeo quickly got much better. I mentioned that Rodeo has a tendency to ‘fall in’ at the end of an outrun, slipping behind the sheep as they start trotting towards me without completely covering them.

Patrick’s solution was to set Rodeo down for his outrun and then walk towards the sheep until he was pretty close to them, and then send Rodeo. This way he was nearby when Rodeo got behind them, and if he looked like he was going to fall in, Patrick could give him a correction to kick him out more. It’s not limited to short outruns, either – there’s nothing to stop us from doing a 200 yard outrun. I’ll just have to walk 150 yards from Rodeo towards the sheep before sending him. It might also help him gain confidence on long outruns, since I’ll be there to help him.

I think this might be something we should work on, as I know he’s developed into a habit of falling in at the top. Patrick stressed the importance of this above most other elements of sheepherding, including driving, shedding, and penning. The outrun and fetch are the most important parts of a trial, because that’s when the sheep are first introduced to the dog. If the dog comes in too hard or too tight, they become upset and aren’t likely to trust the dog. As a result, the rest of the run isn’t likely to run as smoothly as it otherwise might.

All too quickly our half hour was up, and we walked back to join Brian and my family. Throughout the lesson, Patrick stressed communication between handler and dog. He gave Rodeo a lot of corrections, but he pointed out that that it’s not punishment: he’s really just asking the dog to make another choice. “As long as I get a different behavior, I’m satisfied. The dog is trying to figure out what I want,” Patrick said.

We stayed for awhile, chatting with Brian while watching Patrick conduct a lesson with another student, then we headed to lunch in Arlington and drove back home to Bellingham. The lesson was a big hit with the family.

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