Thursday, September 9, 2010

a Rocky Week

We went to the Rocky Ewe trial in Yelm, Washington, this past weekend, and let’s just say we had a disappointing performance. The trial was put on by Judy Norris, on a beautiful property not far from downtown Yelm. It’s primarily an equine facility, with lovely, manicured pastures.

The field was relatively small, with a tree line on the left and a patchwork of trees, open space, and buildings on the right. Spectators were also set up on this side. That made for a prime escape route for the sheep, and the exhaust pen had been placed well behind the spectators, so the sheep wanted to go that direction anyway.

Rodeo and I struggled badly both Saturday and Sunday, both times retiring at the drive without really making any progress on it. On Sunday, he hesitated on the outrun and seemed unwilling to complete a fetch. Brian, who was watching, felt that he had lost sight of the sheep and was unsure of how to continue. The judge, Sandy Johnson, said afterward that she thought he might have been uncertain because of all the people and dogs that were surrounding the setout. There were four dogs out because the sheep had become very unruly and difficult to control.

After retiring on Sunday, I was quite upset and really felt that I wanted to quit training, that it was a waste of time and money. I know I said as much to Ivy, who was standing next to me. Jim Cooper tried to console me, but I was beyond reaching at that moment.

I wasn’t really upset that we had retired or that we hadn’t done very well, because I expected that. It was our first time in Pro Novice, and I knew he was a bit over his head. I was upset because it was a continuation of what I had seen at our lesson the previous Thursday: He was unresponsive, almost disinterested, and I couldn’t think of any way to correct the problem. It felt futile and I truly felt like there wasn’t any point in continuing.

I’ve been so frustrated with training him in the past few weeks. Brian has preached patience but I haven’t been able to do it. I jumped on every little sign of improvement, hoping that it meant an end to this problem that we’re having. But in some ways I think that just made it worse, because I was even more disappointed when he slipped again.

After I calmed down a bit, Brian talked me into coming out for our session on Tuesday.

I came on Tuesday at our usual time, and Brian announced that he wanted to work Rodeo rather than have me do it. I agreed and he spent the session doing very basic work with him – some short outruns, flanks, and just walking about the field. But Brian made a big effort to encourage him and get him excited. Rodeo responded well and had a lot more zip in him, and seemed to be enjoying himself a lot more.

“See? You got your dog back,” Brian said after awhile. “He likes things to be black and white, so he doesn’t have to think so much.” I told Brian that I understood getting him excited, but I worried about giving him corrections and making him hesitant again. “You don’t have to worry about that. If he’s excited about the sheep, he’ll take corrections just fine.”

Which makes sense. If he’s have a good time, corrections won’t bother him. And if he likes things black and white, strong corrections should actually help him because it will make it clear what I want him to do.

Brian also felt that I need to let him be free to make mistakes more often. If I use a lie down to help control a situation, it takes the sheep away from him and might make him more uncertain. It also just makes it less fun for him, I suspect, and that’s part of why he’s been sulky.

Brian asked me how I had been working him at K’s place. “Have you given him a lot of commands?” I said no, but then realized maybe that wasn’t true. The sheep are so light, and the fields so tricky to navigate, that I had had to lie him down more often, and I’d also been a little nervous about making sure the sheep weren’t overworked. For sure I knew he wasn’t enjoying it as much, for whatever reason.

"That might be his problem, then," said Brian.

“That’s ironic,” I said. “I thought by putting in extra work, we’d be improving. But it set him back.”

I expected Brian to be equivocal, as he often is. But he surprised me.

“It did,” he said simply. 

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