Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fido's Farm Fun Trial

Sunday morning, I awoke at the painful hour of 6 am in order to drive 2 ½ hours to Fido’s Farm, in Olympia. We arrived to simultaneous sunshine and rain that is quintessential Pacific Northwest, and the weather managed to remain comparatively fair throughout the day.

We were there for a ‘fun trial,’ which had drive panels, a shedding ring, and a pen set up to simulate courses including Open, Pro Novice, Ranch, and Novice. I had entered Rodeo twice, and we were up 14th and 20th. The runs started at 9 and we rolled in a little after 10.

This was my first trip to Fido’s Farm. In addition to raising sheep and other livestock, they do boarding and every kind of dog training imaginable, from herding, to agility, to flyball and tracking.

They also have a sweeping vista of fields with a variety of sheep, and an info station where the various pens are labeled as holding ‘medium’ or ‘heavy’ sheep, or lambs, and handlers can freely move about between different pens, working different types of sheep, which is critical because it’s easy for a dog (and handler) to fall into lazy habits that get exposed when working unfamiliar sheep. For example, sheep vary dramatically in how readily they’ll move in response to a dog. Sheep that see dogs frequently – ie, the sheep you’re likely to be training on – may be forgiving of a dog that flashes in too tightly at the top of an outrun. The same path taken on flighty sheep will send them running for the hills, starting a race that the dog is almost certain to lose.

The fun trial was set up like any other trial, with a handler’s post and drive panels, and a handler’s shelter with plastic chairs set up, and a coordinator who ensured that handlers stuck to the ten minute time limit.

On our first run, I chose to run Ranch, which basically meant that we walked out past the handler’s post and about halfway down the field, in order to reduce the outrun to the appropriate length of about 150 yards. I sent him on the come by side (left), which put him between the sheep and the set out pen – that is, into the ‘pressure,’ because the sheep will tend to want to run back in the direction they came. Sending the dog into the pressure prevents them from doing that and gives him a better chance of exerting control.

But the strategy can backfire, because an inexperienced dog can get confused by the presence of the sheep in the setout pen and the sheep in the open field in close proximity, not to mention the setout crew and dog hovering nearby. That’s exactly what happened to Rodeo, and he stopped at about 10 o’clock, unsure of what to do next. Since this was a non-competitive trial, I could leave the ‘post’ to help him, so I walked forward and repeated commands until he completed the outrun and brought them to me.

I had him turn them around the post and begin a drive, which went fairly well, even if the sheep never came close to the drive panel. I retreated to the pen and we succeeded pretty quickly.

About an hour later, we had our second run, and this time I requested a Pro Novice course, which meant that we stayed at the original handler’s post, for an outrun of about 300 yards. We immediately had a problem in the sheep were being exhausted about 50 yards to our left, and Rodeo had fixated on them when they left the field after the previous run. He doesn’t understand yet that when I’m facing a direction and I send him, that there’ll be sheep there for him to find. Instead, he turned and ran towards the exhaust gate.

So I walked with him down the field until he saw the sheep in the field, and then I sent him. He ran into some trouble at the top, circling around the sheep some, but he brought them back without too much fuss after that.

He really improved in the drive the second time around. He took control of them and moved them with little hesitation, and was very responsive when I gave him flanking commands, both inside and outside. He easily drove them to the fetch panel, but I micro-managed him with flank commands and the sheep missed the panel. Still, it was clear that with a better job on my part, he could easily have made the panel. I was very pleased.

Rather than go for the cross-drive, I decided to move on to the pen to make sure that we could complete that and the second outrun before our allotted time was up. The pen again went off with little trouble, except that the sheep weren’t perfectly settled and they circled the pen once before we got them in, which would have been a deduction.

We did the final outrun, again walking down the field until he spotted the sheep, and then exhausted the sheep and retired. I ate some chili, chatted with some of the other handlers, and then headed to the dog washing station in one of the barns before loading him up in the car and heading for home.

It’s clear that Rodeo is making strides with driving, and equally clear that there is a lot of work to do on his outrun. Not surprising, really, because we’d been focusing so much effort on driving lately that he was bound to slip a little on the gather.

We really enjoyed our first trip to Fido’s Farm and will definitely be back. It’s a great facility for training – you can train all day for a modest fee – and it’s close to Mima Mounds, which is a great botanizing destination. So this Spring I foresee some weekend trips combining the two. 

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