This week’s lesson focused on outwork. We’ve been working nearly exclusively on driving, and he’s improving nicely, but neglecting outruns has led to some problems – one in particular, which showed up on Sunday, was his tendency to go to nearby sheep in a pen rather than going out into the field.
“This could be a real problem with him at trials. He has a tendency towards it,” Brian said. It’s a common problem. Dogs that watch previous runs will see where the sheep go at the end of the run (the exhaust), and will naturally tend to go where they think they’ll find sheep.
There are two ways to counter this problem. One is to shield the dog from seeing any of the previous runs, preventing it from developing any pre-conceived notions about the location of the sheep. This is a challenge because handlers are expected to be ready at the post when the previous run finishes. Handlers will sometimes go to extremes to ensure that the dog is ‘blinded,’ including hiding the dog behind a nearby barrier until the sheep have cleared the field.
The other approach is to teach the dog to take its cue from the handler. If the handler is facing one direction, the dog has to know that there must be sheep out there, so that if the dog is sent in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, it will keep going until it spots them.
That’s the approach we’re taking with Rodeo, and it was clear from the beginning of the lesson that he has a long way to go.
We sent him on a 50-yard outrun that forced him to go past the sheep in the round pen. The sheep we wanted him to get were easily visible, yet he stopped at the round pen fence and stared at the sheep within the enclosure. Worse, when I sent him in a direction away from the round pen, he crossed over and went to them anyway. But with some firm correction, he quickly improved and by the end of the lesson I was able to send him on an outrun past the pen and he hardly gave them a look.
We also worked on communication. I’m pretty good about giving him a command, followed by a correction if he doesn’t take it, followed by a repeat of the command to remind him what he’s supposed to do. But this can be tricky in a lot of situations where we don’t want him to rely on commands to fix a problem. In that case, how do you correct the dog if you can’t give him a command first?
A good example is when he’s bringing the sheep to me too fast. I can give him a ‘steady’ command, and that works, but it teaches him to rely on a command from me rather than teaching him the proper way to work sheep. On the other hand, if I give him a correction (‘hey!’), how is he to know what he’s being corrected for? Brian said the key is to give the correction but simultaneously communicate to him physically. In the example of him pushing to hard on the sheep, I can walk towards him a bit as I give him the correction. That puts pressure on him and communicates pretty clearly that he needs to back off.
Other problems situations include over-flanking and under-flanking on outruns. Frequently the sheep will begin to come towards me before he’s completed his outrun, in part because they’ve learned the drill: when the dog comes, its time to go visit the human. Rather than complete the entire outrun, he’ll cheat and fall in behind them. That’s an issue because on flightier sheep, he has to continue the flank all the way to the 12 o’clock position or risk losing control of them. At other times he overflanks, continuing out past the 12 o’clock position before turning towards me. This also relinquishes control of the sheep, since they can drift back in the direction that he came from.
But how does one correct this? One option is to give him a lie down command and then give him another command. On a come by (clockwise) outrun, if he stops short at 11 o’clock, I can give him another come by command to get him to cover. But again, it makes him reliant on a command. The solution is to give him a correction, and then move to my left, towards him. That puts pressure on him and communicates that he should move away from me and to the opposite side of the sheep.